Information for New Dancers
What is Contra Dancing?
Contra is danced to Celtic, Quebecois, Old Time, New England, Southern Appalachian, Jazz, Blues, and all sorts of other music played by live bands, either from Utah or elsewhere. In a contra dance, parallel lines of dancers begin the dance by standing opposite — or “contra to” — their partners. A dancer and his/her partner form a couple.
In response to the Caller’s instructions, each couple interacts with the couple next to them to form a four person “set” and each set interacts with the sets on either side of them. Over the course of a dance each couple moves up and down the hall, interacting with every other couple in their multi-set “line.”
There is no fancy footwork involved (that is the other sort of line dancing) but the instructions given by the Caller do form a series of repeating figures that dancers eventually memorize. As this happens, the Caller provides fewer and fewer prompts until s/he drops out entirely; leaving you, your partner, and the others in your line to finish the dance, accompanyed only by the exciting, lilting, haunting, and/or pulse pounding music provided by that night’s band. Dance Nirvana, Contra style!
Click this link to see another example of contra dancers in action. This is from our annual Wasatch Wiggle Dance Festival. Videographer: Mike O’quinn.
Worried About Being New At This?
Don’t be. You are in good company — we were ALL new to Contra at one time. Beginners are always welcome at CCD dances; prior experience is not expected. So grab your dance shoes and come on over for your first (or second, or seventieth) dose of Dance Trance!
New dancers are strongly encouraged to arrive for the workshop no later than 7:10 pm (if you arrive late you will either miss some of the teaching or force the instructor and other students to accommodate for your late arrival). The workshop includes a teaching session for the basic figures and courtesies and a free ticket to the next (not current) contra dance you attend.
How to be a Great Dancer!
8 Basic Notes
- Dance Basics Workshops:. Most dances around the country host a Dance Basics workshop before each dance. Attend them! If you are a new dancer, these workshops will help you get comfortable on the dance floor more quickly. Once you become an experienced dancer your attendance is still necessary — if you serve as a partner and a cheerleader to new dancers they will catch on more rapidly.
- Clothing: There is no dress code and there is no such things as a contra dance “costume.” That said, dancing is a very active form of exercise so dressing to stay cool is highly recommended. As a result, most women choose to wear dresses or skirts and some men prefer to dance in kilts or long skirts as well. This is only because skirts are cooler and more comfortable than pants and twirling in them is more fun; it means nothing more than that.
- Shoes: Wear comfortable shoes with smooth soles that are designed to “slide.” Don’t wear tennis/gym/running shoes. We dance on a wood floor and rubber soles are intentionally designed to grab, not skid on wood so trust the voices of experience… your ankles and knees will be much happier if you don’t wear rubber soled shoes. Socks work well too.
- Partnering: Contra dancing is a group activity as well as a partner dance. Over the course of a dance, you will interact with everyone in the set including, but not limited to, your “partner,” your “neighbor,” and, in some dances, your “corner” and/or your “shadow” or “trail buddy.” So don’t be concerned if you aren’t bringing a partner to the dance. In fact, if you do bring a partner, and you both are newcomers, we strongly recommend that you split up and seek out experienced dancers, especially for the first few dances. Oodles of experience has taught us that new dancers get the hang of things much more quickly if they dance with experienced dancers instead of other beginners. So if you come with another new dancer, don’t be shy … divide and conquer!
- Gender roles: Each couple is composed of two dance roles: a “Lady” and a “Gent.” Those terms refer to dance roles, not genders. Same-gender dance couples are common, especially during an evening in which the genders are unevenly represented. In such cases, the couple decides between them who will dance which role. During the dance, whoever is dancing the Lady’s role usually (but not always) stands to their partner’s Right. (You can remember this by repeating to yourself: “Ladies are always right!”)
- Get Ready, Get Set…: As a line is forming, multiple small sets of four people are created by having two couples (four people) join hands in “Hands Four.” To do this in an orderly way, Hands Four aways begins at the end of the line where the Caller and Musicians are located (aka “the top of the Hall”) and continues down the Hall until all sets are formed. Within each Hands Four, Couple #1 (aka the “actives”) face down the hall with their back to the Caller, and Couple #2 (aka the not-so-“inactives”) face up the hall towards the Caller.
- …Go!: Don’t worry about not knowing the dances in advance. All dances are completely explained and walked through a time or two by the Caller before they are danced. It is considered polite to listen quietly during the walk through, even if you are familiar with the dance.
- Making Mistakes: No matter how long they have been dancing, EVERYONE makes mistakes from time to time. So if you make a mistake or miss a figure, no worries! Relax, have a quick laugh, and remember: It’s only a dance!
9 Tips on Technique
- Glide, Don’t Bounce: When you are dancing all alone, feel free to skip and hop with joy as much as you want. When you are swinging, circling, doing an alemande, or any other dance move that involves physical contact with someone else, seek to glide smoothly, as if you were dancing on roller skates while balancing a book on your head.
- Make eye contact: Make eye contact with anyone with whom you are executing any sort of figure, however briefly. This does NOT signal a proposition. It is simply a polite way of acknowledging their presence as your momentary partner in the dance figure. As an extra added bonus it reduces dizziness during sustained turns (swings, right shoulder ’rounds, allemandes). Speaking of … if, during sustained turns, prolonged eye contact makes you uneasy, look at the other person’s ear, chin, or forehead instead; anywhere but at the floor or the walls. Watching the walls or floor while spinning is practically guaranteed to make you dizzy.
- Give Weight: Picture the arm tension you use when helping a seated person stand up. In contra, this arm tension is called “giving weight” and provides the energy both people use in a swing, allemande, ladies chain, circle four, petronella twirl, and many other moves. Giving weight helps propel both dancers through a figure while being “noodle armed” makes both dancers have to work harder to maintain their balance and energy and, to many experienced dancers, is seen as being “unfriendly.” Don’t be a noodle arm!!
- Feel the Music / Count the Beats: Contra dances are written to fit the music; listen for the downbeats and let your body flow with the rhythm of the dance. You can also count to 8 over and over in your head if that helps, as each musical phrase is designed to take 8 beats. The biggest cue will always be the rhythm of the music but counting the beats to yourself can help you stay on phrase as you go from figure to figure.
- Swing Smoothly: Make certain that your own feet — not your partner’s arms — are in charge of supporting your weight during a swing. Making your partner support most of your weight against the tug of centrifical force during a swing puts you at risk for being dropped onto your posterior. And remember, glide, don’t bounce, while you turn. Having to hang on to someone who is bouncing all over the place can be jarring — not to mention tiring — for your partner.
- Twirl Safely: “Twirling the Lady” is a popular embellishment. Leading the Lady into a twirl by (gently, smoothly) raising his/her right hand should be considered to be a suggestion only — it is the Lady’s prerogative to follow the lead or override it. Note: When leading a Lady into a twirl don’t grip his/her hand tightly (s/he should be able to release their hand from yours without having to tug) and never “crank” their arm. Cranking your partner’s arm while it is over his/her head can cause serious injury to their shoulder (torn rotator cuff, frozen shoulder, surgery, extended time in a sling…). As a result, people who have had dance-related shoulder injuries in the past are prone to PTSD reactions when a partner so much as grips their hand too tightly or unexpectedly tries to abruptly or rapidly raise their arm. Don’t do that.
- Better Never than Late: All dances are designed and timed so that each figure should work with the musical beat to flow seamlessly from one pattern to the next. That means that if you get behind in the count you should choose to either shorten, simplify, or skip the current move entirely in order to be ready to start the next move in time and on beat. If you get terminally behind or lose your place entirely, simply wait for the next partner/neighbor swing and pick up from there!
- But It’s Not a Race: Just as it is better to be never than late, don’t hurry so much that you get ahead of the count — there are no points given for being the first one finished!
- Exit Gracefully: If you must drop out mid-dance, please try to hang on until you are out at the top or bottom of the line. From there, you can usually leave the dance without disrupting the entire set. If you MUST leave the dance before getting to the top or bottom of the line, wait until you and your partner are dancing with your neighbor and his/her partner and then pull the other three people out of the line with you when you leave. The removal of an entire Hands Four will keep the overall set from being disrupted and the other couple can simply run down to the bottom of the line and get back into the dance.
10 Points of Etiquette
- Be sensitive to the safety of your fellow dancers:
- Never force a dancer to twirl by cranking their arm;
- Never jerk a partner’s hand, arm or shoulder;
- Never apply excessive force;
- Never squeeze with a tight grip;
- Never push a dancer beyond his or her comfort level;
- Never “dip” your partner if you haven’t both been trained to do so safely.
- Change partners after every dance, even if you arrive with your
- When the caller is teaching, silence should prevail. Just because the people standing near you know how to do a move, or have memorized the dance, doesn’t mean that everyone has. Do not hesitate to politely ask people who are talking to “shhhh” during walkthroughs and, for your own part, always pay attention, take “hands four” promptly, follow instructions, and be quietly patient while others learn.
- Everyone, even experienced dancers, can space out during a dance and turn the wrong way, forget the next move, or otherwise bring unintentional chaos to the set. If that happens to you or someone near you, don’t be shy about offering or accepting(gentle, cheerful) help in getting things straightened out but NEVER yank, shove, or bark at a confused dancer; that will only make things worse.
- Smiling, eye contact, and innocent flirtation are part of the fun but predatory or intimidating behavior is not allowed. Use common sense, discretion, and respect others’ personal space! If someone doesn’t respect yours, please bring it to the attention of one of the dance organizers immediately. Bad behavior can’t be stopped if it is allowed to stay hidden.
- A delicate reminder: Dancing generates heat and keeping dry can sometimes be a challenge. As a courtesy to all, consider packing a hand towel, fresh shirts, breath mints, and, if needed, antiperspirant. If you use cologne, please do so sparingly — a surprising number of people are sensitive to fragrances.
- Protect our (rented) floor and the feet of neighbors you may accidentally trod upon. Wear shoes with clean, soft soles.
- Anyone may ask anyone else to dance. Women may ask men, women may ask women, men may ask men, and men may ask women. We have no clear policy on whether dogs may ask cats.
- Make plenty of eye contact. Eye contact isn’t just for the person you are swinging, it is polite to make eye contact with anyone you touch, however briefly, as a way of acknowledging that they are your partner in the dance, however fleetingly. For example, if the caller asks you to “balance the line,” look at the person on your right as you move towards him/her and then look at the person on your left as you move in their direction. Similarly, it is polite to make brief eye contact with the person whose hand(s) you are taking to begin a four in line down the hall or a circle left/right.
- Always say thank you — to organizers for organizing, to instructors for teaching, to callers for calling, to bands for playing, to partners for dancing, to sound gods for doing sound, and to everyone else who made your evening a pleasant one.
(The “How to Be a Great Dancer” section is courtesy of Peter Baumgartner and Kimbi Hagen, Chattahoochee Contra Dancers)
A Live Beginners’ Session
These videos show new dancers rapidly progressing, with instructions from Atlanta-based, internationally-known caller Seth Tepfer, beginning with joining their first circle to dancing their first contra dance.
- PART I: Learning the basic moves
- PART II: Forming a contra line, reviewing the moves of an actual dance, doing a walkthrough, and dancing (the beginning of) it with Avant Gardenersand Seth Tepfer
Read More About It…
- Kimbi Hagen and Peter Baumgartner’s booklet: “How To Be A Great Dancer” (Attention other Dances: This booklet has space for you to include your local dance’s date/time/location information for distribution at your hall)
- Jonathan Sivier’s Top Ten (plus) Things That Make a Good (Contra) Dancer
- Jonathan Sivier’s Tips for Experienced Dancers Dancing with Beginners
- Gary Shapiro’s website – more viewpoints on contra dancing