Transcribed from a dance workshop given by Jack Perron,
at the Chelsea House, West Brattleboro, Vermont, on Oct 30, 1977
Disclaimer and Retrospective: Everything here should be taken with a truckload of salt. It is further requested that it be filed under "Half-Baked Thoughts". Don't expect me to defend anything I said over 20 years ago. Indeed, I expect this will be cannon fodder for those more knowledgeable, or simply more serious, about this kind of thing. So go ahead, have fun ripping it to shreds. I won't mind at all.
— Jack Perron
[Note: The transcription has been mildly edited.]
Why Contra dance? [emphasis on 'contra'] Did any of you see that little movie, "Contra Corners"? OK, well it explained a little bit in there, about... First, you should know that contra dancing ... a lot of the figures ... well, the basic idea of dancing in two lines... came from England.. and Scotland. Most of the squares came from France. Wondering how that [dancing in lines]got started, I have a little pet theory. If any of you saw the photographic exhibit called 'The Family of Man', that was down at Lincoln Center, there was one whole section of primitive cultures, dancing. And they were all dancing in circles. You can see children dance in circles, just spontaneously, around here. You see it everywhere. Its a natural formation to be in... a circle. Well, if you've ever looked at any of the big old buildings, the old English buildings, the courtrooms, the dance halls, were not square and were not round. They're real skinny, long, narrow things. Now I think that's how the lines got started.
Anyway, the Puritans.. really did like dancing.... they danced all the time. But they had to make up excuses ... it wasn't just plain fun, they had to 'moralize' it. I'll read you a quote by John Locke, which some of you may have seen before. Says, "Nothing appears to me to give the children so much becoming confidence and behavior, and so to raise them to the conversation (conversation.. a key word in what I am going to say..) of those above their age, as dancing. I think they should be taught to dance as soon as they are capable of learning it, for, though it consist only of outward gracefullness of motion, yet I know not how, it gives children manly thoughts and carriage more than any thing." Especially when you watch little kids dancing with older people. They act like 'proper' little adults. I think that's because they are picking up on the body language that's going on, at least as much as the adults are, because they can't communicate verbally at the same level. But, as far as visually, I think they can.
Anyway, that was the excuse they [the puritans] gave... and people still give those sorts of excuses. There's a book I found in the library, called "Social Games and Group Dances", from around 1910. And, in the beginning of it there's a little paragraph I'd like to read to you. "We are brought, increasingly, in these days, to recognize the value of a cultivation of the social instinct. With few exceptions, this desire for intermingling with our fellows is strong in us all. If we are to be successful in any line of life's endeavors, we must constantly be thrown with our fellow men, and must learn to be easy and natural in the presence of others. It is no mean accomplishment to be able to converse with ease, to convey our thoughts and feelings to others, and tactfully to meet our fellows in social intercourse. It is unfortunate that the veneer of artificiality so often exists in modern society, in our everyday dealings with our associates. We are not quite ourselves, with our company manners, and our dress clothes. We too often desire to appear what we are not. But in our play and in our dances, our most intimate characteristics and points of individuality show themselves. In dances, we are natural, unrestricted, and enjoyable. We throw off all artificialities and abandon our pretense." ....Well, this still doesn't get quite to the point, of why we contra dance, specifically.
Another author says here, "We may smile condescendingly at our ancestors for devising moral reasons for something that is just plain fun." Well, the question that has occurred to me is, 'why is it fun?'. Now, I have my own opinion. And I'm sure there are many of you who don't share my opinion, and have other reasons for dancing, which is great. It's just that the weight of evidence... is on my side [said jokingly]. It's not evidence from any external source.. it's evidence from the internal structure of the dances themselves. I'm speaking only of contra dances.. country dances in America. Not of English Morris Dancing, or any other 'ritualized' sort of dancing. I feel there's a force that has existed in the frontier United States, out west where they do square dances, and in New England, in the countryside, that has formulated these dances, and has been the prime mover behind why most of the dances were written, and the whole tradition behind it. And that [force] is courtship. You can see this in the figures. And I'll go on to explain all that.
An interesting little quote, in 'The Rivals', the play. A great little play, and they're constantly talking about contra dancing. Faulkland, who's a jealous lover, happens to say at one point... he is distressed to learn that his Julia has been dancing in his absence, and he says, "A minuet I could have forgiven, I should not have minded that. But country dances.. zounds! Had she made on in a cotillion, I believe I could have forgiven even that. But to be monkey-led for a night, to run the gauntlet through a string of amorous, palming puppies, to show paces like a managed filly, ..Oh Jack, there never can be but one man in the world, whom a truly modest and delicate woman ought to pair with in a country dance... and even then, the rest of the couples should be her great-uncles and aunts."
... there is something about country dances.
I'd like to give my evidence, in the structure of the dances, to support my contention [about courtship]. And then, I'd like to explain why I think it's important for a caller to understand, and formulate an attitude about what contra dancing is all about.
While it might seem at first, that particularly bad dances are a uniquely modern invention, there is ample evidence that as early as 1893 prompters were calling 'poor' changes. In an addition of "Gallop' [sp?], which was an old American Square Dance magazine, one writer said, "It has been a governing rule in dancing from time immemorial, that a swing should be made as a finishing part of a balance, while of course the swing should be made with the person to whom the balance has been made. For some unaccountable reason, the prompters have made a sad change of this, as invariably the order goes: balance corners, swing partners [he's talking about a square], thus perpetrating a gross breach of etiquette, as well as awkwardness. Almost as direct a cut at it would be to extend the hand to a person, to shake hands as a token of welcome, then to immediately turn away."
The author has neatly... implied guiding principles which govern the construction of all best-liked contras. The first principle is simply that each change should flow smoothly and comfortably into the next. There shouldn't be any physically awkward movements. That's fairly obvious. The second principle involves the understanding that each movement, a balance, a swing, communicates some thought or feeling between dancers. Just as we receive meaning through the performance of very simple actions, like a smile or a handshake, the patterned actions of contra dance carry with them specific covert messages, and these messages should be arranged in some coherent fashion. In the immediate example, the balance is seen as a token of welcome and a natural initiation for a more intimate act to follow... the swing. And I'd go further than the author quoted above, in saying that rules of courtship, as well as etiquette, should be followed within the dance. The balance, do-si-do, and siding ... are all particularly flirtatious sorts of welcoming, and are quite naturally followed by a swing. The reverse order, swing followed by do-si-do, doesn't make 'sense', and I've never seen it done.
In most contras, the dancer is most involved with his or her partner, and usually progresses through a cyclical relationship which develops through welcoming figures, culminates frequently in a swing and promenade down the center and back, and dissipates through what I call withdrawal figures. Partners can withdraw from each other in many ways: by going down the outside, by swinging someone else, or simply by involving other dancers in any way. 'Lady of the Lake' is a good example of the intensifying and dissipating of a central relationship between partners during a contra dance: partners approach with a balance, then they swing and promenade down the center, come back, cast off, and there's a ladies chain where the partners begin to work away from each other. Then the actives swing the one below, marking their greatest withdrawal from their partners. Then they start the whole process over again.
Almost all the old contras work that way. It's undeniable that that psychological feeling [dynamic] is going on in them. 'Monadnock Reel' is an interesting variation of this idea: Active partners balance and do-si-do, then they allemande left below. Then they come back to swing each other, then they swing the one below.. the one they allemanded left with. In this case, each swing has been 'setup' by welcoming figures, but they've been interspersed. The ladies chain completes the dance, and here serves as a very gentle approach after the swing below and before the balance.
As mentioned before, partners frequently culminate their relationship with a swing and promenade down the center. The swing.. [... anybody see 'The Ascent of Man'? ...Jerome Bronowski [sp?] on TV...he said one thing... and when I heard him say it, I couldn't believe it.... because it fit so well into this..( see below )] ...the swing itself certainly represents the most intimate physical relationship partners can have, and yet it is interesting to note that swinging is by no means limited to partners. Indeed, there are many fine old dances, Lady Walpole's Reel, e.g., where one swings everyone but his partner. But, the promenade down the center, on the other hand, has got to be the ultimate expression of partnership within the context of the dance, for it, alone, is the one figure that is always performed by partners. No other figure... just that one... and that one all the time. The contra, 'Ladies' Triumph', comes closest to violating this rule. In this dance of Scottish origin, a third dancer steals someone else's partner, and tries to go down the center... but is quickly apprehended by the proper partner. The promenade down the center is an interesting figure in that it is not a physically obvious thing to do, as swinging is. I mean, if you just really look at going down the center.. if you just walk into a room and saw people doing that, it's a strange thing to be doing. It's origin and popularity is not physical, it's psychological. You may have noticed sometimes [while] dancing...and, in that movie 'Country Corners', there's an interesting little thing that happens...[there showing those people up in Tunbridge dancing.. the Ed Hall Dancers].. and there are two contra lines... and a lady and a man are going down the outside... they're going right together, and he reaches over and pinches her. Now, he would never do that if they were going down the center, because they're right in front of everybody's eyes. But going down the outside, no one can see them. If you dance in a square... I've seen people do things to each other, on the outside of the square... but in the center of the square, they're perfectly proper. There's a psychological space there. A public space and a private space. It's obvious to me that going down the center [I've felt it dancing], especially when dancing with someone special to me, is the figure that I like the best, because you can demonstrate.. a public demonstration...you walk right down in front of everybody, and you're saying 'this is my partner'. Indeed, its [the promenade's] whole reason for being seems to be communicative: to demonstrate one's partnership clearly to all the other dancers. And, viewed in this light, we would expect the promenade to quite naturally follow the swing, as is often the case. See, you swing... and you can interpret that anyway you want...it's a real physical thing... and then to go down the center with your partner. It fits perfect, psychologically. And I think this whole idea echoes a social idea that we have... that Jerome Bronowski puts his finger right on, when he says, "Most of the world's literature, most of the world's art, is preoccupied with the theme of boy meets girl. We tend to think of this as being a sexual preoccupation that needs no explanation, but I think that is a mistake. On the contrary, It expresses the deeper fact that we are uncommonly careful in the choice, not of whom we take to bed, but by whom we are to beget children." And I think that value runs right through the whole tradition of contra dancing, and whom you take down the center.
[gap in tape]
[now talking about why a caller should be interested in such matters]
Just two weeks ago, I was working over in an elementary school, we have this little kid's dance... all the boys are in one line, they have partners all in another line. It's called 'Going to Boston'. You sing, "Saddle up boys, we're going to Boston", and all the boys grab hold, and they go in a circle around the girls. Stop. Then you sing a chorus and everybody swings, then the girls sing, "So long boys, we're going to Boston", or something like that, and they go around in a circle. And that was fine. I was working with three other people who were teachers there, and boys all went around fine, then they all swung, and then the girls started to go around. One of the little boys ran over into the girls' line, grabbed his partner, and stood... both feet firmly planted. Totally screwed up the whole dance. Someone went over... [ and said] "no,no, that's not right". And the kid started to cry. And after four or five minutes of balling, we figured out that... he told us that.... he didn't want his partner to leave. He wanted to be with his partner.
[end with poem quoted]
Henry Dobson wrote a poem called, "Cupid's Alley":
O, Life's but a dance, where time plays the fiddle,
See the couples advance, O Life's but a dance,
A whisper, a glance, shall we dance down the middle,
O, Life's but a dance, where time plays the fiddle.
[addendum, January 10, 1998. Isn't it interesting how the promenade down the center is much less popular today? — JP]
[October 20, 2006: I received an email from Richard Nevell, author of A Time to Dance: American Country Dancing from Hornpipes to Hot Hash. He is also the creator of the film Country Corners that Jack refers to here as Contra Corners. Richard tells me they will be releasing Country Corners again as well as another film in late 2006/early 2007. — Bill Tomczak]