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David’s Musings

Random Thoughts

Some things I wrote years ago are still generating discussion and disagreement. Here’s an example, which I wrote out longhand on the back of a dance flyer many years ago in response to some complaints:

Some thoughts about long walk-throughs

A long walk-through occasionally results from my lapses into socializing or general distractibility, but it more often means that a significant number of people are failing to understand some (or all) of a contra dance.

Frequently, it might seem appropriate to forego the extra teaching, to simply say “Good Luck” and start the music. My cousin Cammy often does this. I sometimes do. But I am not always confident that it’s the right choice.

I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve said, “Don’t worry if you make mistakes in the beginning,” only to observe (and later hear) that the beginners did, in fact, receive some very rough treatment at the hands of some impatient individuals who, in effect, saw fit to punish these folks for their mistakes.

I know who some of the impatient individuals are, and I have seen them pushing, yanking, directing, and even simply evading and ignoring beginners who are lost or confused. I have seen facial expressions conveying exasperation and condescension, and I have heard about sarcastic and otherwise nasty instructions and remarks being made. Indications are that extra teaching not only clarifies dance figures and sequences, it also gives some beginners an improved chance to avoid this sort of treatment. As long as I perceive that these “elite” dancers are putting contra dancing’s reputation for open-ness and accessibility at risk, I will not entrust to them the beginners’ prospects for ‘learning-by-doing’ without first teaching the dance as thoroughly as seems practicable [sic].

It’s ironic that the Greenfield dance, for many years, was known as one of the entire region’s more open and hospitable dances. This was due to the fine qualities of a solid core of local dancers, some of whom had learned to dance right here in the Guiding Star Grange, all of whom were so friendly and accessible that beginners never got stuck at the bottom of a side set, nor lacked partners who could teach them something in a manner which was fun, nor received punishing treatment during the inevitably mistake-laden process of learning-by-doing. And yes – we had shorter walk-throughs, too.

That core group is still around, and thanks to them, we have fewer “one-time-only” beginners, fewer terminal beginners, and more friendly folks than do many other dances. But sheer weight of numbers is obscuring the very positive influence which these folks exert on the powerful first impressions of beginners at the Greenfield dance. You might think we have plenty of dancers as it is, but I fear that contra dancing can not thrive as a closed club, and I will take extra time, if need be, in hopes that the beginners, some day in the future, will remember how great their first contra dance was, and come back.  Please: your friendliness will come back to us all, and we’ll have shorter walk-throughs, too. 

Thanks to Bill Tomczak for preserving this on his website.

Teaching Experienced Dancers to Dance

(This page is a part of the contradance pages maintained by Kiran Wagle)

Teaching Experienced Folks to Dance

by David Kaynor

(This article was originally posted to the Usenet newsgroup <rec.folk-dancing>.)

At the conlusion of an interesting post, Barbara Ruth writes

“But hard as it may be to understand to the ‘fun is more important’ contingent, for those of us who come to contras to dance, as opposed to making athletic movements vaguely connected to the music, being on time is fun. I think one of the reasons contra dancing is on the decline is (contrary to the conventional wisdom) not because it’s become too demanding for beginners, but because it’s become so undemanding that the good, experienced dancers are leaving it in droves for alternatives that actually require some discipline, such as swing, ballroom and even English country, where being concerned with timing is considered necessary and does not brand one a dance facist.”

A well-stated and timely contribution.

Is “dancing” necessarily always in opposition to “making athletic movements vaguely to connected to the music?” Are they actually always incompatible? I submit: NO. Not when neighbors and partners are alert and responsive to and gracious about each others’ preferences and ideas (and mistakes).

Contra dancing connects us and generates and affirms shared enjoyment because of techniques which, when implemented in a mutually agreeable manner, enable us to exchange entertaining neighborly greetings and courtesies with strangers and even people with whom we would not customarily interact while sharing more profound pleasures with those to whom we feel closer.

I cautiously invoke Robert Frost’s “Good fences make good neighbors” line here in proposing that good technique, sort of like a good fence, defines boundaries more amicably than walls do while expressing artistic values and relating harmoniously to the landscape. REALLY good technique is in fact also a bridge over which, by invitation, we comfortably cross these boundaries to enter and explore each others’ spaces and experiences. Each phrase in contra dancing offers opportunities for technical excellence to lead to interactional excellence.

Celebrating its development among new dancers rather than bemoaning its absence among ourselves may be our best investment in a bright and attainable future. But what IS technical excellence, anyway? Who defines it? Is it necessarily incompatible with “family” or “community” or “fun” dancing?

Who teaches it, and to whom?

That experienced dancers “teach by demonstration and gentle leading,” as Greg McKenzie recently suggested, bears significantly on this. Among the many elements of contra dancing influentially “demonstrated” and “gently led” by many of us:

Allemande, swing, spin, and twirl techniques so ineptly, unwisely, and indiscreetly done as to cause disruption, discomfort, even endangerment; timing errors which preempt others’ hoped-for experiences in dancing; ignoring or misinterpreting walk-through instructions, confusing others, disempowering callers, slowing the teaching process, and communicating that learning matters little to dancing fun; misremembering sequences; unwillingness to help others; unkind responses to others’ mistakes; general belittling of developing dancers, callers, musicians, and the less conventionally gifted or endowed; etc. ad Nussbaum.

WE don’t do that. WE would never do that.

OUR experienced dancers would never do that.

Perhaps not, for the most part. But the few who do figure significantly in the first impressions and initial learning of new people (assuming they come back at all!), no matter how energetically callers and dance cops try to preach and admonish.

Numerous dancers, including some relatively new ones, have shared thoughts with me in recent months. Recurrent in their accounts: Surprise and dismay at and growing discouragement with technical AND social slovenliness at dances in Greenfield.

Finger-pointing, accusing, and delivering ultimatums hold little appeal. For one thing, I have always feared and been ineffective at direct confrontation, both one-on-one and over the microphone. Besides, it seems an unpromising tactic in this situation anyway. But more things than my calling and playing alone have to change if I am to continue to earn sustaining amounts of income and more important rewards from a professional, artistic, social, and personal experience of dance in which I believe. Hence the struggle to clarify values and ideals and achieve them in word and deed.

In the “beginners’ hour” first implemented years ago, newcomers and experienced dancers work together on basic skills and concepts in the context of fun, easily-learned line, circle, and contra dances and are urged to dance the entire night for free as a modest recognition and reward for their extra effort (most insist on leaving $5 bills in the fiddle case anyway).

Thus, in action, the expressing of an ideal. Others can attest that I work hard for it, especially when you consider the full four-hour regular dance which immediately follows it, the exhaustive publicity which precedes it (and draws up to 100 dancers, half of them brand new, to a single one), and that I facilitate, teach, call, and play single-handed through the whole hour.

We explore (and in some cases re-explore) solid basic skills. There is no pressure to either rush the dancers through their own teaching and learning or gloss over my own. Discussions of courtesy and convention are thorough. Quality time is invested in technique and timing demonstrated, led, and emphatically endorsed by experienced dancers. Everyone’s successes are praised.

Praise: The beautiful, underused resource. The underemployed trustworthy agent of change. Genuine praise never cheapens; and it costs so little. Why are contra dancers so frugal with it?

Initially, I presented the session four times a year to attract new people to my tiny Greenfield dance, which was dominated at the time by graceless, predatory, and variably-groomed men. Soon, however, I realized that some of these technically and socially underdeveloped “experienced” dancers, when they came to the beginners’ hours to help, actually improved THEIR OWN dancing and overall identities as well. Former Liabilities and Losers evolved into Assets and Winners in the process of helping others and… maybe for the first time… received enthusiastic, heartfelt thanks and testaments to their worth from their peers.

We called it “The Beginners’ Hour,” but its real title was “The Hour of Unqualified Success.”

Greenfield dances in the late 80s were known for solid excellence in all respects. Coincidence? Sheer good luck? Divine intervention? Something in the drinking water?

We’ll see. Perhaps soon.

David Kaynor

Thanks to Kiran Wagle for saving this on his web page.

Unplugged: The All-Comers’ Band at The Montague Center Dance

(This essay in progress)

The first Montague Center contra dances of “our” day were led by Cammy Kaynor on Tuesday nights in the summer of 1978. 

That autumn, the Montague Grange membership voted to close the hall for the winter. Cam moved his dance to the Unitarian Meetinghouse in downtown Amherst, where it eventually became the famous Monday Night Dance, the scene of innumerable great events and wonderful musical and choreographic adventures for years.

Cam and I both lived in Montague Center in 1982 and we tried a weekly Thursday night series which never really took off. Why it didn’t is a topic for another essay. Suffice to say that there were several efforts to have a contra dance series at the Montague Grange Hall, a charming old (1835) former Unitarian Church whose cozy little assembly hall’s beautiful maple floor is wonderful for dancing. The longest continuous effort at a regular series was the “last Sunday of every month” contra dance which ran in bits and spurts between 1988 and 1992. What that dance did and did not accomplish and why it stopped happening are worthy discussion topics in and of themselves. In any case, the Montague Center Dance is now an irregular occurrence. 

Montague Center contra dances are unamplified. There are no prolonged tasks associated with setup and takedown; no cables over which to trip; no monitor and main-system levels with which to struggle. There are no simultaneous requests to turn it down and turn it up. 

There is no pecking order for microphone access. At events with established bands and “no sitting in” policies, this is irrelevant, but it promotes a spirit of equality among members of an all-comers’ band. A pecking order still exists with regard to who gets to sit up front and be more visually and musically prominent, but so far, this has not seemed problematic.

There is a simple and generally obvious relationship between playing one’s instrument at different volumes and enabling others to do the same and still be heard. 

There is also a fairly readily apparent relationship between how loudly one talks on the dance floor and how well others will be able to hear the caller and band. If you consider that contra dancing is better when behavior is guided by an awareness of its impact on others’ experiences, and if, like me, you perceive that many dancers act like this concept has never occurred to them, you might see an unamplified event as importantly instructive.

I believe that many musicians now operate on the assumption that success in a noisy crowd is achieved ONLY by increasing the sound system’s volume. Asking the crowd for less noise is bad for business as well as for artistic fulfillment. What’s more, I perceive an increasingly widespread assumption that to energize a contra dance crowd, volume levels must increase, and, even more disturbing, that what isn’t amplified can’t possibly be good.