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You can contradance right here in Middletown: Susannah Gal

By Susannah Gal
Posted 3/7/17

How did you introduce your spouse or significant other to your family? When I brought my now-husband to meet my parents for the first time, my parents organized a dance with a small and friendly …

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You can contradance right here in Middletown: Susannah Gal

A dance we attended on Presidents Day weekend in Saratoga Springs, New York, had more than 5,000 participants.
A dance we attended on Presidents Day weekend in Saratoga Springs, New York, had more than 5,000 participants.
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How did you introduce your spouse or significant other to your family?
When I brought my now-husband to meet my parents for the first time, my parents organized a dance with a small and friendly crowd in a dark hall with a sloped floor. My then-fiance was not sure what he’d gotten into, though he decided to stick with me and my eccentric family. It’s because of that meeting with my parents that my husband and I so enjoy certain types of public group dancing, like contradancing and English Country dance.
In a past column, I mentioned the English Country dancing we do in our home. This is type of group dance that you may have seen in the movies based on Jane Austen’s books like “Pride and Prejudice.” You usually start with all the men on one side of a long line and all the women in a line facing them (occasionally women will take the men’s role when there aren’t equal numbers).
The person you are dancing with, your dance partner, faces you in the line across from you. These people then form little groups of four (two men and two women). Sometimes, the dances are done in groups of six (three couples) or eight (four couples), although that’s a little less common.
A caller, the person who is usually teaching the dances, will tell you in a brief set of words what you need to do. It could be things like “circle to the left,” “circle right,” “back-to-back” or “turn by the left hand.” At some point, one couple in the group of four will “progress” in their position, moving along the line so that they create a new group of four and the dance starts over again. Usually after the caller instructs the whole group what to do, they start doing it with music and the caller continues to prompt you on the moves.
Some of the English Country dances are from the 17th and 18th century, such as “Rufty Tufty” and “Jack’s Maggot.” Some are more “modern” from the 19th or early 20th century, while others in this style are being written today. Pretty much once you learn the 15 to 20 moves in English Country dances, it’s easy to learn a new dance as they generally use a different set of five to eight of those moves, although maybe in a slightly different order.
A version of the English Country dancing is called contradancing. Like I described above, you usually dance in groups of four people (two couples), although more often you shift to an improper formation with the circle of four being woman-man-woman-man. Like with English Country dances, after a series of moves, you shift to another couple and do it again, all with the guidance of a caller.
Contradancing tends to be more energized than English Country dance in part because you are often moving faster so you can definitely burn some calories. The moves are similar, though this type of dance usually includes more things like “swing your partner” or fancy moves like “butterfly twirl” or “petronella turn.”
Many of these are similar to moves in square dancing. Some of these dances have been written in the early 20th century while others are being written now. My husband has written a few contradances which are super fun. These types of dances are also related to dances done during the Civil War, which is pretty big in this area.
Why do I like doing these types of dances? Well, I grew up doing modern dance and ballet and so I like moving to music. These dances are much more accessible than formal modern or ballet dancing that has fixed choreography. It’s exercise without the strain of running or the danger of contact sports. It’s actually pretty low impact though depending on the dance and the music, you can build up a sweat.
At the dances we’re attending, there’s almost always live music. Sometimes it’s just a violin and a guitar, other times there’s a piano, flute or a drum as well. Some of the other really fun bands add clarinet, saxophone, or maybe a bombard (a reedy, small horn with a piercing sound). I’ve played for a few dances using my penny whistle. There are a ton of different tunes one can play.
Also, I love that I can do these dances with my whole family and lots of interesting friends. My husband and I attend the local dances together and we also go to interesting places. I’ve danced in California, near Washington, D.C., in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and near Boston, as well as at week or weekend long festivals in West Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and California.
Over Presidents Day weekend, we traveled with one of our daughters to Saratoga Springs, New York, and danced with about 5,000 other people in some of the biggest dance halls I’ve known. There were kids as young as 8 or 10 there along with older adults, some in their 70s and 80s. We find this community super-friendly and supportive and I know you will as well.
Here are some links to videos of people contradancing (http://bit.ly/2h8E1qq) plus one with commentary on why some people love this type of activity (http://bit.ly/2mc8CEE).
If you want to see English Country dancing firsthand, we will be playing host to a dance at our home on three upcoming Saturday afternoons, March 18, April 15 and May 20. It’s from 1 to 4 p.m. at 207 N. Spring St. with a suggested donation of $10 if there are live musicians. Contact me if you want more information.
There are also evening contradances in Harrisburg on the second and fourth Fridays and in Lancaster on the third Saturdays. Come learn more about this wonderful form of community exercise.

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in July 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.

susannah gal

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