Some Thoughts on Experienced Dances (download as PDF)
The following is a copy of a letter I recently wrote to two of our
local dance organizers. I view it as an open letter to the entire dance
community, and am sending copies to selected callers, dance leaders and
dance organizers around the country. It deals with an issue that I have
very strong feelings about — the direction of American traditional
dance in the years to come.
Chris Kermiet, 1995
Many of these feelings are based on the direction that square dancing
took in the 50's and 60's. For those of you who don't know me well, let
me give you some background. My father, Paul Kermiet, ran a summer
dance camp, the Lighted Lantern, for 30 years during the time that I
was growing up. The Lighted Lantern was a mecca for square dancers, who
came from all over the United States and Canada to spend a week
dancing, learning new dances, figures, styling, etc. The square dances
in the 50's were still the traditional squares that you would recognize
— the ones that you probably do, at least occasionally, in your local
During the 60's, all that changed dramatically. There was a confluence
of forces that drove the dance form toward greater complexity — many of
which are touched upon in the accompanying letter. Many of these forces
and tendencies seem to be affecting our contra dances today. The danger
is that we may go the way of the modern square dance — away from a
social community dance and toward a complex activity for a well trained
cadre of dance aficionados.
Today, as a result of the complexity of the dances, and the training
required even to dance at a "Mainstream" level, modern square dancing
is dying. They are not attracting new people to the activity. And the
existing dancers, most of whom learned to square dance in the 60's, are
now growing old together, and [are] literally dying. We can smugly
think that this won't happen to us, that our traditional dances are
heartier, and the contra dance movement [is] healthier. But will it be
that way 10 years from now, or 20?
If present trends continue, I don't think so. These concerns are the
reason for sharing the accompanying letter with you.
An Open Letter to the Denver Organizers of the
Zesty Contra Series
To those of you reading this letter who are not familiar with
developments in our local dance community, I will give you a brief
In October of 1994, two members of our dance community took it upon
themselves to organize a "Zesty Contra" night as a once a month
addition to our regular Friday night dance series. They originally
conceived of this as a dance for experienced dancers — a dance with a
minimum of instruction, short walk throughs, and with the assumption
that all the dancers present would know all the standard figures, so
that no teaching of figures would be necessary. This dance was seen as
an attempt to meet the needs and desires of many dancers to have a
dance where more challenging dances can be tried. As our dance
community matures, and dancers gain more experience, they naturally
want more challenging dances. This is a normal tendency. It is
happening in other dance communities around the country.
I have some real problems with this concept, though. Here are a few of
For one, it tends to split the dance community, with the more
experienced dancers going to the advanced dance, and skipping the
regular weekly dance. In a community such as ours, where we have a
fairly large number of dancers every week, these new dancers never get
to meet many of the more experienced dancers on a social basis — and I
believe the dance is still first and foremost a social event, where the
emphasis should be on the sociability of the evening, rather than on
its aerobic or intellectual challenges. And, in addition, the new
dancers don't get the valuable experience of dancing with the more
experienced dancers. It is here that they should be learning to dance
with better timing, with graceful and flowing movements, etc. The
learning curve of the new dancers is much improved if they have the
opportunity to dance with the more experienced dancers, and the whole
community benefits from these interactions.
Second, and in my opinion, even more important, an advanced dance is
less of a community dance. It is, by definition, a dance for an "in
crowd." It's a dance for dance aficionados, most of whom know one
another, who have favorite partners they want to dance with, who book
partners several dances in advance, etc. A dance such as this is not
welcoming to new people, whether experienced or not, who might walk in
the door. It is a much more closed community, and starts to resemble a
modern square dance club, where everyone is a "member," where new
dancers are shunted into a "class" where they learn the "basic figures"
which enable them to dance at a level equal to that of the rest of the
Do we want contra dances to go the way of the modern square dance? Do
we want our dance community to become a closed "club?" Do we want to
have "Mainstream," and "Plus," and "Advanced," and "Challenge" level
dances? Do we want to have beginner's classes and lessons? This is
where we seem to be headed.
A close look at the modern square dance can give us an idea of where we
might be in 10 or 20 years if present trends continue. For instance, if
callers and dance organizers give in to the desires of some of the more
experienced dancers for more and more difficult dances, pretty soon
some callers will start obliging them by creating new and more
difficult figures and more complex dances, or borrowing figures from
the modern square dance to use in the contra (both of these things are
already happening). If this trend continues, dancers will soon have to
know more and more figures. Soon there will be an explosion of new
figures and new complex dances (exactly what happened to the modern
square dance in the 60's).
The western tradition of "hash calling" was one of the factors that
drove the modern squares in this direction. Hash calling simply means
that the caller improvises the dance from figures or patterns that he
knows, and the dancers have to listen and execute the figures. This is
an exciting intellectual challenge for the dancers, and lots of fun if
done with moderation. It does, however, de-emphasize dancing with the
music. It also de-emphasizes the timing of the figures (getting through
them quicker gives you more time to think about what comes next). And
it emphasizes the need for all the dancers to have command of a broad
range of figures and be able to execute them from a number of
positions. There is no walk through.
Our contra dances are already heading in this direction with the
"contra medley" where a second or even a third series of figures are
started in the middle of a dance, and all the dancers are expected to
"get it." It is only a matter of time before some caller will want to
try a contra medley of 5 or 6 dances, or maybe even a new dance each
time through the music. Then the caller's and dancer's skills will be
emphasized and the beauty of dancing gracefully with the music, and
enjoying the music and the flow of the dance, will be pretty much gone.
Another historical factor which led to the changes in square dancing
which gave rise to the modern square dance movement should be noted.
The great explosion of interest in square dancing in the 50's gave rise
to a new phenomenom: the square dance "club" — organized and run by
dancers. Previously, community dances had been organized by callers and
bands, and in many cases, by granges or churches or other communiy
organizations. They were community dances. The "clubs" organized dances
for a more elite dancer. And the dancers, who then hired the callers,
started to determine the direction of the dance form.
Now we come to the latest letter which I recently received from the
coordinators of the Denver "Zesty Contra" where they state that they
want "their dance" to have no mixers, or squares, or circle dances —
just contras and couple dances. And they want dances where everybody is
active most of the time. And they want nearly all of the dances to have
a partner swing.
Here is my reply to these dance organizers.
As a caller with over 20 years of experience calling traditional
squares and contras, I object to the idea of the dance organizers,
however well meaning they are, try to dictate to the caller the
contents of the dance evening. I can see where this is bound to lead.
Also, as a caller, I see myself as one of the keepers of an important
tradition of American dance. I don't want to see the contra dance go
the way of modern square dance.
For example, I don't want to see the traditional square dance die out.
Almost none of the modern club dancers has ever seen or done a
traditional square. Squares have changed so radically since about 1950
that these two dance forms are now worlds apart. In our Denver
traditional dance, squares and contras have always co-existed. At the
dances 15 years ago, the mix was probably 1/2 and 1/2. Over the years,
the contra dance has come to predominate, probably because it's easier
for most new callers to learn to call a contra dance. But what will
happen to the traditional squares if we all quit calling them and
dancing them? Will they die out entirely? Will they be rediscovered and
revived? This is an important part of our dance heritage that I don't
want to see lost. I think the "zesty contra" dancers should do at least
one "zesty square" during a dance evening. I think every contra dance
should have at least one square, or we run the risk of losing them
entirely. I don't care what kind: New England, Western, or Southern. I
think every caller should learn how to call them, and should do at
least one during a dance evening.
I have even stronger feelings about the mixer. Especially at an
advanced dance, which, as I indicated above is, by definition, less
welcoming to new people. The mixer is critically important. It is one
of the few opportunities to dance, however briefly, with someone new —
someone you may not already know. Why, you might even discover that
they are a good dancer, or that they have a nice smile. You might
actually meet someone new, which is one of the purposes of a social
event in the first place. You might want to have a dance with that
person later on. Or that person who is new to the group might be you,
and someone might ask you for the next dance, and suddenly you'll feel
more a part of the dance, a part of the group. It's happened to me
before. No one wants to be left sitting on the sidelines.
Now let's talk about the partner swing thing. I understand the
attractiveness of the swing — the physical contact, the sense of
balance and equilibrium with another person that's achieved, along with
the mild sense of disequilibrium that's induced by rapid spinning. It's
wonderful to swing lots of different people. Each swing gives a sense
of connection with another person, and each swing is different, as is
each person — there's connection and variety both. But do we need a
partner swing in every dance? Where's the variety in that? I also
understand the charm of swinging with a special partner. Oh-la-la! But
is every partner in every dance that special someone? Maybe we should
reserve the waltz with that special partner.
If we can take a longer historical look at the contra dance, we can
find many older dances with no swings in them at all. In the older
dances, more emphasis seems to have been placed on the figures
themselves, and also on the balance. It seems that, over the years, the
emphasis has shifted from the figures to the swing. And in the last few
years it has shifted even more towards the partner swing.
Well, are we running a singles club or a community dance? Is the object
to pick up someone? Or to have a sociable evening? Are we coming to
make new acquaintances, or are we just on the make? Are we coming to
the dance just to swing our favorite partners and stare intensely into
their eyes in mock passion, or are we coming for the sense of community
feeling, the natural high that comes from the combination of compelling
music and graceful movement?
I'm afraid I have to come down on the side of the community dance,
where all are made to feel welcome — young, old, single, married. Where
all have a sociable evening. Where dancers are considerate to new
people, where they ask them to dance and try to make them feel welcome.
I like a dance where the caller encourages the new dancers to mix in
with the more experienced and vice versa, and where there is an
occasional mixer to help facilitate this social mixing.
I see the caller as not just the dance leader, but also as the social
director of the evening. I think the caller can do a lot to set the
tone. Perhaps by not expecting perfection. Perhaps by letting the
dancers know it's O.K. if they make a mistake. (After all, it's just a
dance, not a job interview.) By programming dances that are not too
unforgiving, and by selecting dances that are appropriate for the
median skill level of the dancers present. By bringing the new dancers
along by slowly introducing new figures and new combinations, and by
saving the harder dances for later in the evening. By not berating the
dancers for doing something wrong, and not singling people out for
As a caller, I feel that I have a duty and responsibility for
preserving and perpetuating traditional American dance — contras and
squares. I like the idea of doing at least one of the older traditional
contras during the dance evening. If we forget them or lose them, we
will have lost an important link in our dance heritage. And I feel the
same way about the traditional squares. Even during an evening devoted
primarily to contras, I intend to do at least one square. And it's
essential to keep the mixer. After all, our traditional American dance
is a social community dance, where we dance in sets and squares and
circles; not a partner dance like ballroom dance, where you spend the
evening just dancing with your partner.
And so, one final word to the organizers of the Denver "Zesty Contra"
dance series: I like to occasionally call a more challenging program. I
think there's a place for it, and it may help fill the needs of a
growing segment of our dance community. But if you hire me to call your
dance, I am going to program the dance evening. I will include a
"zesty" square, a mixer, and one of the older traditional New England
contras. Not all the dances will have partner swings.
Should you dislike my program, your option is simple: hire someone else
to call "your" dance. But I sincerely hope that we can think of this as
"our" dance — our American dance — and that we are all a part of the
movement to preserve and transmit this living tradition to future
I realize that this letter is a pretty strong statement of my feelings.
I know that these dance organizers are well meaning, and it's not my
intention to try to single out or to offend them. I know how much
effort it takes to start and run a dance series and I appreciate their
desire to do so. It reflects a love of the dance.
My intention is to point out the problems inherent in having an
advanced contra dance. And this is an open letter to the dance
community, because it's not a local problem. These forces and
tendencies are nationwide. The danger is that we may go too far in the
direction of the modern square dance, with too many figures,
unnecessary complicated dances, lessons, beginners classes, and an "in
group" or "club" atmosphere, as opposed to the traditional open
community dance, where all are welcome, no lessons are needed, and no
partner or special costume is required.
Some Thoughts on Experienced Dances (download as pdf)
2267 Hudson St.
Denver, Colorado 80207 USA