Erik Hoffman     

Old Time Music and Dance

From my book, Contra Comments.   If you are interested in purchasing this book, go to Ordering Information


Copyright 1993, Erik Hoffman

Chapter 3       List of Dances

Chapter 8

Becoming a Good Dancer

A question that comes up time and again is: what makes a good dancer? How many people are sure they know that answer and think they are it? How many of our absolute favorite dance partners never think they are good enough? I have now written two articles on the subject. The first divides the concept into stages. The second takes a look at how certain types of dancing becomes the de facto style. Here's the first:


The Growth Stages of a Dancer

There are three stages in the development of good dancing. Phase one is beginning; phase two, hot shot; phase three, community dancer.


Phase One, Beginner

During phase one, dancers are working on vocabulary and timing. It is this period where a dancer is learning what movements go with which calls and how to time it with the music. Figures such as the woman's chain, hey, and contra corners take time to become part of the repertoire. Also, during the beginning stage a dancer is learning how one figure flows into another. As a dancer gains confidence with transitions and figures, a dancer begins to develop style. It is when a dancer experiments with dance styles that he or she might transmute into the hot shot stage.


Phase Two, Hot Shot

Hot shot dancers think a good dancer one who can perform lots of fancy footwork and extra twirls, and still be close to on time in a contra. With this thought in mind, these people rush for others of similar ilk and jump in the center set, hopefully excluding all beginners so that as one progresses up and down the line everyone will be there with an extra pirouette after each allemande in a contra corners. Or one who finds a rising excitement in trying for seven or eight twirls during a courtesy turn. For many this constitutes "good dancing."

Many will insist on this kind of activity, forcing twirls or other flourishes, often being insensitive to the other person's desire or ability. At times these dancers will leave a wake of dancers spinning off in the wrong direction.

Many people get stuck here, never growing up out of this selfish phase. It's too bad, because the sense of joy that comes from the third phase is lost to those who get stuck in "hot shot."


Phase Three, Community Dancer

So what is stage three? Stage three is community dancing. It is here where a dancer finds that good dancing is the kind of dancing that welcomes everyone. A good community dancer may find enjoyment in the interaction with the extra twirls of a fellow experienced dancer, but will also find tremendous fun in engaging with a lost newcomer while executing a simple courtesy turn. A good dancer will spread a sense of enjoyment to all he or she dances with. A good dancer is concerned that all the dancers in the hall dance well. It is here where the sense of community that surrounds and pervades the contra dance flourishes and grows. More than anything else, it is this sense of community that keeps people coming for more.

Although challenging and tricky dances are lots of fun, for the community dancer, it is the interaction with people in the set dances that become the height of enjoyment. In this spirit, even the simplest of dances are lots of fun.


A San Franciscan Example

I'd like to share an illustrative case. One time, when I was at a San Francisco dance, I asked a woman to dance who I had never met before. She said, "I've only danced one dance before."

"I don't care," I told her as I whisked her into a contra line. The dance was a tricky one, with a hey to a half woman's chain followed by women do si do and return to partner. Although my partner had to keep her wits about her, with a little help from me, she managed to get it right about half the time. Throughout the dance, though, we were in high spirits. We'd laugh out loud at the little mistakes and big successes we had. That dance was one of the most enjoyable I had all night!

So the next time you're at a dance, don't limit yourself. Find out what fun it can be to dance with everyone at every level of ability. Go for an outside line. Then bring a beginner into the center set. Let loose and laugh while enjoying the simplicity and flirtation of a straight courtesy turn with no extra twirls, just a long look into someone's eyes before you're off into the next figure. Let the sense of community develop in you. Jump into phase three and become a good dancer.


Chapter 3