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Dancing in America for Brits

How would a foreigner find Contra dances, or ECD dances, or any other kinds of “folk” dances in the U.S.?

Before I travel anywhere in the U.S., to New York, to Boston, to Indiana, to Chicago, I take out my Country Dance & Song Society (CDSS) Group Directory, which is published annually, to see if there are any dances on any nights, in the city I plan to visit.  In large cities there is often a “dance” phone where a recorded voice will tell you what dances are on, sometimes what dances are on anywhere in the State you are in.  That is true in the State of Michigan where the Ann Arbor Dance phone number tells you about almost all the dances that are taking place in the State of Michigan.  But more often I will rely on the CDSS Directory which will furnish me with a list of dance groups, their weekly dance night and a contact number.

CDSS’s group directory, which contains a list of around 600 dance groups in the U.S., is by no means complete.  There are many, many, groups that are not members of the Country Dance & Song Society and therefore their dances are not listed, but CDSS’s Group directory does give you contact phone numbers and once you contact someone in that city, they will often be able to fill you in on all the dances in the area.

Like the U.K. dance scene, if you don’t know who to contact, it seems as if nothing is going on anywhere; once you contact one person within the dance community, you can find out all you need to know.

Since the advent of the internet, all one has to do is type in the words Contra dances and a whole world opens up to you.  In the states, there is a state by state directory available.

But what “kinds” of dances are available in the states?  Dance Clubs?  Ceilidhs?  Barn Dances?  No.  None of the preceding.  There are no “Barn Dances” or Dance clubs in America, and the word “Ceilidh” has a whole different meaning to American Contra dancers.  “Ceilidh” means Irish dances, usually “sevens and threes.”

Basically the American dance scene can be carved up in the following way: Contras,  English Country Dances (ECD), Scottish, Morris, International, Western Square.

Let me begin with the two that are virtually separate from all the rest: Western Square & International.

“Mythology” has it that in the 1950’s there was a huge split between Contra dancers & square dancers.  Contra dancers wanted to promote a form of dance that was instantly accessible to all.  You could walk off the street and into a Contra dance and feel at home, feel able to do any dance called that evening.  Western square dancers wanted more complex dances, in fact, dances that were so complex that you were required to attend, and pass, a series of classes before you would be allowed into an evening dance.

Whether the myth is true or not, there is virtually no overlap between those who go square dancing and those who go Contra dancing.  In order to attend an evening’s square dance, you must have passed a series of classes that teach you the basic moves.  You go square dancing with a partner and you hardly ever change partners.  Western Square dancers are known for their “costumes”-- short, colorful, flouncy skirts for the women, and long sleeve shirts and “cowboy” knot ties for the men.

Almost no one in the square dance movement goes to Contra dances; almost no one one who attends Contra dances, goes square dancing.  Of course there are exceptions to the rule: square dancers who go to Contra dances; Contra dancers who also love to square dance.  But these are exceptions.  The Square dance movement is huge in America.  Square dance conventions can assemble thousands of dancers.  But you do have to attend classes; you are better off if you come with a partner; a certain costume is encouraged.  And, in general, square dancers are older than Contra dancers.

So how do you find square dances?  On the net.  Advertised in the local newspaper.  Through square dance publications.

The separation between International dancers and Contra dancers is nowhere near as complete.  In any given city there tend to be some people who go both International dancing and Contra dancing.  International Dances (Called “Folk Dances” in England) are dances from various countries: Israel, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece....  There are far fewer International Dance groups than Contra or Square dance groups.  The most likely place to find an International Dance group is through the local University or College.

It is not easy to find a central directory for International Dance groups.  Because there is some overlap, it is best to ask within the Contra dance community.  Almost always someone in the group knows when & where the local International dancers meet.

The next four dance forms are deeply intertwined: Scottish, Morris, ECD & Contra.  By far the largest & most active of these forms is Contra dancing.  In the Boston area and the Washington D.C. area, one can find a Contra dance, with live music, almost every night of the week.  In some cities one will find a Contra dance every weekend, sometimes one on Friday night & one on Saturday night.  There are cities that have a weekly Contra class, sometimes with live music.

The most intense Contra dancing is to be found at special weekends throughout the year.  I can’t possibly list all of them, but there are perhaps only a dozen weekends a year where one cannot find a weekend of dancing somewhere in America.  Typically these weekends begin with a dance on Friday night, run workshops all day Saturday & half the day Sunday, and a dance Saturday night & a farewell dance Sunday afternoon.

These weekends are often held at a “summer-dance-camp” facility.  Bed & Board are provided, and several callers & several dance bands are hired.  Sometimes a University provides the dance facility and dancers must find room & board.  Not infrequently, the host Contra organization will provide “floor” space for dancers at members’ homes.

During the summer there are fewer such weekends because there are many week-long dance camps.  All of these provide room & board & dances of all kinds.  The most famous is Pinewoods, run by the Country Dance & Song Society.  Pinewoods has roughly eight such weeks a summer.  The Dance Gypsy Summer Dance Planner, is a directory devoted to dance camps held during the summer months.  The last few pages of  the CDSS bi-monthly magazine has a fairly comprehensive list of all weekends and week-long dance camp held during the year.

The best place to find Scottish, English Country (ECD) & Morris is in the Annual CDSS Group Directory.  It is rare that a Morris dancer is not also a Contra Dancer.  ECD dancers are likely to also Contra dance, but there are some who do not.  ECD dances are far less frequent than Contra dances, but there are some groups that meet weekly, and in some places there are ECD dances with live music once a month, sometimes twice a month.

In America, English Country Dances are almost exclusively Playford dances.  ECD groups do dance some modern dances written by Gary Roodman & Fried DeMetz Herman, but most modern ECD dances are simply not know (or ignored) in America.  Many Contra dancers cannot abide ECD dances: they find them effete, affected, too slow.  There simply is no sense that ECD is a “live” form.  Contra dancers think of ECD as that “old stuff” that is boring, danced by the upper classes in times long gone by.  That is why you will hardly ever find an ECD dance called at a Contra dance.

Of course there are exceptions to all rules.  A very few dances are labeled “Contra and English,” and some callers will call one or two English dances in a Contra evening.  Square dances are making an inroad into the Contra Dance community as better & better square dance callers are appearing on the Contra dance scene, but there are still places where, if you decide to call a square, half the dancers will sit down & refuse to dance.

There is much more that one can say about Contra dances, but America is too huge a place to be able to make generalizations about all Contra dances.  Still, in general, Contra dances last from 8 p.m. to 11 or 11:30 p.m.  In general, there is a break around 9:30 and the band plays a Waltz before the break and a Waltz at the end of the evening.  Often, for a half hour, or hour before the dance, there is a beginner’s workshop.  Some localities dance a Hambo right after the intermission.


Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

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