Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Squares and Contras in the Times

It's rare to find a good newspaper or magazine article on square dancing, so imagine how pleased I was to see this one in Sunday's NY Times. It's not perfect, but it's quite good, giving a brief profile of three different folk-dance groups in New York City, along with an equally brief overview of contradancing and modern western square dancing.

One commenter on one of the MWSD mailing lists noted that they focus a bit too much on the relative ages of the people in the different groups. Maybe, but isn't that one of the few things that someone from the outside would notice immediately?:

  1. This group is younger, that group is older.
  2. This group is gay, that group is straight.
  3. This group dresses “funny”.
  4. This group dances more vigorously than that one.
Anyway, it's a pretty appealing article, which might actually encourage some people to check these groups out.

Some minor errata and some of my comments:

There are, however, several cumulative levels of mastery in Modern Western square dancing. Dancers can stop at Basic (a program of 53 calls) or continue through seven more programs to the highest level, with more than 200 calls.

I wouldn't expect a reporter to get that right. The highest level for which there's an official list of calls is C3B, and it has more like 500 calls. C4 adds another 300 or more on top of that. We can't really figure out where she got the “200” from; probably it was someone's guess, and she accepted it.

From a raised platform, Mr. Hodge surveyed the floor as he raced through a series of calls. He was doing what he calls sight calling, in which the caller, who has nothing written down, choreographs each dance on the fly, making sure to reconcile all the patterns to bring the dancers “back home” to the place where they started by the end of the song.

It's not just Dayle who calls it “sight calling”; it's what it's called. And it's actually an impressive skill if it's done well, giving the dancers a lot of variety. Dayle was calling at the Mainstream and Plus levels at the dance in the report. At the Challenge levels, especially the higher ones, sight calling isn't really practical and callers have to do a lot of preparation for a dance, writing “interesting” choreography in advance. Even so, it's important that a caller be able to sight call for cases when there are problems and the caller has to give up on the written material, or do an impromptu “workshop” on something the dancers are having trouble understanding.

On the floor, the dancers concentrated intently on reacting to a sequence of calls they had never before heard. The Times Squares are not, however, an all-work-and-no-play kind of club. As the dancers trekked through the calls, they improvised flourishes, like bumping hips and slapping hands.

The flourishes are actually seldom “improvised”; there are predetermined flourishes that vary regionally (and differ between the straight and gay groups). In any case, it's certainly true that, for the most part, the gay groups do much more of it than the straight groups do, the average age in the gay groups is lower, and the gay dancers don't wear the funny outfits (and have no particular dress code at all).

And actually, the lack of coordinated dress makes it a bit harder to sight call to such a group, at least if the caller isn't experienced at it (Dayle is). At many clubs, couples wear matching outfits (or at least matching colours), and a caller can note that this couple is in red and that couple is in blue, and use that to make it easier to get people back into the right sequence at the end. When you have a square of eight men, all dressed in black jeans and black t-shirts, it's hard to remember who goes with whom and where “back home” is.

“They’re like Boy Scout merit badges,” said Walter Lasky, the club’s historian. He pointed to a dog-shaped charm marked “Rover,” awarded for traveling 1,000 miles to dance at another club.

I've never thought of “dangles” that way, but, yes, that's a good characterization. There are dangles for dancing five nights in a row, for dancing to 100 different callers, and things like that. On the sillier side, there are ones for dancing in a pool and for dancing in the dark on Friday the 13th. Some dancers really get into collecting dangles. Some don't.

As a live band played an up-tempo fiddle version of ”Bei Mir Bist du Schoen,” each couple danced for 30 seconds with a pair of “neighbors,” then progressed down the line to a new set of neighbors and danced the same pattern again.

Ah, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” at a CDNY dance means the band was probably the Brooklyn Swing Ensemble! Ms Goodwin was fortunate to be reporting on one of their dances — a most excellent band. And that's the best part of contras, as opposed to modern western squares: the live music. (Oh, and I wouldn't say they dance in a “church basement”; it's downstairs, but it's really the church's gym.)

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