Contra’s British cousin
A bit more refined, these dances evoke ‘Old England’ feel
Hands of dancers during a night of English Country Dancing. Photo by Beth Reynolds.
Dancers circle left during a night of English Country Dancing. Photo by Beth Reynolds.
A trio of musicians play multiple instruments during a night of English Country Dancing. Photo by Beth Reynolds.
Dancers glide and step during a night of English Country Dancing. Photo by Beth Reynolds.
At an English Country Dance, dancers honor each other; a courteous acknowledgment of another dancer. Men bow. Women curtsey. It is polite to honor your partner at the beginning and end of each dance. Photo by Beth Reynolds.
Dancers star right (or right hand star), which means the dancers take right hands and circle clockwise during a night of English Country Dancing. This figure is also called Hands Across. Photo by Beth Reynolds.
The dance hall doors swing open for what you’d expected would be a contradance. But wait: although this looks like a contra, sort of, and even sounds somewhat like one, it’s not.
Even at first glance, it’s less electrifying, a little more polished, like you might expect to find during an episode of “Downton Abbey,” rather than at the Guiding Star Grange.
This is the British cousin to our New England contradance. Although many of the swings, hays and hands-four moves done in long lines down the hall would look familiar to many a contradancer, the feel of this “Old England” dance seems rah-thur refined, maybe a bit more staid, genteel and almost (dare we say it?) distinguished in appearance.
It’s as if that might be Helen Mirren and Colin Firth over there, and Helena Bonham Carter and Hugh Bonneville just behind them, displaying a style almost as polished as the hardwood floors they seem to glide upon.
In fact, English country dance and New England contras have a common root, sort of like Patty Duke and her British cousin character, Cathy Lane. The similarities of the dance forms outnumber their differences, and especially did before the late 1970s and 1980s, as they seemed to move further apart, picking up popularity all the while.
Popularity? Well, contras are an established fact in Greenfield, with a dance or two weekly. Grange dances began ramping up in the 1980s and 1990s. English country dances, although you’d have to travel to Amherst, also have a devoted following.
There’s even an Introduction to English Country Dancing class at Greenfield Community College, offered for the past three years and taught by Mary Jones of Turners Falls.
Not everyone needs lessons and it is possible to pick up the basics by going to one of the weekly Monday night dances or the second or third “Pleasures of the Town” Saturday dances at Munson Library in South Amherst. It’s not hard for some experienced contradancers to adapt their dancing to learn at least some of the British basics.
But that wasn’t the case for Jones, who watched and danced her first English dance at Pinewoods Camp in Plymouth in 1981.
“I didn’t know it was a dance camp. I went with a friend and we thought it would be a folk music week,” said Jones, who lived in the southern Berkshires at the time and had never done any kind of dancing before.
“Nope, nothing,” she admits. “I loved it.”
That dance week included both contras and English country dancing, done in groups according to ability, “and they made you feel you could do anything.”
She even returned for another weekend with her two sons and then tried dancing back home at dances, only to discover it was more difficult at live dances with mixed groups.
“I said, ‘how come we’re so bad? Because everyone (at Pinewoods) made us so good,’” said Jones with a laugh. “To me, a class is where it’s at. I could never go into a social dance and say, ‘I’ll pick this up.’ Those aren’t the kind of brains I have.”
When she moved to Amherst in 1994, attending and sometimes calling at dances that were then held at the Unitarian church there, she would watch new dancers struggle to keep up with the dances, commenting to the piano player one night, “We should do something that gives these people a chance.”
Jones began teaching classes there for five years and, after moving away and returning in 2009 to live in Turners Falls, she began teaching the six-week non-credit classes at GCC, which began this session Sept. 10. Another session is planned next spring.
Flora Chamlin of Whately, like Jones, is a member of the Second Saturday committee that coordinates those monthly dances at Munson Library. Her introduction to English country dancing came at that South Amherst hall in 1994. She thought when she first met her husband at a contra there that he was bringing her back for another contradance.
But this was different, with music that was more buoyant, somehow, in a gentle way. Because she’d been doing contras, off and on, for about three years beforehand, “I didn’t have too much trouble picking up the patterns and learning the basics to get by for the evening. But I was hooked right away. Absolutely hooked. I absolutely love the music, which I’d describe as sublime,” she says.
Chamlin, who still contradances occasionally and hesitates to contrast the two forms, says that a major appeal of English country dance is the intricacy of patterns, which feels like she’s exercising her brain at the same time she’s exercising her body by moving to the music.
“And you’re doing it in a community of people who share the same passion,” she says. “We laugh a lot and play with the subtleties. You can flirt in ways you can’t flirt in public, where you might be making fun of a certain movement. You can be very creative and I play a lot with the possibilities.”
And just imagine those possibilities with traditional dances with names like “Jack’s Maggot,” “Mad Robin” or “Jenny Pluck Pears.”
Those are some of the dances, with designated melodies, that appeared in John Playford’s original “English Dancing Master” in 1651, and in successive editions that appeared over the 50 years that followed. Along the way, new dances were added to the original 105, some were dropped and the compilation was adapted.
Jones says that, over the past three decades, she’s seen the addition of scores of new dances and new tunes, all of them being done either in long lines or in circles or sets of a specified number of couples, similar to square dances.
Unlike contras, which are primarily reels done in a straight 2/4 meter or in 6/8 jigs, Jones said English dances use an array of different meters, including a waltz-like 3/4 or slip jigs in 9/8, often with intricate patterns to match.
Robin Hayden of Shelburne Falls, who helps organize Amherst’s Monday night dance series, enjoys both styles of dancing. “Contradance music is varied, but it has a consistent, driving beat with a ‘boom-chuck’ piano and people really get a high from the constant motion and the swinging,” she says. “It’s a kinetic experience as well as social one, but the learning curve is very shallow: You can get in on the first day and have quite a lot of success and feel like, ‘I know what I’m doing here.’”
English country dance music, on the other hand, is “extraordinarily varied, more than any other dance form I know,” says Hayden. “It ranges from renaissance tunes from 17th century, through the baroque, into contemporary. It also has range of meters, so sometimes you’re dancing in 3/2 or 3/4, which doesn’t happen in contra at all.”
English country dance tunes tend to be more lyrical, she says, and the lines of dancers move in ways that may seem more sedate or elegant.
“But there can also be music and dances where the music is quite similar to contra, or playful and bouncy. It’s just a range of moods and ways of moving and there are also a much larger range of moves to learn. Because of that, the learning curve is a little steeper. Some people, right off the bat, that doesn’t appeal to them at first. Other people walk in and see that and find it immediately appealing. And the music just grabs them.”
The Amherst dances, started by caller and fiddler Cammy Kaynor, had already been going for several years when Hayden arrived in the Pioneer Valley in 1987 and started attending to enjoy the English country dances she’d begun doing as a teenager. Kaynor, who now lives and calls dances in eastern Massachusetts, is the cousin of Montague caller David Kaynor and introduced contradancing in Franklin County with regular dances in the Northfield Town Hall. In his hometown of Amherst, he mixed half an evening of contradances with half an evening of their English cousins each week, to whet the appetite of contra lovers.
He continued to call both sets of dances, even after he moved east, but then, Hayden says, dancers started coming for either one of the other and while the English dance fans kept coming, contradancers had an array of other regular venues springing up around the region.
“The English dancers wanted a whole evening,” recalls Hayden, who took over the task of coordinating the weekly events. “And instead of a sit-in band, we were hiring the best musicians we could find, because the music was harder to play.”
Beginning back then, in the 1980s, Hayden said, the music for the two kinds of dancing began noticeably evolving and diverging. And area bands of musicians were a big part of the “maggot,” or whim, for the new directions.
“Wild Asparagus took the music in a very radical direction and Bare Necessities took English country dancing music in a very different direction. It was romantic, lush, improvisational and lyrical, where the American (contra) dance music became more and more intense, fast and cutting edge. In both cases, it’s offered opportunities for artists to truly express themselves in their idiom and it’s encouraged composers to flourish. Before that, there was pretty much a repertoire of tunes, which was vast. But, now, we also have a huge body of modern composed music in both genres.”
The triple-meter, waltz-like, music also became more popular, so there are many more set dances done in 3/4 or 3/2 meter than there had been. All of them are done either in long lines or in multiple-couple sets, rather than as waltzes.
“You have a partner, but you’re dancing with the rest of the room, as you are with contradancing,” says Hayden, who, like Jones is a caller, directing dancers to weave pattens whose geometry can only be truly appreciated from the ceiling.
(In fact, the emphasis in both dance styles place on community, rather than on couple dancing, is a major source of appeal for many contradancers as well as English country dancers.)
Along with an array of English country dance musicians like Doug Creighton and Peter Barnes of Greenfield or Susan Conger of Montague, “There’s a huge artistic community of composers, choreographers and dance historians who do reconstructions of historical dances, doing new interpretations, says Hayden. “It’s a devoted subculture and there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people doing English country dancing ... One of things that makes our community so rich is that we have some nationally known musicians, callers and choreographers.”
(In addition to building a repertoire of new country dance tunes and dances to go with them, that creative flourishing has fostered a strong English dance presence in the Pioneer Valley, which coincidentally, since 1988, has also has been home to the Country Dance and Song Society. Founded by British folklorist Cecil Sharp in 1915 and now based in Easthampton, CDSS — where Hayden works as development director — publishes and sells materials and promotes programs to encourage traditional dance and music. But it has no control over the four dance series that take place in South Amherst.)
Just as there are plenty of crossover dancers between the New England and Old England traditions, there are also plenty of musicians locally and around the region who play in both musical styles. Hayden says the separate committees that oversee various English country dances sire a mix of them throughout the season.
“Many are hired all over the country to play for English country dancing. Out of hard work and luck, we have some of finest musicians and that’s critical to having the wonderful experience to dance here ... for both communities.”
Whether those dancers prefer New England contra or English country, whether they learn in classes or on the fly, whether they attend the Monday, second Saturday or third Saturday dances at Munson Library, or whether they dance only in the Greenfield Community College class, as some do to avoid traveling to South Amherst, the big lesson is there’s a bodacious bevy of country dance possibilities in our area to suit all manner of toes and temperaments.
On the Web: www.cdss.org
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.
Beth Reynolds is a photographer and educator. She runs Base Camp Photo Community Center in Greenfield. She can be reached at