07 December, 2015

Oral traditions, digital transmission

This multimedia essay, gestated four months, is intended as a gentle critique, clearinghouse, and attempt to set the tone for future discussions on making the most of online resources available to the folkdance community, via an analysis focused on the contradance universe. It's a bit long, but i hope if the topic area is of interest to you that you'll set aside an hour or so to fully digest what the linked videos convey, that you'll share and discuss it with other practitioners of your own folk tradition, and that the effort put into writing this will positively impact other performers' development just as the efforts of the contra-verse's documentarians have impacted my own, adding zest to contras everywhere.


Much has been said by folklorists and musicologists on the methods of oral transmission in folk traditions. But while oral transmission remains a valuable conduit for the propagation of tunes and action of the folk process, the majority of learning musicians today rely on printed collections of tunes. This is positive in light of how the uniformity of printed texts allow musicians from different regions to share common repertoire without the obstacle of strong regional variations in a given melody. Ear learners, however, have access to a far broader range of tunes that may not exist in printed form. Audio recordings, MIDI transcription and the internet have allowed an explosion in the number and variety of folk tunes accessible to musicians anywhere on the planet. 

Folk music, storytelling, and community histories are easily recognized examples of orally transmitted traditions. Dance calling is another, and despite publication of dance sequences, calling arguably remains more dependent on oral transmission than its allied traditions. Like musicians, dance callers collect repertoire, often at weekends and festivals, from peers and mentors, from printed texts including event syllabi (for example, syllabi of the annual Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend being an excellent resource available online, one of a number of valuable online resources available from the University of New Hampshire Library special collections) and through exchange via email and listservs. Unlike musical constructions, which do not require the performer to generate a method of instruction, dance sequences obtained in printed form are often collected lacking key information - information on how best to teach sequences and transitions, information on how dancers respond to a given sequence and its transitions, and information on the technical elements of dance calling that relate to personal performance style and stage presence. This missing information is gathered through observation at events, in workshops, and in verbal and written conversation among peers and mentors, and generated through observation of similarities among sequences in a growing caller’s repertoire. 

Over the past five years, the efforts of a handful of professional documentarians and many more enthusiastic amateurs have revolutionized digital transmission of the contra dance tradition. At this writing in December 2015, a YouTube search for “contra dance” yielded some 177,000 results, many of which are full dance sequences from various festivals and regular dance series, along with instructional videos such as contrasyncretist’s flourish tutorials, George Marshall’s beginner session, and Dennis Merritt's performer interviews. Any caller can easily collect a range of dance sequences, and as videographers post and choreography nerds continue to identify dance sequences, possibilities for caller - and musician - repertoire collection expand rapidly. 

This rapid expansion is not without thorny questions of intellectual property, release waivers, and dancer privacy, matters with which the dance community will need to grapple in the future. Regardless of those implications, YouTube and similar video sharing platforms now occupy a unique niche with rich potential for the tradition’s future.

Let’s take a dance break. 

The above example includes a number of different types of information beyond the sequence itself (“Lanier Equation” by Bob Isaacs). Not only does the video clearly capture Nils’ full prompting and timing of calls in early iterations of the dance, it reflects the mechanics of the sequence and how dancers respond to transitions. 

Repertoire collection is an important but relatively small part of callers’ ongoing development. An equally important element of calling skill is to modulate the voice, respond to dancers' movements, adjust calling to reorient and reinforce when dancers are uncertain, and engage in on-the-fly set management. 

Two videos of Lisa Greenleaf’s calling aptly illustrate the potential utility of recorded sequences for learning these skills. Note the set management occurring around the 1:11 mark here; voice modulation and the use of clarifying prompts are illustrated here. In some ways recorded sequences are superior to in-person observation in that they allow repeated observation of ephemeral elements that may slip by unnoticed when one is engrossed in the immersive momentary experience of interactions with partner, minor set, and music (note dancers' response to the Free Raisins’ exemplary musical climax at the 3:23 mark here).

Such online resources may be of particular value to developing callers in rural areas for whom opportunities to learn from the best national-level performers are often infrequent and subject to financial, scheduling, and travel constraints. While they are no substitute for personal peer and mentor relationships, online recordings have a demonstrable potential to increase performer and therefore dancer skill and enjoyment in remote dance communities lacking the economic resources to regularly import top-flight talent for events and workshops.
More can be learned from a recorded sequence than simply figures and calling technique: the careful observer may note how a tune set works with a given dance and, with diligence, how several different tune sets modulate dancers’ kinesthetic responses to the same dance, a possibility that grows as recordings are added but which requires that uploaders identify the dance sequence in the video title or at least in the description. Learning musicians can observe how performance situations differ from studio recordings (e.g.: how the best bands abbreviate phrases early in a set to accommodate the calls, which was my reason for selecting that particular video of Nils and Elixir), and how arrangements are built and deconstructed. Ear-learners can collect tunes, and online mp3 conversion and tempo alteration tools can facilitate ear learning. 

On YouTube, digital transmission grows to resemble oral transmission: dance tunes are heard in their living, amorphous form, and thanks to DSLR onboard audio quality limitations, with enough noise to result in meaningful variation through signal degradation much as orally transmitted tunes achieve variation through limitations of human memory.

Here’s another fantastic example of an information-rich recording: while the calls are not as clear, it’s easy to observe dancers’ response to Marty Fager’s “Balance and Bounce” early on, and visible details of the Syncopaths’ adventurous arranging offer learning musicians inspiration, echoing Colin Quigley’s observation in the 1993 paper Catching Rhymes: Generative Musical Processes in the Compositions of a French Newfoundland Fiddler that “experimentation is always within the structural parameters of the fiddle-tune form.” 

The utility of recorded sequences to callers, however, turns on the inclusion of key information. Ron Buchanan’s “Glenside Promenade” is challenging to successfully collect from this video because Ron does not use the terms “partner” and “neighbor” in the prompts, and the camera motion that makes it such a watchable video complicates a learner’s ability to deduce which of the swings is with partner and which is with neighbor. Dancers’ behavior suggests that would be the first swing, a deduction reinforced by the nature of whole set promenades, which are almost always done with a neighbor. Potential for collection errors would be reduced if the camera lingered on a single region of the hall for a full iteration of the dance. 

At this point it is important to note an enormous absence within the vast trove of recorded dance sequences online: the absence of the walk-through. It may be possible to ascribe a certain sense of privacy to the walk-through, as it is the time when dancers are learning - but it's more likely the walk-through's absence stems from a key difference in status between bands and callers. Callers have fans, sure, but from an organizing perspective the average dancer is more likely to turn out for a particular band than a particular caller; excitement resides in dance time, not teaching time. Teaching workshops are useful, but the best tool for a developing caller is to observe the best callers in action, and the absence of walk-throughs is a limiting factor in what can be gained from recorded sequences. 


While next-generation digital transmission offers rich possibilities, questions arise both about the intellectual property ramifications of video posting and about how videographers can maximize the utility of these publicly available archives to current and future developing performers. Many contra choreographers already make their sequences freely available online, but some do not. What are the implications of identifying recorded sequences for intellectual property among dance composers? Has the late 20th-century effort at dance-book publishing acceded to this digital evolution of oral tradition sufficiently that taggers need not consider whether a dance has been previously published when commenting with a sequence name? 

For an oral transmission to make the most of what digital transmission allows, it is important to recognize that different documentary approaches will facilitate different results. Videos which afford the best learning opportunities to callers and musicians may not be the best videos for organizers to leverage as tools to recruit and train new dancers in dance etiquette and uncommon courtesy. How can the contra community as a whole shape this emerging resource to best transmit the tradition? How can the community guide developing musicians and callers to gain the most from YouTube’s possibilities as a learning tool? 

At some point in the near future, i would argue, it may be beneficial for an organization like CDSS to dedicate resources or the efforts of a qualified individual to develop a “curriculum” of videos like the ones i have included in this post, explaining what the particular types of information learners should look for. The efforts of tagger extraordinaire ccpage19143 would do well to be abetted by others with a similar depth of choreographic knowledge, and a new layer of comparative analysis of tune-dance pairing would be possible were uploaders to note sequence names in video titles. Adding links to recorded sequences would give Michael Dyck’s dance index vastly more utility than the resource's current list of links to printed texts offers. Dance organizers could include in outreach and advertising materials or on “second dance free cards” a URL or QR code linking new dancers to an orientation video on basic style and etiquette.

A significant advantage in harnessing the power of this unorganized body of information is that efforts need not be local. It is our local dance communities that nourish us, but when we invest effort in enhancing the body of contra performance knowledge on a meta-scale, that effort improves communities across the contra-verse including our own. There are many dedicated and passionate practitioners of the form - here i sing the choreographers, veteran local callers, musicians, organizers, wearers of many hats - whose efforts are seldom recognized outside their local communities but whose contributions to the contra-verse amplify the effectiveness of initiatives at many scales. There is a human resource dimension to the questions of digital transmission, and it is perhaps a dimension characterized by the problem of coordinating distributed volunteerism in ways that have direct benefits to local communities while simultaneously enhancing the meta-resource.  

I’ve outlined here some of the key possibilities and considerations i think must be raised and discussed throughout the contra-verse in order to make the most of the opportunities inherent in digital transmission. Focusing the raw potential of an as-now-unorganized resource will require ongoing dialogue and some application of fiscal and temporal resources, but that outlay of effort may be key in ensuring community dance is as accessible as we dream it to be and continues to flourish on into the 22nd century.


Footnote: The role of video editing has been left out of this analysis - despite that being a primary skill area of mine - because the role of editing is worth an essay of its own.

I'd like to thank Doug Plummer, Doug Heacock, Dave Pokorney, Ray Sebold, John Newsome, John Michael Seng-Wheeler, Chris Page, Ryan Holman, Dennis Merritt and all the others whose investments in documenting the contra dance tradition online have been instrumental to improving my skill as a dancer and caller.