To us, the phrase “Take hands four,” a common contra dance call, represents the unity and cohesiveness of the contra dance community. In this movement, two couples face each other and join hands in a squared circle. They then either walk in a circle or “balance the ring” by stepping forward and back. Many dances start with this call, for it allows the dancers to meet their new neighbors and socialize at the start of each repetition of the dance.
After observing, studying, and participating in the contra dance community for four months, we have realized that unity, friendship, and a strong sense of community are at the core of contra dance in the Pioneer Valley. Every contra dancer we have met has been kind, friendly, and welcoming, and each has been very willing to help us learn more about contra dance. The avid dancers say they attend as many dances as they can because they love the music and the dancing, and because they love the friendly and welcoming community of people who treat them like family.
Although this is an ethnomusicological film, we feel it is important to note that contra dances are more about the community of people and the social aspects of dancing than they are about the actual music. However, in this particular musical scene, dance and music have what musician David Cantieni calls “a symbiotic relationship,” and every person who attends a contra dance in the Pioneer Valley is part of the music-making process. Dancers in Greenfield, for example, frequently clap eighth-note beats on the and of beat three and on beat four so they feel more involved with the music-making processes, and they often call out high-pitched “yee-haw” or “oo-ee” types of sounds when they enjoy the music.
According to Ralph Sweet, a famous contra caller, this behavior is not typical outside the Pioneer Valley. Inside the Valley, the dancers have some sense of control over the dances. They improvise at will by adding turns, twirls, claps, dips, and other swing-dance-inspired movements. Dancers in the Valley place more emphasis on having fun than on executing the steps perfectly. According to Mr. Sweet, at contra dances outside the Valley, the caller’s word is law, and nobody is allowed to add individual flair to the movements. Male dancers in Glen Echo, Maryland, for example, tend not to wear skirts or to improvise during the dances, two things that are very common in the Valley. Also in Glen Echo, there are no dips or extra twirls, and nobody claps or tap dances extra percussion while traveling through the sets.
Contra dances are about having fun and being part of an extended family of fun-loving dancers. At the end of the night, it’s the community of people–not the dancing, nor the music, nor the history–that matters.