Shortly after placing Phil Jamison's article Dare to be Square on these web pages, Robert Reed contacted me with a reply. It was published in the "Bay Area Country Dancer" (See BACDS) sometime in 1989. Robert tells me that Phil liked it and wanted to see it published in the The Old-Time Herald. Apparently it never was.
Dare To Be Square: A Contra Dancer Responds
by Robert Reed
Open letter to Phil Jamison,
I sympathize with your sense of loss of the spirit of old time country dancing, and of the wild, unruly, and truly energetic music that travels hand in hand with it. This phenomenon has occurred in Portland as it has in so many other towns, punctuated this month by the indefinite termination of the Stumptown Cloggers Old-time Country Dance, the traditional monthly square dance venue in our schedule of community dances. It has fallen from favor and is no longer able to support itself financially.
There are, however, several points in your article, "Dare to be Square!" reprinted in the spring issue of the Bay Area Country Dancer, with which I take issue.
If squares are more difficult to call than contras, it is more likely due to the improvisational skills needed to lead interesting breaks than it is the vigilance required over sets in the hall. There are just as many heads to confuse with malunderstood calls, just as many places to look for breakdowns in the flow, and generally greater consequences from these breakdowns. Where fumbling in a square may affect three other couples, similar breakdowns in a contra line may affect thirty couples or more! Where free phrasing in squares allows the caller the flexibility to slow his calls so people can catch up, the contra caller's only respite is to stop the dance and start over. And though a contra will proceed at some point without calls as is part of its tradition, callers must still maintain their vigil, ready to resume calling at the first sign of trouble.
Good contra calling, just like good square dance calling, requires the style developed over years. Contras might be called out of a book, but the results usually reveal the minimal effort of the endeavor. As with squares, contras have a wide range of difficulty, and leading a typical mix of dancers through a range of such dances requires a practiced skill not attainable overnight. The accessibility of dances, whether read from a book or acquired through personal experience, has little to do with the ability to deliver them in an intelligible and exciting manner.
Predictability and repetition of form, not strictly the domain of contra dances, nevertheless is an appeal. As with its antecedent English and Irish forms, avoiding the constant calls in contra dance reduces it to its basic elements--music and social motion. From this base, opportunities for flirtation and individual embellishment are legion.
Repetition is an element of both forms, and unpredictability is an option for either form. Each is composed of simple patterns, repeated in endless variations. Repetition in squares is apparent on several levels, from the repetition of basic allemandes and swings to the repetition of figures around a visiting-couple dance. The unpredictability of a contra-medley, especially if comprising a sequence with frequent unforgiving figures, can equal that of most square dance breaks--and require the constant calling favored in squares.
No point on this spectrum is any better than another, but every point has a different appeal. One of the strong appeals for contra dances is the chance to meet people--where, in a single dance, you can interact with a greater proportion of the hall than with a similar time spent square dancing. Population and popularity have led to the formation of artificial communities. Outside of small, rural groups, the attendees of local dances may only see each other at those dances, so there is a natural tendency to make the contact as broad as possible. Besides that, contras are open ended, and with sufficient attention, it is possible to join in the middle of a dance, while it is very difficult to form a new square mid-dance. In this sense the contra form can appear more inviting.
No form is without its side effects. An apparent one for contra dances is the musical style. Contras require regular phrasing in order to synchronize the couples up and down the line, especially in multiple progression or odd formation (like Becket) dances. Your cheap shot about palatability to Yuppie ears aside, Northern dance music, even with its demands for phrasing and tempo, has plenty of room for excitement and surprise. Ensemble playing, use of dynamics and tune changes can lead even a hall full of contra dancers into wild whoops and cheers. But it is more controlled, and I share your appreciation for the wild flights of fancy in Southern fiddle tunes, and the exciting, carreening sense of loss of control that they can engender in a dance. It dismays me that the popularity of one form should require a shrivelling interest in the other.
Nor are problems on the dance floor limited to contras. Competitiveness is a natural outgrowth of increased population densities, and the unfortunate tendency is for people to carry this aspect of their lives onto any dance floor. I have seen as much trouble finding a square in modern times as I've seen in the competition for partners and positions in the center line. Though there is no center line, I've been at enough recent square dances in several communities to notice the rush to the upper central portion of the hall, and the desire to find three other "good" or "fun" couples--and heard the call "Move down, we've paid for the whole hall" when there was nothing but squares on the floor. These are not attributes solely of the contra dance scene. Problems of crowding in the top center of the hall and booking multiple dances ahead can happen at any dance, square or contra, and we should be working together to combat the problems, not blaming them on one form or the other.
Regarding the length of dances, I have had more trouble with overly long square dances than I ever have had with corresponding contras. In particular, I've seen callers string together a pair of long tips, each with multiple breaks, stretching a single square as long as 35 minutes. And unlike contras, where you can always join in at the end, a long square truly excludes the rest of the hall. In one such square dance, called early in the evening, I walked in to find nearly as many people waiting at the sides as were dancing. If it had been a contra dance, many of these new arrivals would have been able to start dancing long before the caller allowed them.
I share your concerns about the carelessness of dancers in modern times. We have our share of "experienced" dancers who couldn't care less about phrasing--about DANCING--because they are too preoccupied with flirting or showing off. I can think of ways that both contras and squares might have promoted such behavior, but I don't understand what that has to do with being forced to call more contra dances. The dance caller is the modern equivalent of the dancing master, and should have the fortitude to persevere insofar as he or she is able to demonstrate they have something to offer. After all, the dancers are there, not simply because of the form, but for the enjoyment of it. Your logic seems somehow disconnected.
I have witnessed grumbling about square dances, though never any outright "boos." But there are callers, Larry Edelman and Dolores Heagy for example, who can inspire a devout contra audience to prefer--nay, to demand more squares! And let's face it, people's tastes change. It may well be that for many larger communities in the late '80s, there are no boring squares, only boring square dance callers. But not every square dance caller is a Larry Edelman, and learning those skills in an era of dwindling interest could be real tough.
I haven't seen the dancers' need for novelty as you suggest, but I have the demand for thrill. I've seen that demand satisfied by traditional figures, whether they be "Cheat or Swing" or "Rory O'More;" "Texas Star" or "Lady of the Lake." And I've heard that thrill expressed by dancers recognizing an old favorite in the midst of a medley of tunes.
Let's examine the issue of "inactivity." This is somewhat of a misnomer because if you are truly inactive, you are not dancing and thus not part of the dance. Even in visiting-couple squares, "inactive" couples traditionally are occupied with buck dancing and attentiveness to the visiting couple, or sometimes following the actives in a double progressive square. Both contras and squares rely on the interweaving of person with person and couple with couple. The designated inactive couple still has a responsibility to dance in and around the actives. This need for motion comes more from the desire to maintain the flow of a dance and to dance with people than from any overintellectualization or academic viewpoint, or fear of inactivity.
Admittedly, there is an element of boredom apparent in people who have yet to learn that inactivity does not imply inattention and lack of participation. Also, contra dance composers have felt a need over the last hundred years to convert triples into duples and create symetric dances in order to be more inclusive of dancers, and to ease the transition of inactive to active dancers, especially in the presence of long lines. But the key word is flow, not fear--and emphasis on flow itself stems from styles of the 17th century: very traditional, not very academic.
It's fine to be nostalgic of the good old days when dances were small and old time music was king. But as with any tradition, the history of country dance is an evolving story. It would be a sorry turn of events for old time musicians and callers to bemoan a new fad (e.g. "contra-mania") and go off to die in the corner with tales of gloom and doom. Sure, dancers should maintain an open attitude, but callers and musicians must keep their vitality, and find ways to present the tradition which captures dancer's interest. I would be among the first to lament the loss of old time dances, but it is not sufficient to shout, "Dancers, don't be bored!"
- Robert Reed
Used with the express permission of the author.