Dancers will not automatically line up in longways sets; they wait for you to announce the format. They will be more attentive than an American crowd: you'll only need to say “Take hands four” once, and they will listen to the instructions! We say “ones and twos” rather than “actives and inactives” (“actives” really doesn't mean much in modern contras anyway). We say “reel of four” rather than “hey”, though most people will understand “hey”. We usually say “ladies” rather than “women” (but people in England tend to be politer so they won't come up to you and tell you that they don't like something you've said). We use a hands-across star (except possibly in squares); we don't twirl at all; we give right hands in a right and left through. If you say “actives cast off” you probably won't get any interaction with neighbors — you'll need to say “assisted cast” — and even then some men will be reluctant to put their arms round another man. I suggest you don't call a dance where the two men swing each other.
Please don't run the dance as long as you would in the States. In England, 7 times through is the norm — possibly because a lot of clubs rely on recorded music. I usually let a contra run 9 times through, unless it's a complex dance and I feel they're relishing getting it right at last. They will get bored; they'll think “OK, we've done this dance — let's move on to something else”. And the bands in England don't pile on the excitement the way they do in the States.
When the dance finishes, they won't rush off to find a new partner and line up again. They will wait politely for you to say something. You might say “That was going well — shall we do a few more turns?” You might say “Stay there — we'll do another one” (I sometimes call two dances in the same formation together). If you want them to go away you have to SAY something. Some callers use “Have a rest”, “Clear the floor”, “Break up the sets”, “Next dance” (which is confusing as it suggests the next dance will follow immediately, which it won't). My standard phrase is “That's all of that one”. At this point the sets will disperse. A few people will stay on the floor talking; the great majority will go and sit down. This doesn't mean they want to sit out the next dance; they expect a one- or two-minute break while the caller decides what to call next, talks to the band about the music, and then announces the name (novel concept to contra callers) and the formation of the next dance. Don't think this means all the dancers are old and feeble (though there's certainly not the energy you find in the States); psychologically a two-minute sit down means they feel rested and ready for the next dance. In the States I've often found that the dancers form lines and then stand there for a couple of minutes before the caller starts the walkthrough — indeed Tony Parkes recommends this procedure in his book on calling.
Many (possibly most) people in England dance with the same partner almost all evening. I know Americans see this as blatant immorality, but it's what we're used to. If you finish a contra and say “Switch around” they won't know what you're talking about. You can certainly start the evening with an explanation that in your country the custom is to do each dance with a different partner, and encourage them to assimilate this novel concept, but don't push it!
There is no center-set syndrome in England, nor is there any prejudice against squares (or triplets, circle mixers, mescolanzas or any other formation you wish to indulge in). You will find dancers in England better at squares than contra dancers in the States.
In England there is no requirement that every contra have a neighbor swing, a partner swing or any swing at all — the best-known contra is “Devil's Dream” which has no swing. I tend to avoid contras which have two swings, or a 16-count swing, unless I have a young energetic crowd — they just won't see the point. On the other hand, they have a lot more patience than the average contra crowd, so you can take longer with the walkthrough and try some more interesting dances. It does seem to me that a lot of modern contra dance composers get the obligatory two swings out of the way first, and then think “OK, now what shall I put in to make this one memorable?”.
If you say “balance and swing”, what you will probably get is: in the South of England a kick-balance right, left, right, left, in the Midlands or North a Playford-style setting movement twice, followed by an 8-count swing. I suggest that you start the evening by explaining that in the States you give hands (you can specify “two hands” or leave it to them), balance forward and back once, and then have a longer swing. Ask them to try it and they'll probably be perfectly willing, but you'll have to remind them occasionally: “…circle left three quarters, pass through, give two hands to your new neighbor and balance once — and swing”.
Bands in England often don't include a piano (an accordion is much more likely) and may not know what you mean by “four potatoes”. They will probably expect to start with two lead-in notes, one beat (half a measure) each (which you could think of as “two potatoes”), but may be willing to accommodate your strange desire so long as you explain in advance what you want. If they try it and are clearly (and audibly) unhappy with it, I suggest you let them go back to what they and the dancers are used to. Just make sure that after the walkthrough you remind the dancers how it starts before you signal the band, and there won't be any problem. As a lead-in to a square, a fiddle-led band may give you two measures of “scrapes”, (dah-diddy-dah-diddy-dah-diddy-dah) — which is the same length as “four potatoes”.
We don't segregate “American” and “English” dances the way you do; my typical Saturday evening dance would start with a Playford-style longways, and I'd then say “Stay there — we'll do an American contra”. People will probably expect you to do an all-American program — but there wouldn't be any protest if you decided to throw in a couple of English dances.
Some dancers in England say to me “Real American square dancers do so-and-so”, and what they are referring to is Modern Western Square Dancing (Club Square). Please point out that while MWSD is a big thing it certainly isn't the only square dancing done in the States, and that the callers they've heard of (such as Tony Parkes, Ted Sannella, Tom Hinds and Gene Hubert) come from the traditional side of things.
If you're calling at a Festival (such as Chippenham, Lichfield, Eastbourne, Southam, Sidmouth) and your event is called a Workshop, please make sure you run a Workshop and not just another dance. People expect to do more challenging dances at a Workshop, possibly with a longer walkthrough, possibly with some style points, and they will be willing to listen. I've seen contra callers at Sidmouth who had no idea of the standard of dancers there and just didn't have the repertoire to keep them interested.
Please don't do almost all longways dances; we like a wider range than that. And don't assume that for an evening dance people want a simple well-known program (though as I've said, your idea of “well-known” will be very different from ours). Most dancers rise to a challenge — they don't want a workshop, but they like some dances they can get their teeth into. Don't be afraid to call a Playford-style dance with three totally different figures. Some experienced dancers find that if the program is too simple they feel even more tired and tend to switch off and make silly mistakes. One caller from the States sent me his proposed program and it was far too simple. I made some suggestions, and during the weekend he thanked me publicly on two occasions, having realised how wide of the mark his original ideas were.
There are words which mean different things in England and America (such as “bathroom”, “suspenders”, “concessions” and “pants”), so watch out for things which aren't quite as they seem! For instance, in England “Folk Dancing” means English, American or both; it doesn't mean International. If you want to find out about International dancing, see The Society for International Folk Dancing.
Dancers in England wear normal casual clothes. It doesn't get so hot here as in New England, and the dancing isn't nearly so aerobic, so you don't need to dress as if you were off to the gym!
In England the big dances are usually on a Saturday evening (occasionally a Friday) — that's where you tend to get a well-known caller and a band. On weekday evenings you get club dances, which may be anything from twenty to eighty dancers, usually with recorded music, often with a “club caller” — a club member who calls regularly or occasionally at his/her club but is unknown to the rest of the country. Some of these are very good; some are atrocious! Try a Saturday dance before you condemn us all. Both Club nights and dances will usually have a break (known as an interval) half-way through. A Club will probably serve tea and coffee with a biscuit (cookie), and in the summer perhaps squash (which is a fruit drink over here, not a vegetable). A Saturday dance in the South of England will often have food provided by the Club members, possibly included in the ticket price, possible paid for by the item. In the Midlands and the North, food is rather less common. You're unlikely to find alcoholic drink at our events, unless they're at a hall where there's a separate bar for other events. Bars don't make much money from folk dancers!
You will also meet that quaint old English custom: the raffle. You buy one or more numbered tickets (possibly a strip of five) and corresponding numbers are put into some kind of container. At some time (possibly at the end of the break) a number of tickets will be drawn, and the lucky winners get to choose their prize from a table. If you've already won a prize and a second ticket of yours is drawn, it's customary (but not obligatory) to call out “put it back”!
If you're a contra dancer, you'll find that we still tend to dance many of the older contras where there's more neighbor than partner interaction. Don't expect a partner swing (or a swing at all) in every dance — we don't see that as the main point of a contra. And don't ask “Are there any contra dances round here?” — we don't normally segregate English and contra, so people won't know what to say. Some callers are known for doing an English program, some for squares and contras, some for a mixture, so ask around. And be aware that what we mean by “English” may be different from what you mean by it; my experience in the States is that when people say “English” they mean “Playford-style”. The traditional side of English dancing seems to have been dropped in the States — and I admit that it's falling out of favor on this side of the pond in some cases — but you may still meet traditional dances involving rant, polka and hornpipe steps. I used to suggest brushing up on your rant step before you come over, to impress the natives, but these days so few people are calling rants that it's not worthwhile. Even if you go to an evening of Playford-style dances, you may find the repertoire quite different from what you are used to in the States; many of your classic “English” dances are almost unknown here. And I'm afraid you won't get the eye contact you expect — most people are uncomfortable with it, so try to tone it down.
Things have changed a little since I originally wrote this page of notes, and you may find a fairly genuine contra dance in a few places, for instance Alcester, and also some festivals. In 2013 Burt Hunter shot this short video of us dancing contras in the aisles of a church at Chippenham Folk Festival: not ideal, but it was a great dance with Sue Rosen calling, George Wilson and Bruce Rosen playing. Click the image to see Renata (in the light green top) dancing with Norman Bearon, me (in the black top) dancing with Helen Battilana, and if you dance in England you'll probably recognise lots of other people too.
If you think our dances aren't aerobic enough, or you want to experience traditional-style dancing at its best, try going to a ceilidh. The energy there would wear out the average contra dancer in half an hour! And there will probably be a bar for alcoholic drinks, and maybe tables in the dance hall where you can sit, drink and recover from your exertions.
If you go along to an English Folk Dance Club, the caller may do a couple of squares during the evening. You will find them very simple (nothing above Basic level) and wonder why the caller needs to walk them through at all. We do a buzz-step swing rather than a walked swing, and we use hands rather than forearms for an allemande. You're bound to meet other differences that I haven't thought of, so maybe the walkthrough isn't such a bad idea after all! Mainly the squares are fitted to the music, which is usually not a consideration in MWSD, so try to listen to the phrasing rather than doing each move as soon as possible. In particular, a swing is not just once around; it's normally to the end of the phrase — indeed, it's until the caller gives the next move. With English and contra dances again the emphasis is (or should be) on dancing to the music. You will also find the calling less precise than in MWSD — another reason for having a walkthrough. And you will find in a repetitive dance such as a longways, a good caller will gradually fade out the calling so that people are dancing to the music rather than to him. Be ready for this!
I suggest you don't overdo the costume — wear normal casual clothes.
Please feel free to distribute this (complete and unchanged) wherever you wish. The latest version is at colinhume.com/american.htm. If you have questions, comments or disagreements, please Contact me — I'll be pleased to hear from you.