How Contras Fit In Square Dances
By Art Harvey
Laguna Woods, California
Why do people dance? Exercise is one answer, a second is that it is natural to want to move your body in rhythm with the music and yet a third is the social and team aspects of jointly and successfully completing a series of figures or movements. Line dancing is best described as solo dancing, i.e. a single person dancing alone. Most people who line dance are doing it because (1) they do not have a partner and (2) they are doing it for the exercise. Ballroom and/or round dancing is couple dancing, i.e. two people dancing as a unit. The movements or figures may be random or choreographed such as in round dancing. Those who participate in this type of dancing enjoy learning different patterns and moving to the various rhythms used. Both contra and square dances are team events. People dance contras and squares for the same reasons. First, they want to interact socially with a group of like-minded people. Secondly, they want an easy way to exercise. Thirdly, they enjoy the music being used and fourth but not least, they enjoy the excitement and glow of success after their team has completed a series of figures.
Contra dancing and Square dancing both originated from the same basic roots. It is only natural that they can be accommodated within the same evening dance program.
For an evening square dance, why not use contras in between square dance tips in lieu of round dances or line dances. The people in attendance at the dance will already know or have a great familiarity with the figures used in the contra dances. If there are only a few people participating in the round or line dancing, using contra dances could result in more of the people dancing more of the time. Isn't that what they came for? To dance that is. If there are a majority of round dancers participating at the dance, why not use a contra tip in lieu of a "star tip" or why not use all three such as a square tip followed by a contra tip followed by a pair of rounds. Again you will not be disenfranchising any of the dancers there. They all should be capable of success and enjoyment in the dance.
For a square dance class program the use of contras can enhance the learning ability of the new dancers. For someone to learn a new concept or action it is necessary to repeat that concept or action several times and with many different people involved. Within the square formation, normally there are only two couples performing the action with the other two couples standing and hopefully watching. Put those people in a contra line and everyone will be dancing the action almost all the time. The action will be repeated with a new couple each time it is performed. Since everyone learns at a different rate, this will enable the fast learners to help the not so fast learners. By using the contra line formation, everyone in the class will be able to participate. If there are not enough couples available to form squares, some of the new dancers are left sitting during the teaching session. Not all the Basic and Mainstream program figures can be used in a contra line but a majority of them can be.
At a Square Dance Convention (state or national) or a weekend festival the use of a Contra Dance hall will enable those who have not been able to previously participate to join in. The contras used at this type of event will come from traditional; the New England style of dances and the dances choreographed using modern western square dance figures. A majority if not all of the contra formations will also be used at this type of event.
On a personal basis, as a square dance and contra caller I have used contras and squares together in all of the above situations. For one square dance club, I did pre-contras in lieu of pre-rounds and contras in between tips for their monthly dances. The club caller for that particular club called the squares. Another club used rounds except for when they had myself or another caller/friend. We did the entire program (contras and squares). Other clubs for which I called the squares, the star tip was a contra tip and in most cases everyone at the dance participated.
What are some of the differences between contra dancing and square dancing? Formation is the big one. In squares it is four couples to a set unless the caller is doing a gimmick set with six or eight couples. In contras the dances are performed in lines of three or more couples, circles (many couples), mescolanzas (two couples facing two couples), squares of four or eight couples and trios (three people facing three). The contra line may be what is known as a "proper" line (all the men in line to caller's right facing their ladies in line to caller's left) or what is known as an "improper or alternate" line with the "active" or "number one" couples crossed over, i.e. active man in line to caller's left facing his partner in line to caller's right. The contra line may also be what is known as a "Becket" formation, i.e. couples facing couples. The "Becket" formation is the only contra formation that is not confusing to square dancers in the beginning. In a proper contra line the men are all standing together and facing their lady partners in the other line. Performing a Right and Left Thru in this situation can really be confusing for square dancers that have never done one in this manner.
The contra dances themselves may be written for only two, three, four, five and six couples or for as many as want to dance. They may be written for "duple" formations (two couples dancing a sequence), "triple" formations (three couples dancing a sequence) or mescolanza (four couples dancing a sequence). Some are written for a specific tune and may not work well with any other. Some are named for a specific tune but will work with anything provided they have a common structure.
Terminology is somewhat different. In squares the term "Actives" is not used. The caller uses "Heads" or "Sides" to determine the actives. The term "Actives" can then be at first confusing for someone new to dancing contras. The terms "up the hall or line","down the hall or line","top couple" and "bottom couple" are also confusing at first. In squares we have the 'head of the hall','foot of the hall' and 'sides'. "Up the hall or line" simply means moving towards the caller and "down the hall or line" means moving away from the caller. The "top couple" in each group of two or three couples is that couple nearest the caller and the "bottom couple" is that couple farthest away from the caller. Many times the top couple will be looking away from the caller and the bottom couple will be looking toward the caller. "Progression" is the movement from one couple to another couple. A single progression contra has each couple dancing together for one sequence and then repeating that sequence with the next couple up or down the line. A double progression contra has each couple dancing part of a sequence together and then completing the sequence with the next couple up or down the line before repeating the sequence with yet another couple.
Timing is different. In contra dancing everything is tied to an eight beat musical phrase unless of course it is a waltz contra. Where many square dancers use an arm around the waist turn for a dosado, in contras the dosado is performed back to back in eight beats. In square dancing a square thru takes ten beats but in contras it is slowed down and takes sixteen beats. Those square dance figures requiring four or eight beats also require only four or eight beats in contras. In square dancing many people rush through the figures. In contras the figures are danced with the music. In squares, the caller takes beat one (the down beat) away from the dancers. In contras, the caller gives beat one to the dancers. When dancing your body wants to begin movement with beat one, the heavy down beat.
Quantity of material used. At a plus level square dance the caller has 100 families of figures to work from. The caller will randomly select from these figures the one that the dancers are to perform at that time. Hopefully the caller is alternating the use of hands and maintaining good body flow. In any event the dancer is tied directly to the caller. At a contra dance the caller will be using choreographed dances. After talking or walking the sequence of figures the caller will begin the dance. After dancing a few sequences, the dancers begin to remember what to do and need less direction from the caller. In contras the dancers are not as tied to the caller and therefore can listen to and enjoy the music more.
What are some of the similarities between square and contra dancing? Music is a big one. With few exceptions, square dance music uses a structure of eight phrases with eight beats to a phrase for a total of 64 counts or 32 measures. A typical singing call minus the intro and tag will go through seven times. This allows the caller to use an opener, the figure twice for the heads, a middle break, the figure twice for the sides and then a closer. Most contras are also written for this musical structure (32 measures) but they can also be found written for music that has 24, 40, 48 or 64 measures.
Rhythms, in both squares and contras there are a wide variety used. In squares the music tends to stay with a 2/4 or 4/4 time structure. In contras those time structures are used as well as 6/8 (jig time) and 3 / 4 (waltz).
Material used. With the exception of a few movements, figures used for contra dancing are a limited set of square dance figures. Contras may use fewer figures but there is no limit to the challenge they can present. In a square of four couples it is only possible to dance the figures called with three other couples and your corner always remains the same. In a contra line of six, seven, eight or more couples the figures will be danced with as many couples as the music will allow and each time through there will be a different corner.
In summary, contras and squares are both group-oriented dances. They are danced for the enjoyment of a group to successfully complete a series of figures set to music. People who object to contra dances generally have had a bad experience. Dancers should never be forced to do something that they object to and square dance callers should not blindly try to call contras. It is necessary to learn how to call contras just as it was necessary to call squares. A big step in learning to call contras is learning how to dance them. If you have not tried dancing contras, please join in this convention and any other opportunity that presents itself. If your club wants to dance contras and your caller does not have the experience, contact CONTRALAB. They have an excellent set of lessons on how to prompt contras. Being able to call squares does not make a person capable of calling contras and just as in square dancing, a bad experience will turn off potential dancers.
Note - Art Harvey led a seminar on this subject at the 51st National Square Dance Convention in St. Paul. He gave me permission to reprint his material here.
Back to Northland Notes or to Camp Sweat or Bob's Corner or perhaps Pat's Place and we also suggest Square Dances and maybe Contra Dances and then there's always Mixed Pics