Introduction to Contra Dancing

Every square dancer can dance Contra too, provided he can listen to the music. For a start, there are no new movements, just some simple rules, and a different style of dancing.

Contra dancing means dancing pre-set routines to the phrasing of the music. The caller tells only, what will be danced; the music says, when it is danced - and how long. A typical contra dance music contains in every sequence 8 melody lines with 8 beats to each of them, just as a typical singing call music. Consequently, in the dance routine there must be 8 dance movements, with 8 steps allotted to every movement.

“Up” means in contra dancing the side where the music is (and most often the caller, too). “Down” consequently means the other side of the floor.

The most common formation for contra dancing is the Alternate Duple Minor Formation. That means: in a lane (two lines of dancers facing each other) there stand in every line alternately men and women, and your partner stands across from you in the other line. (In contra dancing, partner always means the one who came with you into the set, no matter where he/she is at the moment.) Now if you take your partner by the hand and face that way that the man stands on the left side, the lady on the right, you will face another couple. Those couples facing down are couples #1 or active couples, those facing up are couples #2 or passive couples. The two couples facing each other dance the given routine. During this routine they exchange places (progression), so that for the next sequence, they dance the same routine with another couple. As you can see, couples #1 always move down, couples #2 move up, until they come to the end of the lane.

When you face along the lane, as said above, you face your corner (in the same sense as in square dancing). Very often, this person is also referred to as neighbor ,especially if you already changed places with the other couple.

At the end of the lane, couples must wait for one sequence, change places (unless there is an automatic crossover), and then join the dance again with the other number and the other role.

Some contras have “double progression”. That means, couples move on two places with every sequence. In this case, there is very little waiting time at the ends.

Good contra dancer never stop to wait for the next movement. They use up all of the music. You may be used to dance a ladies chain or a right and left thru with 6 steps. In contra dancing, put some momentum into the courtesy turn, and dance these basics with 8 steps. And most square dancers, in self-defense against the caller, are used to swing just 4 steps and then wait for the next call. In contra dancing, you swing 8 steps, or even more - the music will tell you.

A contra lane can dance successfully only if all the dancers dance the right movements at the right time. Therefore the caller will walk through the dance and explain it, before you dance it to music. Nevertheless, confusion happens now and then. In a square, you would return to your home position and wait for a chance to start again. In a contra lane, you do not keep a home position. Nevertheless it is possible to regroup, if you remember some simple rules:

Above all, do not argue. It would make matters worse. If confusion happened at the foot end of the lane, form a standard couple with your partner, face up and wait for the next couple to come your way - and remember, you will now be couple #2. Similarly, at the top you should face down, and remember to be an active couple, when you dance again. If confusion happened in the middle of the lane, in most cases two couples will be involved. In that case, form a standard couple with your neighbor, and make sure your partner is across from you. Do not restart in the middle of the sequence; wait for the start of the next sequence.

But if above and below you two couples are dancing happily, then go down to the foot end with your partner and wait there.

If you are smart enough to follow these rules, you will probably need them very rarely.

Enjoy it, and remember: Contra dance is moving to the melody of the music.

Heiner Fischle

This article is about Contra Dancing in CONTRALAB Style.
And here you find an article by Clark Baker about Traditional Contra Dance

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Published 2003-01-01  /  Heiner Fischle, Hannover, Germany