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Tradition and Change

by Brad Foster, Executive & Artistic Director

I gave a keynote address to the Southeast Dance Leadership Conference in North Carolina in October of this year. I wanted to show the lively and innovative state of change of contemporary life, and to contrast that to similar change in the past. I chose three videos to make the point.

First, the Demon Barbers Roadshow, a performing group in England combining superb English clog, morris and sword with hip-hop:

The concept, as they say in the video, is “to try to see the similarity between traditional dance and modern dance, especially street dance and clog. Quite soon we realized that a lot of footwork was very, very similar.” This collaboration between traditions of dance — and, you’ll notice, music — yields a discovery that they aren’t so different. In a sense, of course, morris is street dance, too.

On our side of the pond, another kind of fusion is going on with contra dancing right now, as in this video from Seattle:

Techno contra: hard, driving beat, sampled music, glow sticks, hot and sweaty dancing, and new moves. In addition to great camera work from Doug Plummer, there’s another reason I highlight this video in particular. Techno contras emerged, as much as you can pinpoint these things, in the Asheville, NC area only a couple of years ago. Amazing how widely it has spread in that short time!

Techno contra is one current manifestation of taking tradition and playing with it, but here’s the 1964 version:

Nelson, NH with Dudley Laufman calling. It’s an encounter between generations of dancers: there are the old-timers and then there are the newer, mostly younger dancers. How joyful and familiar it is to watch their interactions, all contained within a single community. It’s essentially the same experience we have still. In the Nelson video, you can see some of the traditions that were changing back then, but you’re also seeing what’s happening now. I love how we now take for granted things I remember as radical to us 30 or even 20 years ago. Twirls of all kinds. The twos joining in Petronella!

The fact that we have fusion is nothing new. Often you are in the middle of it and you don’t notice it until something unexpected happens. But in truth, the unexpected keeps happening. Traditions will adapt. The forms will change.

Are techno contra and hip-hop morris part of our future? In both cases I’m sure the answer is “definitively maybe” or “sort of”. It’s likely some elements will make their way into the run-of-the-mill, as happened with swing moves in contra dancing. Both will influence our traditional arts but won’t become those arts. Even techno contra is morphing, with people saying, “That’s nice, but I want to try taking it in yet a different direction.”

I find all of this fascinating and exciting. The chaos that comes from all this change is a very good sign. It’s a sign our traditions are alive.

So, how does all this speak to your experiences? What changes and innovations have you seen? Which are on the horizon? And, of course, what aspects of our traditions remain unchanged?

- Brad

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  • [...] the first post on the CDSS blog last December, Brad Foster wrote about Tradition and Change. He closed by musing about the future of traditional fusion: Are techno contra and hip-hop morris [...]

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