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Contras & Ceilidhs in England

If an American Contra dancer went to England to dance he, or she, would be baffled.  In general, dances are not advertised as “Contra” dances, or English Country dances.  There are “Club” dances, Social dances, Ceilidhs and Barn dances.  What are these?  Would you get to do Contra dances at any of these?  How do you find out where & when these are held?

Unlike the U.S., there is no CDSS Group Directory that would instantly give you a general overview of what dances are held anywhere in the country.  There is a central organization, The English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), whose home base is Cecil Sharp House in London, but it does not have information on the various dances going on all over England.  Several years ago there was a slight falling out between EFDSS and the clubs.  The clubs felt they were giving money that helped EFDSS and its events at Cecil Sharp House -- and not receiving anything in return.  So if you went to Cecil Sharp House and sought information on dancing in Leeds, or Nottingham, you would find no information.

So how do you find out about dances in the U.K.?

Every region has its own monthly or bi-monthly eight page magazine with local dance information.  There is “Avon Folk Diary,” and “Worcestershire Folk,” and Dorset Folk,” and “Set & Turn Single, and “Solent Waves,” and....  Matters are improving somewhat with the advent of the internet.  There is now one site -- Webfeet (http://www.ftech.net/~webfeet/) -- that covers a great many events throughout the country, but quite a few clubs, at this point, do not advertise their dances on the internet.

In a sense, the situation is not that different from the situation in the U.S.  Once you know where to look, lots of information is available, but if you don’t know where to look, it would seem as if nothing is happening anywhere.

Update March 2005: There are now 2 websites that list contra dances all over England:
Dave Brown's www.contradanceuk.org.uk
Chris Turner/Tony Kelly's www.setandturnsingle.org.uk

“Clubs” are exactly what you might expect: a group of people who get together to dance weekly, bi-weekly or monthly.  If you went to a club you would find they dance a variety of dances on any given evening, and most often, they dance to recorded music.  Sometimes a lone accordion player provides the music.  Of course they do “Playford Dances” -- the only kind of dances we Americans think of as “English Dances.”  But Playford Dances are only a small percentage of the dances done at Clubs.  Like American Contras, English dances are being written every day in England.  You would therefore encounter “modern” English Country Dances, and Squares, and Contras, and often all of them are interspersed in one night of dancing.

The Contras danced in England tend to be slightly different than the Contras one dances in America.  Of course some of the Contras you would encounter would be American Contras.  The first Contra I ever danced in England was a Gene Hubert contra, and more & more American contras are crossing the ocean, but contras written in England, and danced in England, tend to have fewer (if any) swings, and they sometimes contain square dance moves (Star through, flutterwheel).

Dance Clubs in England periodically sponsor a Saturday night “Social dance.”  Such dances would have live music.  The mix of dances would be pretty much what you would encounter at a regular Club dance evening.  As usual, the mix of dances would depend on the band & caller, so knowing the band or caller would give you a clue about the mix of dances that will be called at any given Social dance.

The Social Dance crowd is much older than the dancers one would find at a Ceilidh, which I will talk about in a minute.  Social Dancers tend to do sedate dances, stately dances.  Even when a Contra is called, they don’t run it for very long.  Unlike American Contra dances, there is almost always a rest period after every dance, or  more frequently after two dances in a row.  Social dancers also come “paired up,” and they rarely switch partners.  Callers in England never-ever say “Please thank this partner & find another.”  There is rarely, if ever, a “mixer” at a Social Dance.  And finally, eye-contact is kept to a minimum.

All the preceding is undergoing change.  The constant influx of American dancers who travel to England to dance has altered the dance scene.  English dancers who have danced contras with Americans (at Chippenham & Sidmouth) are more willing to give eye contact.  They are even beginning to twirl a little.  There are even “Contra-only” evenings beginning to form in Leeds & Manchester and I’ve been running one in Southampton.  But such evenings draw a crowd of perhaps ten to thirty dancers.  The real problem is the lack of Contra-dance bands.

There is one successful Contra dance series.  The London Barn Dance Company runs a once-a-month Contra dance at Cecil Sharp House in London and they often draw a crowd of one hundred dancers.  Whenever an American caller is in England, they make sure to hire him (or her).  There are a few English callers who know American Contras well.  The one real problem is Contra-dance bands.  There are only a half dozen really good Contra dance bands in England.  Alterations, Fiddlin’ Around, Contradition and Big Bad Contra have begun to focus on Contras.  Good English dance bands are fun to dance to, but many have not mastered the distinctive drive necessary to power a good contra dance.  American contras are making an inroad into England, but one of the things slowing down the influx is the lack of good Contra-dance bands.

So far we have talked about “Club” dances and Social Dances.  Ceilidhs and Barn dances are a completely different kettle of fish.

How do you explain an English Ceilidh to an American Contra dancer?  First let us look at the dances that would be called at a typical Ceilidh.  All the dance formations would be familiar: long lines for as many as will, four men (or five, six, eight) facing four women, and squares.

“Long lines for as many as will” is the Contra dance formation, and indeed, many of the dances called at an English Ceilidh would be very familiar to American Contra dancers.  They are very simple Contras, the kind of Contras you would call at a beginner’s Contra Dance Class.  All the dances called at a Ceilidh are deliberately simple: like Contra dances in America, one of the guiding principles in a Ceilidh is that no previous experience is necessary.  Even people who have never danced before should be able to do the dances.  The joke my wife makes is that no dance should be called that you can’t do even if you are slightly drunk.  And like Contra dances, all dances are explained first and the callers calls the moves at least the first few times through.

But the Contras called at an English Ceilidh are not like American Contras.  We are used to the smooth flow from one move to the next.  The Contras called at a Ceilidh are characterized by hop steps, skips, jumps, a vigorous up & down movement.  Some of the dances contain a “rant step”-- the only step in any of the dances that an American dancer will have trouble with.  It is not a difficult step, but the rhythm is unusual, and once again, the movement is up-down, hoppy.  Maximum energy is expended at an English Ceilidh, and the expenditure of energy is helped along by the music, which is loud, jangly, characterized by a clearly punctuated rock-like beat.  Ceilidh bands are very loud.

The next thing that will be familiar to American Contra dancers is the “Virginia Reel” formation: four-five-eight couples lined up across from each other.  Many of  these dances contain a “reel the set” move (right elbow to partner, left elbow to “other,” right elbow...), followed by “lead couple form a bridge, other couples go under.”  Again, the dances are very simple and contain moves anyone can do: Lines forward & back, pass through, Right Hand Star, Circle left.

Finally there is the square formation.  Once again, the squares are simple and vigorous.  There is much galloping and reeling and swinging.  As I said earlier, the purpose of a Ceilidh is to give you a good workout.  American Contra dancers think that Contras give you a good workout.  Ceilidhs can leave you bone weary.

Which leads me to the make-up of a typical Ceilidh crowd of dancers.  In general, the Ceilidh crowd is much younger than a typical group of Contra dancers in America.  It is not unusual to find a group of teenagers at an English Ceilidh.  They are attracted by the loud band and the lively dancing.  They also like the fact that “no previous experience” is necessary, no complicated moves will be called.  No one takes the dancing at a Ceilidh seriously.  “Horseplay” is not unusual; no one gets on your case if you are not there on time.  This is family fun: mom, dad, teenagers, little children can be found at Ceilidhs.

You need to understand that the make-up of the Ceilidh crowd depends on where the Ceilidh is held.  Ceilidhs at dance festivals (Chippenham, Sidmouth) contain heaving groups of mad, half drunk, carousing teenagers and young adults -- all of whom are experienced dancers; Ceilidhs created to raise money for a school, or a cause (these are often called “Barn Dances”), contain families with small children and people who dance such dances two or three times a year.

Two of the things that Americans will find unfamiliar (and perhaps annoying) at a Ceilidh is the drinking and the smoking.  Drinking is the norm; smoking is less common but not infrequent.  Beer is part of British life and beer drinking is an integral part of a Ceilidh.


Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

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