I've had the feeling over the last few years that contra dances have lost their flow. Excessive balances, dances that are beyond the dancer's skill level, intricacy that adds nothing and hurts flow, music without obvious phrases all contribute to this.
At a recent dance I noticed how nicely one dance flowed - Butter, a simple glossary dance. Everything came together - dance, dancers, music. This is why I go to contra dances.
What is going on with other dances? Here is my answer.
Contra flow is the feeling imparted by the motion of dancing a contra dance. This motion executes the figures and transitions of the dance. At different points in the dance it is individual, cooperative with another person, cooperative within a set of four people, and cooperative within the full contra line.
The variation in the type of flow is critical to a good experience. Trading individual forward momentum for two person rotational momentum, using four person rotation to start a two person pull by are examples of cooperative flow that I am looking for.
Continuous motion with varying types of flow gives contra a unique and
wonderful dance experience.
Figures and Transitions
Each figure is called by the caller, but the specific execution of the figure is determined by the dancers. Each transition is implied by the previous and next figure and the specific execution of the transition is determined by the dancers.
Symmetric (the same for all dancers) figures and transitions for two dancers (allemande), four dancers (circle, circle left to star left), or the full set (long lines forward and back) are an equal and joint effort of the dancers.
Asymmetric two person figures and transitions (swing, ladies chain to star left) generally are lead by one of the dancers, with communication via touch. The lead in an asymmetric figure or transition can be the man (swing, swing to circle) or woman (men roll away and ladies half sashay, men chain to star right).
Symmetric figures should be executed in the traditional manner with limited embellishment. Symmetric transitions are done as an individual, for example in a circle left to star left, each dancer may choose how to turn around. Asymmetric figures and transitions are for two dancers and may be danced in the traditional manner or individualized, generally as suggested by the lead. For these figures, the lead should also help the follow dancer to execute, for example in a swing, the man is responsible for communicating the right position to finish the swing.
Balance and long lines forward and back are setup figures, used to
prepare or synchronize dancers for the next flow sequence.
A number of issues in the dance choreography can contribute to poor flow - mistimed figures, excessive setup figures, excessive short figures.
Transitions that flow well are critical. Some dancers can make poor transitions flow well with flourishes.
Swings that are choreographed to not end at the end of a phrase ruin flow because the moment to end the swing is not obvious.
Mistimed dances are a problem. Often figures are timed for the convenience of the choreographer rather than the dancers. A well timed dance works well in the entire contra dance range - 112 to 120 counts per minute.
Allemande 1+1/2 in the middle with orbit 1/2 in 8 counts. An orbit take 5 or 6 counts. And at the halfway point in the figure everyone is in the middle of the set, causing crowding.
A butterfly whirl 1+1/2 in 4 counts or a hey to a balance in 16 counts limits the upper range of tempo. A number of dances use allemande 1+1/2, star promenade, whirl, hey, balance. With a slow tempo, this is a beautiful flow sequence. Too fast, and it's just work.
A four count figure (which has little time to generate a flow) between two balances is 12 counts without flow. Stacking these together (for example two consecutive balance and spins) adds to this. That doesn't mean that it's not fun, but it takes away from flow.
Sequences of short figures, for example the contra corners allemandes, can have wonderful flow, but timing is critical. Each transition needs good timing to flow. If the dancers are not synchronizing well due to lack of experience or confusing music, reducing the number of transitions will help flow.
The dance needs a combination of different flow types to be interesting. The different types of flow, individual, two person, four person, full set and the transitions between the different types of flow make the complete flow of the dance interesting.
Some dances have a wonderful flow when danced by skilled dancers, but
fall flat when the dancers don't execute well. For example a turn around
and swing the next. When timed perfectly, it is wonderful, but when
timed poorly it is clunky. A caller may get a crowd to execute the patterns
of an intricate dance, but getting the dance to flow well is a different
A good beat is essential to any dancing - the dance steps are synchronized with the beat. I have never found this to be a problem in contra dancing.
The phrasing of the music is essential to flow. The figures are synchronized to the musical phrases. This synchronization, between two dancers, between four dancers in a minor set, and between all of the minor sets in a contra line, is essential for good flow.
Phrasing, at a minimum, needs to highlight the phrase change. But good phrasing also gives hints that a lets the dancers know where in the phrase they are and how much time is left in the phrase.
The traditional music used at contra dances typically has strong phrasing. It is easy to hear the end of a phrase and the start of the next.
A lot of recently composed contra dance music has strong phrasing.
Adopted music that was never meant for contra dance often has weak phrasing - a wonderful melody that is not phrased for contra can destroy the flow.
Much improvisation that I have heard at contra dances has weak phrasing.
Bands are made up of musicians who are familiar with the tunes they are playing. They understand the phrases. Dancers are not musicians (in general), are not familiar with some of the music, are on a noisy dance floor, and often cannot hear subtle features of the music. Make the phrase transitions obvious. Watch the dancers. Are they all dancing together? If not, the flow is broken, often because they cannot hear the phrases.
And a couple of related points. Flowing music with weak musical
phrasing makes flowing dances become disjointed. And complex dances need
strong phrasing (not slow - just well phrased).
The choice of dances belongs to the caller. The title and author of the dance are not relevant. The choice of dance combines with dancer skill and music to dramatically affect flow.
Teaching can ruin flow, for example if the dancers are uncertain or divided about what kind of star to use, flow suffers. Teaching that ignores "muscle memory" to try to shorten the walkthrough can slow the dancers learning the flow of the dance.
The timing of the calls can ruin flow.
Timing, cooperative movement (shared weight) are critical. Flow is connected to the music so the dancers must be connected to the music.
Using flourishes to help in transitions can improve flow. Using
flourishes without regard to how they fit in the flow can ruin the flow.
A lot of contra dancers are not at the dance for flow. Some like the dance patterns, some just want to swing, some like being a part of a set, some like the feel of balances in a synchronized set.
I'll take interesting flow. And if I am the caller, that is where I will
direct my attention (well, I like swings too).
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