Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Explaining Contra in Terms of Morris

Last night at Border practice I had occasion (not for the first time) to learn that there are passionate Morris dancers of my acquaintance who do not enjoy contra dancing. With that in mind, I want to try to describe how a good contra set, such as I experienced many times last weekend at dance camp, can be like a good Morris side (such as I experience every time I dance with Ramsey's Braggarts ha ha).

When you start a Morris dance with a foot up, you are about to dance a dance you have danced many times before. And yet each time there is a sense of anticipation. You, and the other five dancers, and the musician, are about to come together in an arrangement of music and movement that feels immediate and alive and fresh. With every movement you are aware of the other dancers, moving in tandem or counterpoint. The music is live, so it is subtly different every time and you respond accordingly. Who knows what the dance will bring this time?

What it always brings, when the dancing is good, is partner interplay. You move with the other dancers, in human contact. And you move your bodies both together and with your own style to the driving catchy tune. With my team, you are also pushing yourself to extremes of exhaustion. When the dance ends you have had an inspiring time, and you are happy.

In many key ways it is the same sort of feeling when a contra dance is good. You move up and down the contra line into sets, and you have the interplay with each other and with the music and with your own body that you have in a good Morris set. Then you progress to the next couple and have the same dance with them. All along, ideally, there is coordinated movement and eye contact and a driving catchy tune and individual styling in the context of the larger cohesion. You don't know what the dance will bring, what each new set will bring. But maybe it will be good this time, and your swings and your allemandes and your pull-bys will be smooth and flowing things, and maybe they will provide human connection through movement and music.

It isn't always good, of course, but once you've found that you search and search to find it again. The fun for me last weekend was how often I found it.

This comparison only goes so far. With a Morris team you develop a strong sense of being on that team, both in and out of the dance. You are preparing dances for public performance, which adds a significant overlay. Although both dances are "called", for a Morris dance you pretty much have to know what's coming (and how to style it) to do the dance at all.

But at the core -- when it's good -- there can be a harmonic convergence of society, movement, music, physicality, and in-the-moment fun.

With our Morris teams we work hard on a weekly basis to achieve these things, to achieve that "good" I keep repeating. We get to know the smallest quirks of our teammates. We go out for beer together, and we sing songs together -- singing harmony chorus songs can provide the same sort of bonding as dance. Contra, in general, does not provide these things. But it absolutely can provide a sense of fine and fun dancing to vibrant live music in a set of dancers. In many sets of many dancers, all in one dance.

And at the end of the dance, you can sometimes feel very happy indeed.
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