BackContra Dance Technique



Some English dancers in the States would think that “Contra Dance Technique” is a contradiction in terms, but that isn't true — you can dance contras well or badly, just like any other dance form.  It's true that a lot of people dance them badly, but I'm sure there are some who would like to improve!  These notes start with some advice to the caller, then move on to advice to the dancers.

For the caller

I believe that calling a contra is exactly the same as calling a Playford-style dance.  You need to walk the dance through carefully enough; you need to call ahead of the beat; you need to be lively and enthusiastic.  The only problem I can think of that's specific to calling contras is end effects, mentioned below.  When you're preparing the dance, go through it with your bits of cardboard, and do it twice, carefully — the second time when you have neutrals is probably when end effects will show up.  If the people standing out have to stand in some unusual position, it's up to you to tell them so, and you'll need to emphasise it: they won't believe it can happen to them!

Where do you find contras?  There are the classics from the CDMs like Devil's Dream and Bucksaw Reel, but some of the others are pretty boring — and that's the criticism you may get from people who don't like American dances.  There are books, which in the UK you may be able to get from Derek and Ann Appleing, such as “Dizzy Dances” by Gene Hubert and “Shadrack's Delight” by Tony Parkes.  My favourite is “Zesty Contras” by Larry Jennings, which contains about 350 contras (in abbreviated notation), some triplets (three couple longways) and other formations, and “Provocative Explanatory Text” where Larry goes into all aspects of contras — calling, composing, running dances and much more.  Larry's second book “Give and Take” has more of the same.

Watch out for contras by English writers which contain lots of figures imported from Modern Western Square (including some of mine).  These are not what Americans would recognise as contras, and you may have to spend a long time teaching figures like flutter-wheel, box circulate or wheel and deal.

Of course you can pick up contras from other callers, which at least means you've danced them and you know they work — provided you wrote them down right!  Most callers will be happy for you to copy out their card, which should also have the writer's name and maybe other information.

Then there's the World-Wide Web, on which you will find thousands of contras.  Use a search engine, and once you've found some you'll probably find links to others.  For instance, Gene Hubert stopped publishing books some time before he died — his newer contras are archived on the web for anyone to print out and use: web.archive.org/web/19990504072442/ kooshball.kcomputing.com/contra/genescontras.html and there's a similar page for his newer squares.  Cary Ravitz has a large number of contras on his site at ravitz.us/dance — together with an explanation of his rules for writing contras which are well worth reading if you write contras or want a clear idea of what the American expectations are.  Rick Mohr has a good selection at rickmohr.net/Contra/Dances.asp.  If these links don't work, try a search engine — people may change their web site address or restructure the pages.  You just have to use your judgement on what you find, and discover whose contras you like and whose you don't.  Probably many of them are not worth doing — probably some don't even work.  Sift the wheat from the chaff — that's always your job when you're finding new material.

But be warned — the whole ethos of dancing in the States is different.  They change partners every dance, and they demand a partner swing and a neighbour swing in virtually every dance.  I find I have quite a different repertoire when calling in the States.  So you have to be selective, and you may find you want to change the dance for dancers in England — put in a do-si-do first rather than a 16-count swing.  I think that's acceptable provided you tell people you've changed it.

On the other hand I think if we're dancing contras in England we should try to do them the way they do in the States — I feel the same way about doing Scottish dances.  So I try to persuade people to give two hands, balance forward and back once, then have a longer swing.  Most people will do it, if you're positive.

For the dancers

One problem that's almost specific to contras is End effects.  I now have a whole set of notes on this; here's the precis.  If the whole dance is within the minor set (you only dance with one couple for the whole turn of the dance), end effects don't happen — you just wait out one whole turn of the dance.  But when you get “Ladies chain on the right diagonal” followed by “Ladies chain on the left diagonal” you're into end effects, and there are some dances where these can throw even the experienced dancers — I go down the set thinking “This is easy”, then get to the end and find I'm totally lost.  In most cases, if you're out at the end you face into the set with the man on the left and the lady on the right — and stay awake.  But sometimes this won't work; you have to stand in an unusual position.  If you come to the end couple and they're in the wrong place, or not ready for the next move, it's probably an indication that you will be facing the same problem in turn.  If there's a move you do with a shadow, it's absolutely guaranteed that while you are standing out your shadow will still want to do the move with you — so be there!  Some dancers seem to reboot their operating system as soon as they reach the end of the set — everything from then on is new and confusing.

One of the skills of a good dancer is seeing the whole picture, not just what you happen to be doing.  Suppose the dance starts: allemande left your neighbour 1½, allemande right the next 1½, swing the next.  Can you visualise what is happening, or do you just know what is happening to you?  When you reach the end of the set do you immediately switch off and lose all interest in the dance?  And are you then surprised four seconds later when someone of the same sex tries to swing you?  Or do you cross over immediately and watch attentively?  Or best of all, do you do the allemande right 1½ with your partner and keep dancing the whole time?  The golden rule at the end of the set, when there's no neighbour to do the next move with, is treat your partner as a neighbour — this will rarely let you down.

What else is there to contra dance technique?  Giving weight is very important, but some people dancing contras misinterpret this as meaning they should be rough with people.  Giving weight means you can feel that there's someone there — it's a tension between the two people.  You're probably leaning back slightly.  Your arm is tensed but not straight as a ramrod — a bent elbow is safer and also means you can turn more quickly.  But you're not trying to throw the other person over your shoulder; if it's a right-hand turn, you're both turning about the central point where your hands meet.  (Callers: It's always a difficult concept to explain, and you may find it useful to get down on the floor and demonstrate what you're talking about.  In particular, demonstrate it with a man who's doing it badly, so that he is forced to recognise the difference.)

Modern contras are designed to flow smoothly from one movement to the next, but some dancers don't see the connections and they're always putting in unnecessary spins.  When you're walking a dance through it's bound to be bitty — so I try to stress that for instance the dancers go straight from the right-hand star into the left-hand star with the next couple.

It's always risky to say “In the States they do it like this” — but a safe option for a balance is to give two hands, balance forward and back once, then swing.  Americans say, “A balance is preparation for a swing — why would you want to do it twice?”.  The pull back propels you into the swing.  The balance isn't a neat setting forward and back with a one-two three and a one-two three; it's more of a lurch with eye contact.

People at this workshop have asked me where the man's hand goes in a swing, and my (politically incorrect but easy to understand) answer is “on the bra strap”.  If she isn't… no, let's not go there!  Some people have disputed this (and not on the grounds of political correctness either), so the longer answer is to put the hand where it's comfortable for the lady.  Too high up the back means you're pushing her head forward.  Too low down means she's leaning back too far and her top half isn't supported.  I encourage the ladies to speak up if the hand isn't where they want it — most men are willing to adjust but simply don't know they're doing it wrong.  And one final recommendation chaps: don't twang the bra strap unless you know her really well!

When I've danced contras in the States, a star is almost always done as a pack-saddle or wrist grip hold — you put your hand over the wrist of the person in front of you.  Keep the thumb on top too; you don't need a vice-like grip to hold the star together.  In fact Playford-style callers in the States don't usually say “star” for fear of closet contra dancers doing the pack-saddle; they say “hands across”.  Sometimes the pack-saddle works well in contras (and squares), but it's slower to get into and the great thing about hands across is that if the opposite man is hesitant I can grab his hand, rather than putting my hand over one lady's wrist and hoping that he will take the hint and put his hand over the other's.  There are a few contras where the writer actually specifies “hands across” or “wrist grip” for a star.  I don't think things are going to change in England for some time yet, and people will continue to use hands across for contras (though men in particular tend to use a pack-saddle star in squares, as they do in Modern Western Square Dancing).  What I do object to is the bunch of bananas, where people just stick their hands up randomly into the middle.  Apart from the fact that it looks and feels a mess, you can't give any weight like this, so if the star needs to go all the way round in eight steps it's almost impossible.

Larry Jennings in his book “Zesty Contras” defines the dancing in the Boston area (in 1983) as: “zesty, purposeful, extroverted, smooth, meticulously phrased, strongly connected, vigorous New England contra dancing”, and that's a great list to aim at.  Then he goes into each of these attributes in more detail.  He describes “Zesty” as follows:

A zesty dancer puts more than the minimum enthusiasm into a dance with the expectation of more than the minimum reward.

Just think about that one for a moment.  Are you a zesty dancer?  Or do you say “Oh, I can't be bothered with all that.”?

Larry describes one of the aspects of the “New England” style as “vigorous, thumb-grasp allemandes”, and here I disagree.  I'm not advocating the “shake hands” hold that we use in Playford-style dances — you need a stronger grip to turn more quickly — but linking thumbs can be dangerous if somebody slips, so I recommend leaving the thumbs in with the fingers rather than grasping with them.  At the other extreme, some men in the States give a totally flat hand, presumably so that the other man has nothing to grab hold of — I think that's awful!  Keep your elbow down and move in closer than you would for a Playford-style turn, and provided you're giving weight you won't have any problem.

Contra dancers in the States are often not good on timing — particularly finishing a swing in time for the next movement.  Lisa Greenleaf in her “Contra Style” workshop does a brilliant imitation of a dancer totally ignoring the caller and doing lots of twirls and flourishes before realising that the dance has moved on.  In England it tends to be the other way round; there are dancers who swing once or twice and then just stand there with their hands out, waiting for the music to get to the “Lines forward and back” bit.  I accept that dancers in England are older than typical contra dancers in the States, but my view is that you don't have to swing fast provided you keep moving to the end of the musical phrase.  One aspect of being a good dancer is using the right style for each type of dance, and the style you would use for a slow Playford dance simply isn't suitable for a fast contra.

Some dances which I use to demonstrate contra dance technique are:

TitleAuthorReferencePurpose
ContrablendCary Ravitzhttp://ravitz.us/dance/#cbBasic figures, with and without twirls
Celebrating 70Linda Lesliehttp://www.lindalesliecaller.website/duple-minor.htmlRory O'More and Petronella twirls
Dar TrekCary Ravitzhttp://ravitz.us/dance/#dkAction outside the minor set
StarcrossedCary Ravitzhttp://ravitz.us/dance/#scAction outside the minor set
Al's Safeway ProduceRobert CromartieGive and Take, 2004Wrist grip star
Magnetic ResonanceTed HodappContra*Butions 3, 1997Harder than it looks!
Moving PiecesDave Colestockhttp://home.comcast.net/~davecolestock/dances.html#movingRory O'More twirl

Groove

This section was a posting to the Contra Corner List in November 2006 by Grace Jackson and generated many comments from dancers, musicians and callers.
The groove is what very often differentiates American contra from English contra, in an idealized sense, though I have been to some pretty grooveless American contras and some seriously grooving English ones.

The groove is that feeling you get when a everything about a contra is going right, that you are a very efficient part of a very well-oiled machine which is whirring along perfectly.  It's to do with the dance being a well-written one, the music being smooth and infectious, driving you to follow it, the people you're dancing with also being in the groove (which means moving very perfectly in time to the music, not late and not early, as well as feeling the mood of the music and conveying it in their movements: dancing, rather than walking it through over and over).

It's what leaves you smiling and glowing after a dance, invigorated by the experience rather than exhausted or bored by it.

The music is probably the most important ingredient…  I can only be quite vague here, as a non-musician, but the music sometimes feels quite stiff and formulaic to me, but sometimes it grooves: you can tell the musicians are somewhat lost in the moment, they are expressing genuine excitement about the tune through the emphasis of certain notes, putting a lot of feeling into it, usually it builds and builds, you can tell it's working when it reaches a peak, they change tune suddenly and the crowd goes wild.  People on the dance floor whooping is a sign of groove.

The dances need to be flowing ones, devoid of stupid transitions like back to back into ladies chain.  The transitions should facilitate people's use of that elastic connection between them to move through it.  One should never have to change trajectory without having someone's hand to help them do it by giving good weight.  And if everyone in the set understands this principle, that helps as well, because it's no good trying to give weight to someone with spaghetti arms.

A caller cannot create groove, but can call so as not to disturb it.  That is, by calling with the beats of the music, as if the words are part of the music's rhythm, and choosing phrases like “do-si-do the one below” rather than “do-si-do your neighbour”.  Many good callers sort of bop around while calling, and I think that's because they have a good understanding of groove; they're into it.  Also, by accurately judging when to shut up and let the dancers just enjoy it: they maintain groove once it is achieved, but do that too early and it interrupts the groove because people are having to think what to do next.

Wow, I didn't realize I had so much to say on the subject.  Hope it was helpful.

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