Contra dance (also Contradance, Contra-dance and other variant spellings) refers to several folk dance styles in which couples dance in two facing lines. The name may derive from the name of a French dance very popular in the 18th century. Some authorities (including the Oxford English Dictionary) state that the name's origin is a corruption of the English country-dance, while others (including Merriam-Webster) contradict this. Whatever the origins of the term, this article is about an American folk dance style, contra dance, the dances, called contra dances that comprise that style, and the regularly-scheduled evening events, also called contra dances, where people get together to participate in the folk tradition.
- 1 Origins and History
- 2 Contra dance events
- 3 Form of a contra dance
- 4 Choreography
- 5 External links
Origins and History
At the end of the 17th century, English country dances were taken-up by French dancers — hybrid choreographies exist from this period using the steps from French court dance in English dances. The French called these dances contra-dance or contredanse. As time progressed, English country dances were spread and reinterpreted throughout the Western world, and eventually the French form of the name came to be associated with the American folk dances, especially in New England. As of 2005, there is a regularly scheduled contra dance in most North American cities or regions, as well as in Belgium, Denmark, England, Czech Republic and Australia).
Contra dance events
A typical evening of contra dance is 3 hours long, including an intermission. During a typical event, attendees will dance a number of individual dances, called contra dances, divided by a scattering of partner dances, like waltzes or schottisches. In some places, square dances are thrown into the mix. Music for the evening is invariably provided by a live band playing jigs and reels from the British Isles, Canada, the USA.
Most contra dance events are open to all comers, regardless of experience. Generally, a leader, called a caller, will teach each individual dance in the period immediately before the music for that individual dance begins, a time called the "walk through." During each dance's walk through, the dancers learn the dance by walking through in order the moves that comprise an individual contra dance, following the caller's instructions.
The contra dance tradition in North America is to change partners for every dance, while in the United Kingdom typically people dance with the same partner the entire evening. One who attends an evening of contra dances in North America does not need to bring his or her own partner. In the short break between individual dances, the dancers invite each other to dance. Traditionally, one either dances with the first person who asks or else sits out the dance. The music begins and the dancers repeat that sequence some number of times before the dance ends. Then the dancers thank their partners, and find new partners for the next dance.
No special outfits are worn, but "peasant skirts" or other full, light weight skirts are popular, as these have a very pretty effect when swinging. This includes some men as well; contradancers can be quite liberal in the way they dress. Low, broken-in, soft-soled, non-marking shoes are recommended and, in some places, required.
Form of a contra dance
Contra dances are arranged in long paired lines of couples. A pair of lines is called a set. Sets are generally arranged so they run the length of the hall, with the top or head of the set being the end closest to the band and caller. Correspondingly, the bottom or foot of the set is the end furthest from the caller.
Couples consist of one lead (also gentleman, or simply gent) and one follow (or lady). By custom, leads are male, and follows are female, though this need not be the case.
Couples interact primarily with an adjacent couple for each round of the dance. Each sub-group of two interacting couples is known to choreographers as a minor set and to dancers as a foursome. (Not all dances are done in two-couple minor sets - see "Formations, Less common," below.) Couples in the same minor set are neighbors. The couple at the top of each minor set are 1's (or actives); the other couple are 2's (or inactives). 1's are said to be above their neighboring 2's; 2's are below. Minor sets originate at the head of the set, so that at the start of the dance the topmost dancers are 1's - if there is an uneven number of couples dancing, the bottom-most couple will wait out the first time through the dance (see "Progression," below).
There are three common ways of arranging dancers in the minor sets: proper formation, improper formation, and Becket formation (see illustrations below).
- In proper dances all the gents are in one line, and all the ladies are in the other; dancers are across (on opposite sides of) the set from their partners.
- In improper dances the 1's cross over, switching places with their partners. The result is "lady-gent-lady-gent" lines.
- Becket dances are essentially improper dances in which each minor set has been rotated 1/4 turn clockwise - lines are "lady-gent-lady-gent", which dancers standing next to (on the same side of the set as) their partners and across from their neighbors. (This formation is named after "Becket Reel" by Herbie Gaudreau, probably the first contra dance to use this formation. The dance itself is named after the town of Becket, Massachusetts.)
Common set layouts
- ProperL1 L2 L1 L2 L1 L2 L1 L2... G1 G2 G1 G2 G1 G2 G1 G2...
- ImproperG1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2... L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2...
- BecketL1 G1 L1 G1 L1 G1 L1 G1... G2 L2 G2 L2 G2 L2 G2 L2...
Key: band is to the left; L=lady, G=gent, 1s=1's, 2s=2's
Note: As there is no limit on set length for these dances (other than the number of people the venue will accommodate), the "..." can represent any number of couples.
Traditional dance choreography left the actives doing much more than the inactives. Modern choreographers typically want everyone to be active, so the roles have been renamed "1" and "2". At the same time, improper and Becket dances have become more common than proper ones as choreographers and dancers have come to desire greater neighbor interaction.
There are four additional forms a contra dance may take: triple minor, triplet, indecent (all illustrated below), and whole-set.
- In whole-set dances, such as the Virginia Reel (dance), only the head couple is active. After once through the dance, this couple is left at the foot of the set. Whole-set dances are now almost only seen in dances for children.
- Triple minor dances, or triples, are based on sixsomes or three-couple minor sets, as opposed to the duple minor dances based on foursomes. Triple minor contra dances, which also occur in English country dance, are rare.
- Triplets, which are "triple major" dances - the entire (major) set is three couples - are also rare. The triplet form is an adaption by Ted Sannella of the traditional English country dance triplet, using modern contra dance tempo and moves; he composed a first triplet in 1968 and more than 41 of his triplets have been published. In his lifetime they were more commonly seen.
- Indecent dances are duple-minor contras in which each couple is crossed over with respect to an improper dance.
In triple minors and triplets, 1's are called actives and both 2's and 3's are inactives.
Less common set layouts
- Proper Triple MinorL1 L2 L3 L1 L2 L3 L1 L2 L3... G1 G2 G3 G1 G2 G3 G1 G2 G3...
- Improper Triple MinorG1 L2 L3 G1 L2 L3 G1 L2 L3... L1 G2 G3 L1 G2 G3 L1 G2 G3...
- Proper TripletL1 L2 L3. G1 G2 G3.
- Improper TripletG1 L2 L3. L1 G2 G3.
- IndecentL1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2... G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2...
Key: band is to the left; L=lady, G=gent, 1s=1's, 2s=2's, 3s=3's
Note: As there is no limit on set length for triples or indecent dances (other than the number of people the venue will accommodate), the "..." can represent any number of couples.
In standard formations
A fundamental aspect of contra dancing is that the same dance, one time through which lasts roughly 30 seconds, is repeated over and over - but each time you dance with new neighbors. This change is effected by progressing the 1's down the set and the progressing 2's up (also up the hall and down the hall; see illustrations, below). In non-Becket dances this is done by moving the 1's to the bottom of their minor set and moving the 2's to the top of it: the 1's now have a different pair of 2's below them. In Becket dances, 1's progress by moving to the place formerly occupied by the 1's below them; similarly, 2's move to the place formerly occupied by the 2's above. (see "Formations", above, for definitions of terminology)
A dance will typically run at least long enough for every couple to dance with every other couple both as a 1 and a 2 (though extremely long sets may require shorter dances).
Progression in common set layouts
- Proper progressionL1L2 L3L4... --> L2 L1L4 L3L6... --> etc G1G2 G3G4... --> G2 G1G4 L3L6... --> etc
- Improper progressionG1L2 G3L4... --> L2 G1L4 G3L6... --> etc L1G2 L3G4... --> G2 L1G4 L3L6... --> etc
- Becket progressionL1G1 L3G3... --> L1G1 L3G3... --> etc G2L2 G4L4... --> G2L2 G4L4 G6L6... --> etc
Key: band is to the left; the first time through the dance is depicted on the left and the second time through is on the right; odd-numbered couples are 1's, even-numbered couples are 2's; couples in the same minor set are not separated by spaces.
- In practice, all couples are evenly spaced; the groupings are just to clarify relations.
- As there is no limit on set length for these dances (other than the number of people the venue will accommodate), the "..." can represent any number of couples.
Progression leaves a pair of 2's out at the head with no 1's above them to dance with; if there is an even number of couples in the set, a pair of 1's is also left out at the foot. This is not a problem: the couple waits out one time through the dance and then comes back in, now heading in the opposite direction. A couple re-entering at the head of the set (formerly 2's) re-enter as 1's, and vice versa.
- in improper dances partners must trade places while waiting out (in the illustration above, G2 and L2 are switched with respect to where G1 and L1 where before progression)
- individual Becket dances have their own ways of moving couples into progressed position, and couples waiting out must take this into account when choosing how to place themselves;
- "waiting" out does not necessarily mean being uninvolved: many modern dances include figures which use the waiting dancers for a moment and then return them to where they were.
In less common formations
Progression looks a little different in triple minor dances and triplets (see illustrations, below; "Formations, Less common," above, for definitions of these dance types).
Triple minors look complicated on paper. Features of the progression in a triple minor dance:
- 1's move down one place each time through the dance, as usual;
- this results in the inactives (2's and 3's) switching position each time through the dance: 2's become 3's become 2's become 3's (e.g. couple #5 in the illustration);
- when out at the top, dancers wait until they have a full sixsome (write it out to see the problems which can develop otherwise)
- when out at the foot, dancers wait until they have a foursome, and then dance with an imaginary third couple - if they don't, the bottom couple will never re-enter the dance (write it out to see).
Triplets, on the other hand, are very simple: The roles of 1's, 2's, and 3's are reassigned each time through the dance, so that at the start of each time through the dance the head couple is the 1's. Progression may move the 1's to the foot of the set or the 3's to the head of the set.
Progression in less common set layouts
- Proper Triple Minor progressionL1L2L3 L4L5L6..........LXLYLZ --> G1G2G3 G4G5G6..........GXGYGZ --> L2 L1L3L5 L4L6L8...LULWLY LXLZ --> G2 G1G3G5 G4G6G8...GUGWGY GXGZ --> L2 L3 L1L5L6..........LULZLZ LX --> G2 G3 G1G5G6..........GUGZGZ GX --> L2L3L5...................LULZLX --> etc G2G3G5...................GUGZGX --> etc
- Proper Triplet progressionL1L2L3. --> L2L3L1. --> L3L1L2. --> etc. G1G2G3. --> G2G3G1. --> G3G1G2. --> etc. or L1L2L3. --> L3L1L2. --> L2L3L1. --> etc. G1G2G3. --> G3G1G2. --> G2G3G1. --> etc.
Key: band is to the left; for the triple, the first time through the dance is depicted at the top and the second time through is below it (and the third below that, etc), while for the triplet the first time in depicted on the left, the second to the right of that, etc; couples 1 and 4 are 1's, 2 and 5 are 2's, 3 and 6 are 3's.
- Improper triple minor and improper triplet progression, differing from their proper counterparts only in the 1's being crossed over, are not depicted.
- As there is no limit on set length for triples (other than the number of people the venue will accommodate), the "..." can represent any number of couples.
- Orientation in the set: top/head, bottom/foot, side; above, below; across, next to
- Dancers: lead/gentleman/gent, follow/lady
- Intra-set organization: minor set, major set; foursome, sixsome
- Common formations: proper, improper, Becket
- Less common: whole-set, duple minor, triple minor, triplet, indecent
- Couples' relations: neighbors; 1's/actives, 2's/inactives
- Non-proper dances: cross over
- progression, progressing
- (waiting) out
- Directions of movement: down/down the hall, up/up the hall
Most contra dances consist of a sequence of about six to twelve individual figures, prompted by the caller in time to the music as the figures are danced. As the sequence repeats, the caller may cut down his or her prompting, and eventually drop out, leaving the dancers to each other and the music.
Figures typically take eight counts of music, although figures with four or sixteen counts are also common. Each dance is a collection of figures assembled to allow the dancers to progress along the set (see "Progression," above).
"Weight" refers to the weight of dancers as they pull against each other. Many figures must be done faster and with extra flair if "weight" is applied. Most experienced dancers feel this adds an important dimension to the dance, of dancing with the other person and not just near him or her.
Basic Figures for Singles and Pairs
- Two dancers join either right or left hands in a thumbs-up grip and walk around each other.
- The couple faces each other with both hands joined (less commonly with one hand joined) and, in time to the music, takes two steps toward each other, and then two steps apart. It is typical for experienced dancers to add a flourish such as a stomp or jump during the balance, giving the figure a strong rhythmic feel. Often followed by a swing. Balances may also be done in lines or circles.
- Butterfly Whirl
- The gentleman and lady turn around, while keeping hold of their partner's waist. Facing the same direction, with inside arms reaching across their partner's backs (or, less commonly, gentleman's arm behind lady's back, lady's hand on gentleman's shoulder--this often makes moving into the next figure easier), in a circle the lady walks forward and the gent backs up. This often leads into a ladies' chain, or something with the ladies in the center. A common prequel to this figure is the following: gentlemen do a left hand allemande, then "scoop up" their partner by putting their arm around their lady's waist. Next the gents let go of each other and the two couples butterfly whirl back to place.
- Courtesy Turn
- Generally done when the ladies are crossing the set to the gentlemen. Most commonly, the gentlemen takes the lady's left hand in his left hand, and puts his right hand behind her back to take her right hand. The dancers are side-by-side as they turn around to face back across the set, the gentleman walking backward as the lady continues to walk forward.
- Two dancers begin facing each other, move so as to pass right shoulders, then back-to-back, then left shoulders, ending where they began. Sometimes they do-si-do 1 1/2 times, exchanging places. As an embellishment, experienced dancers will often add a spin to this move. Often, newcomers ill-advisedly copy this flashy, but potentially disorienting behavior.
- This relatively recent addition to the repertoire was adapted from English country dancing. The pair looks each other in the eyes and walks around each other in the designated direction, without touching each other. The amount of eye contact depends on various factors including individual comfort and local tradition.
- Facing in the same direction, shoulder to shoulder with the lady on the right, a couple walks where the caller directs. There are several different handholds:
- Courtesy turn position - (see Courtesy Turn above).
- Skaters' promenade - as in the courtesy turn, the couple join left hands in front; rather than joining right hands behind the lady's back, right hands are joined in front above the left hands.
- Inverted Skaters (a term coined only for the purposes of this text) - this uncommon form of the promenade position is the same as the skaters' promenade with one exception: the couple join right hands below their left hands.
The gent may choose to spin the lady under his arm at the end as a flourish. Promenades are frequently used to move a couple to the opposite side of the set, or to bring dancers back to place (useful when dancers get lost mid-dance).
- Roll Away with a Half Sashay
- This figure begins with two opposite-gender-role dancers facing in the same direction, holding hands. One of them takes a step or two toward the other, who is pulled in front of him/her while changing hands. At the end of the figure, the dancers have changed places but are still facing in the same direction as initially. (Most commonly, this figure starts with the lady on the gent's left and the lady passes in front of the gent). Giving weight is of key importance in this figure.
- A standard ballroom swing. The couple takes a modified ballroom position, with the lady's left hand on the gent's shoulder, the gent's right hand on the lady's waist, their free hands clasped together in the air (experienced dancers often experiment with other ways to place their hands). One can either walk or use a buzz-step; one partner may walk while the other uses the buzz-step. For the buzz-step, the right foot takes only small steps, with the partner's right foot to the right of it. The left foot pushes against the ground repeatedly, moving the dancer in a circle clockwise. Weight is very important in this figure. A swing usually ends facing across the set, sometimes down the set, rarely up the set, but always with the lead on the left and the follow on the right. It is generally recommended that newcomers get an experienced dancer to teach them this figure before the dance begins.
- Turn Alone
- Each person turns around in place. When in the center of a line of four it is polite to turn towards the person on the end. This often follows "Down the Hall Four In Line," (see below).
- Turn as a Couple
- In this figure a couple with hands joined turns around in such a way that the ladies remain on the same side of their gent, normally the right hand side. The California Twirl is commonly used to turn as a couple.
- Twirl to Swap
- This is a generic term for a number of dance moves which begin with a couple holding hands; they raise their joined hands, and the lady walks under them while the gent passes behind her, to trade places. There are a number of variants of this, depending on facing and on which hand is joined:
- California Twirl - The lady begins on the gent's right facing in some particular direction; they have the convenient hand joined. The figure ends with them both facing in the opposite direction from their original one.
- Star Through - The couple begins facing each other, with the gent's right hand and the lady's left hand joined. If the figure begins with the gent facing north and the lady south, then both will be facing east when the figure ends (with the lady on the gent's right).
- Box the Gnat - The couple begins facing each other, with right hands joined. They end facing each other.
- Swat the Flea - The couple begins facing each other, with left hands joined. They end facing each other.
Basic Figures for Four or More
- The four dancers in a minor set all join either right or left hands in the center of the set and walk around the set. A star usually turns one full time around, less commonly stars will turn 3/4 or 1 1/4 turns. There are two styles of stars, and which style of star is used generally depends upon local custom, although there are some dances that require one or the other:
- New England style, sometimes called wrist-grip stars or wagon-wheel stars: Each dancer places his or her hand on the wrist of the person in front of them as they face around the circle, forming a 'wagon-wheel' shape. One of the few figures in which it's important to not give weight, as it's uncomfortable for the other dancer.
- Southern style, sometimes called handshake-grip stars, English-style, or hands-across stars: Each dancer joins hands with the person directly across the set (usually the person of the same gender). It generally does not matter whose hands are on top or bottom (ladies' or gents').
- Ladies Chain
- A half ladies chain, which is more common and usually what a caller means when they just say "ladies chain," has the ladies joining right hands in the center and pulling past each other to the opposite gent; the gents then give the ladies a courtesy turn (see above). This causes the ladies to trade sides in the set. A full ladies chain is two half-chains in succession, with everyone winding up where they started.
- Long Lines Forward & Back
- All dancers face toward the dancers across the set from them, and join hands with the dancers beside them to form "long lines" on the sides of the set. These two lines then, in unison (ideally), take four steps together, and then four steps backward.
- Right & Left Through
- Both couples face each other across the set. They walk toward each other, passing through in the center such that the ladies pass left shoulders with each other and right shoulders with the opposite gent. The gents then give the ladies a courtesy turn (see above). The effect is that the couples trade sides of the set. A regional variation includes taking the right hand of the person opposite you as you pass by (followed by the left-in-left of the courtesy turn, perhaps hence "right & left through"?).
- Petronella Turn
- Four dancers, equally spaced around a small ring, move into the position of the dancer on their right in four steps while rotating (spinning) individually clockwise 3/4. This movement is adapted from the eponymous dance "Petronella," a traditional contra dance derived from a Scottish country dance of the same name. As a controversial embellishment, the folk process has added a "clap-clap" of hands on beats 3.5 and 4 of the 4-beat movement.
- Hey For Four
- The dancers execute a series of passes and turns with the other dancers in their minor set, crossing to the opposite side of the set and then returning. In this version of the hey, assume that neighbors are standing next to each other on the side of the set, facing their partners:
- The ladies begin passing right shoulders in the center of the set while the men sidle to right to take the recent position of their neighbor
- Partners pass left shoulders as the gents advance to the center
- The gents then pass right shoulders in the center, while the ladies make wide looping turns on the sides to turn around
- Neighbors pass left shoulders
- This is approximately one-half of the hey. The second half essentially replicates the first half (except that the men, now facing out, loop to the left instead of sidling to the right). At the end of the hey, the dancers are restored to the starting position, with the exception that the men are facing out of the set.
- Note that this figure is executed smoothly, with all dancers moving all the time, and not piece-by-piece as this description might suggest. It is strongly recommended that newcomers get a few experienced dancers to teach them this figure.
- Half Hey
- Half a hey for four. Instead of crossing the set and returning, the dancers merely cross the set once.
- Figure Eight
- a weaving figure in which dancers pass between two standing people and move around them in a figure 8 pattern. A full figure of 8 returns the dancer to original position; a half figure of 8 leaves the dancer on the opposite side of the set from original position. In doing this figure, the gent lets his partner pass in front of him.
- Circle Left (or) Circle Right
- Four people join hands and walk around in a circle in a clockwise (or) counterclockwise direction. Circling can be 1/4 of a circle (rare), 1/2 (not common), 3/4 (frequent), once around (common),or 1-1/4 (not rare), each of these choreographing the dancers into a specific placement needed for the flow and pattern of the dance. Giving weight in this figure makes it significantly more interesting. Circling left (CW) comprises 98% of contradance circling.
- Down the Hall Four In Line
- Two couples join hands so that they form a line of four, and walk down the hall, or away from the music.
- Pass Through
- This figure is often used to progress (couple one to moves down the hall and couple two up). A dancer walks across the set, passing the person opposite him or her by his or her right shoulder, without use of hands. This move frequently follows either a circle or a neighbor do-si-do.
- Cross Trail
- A pass through followed by the lady crossing in front of the gent to her left, turning counterclockwise from right to left. The gent follows the reverse path from left to right. They end up facing away from each other, so if starting by facing across the set, they end with one facing up the set and one down. Can be used to progress, if the lady is the neighbor of the gent in each pair doing the figure.
- Turn Contra-Corners
- A figure involving six dancers and taking a full 8 bars (16 beats) of music to complete. The center couple of the group of six dancers is the active couple; the other four dancers in the group are the corners. If a member of the active couple looks across the set, to the right of his partner, he sees his first corner. On the other side of his partner is his second corner. Typically, one's corners are of the opposite gender to oneself.
- The figure is danced as follows: the active couple takes right hands in the center, and allemande right until they reach their first corner. Actives drop right hands and allemande left with their first corners until they meet each other again. Actives now let go of first corners and allemande right until they reach their second corners. This final allemande is finished when the members of the active couple are facing each other again. The next move usually involves the active couple performing a figure beginning with the right hand or right shoulder, and is quite frequently a balance and swing.
- Because moves within this figure begin and end in the middle of musical phrases, require a great deal of awareness of positioning, and is frequently unprompted by the caller after the figure's start, this is a very difficult figure to those who are new to it, especially beginner dancers.
- Right Hand High, Left Hand Low
- This figure begins with three dancers holding hands in a line. The middle dancer raises his/her right hand; the dancer on the left walks under the raised hand, followed by the middle dancer, while the dancer on the right walks behind. The effect is to turn the line around as a unit (preserving the order of the dancers).
- Dixie Twirl
- In a line of four dancers, the center pair arches. The extreme right person leads through the arch (taking the one on their left along for the ride) while the left person walks to the right. This results in an inverted line now facing the other way.
- See Saw (left shoulder do-si-do)
- Instead of starting the do-si-do with the right shoulder, the dancer starts with the left shoulder. (Two dancers begin facing each other, move so as to pass left shoulders, then back-to-back, then right shoulders, ending where they began. As an embellishment, experienced dancers will often add a spin to this move, as in a do-si-do.)
- See groups at
- Contra dance defined
- Research Resources
- Find Dances at
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