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Here's my response to Phil Jamison's "Old-Time Square Dancing in the 21st Century: Dare to be Square!" article in the Old-Time Herald Dance Beat/Issues in Old-Time Music


To read the original article, click here.

Editor, the Old-Time Herald:

As a player of clawhammer banjo (the instrument voted "least favorite" among the contradancers polled for the article!) who has lived and played in Appalachia for the past 30 years, I believe Phil Jamison's updated "Dare to be Square" article in the Spring 04 issue raised some valid points. As the organizer of a community dance for 17 years, and as a member of a nationally touring contemporary contradance band, I took issue with the tone of the article.

I think I can understand the feelings of dance organizers who have invested much time and energy into organizing a community squaredance, only to find out that their labor of love has been "taken over" by contra dancers. While I'm fairly sure we'd all agree that in order to have a healthy, thriving dance community, dancers should feel some ownership in the dance, relinquishing control and handing over a dance you've "raised from a pup" to a committee of dancers is difficult. But agonizing over why some (or most) dancers prefer contras is just a little beside the point. If the majority of the dancers preferred squares, obviously squares would now predominate at the dances! In areas where enough dancers prefer squares, a separate old-time square dance does seem the logical solution...as long as there are people who feel strongly enough about this to step forward to organize them. This solution is clearly preferable to hearing old-time musicians gripe about not being asked to play for contra dances. That said, if squares disappeared from the contra scene, I would really miss playing for squares and working with the many fantastic callers who call great squares and contras at dances and dance weekends all over the country.

What I just don't understand is why one would want to force one's dance preference on people who have made their preference clear. Dancers are consumers. Our contradance band is one of those who attempt to "delight the dancers with rehearsed musical arrangements and tune medleys." The implication is that there's something wrong with that, and for the life of me I can't figure out what. If we're hired to play for a dance, we do our best to do the job we've been hired to do. We're a dance band. If the caller calls a southern square, we enjoy playing an old-time tune, hard and fast, with no drama to distract the dancers' attention from the caller. And if it's a contra, well, we're going to choose a set of tunes with elements that work well with the figures in the dance, play it straight while the caller's still calling, and have fun with it when it's appropriate to do so.

Contemporary American contradance music is a genre that is coming into its own. It's not southern old-time, it's not Celtic, it's not traditional New England, and it's not French Canadian. Most of the tunes our band plays these days have been composed within the last 15 years. Percussion (which, according to the article, is one of the "cheap tricks that make the dancers yell") is a notable feature in many contradance bands these days. (By the way, who knows how much percussion there would be today in old-time music if slaveowners had not confiscated the drums?!) We're not trying to be purists, obviously. Music and dance evolve!

By the way, we're lucky to be part of a dance community where squares and contras co-exist harmoniously, and always have done. I'm proud of our family-friendly dance, where no one would dream of exhibiting "hassling" and "booing" behaviors when a square is announced. I'm sorry that callers of squares have been exposed to this rudeness; nobody deserves that. I agree that separate square dances would benefit the old-time music community by providing dancers for them to play for, and I'm sure that there are contradancers who would attend them. I disagree, however, that it's the contradancers who need to "loosen up" here.

Hilarie Burhans
95 Morris Ave.
Athens, OH 45701