A Flurry of Contra Dance

I went to a Dance festival a few weeks ago, and wanted to collect, as I am wont to do, some thoughts on the subject. No particular order or organization.

There was a sacred harp singing event at the festival, and then a group of us had a little ad hoc sacred harp session in a hallway (better acoustics) afterwords and the next day. The end result: I feel like I'm starting to really have a clue about Sacred Harp singing. I mean I'm not great or anything, but I don't feel epically lost at a singing. Because I don't come from a particularly background, and don't have any real training with the singing thing, singing from the Sacred Harp has been an adventure. But now I sort of feel like I have the basics: I'm able to get the pitch most of the time. I feel like I have a good sense of myself as a leader and the kinds of songs I like. I'm beginning to become more familiar with a number of different songs in the book, and so forth. I don't have the shapes memorized (or the middle verses to most songs!) but these things are coming.

It was also a very rewarding experience to be part of a group of singers who did that--for lack of a better term--jamming in the hallway. I don't play an instrument, I don't really lead songs in informal settings, so the whole "jamming in the hallway thing" is something I've never really been able to participate in. And getting the chance to do that was pretty cool.

But it was a dance festival. So how was the dancing? Pretty good. the space sucked (bad floor,) but the quality of the dance was wonderful. Contra-dancing in the Midwest, where I hail from, isn't the hip musically experimental thing that it is out here. Part of that is due to the incredibly strong Old-time music community in St. Louis, which isn't a good thing (even the less amazing contra bands in St. Louis are pretty damn good.) And there are a lot of factors that make contra dancing awesome out here: open/participatory bands as musical training grounds, more bands that travel (because things are closer together,) and more dancers that travel as well. That's always nice.

Having said that, I've never really felt like a contra dancer. In high school, when I got into folk dance, I did a lot of international folk dance, and I think my defining folk-dance participation these days is Morris dancing, even though I probably do more contra than anything these days. When you're a kid in the dance community, particularly one of the few kids in your local dance community you can pretty much glide through everything on enthusiasm and good intentions. While I think I've learned a few things about folk dance, I'm aware that I'm not the flashiest, or the most polished dancer around. This is particularly apparent at big dance festivals. But I got to dance with people who I think of as great dancers, and I had a lot of fun, so maybe it all works out. And then I went to a local dance and felt like a great dancer, particularly in terms of my ability to gracefully recover from flubs, and my sense of a dance's relative complexity. So there you have it.

Things that are awesome about contra dance:

  • Gender swapping partners in a dance. Particularly when everyone can go with the flow.
  • Dips.
  • Long rooms where you don't get to the other end of the set in a given dance.
  • Bands with awesome elements like foot percussion and woodwinds.
  • Changing lines when you get to the other end of the dance.
  • Rewriting a dance from the dance floor. Partner do si dos that become balance and swings. Shadow alamandes that become swings.
  • Spins with your neighbor's partner in the middle of heys for four.
  • Conspiring with your partner to mess with neighbors.
  • Graceful recoveries from dance flubs.

Onward and Upward!

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