A Quick Sidebar to Wednesday's Post...
While digging around for information on my question on Wednesday about the acceptability of 20th century music in singing squares (and why any music that sounds like it was composed before 1970 has carte blanche and anything after 1970 doesn't without some sort of allusion in the event's marketing), I also ran across this page compiled by Clark Baker, who teamed up with Lisa Greenleaf a few years ago to organize the weekend-long Alternative Music Party in 2008 that Chrissy Fowler alluded to when I interviewed her back in June -- while a fair amount of the info on the page is from about ten years ago (although it claims a last-updated date of July 2010 as of this writing), perhaps it lends some thoughts on square dancing and contra dancing circles not being so different after all....
For some reason it had never really occurred to me before, but the tradition of the so-called "singing squares" (for which several rather talented callers are known and some of which get thrown into contra dance evenings) use somewhat more modern songs to integrate with the calls, and yet this seems to have a different reception than a similar practice in some contra circles (lines?).
One of the interesting things when I've been looking around at the modern contra dance tradition is the really funky dichotomy that seems to be drawn between contra with flourishes and the insistence of many (I know, not all) flourish-heavy contra dancers that the opposite of contra with flourishes isn't contra dance but is in fact English Country Dance. In particular, thinking of Dancing Fool out in Washington state, which advertises itself as "All Thrills, No Frills, and especially No English," and one time when Steve and I went to the local ECD dance and someone threw in a flourish, only to be called an "unrepentant contra dancer!" To be fair, the latter comment was at least partially in jest. I think.
This also meant that I was particularly interested when regular Contra Syncretist commenter Perry Shafran pointed me to a Facebook group for "Extreme ECD" in the Forum. Essentially, the idea seems to be that it's ECD that takes the choreography as written and uses it as a framework, much like good flourishers do when they contra dance. It might be interesting to see how such things are received in the ECD community. I know I see fewer flourishes at ECD than I do in contra when I go, but I'm also usually paying more attention to my own dancing space in ECD than I am in contra since I don't do it as often.
I'd be interested to go try xECD sometime, at the very least, although I also know that the choreography in ECD -- at least for me -- tends to involve more active concentration than contra does. (That said, I do still enjoy ECD as well as contra and find the idea that they're opposites to be kind of bizarre; I can usually be found at dance weekends starting my Saturday mornings with ECD if it's available, and I occasionally head out to my local weekly ECD series.)
I welcome your thoughts and comments -- feel free to share in the comments section!
“Traditional music was not amp’ed because they didn’t have it.” -- Ed Howe of Perpetual e-Motion, interview with Contra Syncretist, published August 29, 2011.
I was thinking about what Ed said when I saw this post over on the Washington Post’s Classical Beat blog a little while back. In it, Anne Midgette talks about 24-year-old classical concert pianist Yuja Wang, who has drawn quite a bit of attention to herself in the classical music world lately by wearing rather starkly modern fashions while performing in her very traditional medium, most recently at a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
Shining Some Light on Ambiance
So far we've analyzed many aspects of the techno contra genre, particularly with the music and the dancing and the way the two relate. However, there's an aspect of this that's so far gone relatively unexplored. One of the other pieces that both contributes to the atmosphere and is generally very different in a crossover contra as opposed to a regular one is the lighting.
Jeff Kaufman has wondered about incorporating the lighting to make the phrasing and calls more clear in crossover contras, and even posits that it may be a way to help hearing-impaired dancers stay in sync. Some callers have talked about how the generally lower lighting made it more difficult to see the dancers on the floor and thus keep them together. At the same time, sacrificing the "club style" lighting would take something away from the event (and the lighting can enhance or detract from the experience, even though it's taken for granted). There are plenty of ways to do it wrong, but I'd imagine there are also plenty of ways to do it right and set the mood without detracting from the dancers' experience. Does it make a difference between new-dancer-friendly techno contras and experienced-dancer-only techno contras (who theoretically might not need as much of a visual cue as to where they need to be when)?
One of the neat things about a nascent genre is the ability to make and test the boundaries of that genre and thus establish its norms. I’m hoping that you all will chime in on these particular norms and tell me what you think.
In a traditional contra, the typical format is to have discrete sets and discrete dances -- i.e., the band starts playing, the caller starts calling, the dancers start dancing, and then after 10 minutes (give or take) the band stops, the dancers, stop, the calling stops, and there is some milling around as people locate new partners to line up again or get water and repeat the process. Some events like the annual Glenside Medley Marathon in the spring (or medley events in general, like at NEFFA) push this norm aside for special occasions and provide continuous music and calling, with events where you either keep the same partner throughout (so-called “chaos lines” excepted) or you agree with your partner to drop off, regroup with new partners, and rejoin at the end of the line.
I’ve heard of techno contra events being done as continuous loops and as discrete pieces (for instance, my local techno contra series does the latter, although the first few individual events did feature half-hour medleys; others like Technophoria have done the former).
In a club with a DJ spinning, the music usually ebbs and flows a bit, but is pretty close to continuous.
Does one format work better than another for a techno contra, in your opinion? I am particularly interested in hearing from people who’ve attended/called/organized/spun both kinds. Does it make a difference if it’s an event with live music (e.g., Double Apex) as opposed to having strictly recorded music? (I would imagine that some of the original discrete-dance formatting was established as a courtesy to the musicians, to give them short breaks if needed.)
Please chime in with comments or start a thread over in the Contra Syncretist Forum!
Food for Thought: Dancing Switch
I was digging around online this evening (read: taking a look at Google Analytics to see how you lovely readers are finding this blog), and I found something really interesting over on Jeff Kaufman's blog, offering a couple of perspectives on why using "lady" and "gent" in describing contra dance roles is or isn't sexist.
This was especially interesting since we've been talking about dancing switch lately on the YouTube channel.
Serving the Community: Anna Rain
I sat down a few weeks ago with caller Anna Rain as she supped with the band Morning Star (incidentally, also the source of Brendan Taaffe's sound bite from the earlier blog post) and talked to her about the experience of calling Contra Sonic in February, held in the historic Glen Echo Park Spanish Ballroom. She has been active in the DC-area folk community for many years and while I knew she called, I also know that she's more active in the morris/rapper and English Country Dance traditions than contra dancing, traditional or otherwise. What, then, brought her to try her hand at calling for the local techno contra series?
Recently I ended up sitting in for a little bit at a dinner with the members of traditional contra dance band Morning Star (Brendan Taaffe, Garrett Sawyer, and Geordie Lynd) and caller Anna Rain when they played and called the FSGW Sunday Night Dance. In the course of this, I told them about this site and we got into a little bit of the ongoing dialogue about what techno contras mean for the tradition. Brendan made a point that I think is worth considering:
This project has concluded as of mid-2013 (with an epilogue posted mid-2016) but we hope to see you soon on a contra dance floor! Meanwhile, head over to our Facebook page for upcoming techno contra events and other items of interest.
The 100+ Friday Flourish videos can still be found on YouTube.
I dance with abandon. I play with glowsticks. I look for music that is conducive to one or both. I play behind cameras. I write about all of the above. I'm based in Glen Echo's contra dance community outside of Washington, D.C., but I'm happy to go dance afield when I can. Lather, rinse, repeat. Always repeat.
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