by David Millstone

David posted the following message to the rec.folk-dancing newsgroup on December 27, 2000 [Go to thread] and it is published here with his permission. I have also published the full text of Keeping Those Traditional Roots by Chip Hendrickson that he refers to.

— Bill Tomczak

Carey Shug recently started a thread which has been discussed here in different forms in recent years. The argument, as I understand it, is that more complex contra dances are a missing part of our contra dance scene, that many dancers leave the contra dance world because they are bored with simple dances (insert "traditional" for "simple" in some readings), and that dancers want the challenge of more difficult figures.

At the same time, Dudley Laufman has posted several thought-provoking essays on the Perils of Prosperity, reminding us that there are entertainment options today that did not exist 100 or even fifty years ago. Dudley concludes, "It really doesn't matter how big or small the dance is or what "level" it's at or whether or not it is universally accepted, as long as everyone has a good time."

I remember citing at length as part of an earlier discussion on complex dances a passage from a book written by Ralph Sweet in which he describes the rapid rise (and subsequent bust) in modern western square dancing (in western Massachusetts) brought about by similar demands and the development of ever-more-complex figures in the late 50s and 1960s. Here's another description of that phenomenon.

This comes from an article called Keeping Those Traditional Roots, written by Chip Hendrickson (whose calling career began in 1951) and published in the Country Dance & Song Society NEWS, issue #82, May/June 1988. (By the way, there are many good reasons to join CDSS but receiving the Newsletter would alone justify the cost of membership — it's an invaluable and well-edited window on the Anglo-American dance world.)

For those who want the Executive Summary, here it is:


——lengthy summary of Hendrickson's article follows——

Hendrickson begins with an overview of the square dance situation. "After World War II, there were many dances held in small communities, usually on Saturday nights. These dances featured live music, a limited repertoire and were held in unused barns, lodge halls, commercial establishments, and sometimes schools. Alcohol was a part of many of the events, and all reports indicate these dances tended to be rather rough and rowdy affairs.

"Gentler folk who enjoyed the dancing but not the presence of alcohol at square dances formed social clubs, usually called 'The Such-and-Such Country Dancers.'... The dance clubs grew in size and number through the 50s, and the dancers became very proficient in learning and following the calls. The number of basic figures was still limited, and callers were ingenious in finding new ways to maneuver eight people through a square dance.

"Contra dances were interspersed throughout the evening as were polkas, waltzes, schottisches, hambos, and international folk dances. These dances were simple and could be learned by following others on the floor although there were lessons being held for such purposes.

"Square dance lessons, when held, consisted of ten-week courses which usually included learning ten or so of the most popular singing calls. These dances were sure to be done at almost any event one attended. A person could frequent most of the open dances and pick up the calls just by dancing. Experienced dancers for the most part were eager to assist the newcomers and show them the figures, steps, and fine points of styling."

Hendrickson describes "a different style of dancing" that emerged, beginning with the 1958 introduction of the Square Thru dance figure which "offered the caller so much in the way of new figure combinations that its use became universal very quickly as the big-name travelling callers spread the figure from coast to coast." Callers competed with each other to create new figures. "Attendance at this new form of square dancing was phenomenal. New clubs, classes, and callers seem to appear overnight all over the country....The length of lessons increased as did the need for regular attendance at club dances in order to keep up with the latest dance figures. Tempos increased...complexity became the norm. This was exciting for many leaders and dancers. Others, however, were not pleased. The relaxed atmosphere, they felt, was gone and it wasn't fun anymore." Traditional dancing declined and club dancing became the "in" thing.

"The modern activity was unknowingly limiting its share of the public market as it became more and more complicated. At this writing [1988] as many as forty plus lessons are recommended to become an acceptable (not accomplished) dancer. There are thousands of basic figures, and a complicated dancer ability-level system is in place.

"At meetings and conferences, modern callers continually lament the decline in attendance at dances. Classes are small in many areas, and the activity is no longer growing with the population. In southwestern Connecticut, for example, there has been a nearly twenty-five percent population increase over the past twelve years, yet there are fewer modern square dance clubs in existence. Attendance figures do not match the percentage of the population increase. By any logic this is not growth, not even a maintaining of dancer activity over the past two decades. The club dance movement had changed from an all-encompassing relaxed social activity to that of a dedicated hobbyist endeavor."

——end of Hendrickson summary——

  • Do I like dancing complex dances? Yes, on occasion.

  • Do I enjoy calling complex dances? Yes, on occasion. In recent years, I even promoted an annual "hot dance" aimed at experienced dancers in our area (northern NH/VT), a one-night-stand for those who craved challenge.
  • Do I think that a steady diet of more complex dances will help contra dancing attract and retain new dancers? No. Would I promote such a series on a regular basis? No.

I've read plenty of opinions about the supposed virtue of complex dances, but I've seen no evidence that such a program will lead to a sustainable growth in the dance community. I have seen considerable evidence—such as that cited above—that the opposite is true. And then I have the example of our own local community dance.

Our regular dance includes a mix of traditional and new material. In the course of a year, we regularly include simple dances, New England chestnuts, triple minors, Sicilian circles, mixers, squares and triplets and other odd formations, and couple dances as well as the duple minor improper and Becket formation contras that are most popular on the scene these days. Over the years, our attendance figures are steadily climbing. Best of all, we attract a wide range of ages to our dance, from elementary school children and high school kids through senior citizens. At our recent 20th anniversary, some 350 people turned out to dance and to celebrate the vital role that dancing has in our community. So far, at least for us, it's a formula for success.

David Millstone