The music was not the only factor that made calling more difficult for Diane, on the whole: “The music often makes it hard for the calls to be heard, but that's up to whoever is running sound. But that, plus techno is not necessarily billed as an advanced dance, means the dances need to be really simple. I found that I had to let go of my standard of programming for interest and variety. I actually programmed a little too ambitiously (I didn't make it simple enough), and that was the one piece of feedback I got -- keep it simpler.”
She approached the techno contra as basically just several big, long medleys: “I've had fun doing long medleys at dance weekends lately (we went 90 minutes at the Pigtown Fling last year!) I think that is a big part of the draw. So, you have to be able to really nail no-walk-through calling, which involves making it incredibly clear to the dancers what to do, with incredibly few words. I suggest which way to face, which hand to use, who to look for, what to do. When I call medleys with regular (live, traditional) contra music, I plan for a certain number of times through each dance, and I try to coordinate the changes with the music. I intended to do this and then threw it out the window. The music is not phrased, so it seemed like it doesn't really matter where the changes happen. If I ever do it again, I will plan for a certain number of minutes for each dance, rather than a certain number of times through, since the time it takes to get through one time varies, depending on how you adjust to try to somehow fit the music. For more details, I offer a caller's workshop on how to call no-walk-throughs and medleys.”
This was combined with the fact that it was hard for her to keep track of the dancers: “It was hard for me to tell exactly what they were doing, because it varied from dancer to dancer. The room is never together, but everyone kind of catches up during long swings, or sometimes I would just have everyone wait for a few beats to get everyone back together.”
While she understands why some dancers like the new form, she believes that the sense of community is lost: “The fact that the room is never together does not seem to be a big concern. As I said, individuals make their own adjustments and make it work, and occasionally everyone gets back together. While it works technically, it is no longer a community dance. A BIG element of traditional contra dancing is the experience of the whole room moving as one, and dancers appreciating that they are not only dancing with their partner, but also with neighbors, and with the whole long set, and with the whole room. It seems to me that contra dancing has become very swing-centric, with a lot of swing dance and tango moves imported into contra. This makes it very partner-focused, even with traditional music, and we are losing the feeling of unified dancing. With techno, there's not even a pretense of trying to dance together. In addition, because the pace of the moves ebbs and flows, and sometimes there has to be a little pause to get back together, the flow of the dance is disrupted. Flow is another core element of traditional contra dancing that I think is important. When you lose the flow, you lose the very essence of the dance.”
For her, another big difference seemed to come with the music itself: Diane continues, “I guess I would say that from the calling perspective, the music does not have structure, so you have to let go of your usual calling structure. I watched the dancers to see how quickly they were moving to the music and tried to give the next call when they were ready for it, rather than using the music to guide when to give the calls. It's a strange switch, when you're used to calling in phrased timing (although, ironically, similar in that one tiny respect to calling old-time squares, if they play a crooked tune, or if the dance figure is longer or shorter than the tune).” She also offered another comment on her experience: “While this dance was billed as techno/crossover, I did not detect any music that was not techno. My understanding of ‘crossover’ is that it includes a variety of popular music genres. I think other forms would work much better than techno -- swing, reggae, and pop tunes that have good phrasing. But this opinion is undoubtedly biased by the fact that I actually enjoy those genres, while techno is not my personal favorite.”
However, Silver is quick to say that, “these are not condemnations of this new form. I understand that techno has other elements that are attractive, and people are having a great time in a safe setting, and I think that's great, especially for young folks. I'd much rather have them come to a techno contra than try to crash a bar and get drunk. But I would not classify techno contra on par with ‘regular’ contra dancing. The music is clearly not traditional, and because it does not support the traditional structure of contra, I believe the dance is getting pretty far from traditional as well. Also, I think the interaction between the musicians and dancers and the caller is an important element of the tradition, and with recorded music, that is obviously lost. I think the skill required to play good music should be appreciated, and it makes me sad to have it so easily replaced in what people value in the dance experience.”
This does not, however, mean that the traditional and new forms can’t coexist: “I think it is fine for this new form of dance to be evolving out of contra dancing, and I'm even happy to contribute to it as a caller now and then. However, my energy remains focused on promoting traditional music and dance, especially live music. That's why I got into contra dancing in the first place. But, I think there is room in the world for lots of variety, and I think we can all play nicely together.”
Diane Silver is a contra dance caller based in Asheville, NC. Her web site may be found at http://www.diane-silver.com. Many thanks to her for sharing her thoughts.