Is The Beat The Enemy Of The Phrase?

by Hal Rice

This is a 3-step discussion. Progressive fashion. We need to be clear about steps 1 & 2 before step 3 can make sense. But first, a prelude.


There is a strange phenomenon, a strange "happening", out there on the dance floor, not limited to - but clearly including - the contra dance floor. Dancers, mostly women but some men, are "pounding" the floor. Not all, of course.
Maybe not even a majority. But a significant number, to be sure. What they are doing is described best by way of contrast. What they are not doing is moving "smoothly" across the floor. They are not "sliding". The square dancing "dance step" - as per Sets-in-Order/Callerlab styling - is supposed to be a smooth and effortless gliding step. With each step the ball of the foot, as it slides along, should come down before the heel. (With really smooth dancers the heel may hardly come down at all.) No matter. In too many cases, this is not what I am seeing.
The dancers I have in mind are marching. They are hitting the floor vertically and hard, seemingly "counting" as they go. It is the heel which is coming down first.

Step 1

There are a number of suspects. A conspicuous one is shoes. Country Western and line dancing boots, heeled shoes, etc. have become common. So has the aggressive "attack" on the floor which often goes with these dance forms. Are they guilty of messing up square dancing? Sure! Still, shoes and a contradictory style are not the whole answer. While troublesome - and even, I suppose, troublemaking - they are not at the heart of the problem.
Another villain - one not so conspicuous - is sight calling. Today's square dancing simply does not promote smoothness. It promotes "resolution". Smoothness is secondary, at best. Perhaps, it can be argued, sight calling cares about smoothness in theory. Fine! But as a practical matter it works against smoothness. If smooth dancing happens on today's dance floor it is not because sight calling encouraged it. It happens in spite of sight calling. What sight calling does promote is stop & start dancing. Because, sight calling is heavily digital. Digital figures are what makes sight calling work. As a consequence, circular or analogue figures have been driven off the floor. Straight line, itty-bitty, pull & jerk, sharp corner, stand and wait stuff, everywhere. Dancers seldom move continuously in one direction for more than four counts, and even four counts may be overstating the case. So, is sight calling guilty? You bet. But again, only in a limited way. There are plenty of dancers who survive sight calling, with all its stop and start stuff, and continue to be smooth in spite of it, at least when they can.
No, there is something else going on. And here is what it is. Square dancing has become dancing with the hands. Dancing with the hands has replaced dancing with the feet!
Be cool. This is a very understandable phenomenon. Predictable, even.
Consider "Awful-A-Doing". When "A" is good it can be very good but so much often it is not good, it is bad. Very bad. So awful bad that it is a depression to look at and ought to be exorcised from the dance floor. If you haven't seen Awful-A-Doing lately, you haven't looked. Watch the men, especially. They are so depressing I cannot bear it.
One step per beat of the music? Not for them. They don't "step" at all. They lope, or turn & reach with their legs, or jump even; 2 & 3 beats go by while they drag a foot along - but they are oblivious. Their feet bear no relation to the music. The music is irrelevant. They don't need it. In terms of exercising an influence on their feet music doesn't exist. It's a bore.
So, give them some credit anyway. What is it they think they are doing? I tell you the true. They move their feet and legs for one and only one purpose: namely, to put their hands in the right place. That is what sight calling has come to, not in theory but in practice. Particularly with the "A" and "C" crowd. I have been told as much by more than one aficionado. "Square dancing is done with the hands, not with the feet."
Unfortunately, all this "A" & "C" stuff works its way into the mainstream and plus programs, mucking them up as well; a corruption of the real thing.
The real thing, of course, is not confined to the feet and never was. In more "circular" and "beat oriented" days, arm and hand turns were the rage.

Step 2

Enter the "pounders". Mostly women. These good folk really do take one step per beat. Most of the time, anyway. What is more, they do it with a vengeance. Like they are getting even with someone.
It doesn't take long to find out why. They are dancing to the beat of the music precisely because other people aren't. What they are doing with their feet is a reaction to what the other bunch is not doing.
So now we have two groups of "dancers" on the dance floor. Those who willfully pay no attention to the beat and those who are willfully intent on doing just the opposite. Sometimes, it's husband and wife.
Interesting, but perverse. There was a time when dancing to the beat was a given, like breathing. "Back then" men who were afraid of the word "dancing" liked the square dance step; it actually changed their mind about what "dancing" was going to require of them. Heck, moving to the beat of the music was easy. Anyone could do it. Callers taught the "square dance step" right away, in circles, and never let it go. The person who did not "dance to the beat" was a real anachronism, more to be pitied than censured.
How then, have we come to accept this station where "aberrant" behavior has become so much the "norm" that it has infected the whole of the square dance movement?

Step 3

The question has real meaning for the contra dancing world. On more than one occasion I have heard someone inside contra dancing say that "in contra, we dance to the beat of the music".
Well intentioned, no doubt. BUT: such a statement ought to have no meaning. No meaning at all. In a square dance world where "everyone" moved to the beat of the music, what would be the point in saying so? What would be the point in saying that in contra we do the same thing? It wouldn't be be worth the bother. When therefore, a dancer does bother, today, to make a point of the matter, it can only mean (a) that dancing to the beat isn't the norm any longer, and (b) that in contra dancing, dancing to the beat is the norm. Wherein, of course, comes the rub. The word phrase is never mentioned. Check it out. Ask these dancers - these contra dancers - what the difference is between squares and contras. Almost certainly, they will repeat the new mantra: "in contra we dance to the beat of the music".
In a normal dance world the "beat" is the element of commonality between squares and contras. In today's aberrant world the "beat" is defined, often, as the element of difference between squares and contras. This being the case, the real difference between squares and contras goes unnoticed and unstated. In making a point about reclaiming the beat, the unique importance of the phrase is lost. Thus, in common parlance - everyday talk around the dance floor - and even in "caller talk", the beat has become the enemy of the phrase. Seltsam and curios, said the dancer with the golden hair.
One serious consequence is that "dancing to the beat" is the open sesame to turning contra into "square dancing in lines".
What to do? One thing is to stop talking about "beat". Maybe we ought to say directly, that in contra we do not dance to the "beat". "If you think we are here to dance to the beat of the music, you are in the wrong place. Go back to square dancing and tell them to dance to the beat. Here, we are interested in the musical phrase, and that is what we dance to".


The message is clear enough. If contra dancing is to retain its unique identity as a dance form then it cannot afford to give away its identification with the eight count musical sentences which are the choreographic measure of what we do. Being happy that we dance to the "beat" is no substitute.

Published in "CONTRALAB Quarterly" Summer 1999

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Published 2003-01-08   /   Heiner Fischle, Hannover, Germany