Sunday, November 13, 2005

A good description

Contra Dancing and Matrices

Bernie Scanlon, a mathematics instructor at Bakersfield College in California, has been dancing nearly every weekend since 1990, even traveling to distant parts of the country to join in the fun. His passion is contra dancing -- a dance form unknown to most people yet practiced with great devotion and abandon throughout the United States, from New England to California.

The origins of contra dancing go back to colonial days, and its roots can be traced to English country dance. It’s really a group rather than a couples effort, and it has elements that might remind you of traditional square dancing. Rhythm and pattern are the keys.

What’s striking, says Scanlon, is that a remarkably high percentage of its practitioners are highly educated, often involved in mathematics, computers, or engineering. "The appeal seems to lie in its being a kind of ‘set dancing,’ where one’s position relative to others while tracing patterns on the dance floor is paramount," he says. "Timing is also crucial, as is the ability to rapidly carry out called instructions and do fraction math on the fly."

The music for contra dancing is highly structured. Everything occurs in units of four. The band plays a tune for 16 beats, repeats the tune, then plays a new tune for 16 beats and repeats that. An eight-beat section is known as a call, during which each block of four dancers executes a called-out instruction. An entire dance is precisely 64 beats long.

When the dancers line up in their groups of four to produce a long column down the floor extending away from the band, each square block consisting of two couples can be thought of as a matrix. Each dancer (element of the matrix) is in a specific position within the block. The called instructions correspond to rearrangements of the elements of the matrix. After 64 beats, however, the first and second rows of the matrix must be interchanged. Of course, that can be done in one step, but the fun comes in all the different ways in which groups of four can get to that inevitable end result.

Matrix representing initial configuration
of two couples in a contra dance (so-called improper formation).
There are all sorts of called instructions, which range from simply circling once around to the left or right within each group of four (the matrix doesn’t change after this operation) to sequences of moves that exchange partners or involve stepping one-quarter, one-half, or three-quarters of the way around the ring. With each call, the matrix representing four dancers changes, though it can end up the way it started.

So the emphasis is not so much on the specific footwork needed to get somewhere as on being in the right place at the right time. The physical movements can get quite complicated, and you always need to keep in mind where you started and where you ought to be. And it all happens at a lively, breathtaking, whirling pace.

"The secret is the fractions and the patterns," Scanlon says. In effect, "you’re dancing like a fool, but it’s totally controlled!"

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I dunno, Chronicler - I'm afraid I'd become way too confused and evolve into some pretzel-shaped chick and not be able to drive my Toyota home LOL =) (Certainly sounds like a major in math would be a good thing =)
Peggi, Teddy just goes to these things to pick up chicks. The math thing makes him seem smarter than he really is.
Aw Chester, you know Teddy is a regular chick magnet - I bet the ladies are lining up to dance with him before the night begins ....
Thanks, both of you. I don't deny there is romantic potential at these dances. But I really just go for the pure joy of it.

In a good contra dance, it is impossible for every face not to be smiling broadly as the GROUP performs the figures in wondrous harmony with the band.
"In a good contra dance, it is impossible for every face not to be smiling broadly as the GROUP performs the figures in wondrous harmony with the band."

I dunno. Sounds like ORGY to me.
Hmmmm, not that I would know, but that's an interesting metaphor there, Leo.

Can you provide us with some personal anecdotes?

All of this reminds me of the LORD being the bridegroom of the church, who is the bride. Does that mean there's gonna be a honeymoon and sex? Metaphorically, I suppose.

The famous adulterer in history, King David, danced joyfully before the LORD. I can't cite the Psalm, but there is dancing referenced there.

And, finally, when Messiah does come, it will be with a shout and a clap, according to Scripture. This sort of behavior is very common in a contra dancing. It's a very festive atmosphere, with lots of snacks and nonalcoholic beverages. When the dance is good, it is an indescribably joyful, sublime experience. There is never talk of religion on the dance floor. It's purely a sensuous activity, I must admit.
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