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May 19, 2009

New England Contra Dance Music

As requested, here is Kicking Mule's 1977 LP New England Contra Dance Music, generously provided by BanjoReinhard. For those of you who have never gone to a contra dance before, I highly recommend it. The music's great and the dancing is a helluvalota fun. It's a great way to meet people and interact in a physical and playful way, without the pressure of performance or the sexual undercurrents of many other dance forms. Not that there's anything wrong with those, but this is the sort of dance that all ages can do, with great live rootsy, old-timey music. This album is, I suppose, a classic of the genre (I haven't heard of any other specifically contra-dance albums, though much of the repertoire is common among old-time, British, Scottish, and Irish traditional musics). It's actually a pretty neat blending of all those traditions, unified by their danceability. Needless to say, the album is long out-of-print!

If you're wondering just what contra dance is and what makes it different from square dances, English Country dances, and other folk dances, I've snabbed these definitions from the interweb:

Definition 0: the only real definition

The only real answer to the question "What is contra dance?" comes when you try it. Check out Charlie Seelig's Contra Dance Links to find a dance in your neighborhood.

Definition 1: an earnest attempt

A caller, usually working with a group of live musicians, guides new and experienced dancers alike through a variety of dances.

A dancer and his or her partner dance a series of figures, or moves, with each other and with another couple for a short time. They then repeat the same figures with another couple, and so on. The figures are similar to those of old-time square dancing. The figures are combined in different ways for each different dance.

The caller teaches each dance before it is actually done to the music. This gives everyone an idea of what to expect so the movements can be easily executed. The caller leads the dances while they are being done to music, so dancers are able to perform each movement to the music. Once the dancers appear to have mastered a particular dance, the caller may stop calling, leaving the dancers to enjoy the movement with music alone.

People of all ages and lifestyles, including children, are welcome. Contra dances are a place where people from many walks of life come together to dance and socialize. Dancers often go out to a restaurant after the dance, have a potluck before or during the dance, or hang out with musicians in jam sessions and song circles.

Children as young as seven can participate in adult dancing; your mileage may vary. As long as parents are responsible for keeping non-dancing children out of harm's way, everyone will enjoy everyone else's presence.

Some groups sponsor family dances. These are dances designed for participation by the whole family. In addition to dancing, the leader of a family dance might also initiate other activities such as games and singing, and singing games, and dances with singing.

First-time dancers will likely find experienced dancers extremely friendly and helpful. If this does not seem to be the case, talk to the dance organizers. They need to know! Or, depending on your location, you could find another dance group.

An evening that includes contra dancing might be called a Contra Dance, an Old-Time Contra Dance, an Old-Time Country Dance, a Barn Dance, or similar. Most contra dance events will include a few dances of other kinds: traditional squares, waltz, polka, swing and other types of couple dance.

At most dance events in North America, we dance with a different partner for each dance, although dates who attend together and significant others might dance with each other more than once.

This is [insert current year here]. Women can ask men to dance. At a contra dance this is certainly true and has been for some time. It might be just as common as men asking women, or more so. Women will sometimes dance with women, and men will sometimes dance with men. In general, especially for the men, this happens only when a gender imbalance exists in the hall (men tend to be real chicken about dancing with other men otherwise).

The above notwithstanding, it is a good idea at some point to dance the opposite role. It's a real eye-opener! Be warned, however, that you'll need extra alertness and concentration.

Contra dancers make eye contact whenever possible. This adds to the connectedness of the dance, and helps reduce dizziness, especially during the swing. It is also uncomfortable for some. Don't let anyone tell you that you must make eye contact, but give it a try even if it's a little uncomfortable. Expand your comfort zone. You might get used to it and even like it. Remember: they're gazing into your eyes not because they love you but because they want to make the connection, and they don't want to throw up on you.

Definition 2: what contra dance is not

Contra dancing is not the same as country line dancing.

Contra dance groups receive absolutely no funding from Oliver North.

No classes are required, or even offered (in general), except for a non-required half-hour or fifteen minute introduction to contra dance before the dance, at many regular dance events.

We do not wear costumes (except on Halloween) or any particular style of clothes. Some groups ask that you bring a separate pair of soft-soled (non-scuffing) shoes to protect the dance floor. Tennis shoes are quite adequate for the first-time dancer.

Very little footwork is required in contra dance. The most common type of movement is a smooth walking step.

Definition 3: whimsical

Contra dance is a form of dance that thrusts a different person of the opposite sex into your arms every 30 seconds or so.

Actually, this is only true sometimes. It might be more prudent, but less whimsical, to say that contra dance is one of the few dance forms where by the end of the evening you are likely to have danced with everyone.

Definition 4: analytical

Contra dancing takes place in sets. A set consists of two lines, with your partner usually across from you in the other line. The set is subdivided into minor sets, which nowadays usually consist of two couples. A contra dance with such minor sets is a duple minor contra dance.

A contra dance with minor sets of three couples is a triple minor contra dance.

The minor set dances one time through the dance. Each couple moves on to a new couple, forming new minor sets, and repeats the dance. Some slightly more advanced dances involve interaction with dancers who are not in the minor set. Other dances involve two minor sets each time through, and you move on to the third minor set. These dances are called "double progression." There are even a few, rarely called, triple and quadruple progression dances.

The dances are done to live music, usually reels or jigs. The music consists of an A part and a B part, which are related much like a chorus and a verse. Each part consists of 16 beats, or steps, and is repeated twice. So a complete dance goes A, A, B, B, and consists of 64 beats total. (Musicians will usually say 32 measures.) The A and B parts are usually specified A1, A2, B1, B2. The music is phrased in 8-beat sections, and to a lesser extent, in 4-beat sections. A typical figure takes up 4, 8 or 16 beats of music.

Definition 5: an analogy

"A contra dance is like an amusement park ride we make for ourselves." --Unknown


At the end of the 17th century, English country dances were taken up by French dancers; hybrid choreographies exist from this period using the steps from French court dance in English dances. The French called these dances contra-dance or contredanse. As time progressed, English country dances were spread and reinterpreted throughout the Western world, and eventually the French form of the name came to be associated with the American folk dances, especially in New England (this Frenchified name change may have followed a contemporary misbelief that the form was originally French).

Contra dances were fashionable in the United States until the early to mid-19th century, when they were supplanted in popularity by square dances (such as the quadrille and lancers) and couple dances (such as the waltz and polka). By the late 19th century, square dances too had fallen out of favor, except in rural areas. When squares were revived (around 1925 to 1940, depending on the region), contra dances were generally not included. In the 1930s and 1940s, contra dances appear to have been done only in small towns in widely scattered parts of northeastern North America, such as Ohio, the Maritime provinces of Canada, and particularly northern New England. Ralph Page almost single-handedly maintained the New England tradition until it was revitalized in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly by Ted Sannella and Dudley Laufman.

By then, early dance camps, retreats, and weekends had emerged, such as Pinewoods Camp, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which became primarily a music and dance camp in 1933, and NEFFA, the New England Folk Festival, also in Massachusetts, which began in 1944. These and others continue to be popular and some offer dancing and activities besides contra dancing.

In the 1970s, Sannella added heys and gypsies to the contra dances. New dances, such as Shadrack's Delight by Tony Parkes, featured symmetrical dancing by all couples. (Previously, the actives and inactives —see Progression below— had significantly different roles). Double progression dances, popularized by Herbie Gaudreau, added to the aerobic nature of the dances, and one caller, Gene Hubert, wrote a quadruple progression dance, Contra Madness. Becket formation was introduced, with partners next to each other in the line instead of opposite. The Brattleboro Dawn Dance started in 1976, and continues to run semiannually.

In the early 1980s, contra dance musician Randy Miller started the first Saturday dance in the Peterborough Town House, which remains one of the more popular regional dances. Tod Whittemore started the popular Thursday night Boston area dance. As musicians and callers moved to other locations, they founded contra dances in Michigan, Washington, California, Texas, and elsewhere.

Gender free or queer contra dancing started in the 1980s as well. In 1981, a group in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota called "Les be Gay and Dance" was started, in which contra dance was done without any reference to gender, avoiding calling moves with any reference to "ladies" or "gents." In 1987, Chris Ricciotti started a gay dance group in Providence, R.I. using the terms "ladies" and "gents" although dancers were not lining up according to gender. Other gender-free dance groups started up in the area after that, and in 1989, at the gender-free dance group in Jamaica Plain, MA, a group of dancers led by Janet Dillon protested the use of these terms, and the armband system was devised: the traditionally male-role dancers (leads) would wear armbands and be called "armbands" or just "bands," and the traditionally female-role dancers (follows) would be called "bare arms" or just "bares." The Lavender Country and Folk Dancers organization now serves as an umbrella organization for dances in Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, and California.

New England Contra Dance Music

Year: 1977
Label: Kicking Mule (KM 216)

1. Strathspey - Hull's Victory
2. Arm & Hammer String Band - Medley: Kitty McGee/A Hundred Pipers
3. Alan Block - Double File
4. Strathspey - Medley: Ross's Reel/Batchelder's Reel
5. George Wilson - Swing Away
6. Strathspey - My Home Waltz
7. Arm & Hammer String Band - Medley: Salamanca Reel/The Hunter's Purse/Tarbolten
8. Strathspey - Medley: Turnpike Side/Tobin's Fancy
9. Arm & Hammer String Band - Medley: Goin' Uptown/Avalon Quickstep
10. Strathspey - Medley: Farewell To Whiskey/Mara's Wedding
11. Arm & Hammer String Band - Medley: Apples In Winter/Hitler's Downfall
12. Arm & Hammer String Band - Westphalia Waltz
13. Strathspey - Mountain Ranger

take your partner by the hand.
mp3 128kbps | w/ b&w scans | 34mb

BIG thanks again to BanjoReinhard


AgustinH said...

Thanks for the info, and the album!.

Karen Myers said...

At some point after the 1970s, the New England contra dance groups in some locations added a few simple Scandinavian dances to the intervals when the main band was on a break, probably because many local musicians played in both genres. The Hambo, in particular, has entered the repertoire as an exotic dance during the breaks.

Anonymous said...

Several years ago at Seattle's great FolkLife Festival (this weekend,by the way) (and FREE), a group played bongos and bass for a contra dance. Primitive, hypnotic, and wonderful. My Bro pestered me for years to go to FolkLife, and when I finally went, all I could say was "WHY DIDN"T YOU TELL ME?"