How should we notate role-free contra dance formation?

In response to my most recent post about calling dances in Nantucket, Maia wrote to me:

Harris, I have the world’s stupidest bone to pick with you. Re the dance cards on your website: I don’t think “Duple Neutral” actually means anything?

Okay, I should explain myself. First some background:

When contra dance choreography is written out, one typically notes the formation of the dance in a brief phrase. The most common formations in modern contra dancing are duple improper and becket (which is itself a variation of duple improper¹).

Duple here is short for duple minor meaning dancers start in a long line of couples and break that line into smaller (minor) sets of two couples – four people each. When a caller says “take hands four” at the start of the dance, they are saying, in other words, “get into duple minor formation.”

Improper here means that every other couple switches places with their partner so that each ring of four has alternating lark-robin-lark-robin² dancers. When a caller says “Ones³ cross over” they are saying, in other words, “get into improper formation.”

This is contrasted with proper formation in which the long line of couples has all the larks on one side and all the robins on the other. Many chestnuts are proper as well as the occasional modern contra and most English Country Dances. To a contra dancer in this day and age, proper formation often feels archaic.

I’m skipping over the explanation of becket as well as the many other possible formations for contra dances – if you’re curious, you can peruse The Caller’s Box Glossary.

When I was writing out my dance cards, I wanted a way to indicate that the dances were neither proper nor improper since they didn’t have roles of significance at all. So I wrote “longways neutral” to mean “a line of couples, roles don’t matter” and “duple neutral” to mean, “minor sets of four dancers, roles don’t matter.”

I didn’t take this notation from any source – though I did borrow the word “neutral” from a document of such dances that Maia shared with me. I’m not sure if there is a standard for this. The Caller’s Box allows you to filter by formation and they list a number of “duple” formations, but none of them seem to specifically refer to role-free dances.

The dances I called in Nantucket (Galopede, Jefferson and Liberty) are notated in the system as “proper” – which suggests something interesting: in most chestnuts it was traditional for lines to be separated by gender, but as far as the choreography is concerned the roles are symmetrical. Perhaps “proper” is already the conventional way to notate such dances. But I can’t shake the unsettling sense that notating this way references and reinforces traditional gendered dance in a totally unnecessary way – because what does it really mean to tell each role to line up on their own side if there’s no choreographic difference between them? – but perhaps as we get deeper into the era of gender-free dancing, that meaning will shift and dancers will understand “proper” to mean “line up on whichever side, it doesn’t matter.”

Except, annoyingly, there are also proper dances where roles do matter, for example this dance from Erik Hoffman:

Friday the Third Swing
Erik Hoffman
Duple Proper
Same-role nbr bal & sw
Ones alle L 1½
Nbr (opp role) sw
Larks rt sh round 1½
Ptr sw
Circle L 3
Twos half figure eight down

So, I see a few reasonable options for notating a role-free contra dance formation:

  • Make up a new notation as I did here with “neutral” – or adopt mine, now that you’ve read my blog post.
  • Don’t indicate role-related formation at all. For a role-free longways dance, just call it “Longways.” For a role-free duple dance, just call it “Duple.”
  • Use “Proper” and accept that sometimes proper means “roles don’t matter” and sometimes it means “roles do matter and they should line up on the same side.”

I may sound like I’m poo pooing that last one, and it’s not my favorite, but it also isn’t entirely unreasonable. There’s plenty of information that’s impractical to encode in a quick phrase that we leave to the choreography to communicate. For one example, we note if a dance is becket, but you have to read the choreography to determine if it progresses with a slide left at the start or not. And this one has the advantage that it’s already what we mostly seem to be doing.

Maybe there’s another option out there? Or a standard that I have completely overlooked?

  1. Usually, anyway. Caller’s Box does list proper becket as a possible formation – hoo, boy, this stuff can get complicated. ↩︎

  2. Historically contra dance roles were gendered, but at modern gender-free contra dances, we use gender-neutral terms like lark and robin instead. ↩︎

  3. The Ones are the couple closest to the top of the hall (typically where the caller and band are) in each minor set. ↩︎

  4. Traditional contra dances that are hundreds of years old. ↩︎

  5. Perhaps all? I haven’t been thorough. ↩︎

  6. Annoyed by the inconsistency, not by the existence of such dances, some of which are wonderful. ↩︎

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