Erik Hoffman     

Old Time Music and Dance

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


Copyright (c) 1997, Erik Hoffman.

Chapter 1 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | List of Dances

Chapter 2

Putting on the style

What is style? We've all got it; it can't be helped. It is, however, something we can alter. What is style in contra dancing? Well, there's personal style, your local dance's style, regional style, and national style. Before we can really get into style, and how it applies to contra dancing, we need to define some things. I'll start with what makes a "good dancer," a "neutral dancer," and "bad dancing."

The Good, the Bad, and the Neutral

A good dancer makes dancing fun for those around him or her. A good dancer is not only on time for the next figure but also helps those with whom she's dancing be where they need to be when they need to be there. She doesn't add flourishes that detract from the flow of the dance. He is aware of others, and strives to be flexible in matching their needs. Again, she makes dancing fun for those around him or her.

The best dancers improve the dancing of others by their style of dance. Bob Dalsemer is said to have pointed out one of these dancers to an observer. The observer noted that the dancing improved in the wake of this man. His joy, attitude, carriage, and style left others dancing better as well as lifted their spirits. Was that dancer you?

A neutral dancer does just that, neither adds nor detracts from the fun of him or her, or others.

A lot of things contribute to bad dancing. You might note that I don't say, "bad dancer." All of us who come back again have the abilities to be good dancers. And all of us make mistakes; it's expected. More than that, most all of us have, at one time or another, done something that may have hurt someone else. A person is guilty of bad dancing when he or she does these kinds of things on a regular basis. So, what are the characteristics bad dancing?

When you:

When you regularly carry out these kinds of activities, you are dancing badly. Again, most of us have done some of these things occasionally. The bad part here is characterized by "regularly" and "categorically."

Developing good style requires becoming a good dancer.

Again, we all have style; it's inherent in our personality. What we can do is to develop it and make sure it's good. Again, what makes it good is making it pleasurable for others to dance with us.

The Style that Fits

Now, let's look at where style fits. When we first come to a dance most of us are overwhelmed by the figures, the caller, and all the antics going on around us. It's a wonder we even get through our first dance. Nevertheless, someone or ones pushed us through and it was fun, so we came back for more. At this stage there's not much time for thinking about style, there's barely enough time for thinking about what's coming next.

As we dance, the figures become more automatic, and we might even start memorizing the sequence of figures as we dance them. As this happens, we find a lot more time in the dance for style. Time for that little bit of extra eye contact, or twirl, or ... Little cracks open up. Dare I say we find more space in the dance? It's here where our personal style gets honed. Personal Style: you can strive to be elegant, playful, sexy, fun, cool, and more. Personal style can also be bad: you could be rough, lecherous, too fancy, too much.

So, some suggestions. First, keep it personal. That is, it's your style: don't force others into it, invite them. In twirling this comes up over and over again. I can't tell you how often I watch men make imbeciles of themselves by thinking it's real cool to twirl women under in a grand right and left. What happens is these men leave a wake of women all pointed in the wrong direction after the twirl. Bad style.

Then there are those who think everyone should get an extra twirl in contra corners, so they aggressively push off every dancer they meet. Again, too much of a force that can even be painful. Note, I'm not saying, "don't twirl," I'm saying, "don't force others to do it!"

This may seem a bit confusing, because when in the leader's role, we dancers do take an active role in inviting our partners to do different things. The goal is to make it a pleasurable meeting of styles rather than a battle of wits. When I'm dancing with a new partner, I might try leading an underarm turn. Then I'll ask if they like it. If so, we'll try more. It is amazing what a few words can do: you can find out all sorts of things! If my partner is new, tired, or whatever, she or he can let me know and I'll work to make it fit their ability. I want them to have as much fun as I have!

With good style, we know where we need to be, and when to be there. We know where our partner needs to be and how to end the figure so that he can be there. This is what gives us time for extras: extra looks, extra twirls, extra playfulness, extra whatever.

Making it Easy

Now, let's look at some things that open up the space for style.

Being on time. Yes, being on time. We are working as a group, so timing is everything. It seems funny that being on time gives you more time, but it's true. If you're late, you have to rush through the next figures. And being rushed doesn't permit contact. If you're early, that's a problem too, you have to stand around waiting for the next figure, or worse yet, you start others doing something early, and thus get more people off from the music.

There are several things that make it easy to be on time: moving to the phrase of the music, knowing your bearings, knowledge of figures, sequence memory, and dance repertoire.

The Phrase of the Music. So much has been said about music but here it is again. Music is a powerful force, and it's the backbone of the dance. With contra and some square dancing, the dance and music are inseparably intertwined. Music is divided into sixteen beat major parts, and further subdivided into eight and four beat sub-phrases. The figures are choreographed to time out exactly with these phrases. Listen to music, count the eights and sixteens, see how the parts repeat, learn to sing a few tunes, learn to play it on that piano or guitar or jug at home. Get it so that when the dance is going on the parts and phrases jump out at you. You'll learn to hear better. It will take less of your brain to hear more of the music. You will derive even greater pleasure from the music while dancing.

Bearings. When looking at a floor, there are no markings telling us where the lines form, and which way is which. Bearings are overlays that we put upon the hall. I had this brought home to me when calling a dance for families. Young ones had no idea what was meant by lines, or down the hall, or even right and left. We lay these concepts on top of the hall, and use them to dance. What are they?

Here are the basic bearings for contras: down, up, the line, in the middle, outside, across, right, and left. Then there's neighbor, partner, same sex neighbor, minor set, and our direction of flow. Moves have a way of defining these things. "Long line forward and back" is a very strong, connected movement that clearly defines our lines. The "hey for four" is much less connected. If done "on the diagonal," the hey is even more ambiguous.

The basic bearings for squares are: Heads, sides, couple number (one, two, three, and four), partner, corner, opposite, right-hand lady (left-hand man), in the middle, outside, grand right and left direction, right, and left.

Figure Memory. Learning the figures and what they do does a lot to help develop style.

It's when you can carry out the figures without thinking that you have time to think of other things. This gives you time to add style and flair. It's interesting to watch beginners do si do because most of them already know it. Their style (at least in the US) is to cross their arms in front, hold them high, and sort of high step the do si do. This is in marked contrast to the modern contra version: twirl, twirl, twirl, and twirl again. Note how it's knowing the figure that permits this contrasting style. In a "woman's chain," beginners rarely have a clue, and it's all they can do to keep it straight. Learn the figures and their names and it'll loosen up a lot of time for style.

Dance Memory. This might be called sequence memory. It's remembering the sequence of figures as you dance. We callers often stop calling contras as people start remembering the dance. Some dances flow. Some seem impossible to recall. But like everything, the more you practice, the easier it gets. Knowing what's coming next also frees up a lot of time: it's what lets you know where your going, and when you need to be there, so you can improvise ad infinitum (ad vomitus?) in the cracks and be right where you need to be for the next figure.

There's another level of dance memory as well. That comes when you start remembering whole dances, along with their names. So when the caller says, "Chorus Jig," or, "The Reunion," you already know it. If you like a dance, take note of it, write it down, request it, give it to your local callers to call, and learn it. The first one is the hardest.

Meeting our dance partners' abilities. While developing style, learn to sense the capability of each dancer. This is the most challenging, and ultimately the most rewarding thing you'll have to learn. As you move through the line or square, you meet dancers of all levels: those who are just starting out, and lost in almost every figure, those with some experience, but still struggling with some less used figures, those with lots of experience. Also, there are physical abilities. We have people with lots of experience, and on medication, or with ailing bodies, or youthful zest, etc. Learn to sense these differences, and work with them. Make your style inclusive.

Community Style

A lot of things make one community different from another. Some are in how the moves are done, like right and left throughs, or star "grips." In the Northwest, they do the "right and left through" by taking right hands across, pulling by (or through) and left with the person next to them. In the Bay Area and LA area, the right-hand pull by is replaced with a no-hand pass through. Some places prefer the wrist grip in stars. Others favor the hands across. As you become familiar with figures, it's good to note these differences, and learn to enjoy all of them, even if you do have a preference.

Then there's the feeling of the community or even a particular dance series. Some dance series have the overall feeling of lively fun. Others are sedate. I've called where the dancers whoop and holler, and the center set syndrome is absent. I've also called where dancers never applaud, and hardly look at the band or caller. Other communities are snobbish, and wait for you to prove yourself before accepting you as "one of their own." There was one regular dance series where you didn't even ask a partner to dance, you just went and stood in line, and whoever was across from you was your partner!

Having been to England, I'd even venture to say there is a national style. There they dance a contra eight or nine times through, and that's it. Dancers in England may be after something else, an appreciation for the flow of the dance perhaps. Once they see it, that's enough.

In Conclusion

Learn the bearings, figures, and dances so the "cracks" open up and gives you time and space to develop your style. Develop you style so it is flexible and greets each dancer with your personality and joy. Let it be flexible, not forceful. This way you can have a meeting of styles that are pleasurable for all. Then learn about the music so you can hear the many virtuosos were lucky to have in our community. Learning to let the details take care of themselves gives us more time to be ourselves!


Chapter 3