What is Contra Dancing?

"A contra dance is like an amusement park ride we make for ourselves."
(Adapted from an article by Greg Rohde) Click to see the original article.
Click for a variety of other articles about contra dancing.
Or click for Wikipedia's extensive intro to contra dancing.
Youtube video clip of St. Louis, MO Contra Dance
Contra dancing means wonderful live music that compels me to move, a community that extends great hospitality to new dancers and a style of dance that is very easy to learn. Much of contra's popularity is in its simplicity: if you can walk, you can contra dance. It doesn't matter if you have two left feet. (Contra dancing uses a walking step so it doesn't matter which left foot you start on.)

I was thrilled to encounter a place where the whole community dancing together is more important than any one person or any couple looking good. I had previously taken some dance lessons that were horrible because the instructor kept chastising us for every small mistake. Worrying about getting each step right meant that the evening caused more stress than it relieved.

The contra dance floor, on the other hand, was a playful oasis. Everyone was very patient with teaching someone who was new, had no idea what was going on, and lacked a good sense of rhythm. I was hooked. Since then, it's seeped into my blood as I've danced thousands of dances and have discovered a source of deep joy and great playfulness.

Contra dancing is a communal folk dance in which you and your partner dance, eventually, with everyone else in the hall. Before the dance starts, you and a partner join a long line of couples and take hands with a couple that's next to you. A caller will lead you through a series of moves. After you've gone through the series once, you and your partner have switched places with the other couple and the two of you have a new couple to dance with, and so on.

The caller's role is to guide and support you through the dances. Most callers start an evening with the easiest dances and teach every new move as it gets introduced into the night's repertoire. Think of contra as a language with about 16 main words that are combined in a variety of ways to make sentences. You start with simple sentences and build from there. The caller's goal is to set you up for success. He or she will walk you through a sequence of moves a few times until you are comfortable and confident. Once the music starts, the caller may prompt you with cues so you can remember the next move.

By the way, Contra Dance has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with country line dancing. Nada. Zilch.

Since the dance is a pre-arranged set of moves, you don't need to decide what the next move will be. This simplicity is one of contra's advantages over other styles of dance, where the leader (usually the man) has to be constantly thinking about what the next move will be. In contra, that decision is already made, so you can turn off that part of your brain and simply be present to the music, your partner and your fellow dancers. If you're an experienced dancer, you can throw in embellishments and make the dance even more challenging and more fun.

Since the dance combines a series of moves with the partner you're with, the other people in your line, and the band that's playing, you never do the same dance twice.

It is customary to change partners with every dance. Women ask men to dance, men ask women - it is very egalitarian.

If you are a newcomer - and especially if you come as a newcomer couple - you will learn faster if you split up and dance with experienced dancers, who are always very helpful. Dance with your date later in the evening after you have learned the basics -- it will be more fun!

Fairfield is lucky to have a solid core of experienced dancers who are willing to introduce newcomers to the joys of contra dancing.
If you are new to contra dancing, come at 7:30 pm for the beginners' orientation.
We look forward to welcoming you to our dance community!

Here are a few more tips to orient you to the mysteries -- and fun! -- of contra dancing:

The Intimacy of Dancing
Holding one person after another in our arms all evening is certainly not something most of us experience anywhere else but at a contra. Smiling, eye contact, and flirtation are part of the fun of dance. Many contradancers like to gaze into their partners' eyes, which can at first prove unnerving. Experienced dancers should remember that newcomers may find flirting unexpected or even disconcerting.

Eye contact
Eye contact is an integral part of contra and prevents dizziness during swings or allemandes. If lengthy eye contact discomforts you, you can focus on your partner's ear, chin, collar, or shoulder. Newcomers should remember that experienced dancers are not trying to stare them down.

Sensitive issues
Contra involves close physical contact with many other people. For the benefit of yourself and your fellow dancers, please be clean, courteous, and respectful.

Wear comfortable clothes and appropriate clean-soled shoes. Some folks bring extra tee shirts for a quick change during the break. If you tend to sweat, avoid sleeveless shirts—sweaty arms can be slippery.

Don’t forget deodorant. And breath mints. Please.

Please avoid wearing perfume, aftershave, or cologne to a dance. Some dancers are sensitive or allergic to such products and dancing, being aerobic, magnifies their scent.

Other people will be in range of your breath through the evening; think about that when choosing whether or not to enjoy onions, garlic, or spicy food just before a dance.

If you wear a lot of bracelets you may find they get in the way -- best to leave them at home or in your bag.

Click here for a variety of other introductory articles about contra dancing.
Youtube video clip of St. Louis, MO Contra Dance
YouTube video clip of Contra Dancing
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An outline of basic moves in Contra follows, presented with this caveat: It is far easier to pick up these figures while dancing than from a written description. That said, it may be helpful to some to see these moves written in black and white.
Click here for an alternate intro to basic dance figures for both Contra and English Country Dance.
What Was That Step?
A Guide for New Contra Dancers

Contra Dance instruction starts with the men lining up on the caller's right and women lining up on the caller's left. Before the walk-through starts, the first two couples take
Hands Four
by holding hands in a circle, then the next two couples and so forth all the way down the lines. The sooner you take hands four, the sooner the dance starts.
The Head or Top of the set is the end closest to the caller and the band.
Up is the direction of the Head.
Down is the away from the Head.
In or Inside is between the two lines of dancers.
Out or Outside is beyond the two lines.
Across is from one side of the set to the other.
The Actives are the odd numbered couples at the start of the dance, counting from the head of the line. Also called Ones or Odds. Actives progress down the set during the dance.
The Inactives are the even numbered couples at the start of the dance, counting from the head of the line. Also called Twos or Evens. Inactives progress up the set.

In an Improper Dance the actives change places with their partners before the walk-through starts, so each line alternates man, woman, man, woman etc.
A Proper Dance starts with all the women in the same line, facing all the men in the other line.
Your Partner stays with you for the whole dance as you progress from one group of four to another. It's customary to change partners between dances.
Your Opposite or Neighbor is the person of the opposite sex in your group of four who is not your partner. Unless otherwise specified, the woman on the man's left is his Corner, and the man on the woman's right is her Corner.

Basic Steps
To Allemande Left, take left hands with the other dancer in a "pigeonwing" grip, hands up, thumbs together and elbows down. Walk counterclockwise around each other, leaning back with slight tension. To Allemande Right take right hands and walk clockwise. Sometimes the calls are Turn by the Left and Turn by the Right.

To Balance your Partner/Neighbor, take hands with your partner or neighbor and step towards each other, then away from each other. Often followed by a swing. Many variants on hand-holds and steps. Balance in a line or circle is done with the same step, taking hands with two other dancers.

The Swing can be done two different ways, with a host of variations. [1] Southern Swing
(a.k.a.Western Swing, Walk Around Swing): take ballroom position with the other dancer, facing each other's right shoulder, staying roughly parallel. Walk around each other clockwise. This swing is common to the square dance tradition. [2]

Buzz Step (New England Style Swing): take ballroom position as above, slide on the right foot. Give weight (lean back a little, but not enough to tip over); don't be a wet noodle. Both of your feet must be to the left of your partner's feet, otherwise you will fall over. Both types of swing are easy to learn; the Southern Swing is more stately and sedate, while the Buzz Step is more vigorous and exciting. Neither swing involves jumping or leaping. Always end a swing with the man on the left and the woman on the right. Prevent dizziness by looking at your partner, not out at the hall.

A Gypsy is like a swing except there is no physical contact; walk around the other dancer, connected only by each other's mesmerizing gaze.

A Gypsy Meltdown is a Gypsy followed by a swing.
In some dances, the Ones walk down the set, then return to the Twos. The Twos scoop up the Ones on each side as the dancers reach around each other's back and turn on the side of the set to face in, completing the Cast Off.

Circle Left
by taking hands in a circle of 4 dancers and walk in a circle to the left (clockwise).
Circle Right the other way around. Circle once around unless the caller specifies halfway,
three quarters, etc.

In a Do-Si-Do, walk around the other dancer. Pass by the right shoulder and end in your original place. Exchange places in a Do-Si-Do Once and a Half. For Left Shoulder Do-Si-Do, start by passing left shoulders.

Two Ladies form the Ladies Chain by taking right hands (handshake grip) as they pass across the set. The man turns the woman on the side of the set, taking her left hand in his, and reaching around her back with his right hand to her right hand on her hip, turning to face in. (This turn is called a Courtesy Turn.) At this point, you have completed a Half Ladies Chain. A Full Ladies Chain, or Chain Over and Back, repeats the above instructions as the women return to the side they started the chain from. More seasoned dancers may choose a twirl or spin instead of a courtesy turn; however, it is the woman's choice whether she twirls!

An Ocean Wave is a line created by the four dancers in your set, in Allemande hold. The dancers alternate facing up and down. Usually involves a balance.

The Promenade varies by region. In the local tradition, the man stands to the woman's left, facing the same direction; their right hands are joined in front, and their left hands are also joined in front. The man's right arm crosses above the woman's left arm.

In a Promenade Across the Set, the pair will usually turn as a couple on the other side, facing in with the woman on the man's right. Another way to cross the set as a couple is the Right
and Left, in which you walk across the set, passing right shoulders with the one across. As each couple reaches the other side, they turn as a couple with a courtesy turn.
The Star is a fancy circle. Star Left in a group of 4 by reaching diagonally across with a handshake grip by the left hand, usually to your neighbor's partner (women taking hands and men taking hands.

Star Right by holding right hands and walking clockwise. In some parts of the country, the tradition is for dancers to place their hands palm down on the wrist in front rather than taking a handshake grip across. In a swing, allemande, circle or star, lean back slightly and keep tension in your arms to Give Weight. The figure will go more smoothly, and you'll have more fun!

A Few More Complicated Steps
In the Becket Formation, couples face couples across the set at the beginning of the dance. Becket dances often require more attention at the end of the set than do other contra dances.

Box the Gnat is an elegant way to change places. Partners join right hands, then exchange places as the woman walks under their raised joined hands. In contrast, the California Twirl
starts with the partners joining near hands (man's right with woman's left). Partners exchange
places as the woman walks under their raised joined hands.

Contra Corners start with the men in one line facing the women in the other line. Usually, the Ones dance the figure, with the Twos assisting. If you are a One, as you face your partner across the set, your First Corner is the Two to the right of your partner, and your Second Corner
is the Two to the left of your partner.
One Man goes down the set; One woman goes up.
1. Turn your partner by the right half way,
2. turn your First Corner (right of your partner – down the set) by the left once around,
3. turn your partner by the right once around, (left of your partner - up the set)
4. turn your Second Corner by the left once around,
5. and meet your partner in the center, usually following with a balance and swing.
Middles initiate super-contra corners, turning right with each other (using contra-style allemande grip or cupping elbow hold), left to right-hand opposite, each other, left-hand-opposite, each other, left-hand partner, each other, right-hand-partner.

A Figure Eight is danced by one couple around another. The object is to change places with your partner. For example, if the Ones start a Figure Eight from below the Twos, they walk up the set in between the Twos and cross the set, walk around the Twos and finish opposite their partner in their partner's original place. To avoid collision in the center, the woman starts the figure just before her partner.

The Hey for Four looks harder than it is. The caller will specify who starts the hey, and by which shoulder. For example, Hey for Four with the Women Starting by the Right Shoulder: the women walk past each other in the center, passing by their right shoulders (just like the beginning of the Ladies Chain, but without touching hands). They pass the men on the sides by the left shoulder. The men pass each other in the center by the right shoulder. They pass the women on the sides by the left shoulder. (You've now completed Half a Hey and are on the opposite side of the set from where you started.)
Youtube video clip of St. Louis, MO Contra Dance
YouTube video clip of Contra Dancing

Click here for an alternate intro to basic dance figures for both Contra and English Country Dance.

Click here for a variety of other introductory articles about contra dancing.

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