This article that appeared in The Old-Time Herald, Vol. 1 No. 6 (1987). A number of people very active in the contra dance scene at that time were rather irritated by the general tone and a number of things said in it. It is reprinted here on with the permission of The Old-Time Herald. The article is also now published at

The Dance Beat - Issues In Old-Time Music

Community Dances in the Eighties: Dare To Be Square!

by Phil Jamison

In this issue of the OTH we have combined the "Dance Beat" and "Issues" columns to reflect the concern that many dancers and musicians alike feel regarding current trends within the dance community. Phil Jamison is the editor of the OTH "Dance Beat" column, and is an active musician, dancer, and caller. He is a member of the Green Grass Cloggers and makes his home in Asheville, N.C.

OTH Square DanceWith the resurgence of interest in old-time music and dance in the 1970s, new community dances began to appear across the country. These were not like the old, local ones held at VFW's and grange halls, but they often started up in college towns, cities, and other places where groups of people interested in old-time music got together. For many people, old-time music and dance fit right in with other folk music tastes, back-to-the-land ideals and interest in the old-time ways. Old-time music and other varieties of traditional music went hand-in-hand with homemade bread, food co-ops, and thoughts of log cabins and living off the land.

When there was a dance, local musicians would come out to dance as well as play, and there was a general sense of a community of people who were having fun and who enjoyed being together. The dances called were mostly traditional squares, except in New England where contras were a regional style. (In a contra dance, the dancers stand in lines opposite partners, as opposed to a square formation.) Over the years things have changed. The biggest change has been in peoples' attitudes toward dancing, and this has appeared in many different manifestations. Contras are still the popular dance form in New England, but now "contra-mania" has swept across the rest the country and in most places has just about completely taken over, to the exclusion of squares. The music that is used to accompany contra dances, usually Northern fiddle styles with piano back-up, has replaced the Southern stringband sound at many dances. Attendance at dance events is increasing and new weekly dances are springing up all over. That may seem encouraging, except that many old-time musicians and dancers have been alienated by the contra invasion on their scene, so they no longer attend. Many dances now have a strict New England contra dance orientation and square dance musicians and callers are no longer welcome. Gone, also, is a large part of the cooperative community spirit that existed ten years ago, replaced by a different attitude on the dance floor.

In my travels around the country this past summer, I mentioned this to a number of people to see what extent it was a nationwide phenomenon. Every place I went I was besieged by veteran old-time musicians, callers, and dancers who had more than a few words to say about the situation. What is contra-mania all about and how has it affected the old-time music and dance scene?

Before I come down on contras, I should say that I enjoy dancing them, especially when they are mixed in among squares, circles, and couple dances in the course of an evening. I also call some contras, having learned my first ones out of self-defense when I found that I could not call at certain dances as strictly a square caller.

What is contra-mania? Has your local dance succumbed to it yet? Here is the test: Step up to the caller's microphone and say, "Find a partner for the next dance." Then look out over the dance floor. Are people forming squares with an occasional hand raised where another couple is needed, or are they all lined up like iron filings as if the floor had instantly became a magnetic field?

Through the years, as contras have taken over, I've wondered what their big attraction was. Perhaps they are the result of people's search for novelty and an alternative to squares. Or, maybe they are a superior dance form. They do have certain advantages over squares.

From a caller's point of view, contras are easier to call than squares. The constant vigilance of a square caller is not needed. Once the dance is started, the caller can cease calling and let the dancers continue on their own. The timing of the prompting is important, but it is more straightforward and simpler than square calling. Square calling depends more on a caller's personal style, which may take years to develop. The timing of squares is not always spelled out by the phrasing of the music, but is left up to the caller's instincts. In contrast, contras can literally be read right out of a book and called. Collections of recently composed and other favorite contras are available in print, enabling new callers to develop huge repertoires of dances almost overnight. New callers are not exposed to many square callers, and squares are not as accessible in print, so they are not as familiar with them.

Because of the variable length of contra lines, contra callers never have to coax dancers out onto the floor to fill out a definite number of couples as required for a square.

Basically, contra callers are in demand and popular with the swelling numbers of people at dances. The demands and desires of dancers certainly influence a caller's choice of dance and there are a number of reasons why dancers like contras. For some of the newer dancers, that is all they have seen and all they know. The predictable, repetitious nature of contras can be appealing. Dancers like to be able to continue on their own after a few times through without continuous prompting. The repetition with the phrasing of the music allows dancers to become mesmerized by the movement as in waltzes and other couple dances. Dancers seem to prefer the long sets now in style so that they can dance with as many other people as possible. Due to the lengthened sets, contras in which everyone is active have become popular so that no one has to wait their turn to dance. Finally, some dancers dislike squares because they have had a boring or bad experience with them in the past. It is a challenge for callers to develop into good square callers when they're never given the chance or encouragement to call them.

Contra-mania has many implications for those of us involved in old-time music. Many old-time musicians who play southern-style dance music have become alienated from community dances due to the preference for contra dance music. Contras require a more restrained and controlled music than squares - more regularly phrased, like marching music. Contra dances and Northern fiddle tunes are a good match. In the past, I have seen old-time musicians turned off by inflexible musical demands and lack of understanding on the part of some contra callers. When allowed to play, some old-time musicians feel that they are required to bridle raw energy and spirit of their music to match the tamer tempo of the contra figures. The need to conform to this required tempo and tune structure has driven many fine musicians away.

A musician suggested to me that the Northern music usually used for contras is cleaner, friendlier, and "more palatable to Yuppie ears" than the less tame Southern old-time string band sound. Is it closer to new age" music?

There are problems on the dance floor, too. Many veteran dancers who prefer squares and southern music have been alienated by the fanaticism of avid contra dancers. To some people it is merely a question of taste in music and dance, but in many places the relaxed spirit of the square dance seems to have been replaced by an intense competitive feeling. This has a detrimental effect on community spirit and especially affects newcomers. At large dances, newcomers and out-of-town visitors find it difficult to get a partner to dance with. They are often ignored and passed over by the "in" crowd who don't want to risk being stuck with a novice partner, who perhaps can't swing well. Often those who are the most obnoxious in this respect are those who recently overcame the newcorner stigma themselves.

It's like a pecking order. When a dance is announced, all experienced dancers rush to get an experienced partner and then crowd into the set in the middle of the floor. Bob Dalsemer calls this condition "Center Set Syndrome." In the rush, newcomers get passed over, left to dance with other novices in a side set. It is hard for them to gain experience, being isolated from the seasoned dancers, until they realize the importance of being in the center set and push to get there themselves. Center Set Syndrome creates a snobbish clique that effectively blocks out many newcomers and makes them feel left out of the exclusive set.

Newcomers will often also find that the regulars have booked themselves two or three dancing partners in advance. These habits may have come from an eagerness to dance, but the unfriendly message to newcomers is quite different. With the formation of long contra lines, a single dance may last 20 or 30 minutes which adds to the time pressure of finding a dance partner. It's a long wait until the next dance. With these concerns people don't take time to talk and socialize except during the break. This is a far cry from the enthusiastic community spirit and relaxed atmosphere of dances 10 years ago.

So why are so many people into contra dancing these days? Some like the exercise and physical challenge. They love it when the music is slightly too fast for the figures and they have to run to keep up. They charge down the hall and back, losing all sense of the timing of the music and the grace of contra dancing. Other people come to dances to socialize. It's a good, safe alternative to singles bars. In a long contra line, you get to dance with huge numbers of people without fear of commitment, due to the brevity of the interactions. Many dancers use swings as an opportunity to flirt safely, though not subtly. These superficial looks can be confusing or distressing, especially to newcomers. Notice that very few couples attend dances. I hope some people still come out to dance because they actually love old-time music, though I'm afraid that they're a minority these days. The folk music boom is over and most contra dancers could care less about traditional music or the traditions of the dance.

I don't feel that contra-mania is the cause of all this, though perhaps it didn't help. It is more of a symptom or an indicator of a trend. As a caller, I have been forced to call more contras if I want an audience. It is not that uncommon for callers to hear "boos" from the dance floor at the suggestion of doing more than just a token square in an evening.

A consumer attitude has developed at dances that separates the musicians from the dancers and hurts community spirit in general. Musicians who used to attend weekly dances, no longer feel like a part of the community and now only show up if hired to play. This same split carries over to many weekend and week-long dance events. The dancers have become consumers and they want to be entertained. Their demands often include, "Show me something new that I've never seen before." Musicians and callers are forced to resort to gimmicks to keep them satisfied.

I would like to see more squares called and danced. Dare to be square! They have enormous potential that is not being used. The spontaneity of patter calling in squares can make them fun and less serious than contras. With the caller's ability to alter a dance at will, the caller, musicians, and dancers all function together as one organism. The caller remains involved throughout the dance as a link between the musicians and the dancers. The music can be less structured and livelier, reflecting the excitement of the often unpredictable calls. Because of this freer form, dancers remain attentive and more tuned in to the calls and music. While it can be exhilarating in a contra dance to become mesmerized by the figures on the dance floor, it excludes the caller and musicians, except as accompanists.

While long contra lines may appear to unify all the dancers on the floor, I feel that they do not bring people together individually as well as squares or shorter contra sets. Dancers in the long lines do get to interact with more people, but each contact is short and superficial. Squares and short contra sets allow dancers, even newcomers, more time dancing with a more intimate group. Due to their shorter length, time-wise, everyone has more chances during an evening to get into dance sets and this reduces the frantic fear of getting stuck on the sidelines for 30 minutes during a long dance. Maybe there is a reason why, traditionally, contra sets included only six to eight couples. With the experienced dancers split into many smaller sets, a phenomenon like Center Set Syndrome does not occur.

Many dancers approach dancing from an academic point of view rather than the heart. This is not surprising since many are college educated, but it restricts them, and they get more concerned with the intellectual challenge of the dances than just the uninhibited joy of dancing. They dance to the called figures, but not to the feel and the beat of the music. They become uncomfortable if they aren't kept moving at all times and they have a fear of being inactive. In traditional, visiting-couple squares, as well as traditional contras, dancers spend part of their time being inactive, waiting for their turn to do the figures. Fear of being inactive may just be another aspect of the fast pace of the modern world, or as I have suggested, it may come from a too-intellectual approach to dancing. Dancers prefer contras in which everyone is active, in order to avoid being inactive as in a traditional square or contra. A parallel situation, though I doubt many contra dancers would want to identify with it, is western club-style square dancing, where everyone is kept active, and the figures are so complicated dancers are required to take lessons to dance: Dancing from the head, not the heart.

Maybe we need workshops to teach people the art of inactivity. Aside from serving an important function in the dance, being inactive is a great time to shuffle your feet to the music, swing your partner an extra time, listen to and enjoy the music, or, believe-it-or-not, simply enjoy watching other people dance.

I have seen the old-time music and dance scene grow and change in the last decade and I wonder what it will be like 10 years from now. One of the main purposes of old-time music has always been dancing. The dance scene is booming, but I would like to see it include the old-time music scene once again. They need to remain related and reinforce each other. A stronger community will emerge when dancers can get away from a consumer orientation and musicians can feel like more than just employees.

Dance callers need to be responsible to the desires of the musicians, as well as the dancers, and be a link between the two. Don't be a slave to contra-mania, but dare to call squares and get some of the southern style old-time musicians involved again. I've always thought that if the music is "just right," and really moves the dancers, the figures become secondary. Dances don't always have to be complicated, challenging, or new. Give dancers the chance to loosen up with fun and simple dances.

I urge dancers to have an open attitude. Try squares as well as contras, and be open to the old and familiar as well as the novel. Relax and enjoy being inactive at times and let the music move your feet. Take off your "thinking cap?" once in a while and dance from the heart as well as the head. Don't take the music for granted, but enjoy it as much as the complexity of the dance figures. I would hate to see live music become replaced by records as has happened in western club-style square dancing. And let's welcome newcomers. Remember, we were all there once, too. Dance with them and help them become better dancers through interaction. This will also help the spirit at your community dance.

Old-time musicians need to get out to the dances and be heard. Learn to be a good dance musician by working with the caller and knowing the appropriate dance tunes in your repertoire. It's different than just jamming at home, but it can be just as satisfying. Make them want to get out on the floor and "shake a leg." Try dancing when you aren't playing. The dance crowd will listen more when you do play, and it will give you a better understanding of how dances work and how your music fits in.

I am aware that some of the comments and observations presented here do not apply everywhere and certainly not to everyone involved in the music and dance scene. I hope that old-time music and dance continue to thrive and that traditional square dancing can exist alongside contra dancing to the benefit of both. Traditional music and dance are important, not just because they are old and have historic value, but because they are alive and fun and fill a social need. Community dances will remain strong and vital if we learn to understand each other and come to them with an open attitude, and especially if the dancers, callers, and old-time musicians can come together as one strong community again. Now, find a partner for the next dance.

Thanks to Bob Dalsemer and the multitude of other callers, musicians, and dancers who lent me their ears and ideas while I was thinking about all this - P.J.

Published with the express permission of:

The Old-Time Herald
P.O. Box 51812
Durham, NC 27717 USA


See Robert Reed's response to this article