BackComposing Dances

I've used this set of notes at workshops (classes) at Dance Weeks in England and the States, though there is more here than I covered then.  It was produced for my use, so don't expect it to read like a book.  The arrows are where I'm asking the participants to do something, or giving them further information not covered here.  If you'd l to run a class for you, please let me know!

Gene Murrow adopted a completely different approach when he gave a Dance Composition class at Pinewoods in 2000 (see the bottom of this page for his checklist) — he started by asking people what dances they really liked, and what they liked about them, and then built up from there.  And I'm sure some people would prefer his approach and some would prefer my more analytical mathematical approach.  Just make sure that you're not too mathematical — there are some modern dances which are more like puzzles than dances.  I remember Charles Bolton saying of one well-known writer's dances: “They're not dances for four couples; they're dances for eight people”.  I try to avoid this — if you've been walked through a dance and still aren't sure who your partner is, things are not right!

I'm going to try to show you how and why I compose dances — other people may tell you quite different things.  Please stop me at any time and ask questions if you're not sure what I mean or you don't agree with me.  After that we'll try writing some dances — either in groups or individually, as you prefer.

To be blunt:  Why compose a new dance?  Aren't there enough already?  No-one considered composing dances while Cecil Sharp was alive.  He collected them from dancers in the villages, or reconstructed them from the original Playford books — and those were what you used.  When Maggot Pie was published a few years after his death the authors came in for a lot of criticism — how dare they write new dances?!  You still meet the attitude that a composed dance can't be as good as a real dance.  It's worth remembering that all dances were composed at some time.  Some may have been through the Folk Process — passed on orally, and modified by many people both accidentally and deliberately.  I bet most Playford dances didn't though — they were probably published not long after they were composed.

Why compose a new dance?

There are many reasons.

So you've decided to write a dance.  Where do you start?

Some important ingredients   Top of page

Style, Format, Music, Complexity and Energy.

One or more of these may be determined by the reason you're writing it.  “Peter's Maze”, for instance — I was told Peter didn't like Playford-style dances and did like American squares, so that was my starting point — and it was to be danced at Eastbourne Folk Festival so it needed to be challenging.  “Starters Orders” — I wanted a dance to warm people up after a ramble.  “Helena” — she's a sweet gentle lady, so I wanted a Playford-style dance — but it was for a wedding dance with lots of beginners, so it had to be fairly easy.

Style   Top of page

I'm distinguishing John Playford (three figures started with Up a Double, Siding and Arming) from 17th/18th century longways duple or triple minor.  Playford introductions are still going strong — as in “Unrequited Love”, “Mayfair”, “Oxford Circus” and dozens of others.  Add a set and turn single after each, and you've got half the dance.  English Traditional (now often referred to as Ceilidh-style): rant, polka, step-hop, waltz.  American — mainly squares and contras, but a smattering of other formations: we'll look at them shortly.  Composer's own style within these — Fried Herman uses steps and moves which are distinctively hers, and I'm sure others do too.  Other — I've written a few.  “My Lady Marion” is in the style of a 15th century Basse Dance; I've also written “The Irish Swing” which is Irish-ish, “The Promised Land” which is Scottish, and “A Trip to Sweden” which purports to be Swedish.  But this list is a good start.  You must have a clear idea of what style you're aiming at, and stick to it.  It bothers me when the caller is walking through a dance and I can't see what style it's supposed to be in.  “Allemande left your corner, set and turn single” is not on.  Dutch composers seem particularly bad at mixing styles.  Yes, I admit I have done it.  “Centre of Friends” is deliberately a mixture of English and Scottish, because that's what the person who commissioned it wanted — I think that's a special case.  “The Twist of Fate” is Playford-style but ends with a swing — it's not right; I should have used two-hand turns.  Pat Shaw's “Clarance House” is again a Playford-style square, but the finale involves allemande left, right and left grand, and all four ladies chain.  I think Pat misjudged it.  Similarly I see “Long Live London” as mainly an American-style Sicilian circle (though some people dispute this), but it ends with a set and turn single just to fill up the last four bars.  Be consistent.

Perhaps I should indicate which figures are appropriate to which style.  Stars and circles come in all styles (though half-stars are a 20th century phenomenon), as do reels (heys) of three and four, do-si-do (back-to-back) and (in squares of all types) grand chain (grand right and left).  But Long lines forward and back is very much an American figure; earlier styles kept strictly within the minor set, so you could lead your current neighbour forward and back (two neighbours in a triple minor) but you wouldn't take hands with your previous or next neighbour.  You might get an open ladies' chain in an early dance such as Sharp's interpretation of “Parsons Farewell”, but the figure came into its own in the 19th century quadrilles, and the version with the man's arm round the waist is, I would say, 20th century.  Similarly you would get two changes of a circular hey in an early dance, though it would have been called “right and left”, but right and left through (with a courtesy turn and the man going backwards) is relatively modern.  A ballroom hold swing is also relatively modern.  Turn contra corners isn't in Playford but is in all the other styles.

Up a double and back is mainly Playford, though it does appear occasionally as late as 1721 (“Huntington's Maggot”) or even 1735 (“Meillionen”) though this has identical wording to “Row well ye Mariners” (Playford 1651) so I'm dubious.  Siding is definitely early Playford (and was called “Sides all”) and I feel the same is true of armingSet appears in Playford and 17th-18th century dances, but not in English Traditional or American.  Turn single is again just early Playford.

It's also worth pointing out that traditional-style dances are generally simple, so if you write something mind-bending it probably won't qualify as traditional-style in my opinion.  Though there is Six and Sixpenny Rant which is very demanding but is based on a much simpler traditional dance.  It doesn't do to be too dogmatic about these things!

Format   Top of page

The second important ingredient: Format or Formation.  Here are the standard shapes.

And I can think of examples in each of these categories where you have a unit of three people rather than two.  Of course, there are lots of special formats — often with just one well-known dance in each: “Dorset Four-Hand Reel”, “Dargason”, “The Pride of the Pingle”, “Levi Jackson Rag”, “The American Husband”, “The Bunch of Fives”, “K & E”, “The Magnificent Seven”…  But before you rush off to write your 17-couple square, may I suggest that you start with a standard format and work up to that gradually.

If you really want to think about different formations, John Sweeney has a page: with over 100 to choose from.

And there are also dances that change format part-way through: Square to 4 couple longways; Sicilian Circle to ordinary Circle, Double longways to Square.

Occasionally I change my mind about the format part-way through the development process.  “Mr Handel's Minuet” started out as three couples longways, but the way the progression turned out it had to be triple minor.  “Elegy” started as 4 couples longways the first time I tried it out, but it's one which drifts between several formats and it was awkward getting back into the longways formation at the end of each turn of the dance — so now it starts in a square.

So you've decided on 3 couple Playford style, or longways traditional style.  What next?  The third important ingredient: the Music.

Music — Rhythm   Top of page

RhythmTime SignatureExample
Reel2:2 or 4:4Newcastle
Rant2:2Morpeth Rant
Polka2:2Bluebell Polka
Jig6:8(Single):  Pop Goes the Weasel
(Double):  Irish Washerwoman
Slip-Jig9:8Sir Roger de Coverley
Hornpipe12:8   (4:4)
Waltzing Matilda
Dick's Maggot
Waltz3:4The Ash Grove
MixturesFour Winds
OthersThe Fifth Dimension

In Irish music you may see a time-signature of 12/8 which is called a Slide and is like two bars of jig time glued together.  So the melody has 4 beats in the bar (strong-weak-weak-weak) instead of 2 (strong-weak) — rather like the difference between a reel and a polka — which makes it more “flowy”.

You don't need to play an instrument, or be able to write (or even read) music.  You do need to know what the various rhythms sound like.  The best way is to remember one example of each — a tune you know well.  Don't be intimidated by the rare band-leader out to prove that he's a musician and you're not; most musicians couldn't tell you the difference between 2:2 and 4:4, or between a rant and a polka.  Here are my definitions.

You can also mix rhythms.  In “Red and Gold” and “The Valentine's Day Massacre” I alternate between a jig and a reel, with the reel substantially slower.  In “Clarance House”, Pat Shaw does the same thing, but the reel and jig are the same tempo.  The same in “Monk's March with the Wanders”.  Don't believe anyone who tells you that a jig is faster than a reel.  In “Mr Felton's Retirement” I alternate between triple-time and jig, both with the same beat though the jig seems a lot faster. In “Garden City Square” I alternate two bars of jig-time with two bars of slip-jig.  In “Christine's Conundrum” the A and B music each have four bars of reel-time, four bars of three-time and six bars of reel-time.

I recommend that unless you're quite experienced at dance composition you choose either a jig or a reel and stick to it.

  Any questions about musical rhythm?

  Let's try dancing some figures to different rhythms and see how they feel in action.

Music — Bars and Tunes   Top of page

Lines and bars

Again, let me reassure you that you don't have to be a musician.  The commonest format — 95% or more of all English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh and American dances — is 32 bars, which is 64 beats.

  Explain A's and B's of “Newcastle”.

One bar is two steps of reel or jig time.  It's what bands are used to, and I strongly recommend you start here.  32 bars is once through a longways dance (“Morpeth Rant”, “Childgrove”, “Rory O'More”, “The Bishop”), once through a progressive three-couple dance (“Devon Bonny Breastknot”, “Chelmsford Assembly” and lots of others which were originally triple minor), or one figure of a Playford three-figure dance (“Newcastle”, “The Boatman”).  In New England Squares, the figure and the break are each normally 32 bars — so opening break, figure twice for the heads, middle break, figure twice for the sides, final break gives the standard 7 x 32 bars.  I frequently use 32 bar tunes myself — in my first book they accounted for 9 of the 12.

48 bars is the next commonest — though much more so in England than America.  A band in England will take any normal 32-bar tune and convert it to a 48-bar tune by playing AA, BB, AB.  Bands in the States don't know about this — they say “Oh you want a three-part tune” and start worriedly searching through their repertoire.  40 bars is rare, and I'd say 24 bars is even rarer.

Of course you don't have to stick with 8 bars in a line — I've used 5, 6, 10 and 12 — but then you might find yourself writing your own tune.  And you can have combinations like an 8-bar A music and a 10-bar B-music if you want to.  But please start with a 32-bar tune!  The dancers will be happier.  The band will be happier, and if you're using recorded music you'll have a lot more choice.


You can write one.  You can ask a friend to write one for you, in which case you need to be very specific about what you want, and you mustn't be afraid to say “No, that's not really what I want” — any reasonable composer would prefer to be told this and then go away and change it until you're happy with it.  Or find a tune that you like — preferably choose one that doesn't already have a well-known dance to it.  Or you can say: “Any 32-bar American reel”.  “Lively 48-bar jigs” (you'll get “Dingle Regatta” and “Sweets of May”).  “Any 32-bar Playford-style reel” (that can cause consternation among bands — much more so in the States than in England).  It can still be useful to suggest a tune, just to show the band what sort of thing you have in mind even if they then choose something else — assuming you're calling this dance yourself.

I usually write my own tunes.  Sometimes the tune comes first: I wrote the tune for “The Indian Princess” years before I wrote the dance.  Sometimes the dance comes first: in my book “Dances with a Difference, Volume 5” there are seven where I only wrote the tunes when I decided to put the dances in the book.  [“The Clocks go forward tonight”, “The Clocks go back tonight”, “Tea Up!”, “Thursday Night Flash”, “Well Done, Brenda”, “No Clapping!”, “Megalomania”.]  And sometimes I write the tune and dance together: “Unrequited Love”, “New York Times”.


Some dancers (and dance writers) enjoy complexity for its own sake.  Every move takes you somewhere else: what's the point in having the ladies chain across and back when that gets you nowhere?  Colin Wallace is a classic example of this approach — his dances are mathematical puzzles.  For American contras I would single out Cary Ravitz and Michael Fuerst.

If that's really what you want then go ahead, but be aware that it will take a long time to walk the dance through and it may break down more than once when the music starts.

On the other hand, the introduction to one of the Community Dance Manuals says that dances should be as simple as possible, which I certainly don't agree with.

I try to steer a middle course between these two approaches, and although some of my dances are very complex I hope they are still dances for people to enjoy.  If the dancers are in constant motion — every time they get somewhere they're off somewhere else — the dance will break down as soon as anyone hesitates.  Think about adding some “zero” moves (a useful term from MWSD) such as “Lines forward and back” or “Set and turn single” which give people a chance to breathe, or to get to the right place if they weren't already there.


Folk dancers are an ageing population, and while they may have enjoyed energetic dances in their youth they aren't so keen now, and in some cases they physically can't do them.  So think about the energy level as a whole, but also the proportion of energetic moves to gentler ones.  If there are gaps between the energetic moves your dance may be more successful.  For instance, the ones dance a figure of eight through the twos, and then the twos dance a figure of eight through the ones.  Each couple has a break while they watch the other couple.  In Cumberland Square Eight the head couples do a move and then the side couples repeat it; it's only in the final 16 bars that everyone is moving.  On the other hand if you're writing a ceilidh dance you may want the whole thing to be pretty violent!  Even in the traditional dances (certainly as danced now) the energy level isn't always high.  In Morpeth Rant, for instance, there's stepping in A1 but the stars in A2 are walked, and the ones walk down the middle while the twos either stand still or follow them depending on which version you use.  In Soldiers' Joy the ones walk down the outside and back while the twos stand still.  Some people may prefer to dance the whole thing, and that's fine, but if you give people permission to walk some bits they're more likely to dance the bits that you really want them to dance!

So you've chosen the style and format, you know what sort of tune is required, you've thought about how complex and energetic you'd like it to be.  What next?  What makes a good dance?  Because if it's not going to be a good one, why write it?  Why add to the vast morass of mediocre dances?

Of course, a good dance is to some extent personal preference.  If you just don't like American Squares, or rants, they'll never be “good” to you.  But I believe there are some general guidelines.

A Good Dance   Top of page

  It must fit the music.  Not just the right number of bars — though that's vital — but the right style.  I'm not saying every dance must have its own tune; Cecil Sharp put different tunes to many of the well-known Playford dances, including “Step Stately”, “Whirligig”, “Picking up Sticks” and “Lord Carnarvon's Jig”, and so did his successors with “The Bishop” and “The Freemason”.  If I call “Levi Jackson Rag”, I like the band to play other tunes (provided they start and finish with the original) — but they've got to be similar style: I wouldn't be happy if they played “Newcastle”.  And yet it would fit perfectly well.  They're both 32-bar reels — and so is “Morpeth Rant” when it comes down to it, though it's a particular kind of reel.  “Newcastle” would fit as a second tune to “Morpeth Rant”, and vice versa — but it wouldn't be right.

  It must flow (and don't forget this includes flowing from the end of one turn into the beginning of the next).  I don't like awkward turns.  A left-hand star into a ladies chain is awkward.  I think a swing into a ladies chain is awkward too, though it's very common in contras — it's such an abrupt change of direction.  Similarly a swing followed by the ladies passing right shoulder into a hey for four, which is why some modern contras start the hey with the men passing left shoulder which flows much better (if the men let it).  Often moves can be fine for the men but awkward for the ladies — probably because most dances are written by men.  A traditional contra may well have allemande left neighbour followed by the ones swing — fine for the man, but allemande left leaves the lady facing out.  Cecil Sharp's version of “Dick's Maggot” is very jerky and doesn't make sense; Pat Shaw's version (and perhaps even better, Colin Hume's version!) is much smoother, fits the music and in my opinion is a much better dance.  Any time the dancers think “Why?” and there's no answer, something's wrong.

  It needs a shape to it — some internal logic.  A dance needs to have some overall pattern, instead of being just a random collection of figures.  Modern Western Square Dance callers are brilliant at improvising a series of movements, each dovetailing into the next, but the whole thing doesn't hang together as a dance and ultimately leaves me unsatisfied.  The three-figure format of Playford dances automatically gives them a shape.  A dance is then a combination of the known (up a double, siding, arming, often each followed by set and turn single) and the unknown (the remainder of each figure).  Dances like “Fain I Would”, “Whirligig”, “Nonesuch” and “Newcastle” are complicated and quite different, but each is cast in three figures with the standard introductions.  Composers writing music often used sonata form, or rondo form — a structure on which to base the individual piece of music.  Pat Shaw dances are usually very logical, and therefore more satisfying (and more memorable) than a random collection of figures.  Study “Miss Bedlington's Fancy” and see how Pat uses the three Playford introductions, modified for a trio rather than a couple.  Instead of Up a double and back he uses circles left and right; into line siding with the man going between the two ladies; three-hand stars rather than arming.  And then in the main part of each figure he reuses the same ideas; the first has circles and two-hand turns, the second has back-to-back and reel of three (each of which starts by going into line); the third has stars of four men and three-hand stars with each pair of ladies.  It has a definite overall shape; I can easily remember it.  Look at my dance “Cecil Sharp House” — one of the most complicated I've yet written — and see the internal logic — the way each figure fits together by itself and yet relates to the other two.

  It needs something memorable or different.  I have over 500 American contras in my repertoire, and most of them flow well — but I can't remember them; they're just combinations of standard figures.  And yet “Devil's Dream” (the best-known contra in England) I can remember all the way through with no trouble.  It has a unique start — the ones lead down the middle while the twos move up the outside — and everything just follows from that.

Sometimes just one gimmick is all that is needed to make an ordinary dance into a good dance.  Brian Jones has a wonderful dance called “Snowflake Breakdown” in a double circle, which is very standard except for the progression where you swing the person on the diagonal and finish in each other's place, so that the dancers alternate between the inner and outer circles.  There are always men who try to swing for too long and finish in the wrong circle, moving rapidly away from where they ought to be, and this causes great hilarity (especially for the caller).  If I described the lines and crossover figure at the end of “Newcastle” as a gimmick, people would take exception — but you can almost hear the sighs of satisfaction (or relief) as the dancers get back to place.  “Ninepins”, “Lady Godiva's Galop” and “Heswall & West Kirby Jubilee” are all dances with a gimmick — and none the worse for that.

  It must be suitable for the people and the occasion.  A good dance for a group of novices at a barn dance will almost certainly be a bad dance at a Playford Ball — and vice versa.  Don't try to write a dance which will be suitable for everybody; it will probably end up being suitable for nobody.

  This one will surprise many people who are used to my impossible dances — a good dance need not be difficult!  Cumberland Square Eight is a superb dance.  It's easy — I call it at barn dances or for kids — but it should have enough in it for experienced dancers — the trouble is, dancers in England are too used to it.  If it was unknown and I introduced it, it would be a smash hit among younger dancers!

  Finally, it must not have a cop-out ending.  In 1995 I adjudicated a dance competition with 120 entries, and I was surprised how many times I wrote “cop-out ending” across the instructions.  The writer had obviously written three-quarters of the dance and then thought “OK — where do I want everyone to end up?  Let's have the first man change places with the third lady, and everyone two-hand turn their partner until they finish proper.”  That's just not good enough.  A good dance should look logical.  Sometimes I have to work very hard to make the whole thing flow naturally; I try lots of possibilities before coming up with one that works really well.  I might have to start with the ending position and work back, just to make sure it's logical.  For instance, in an American Square you wouldn't want to end the figure with: “Everybody swing your new partner.  Promenade to the man's home place.  Side ladies chain across.”  That's a cop-out — the ladies were out of sequence so you fixed it — and that's what it looks like.  But you could have “Side ladies chain across” earlier in the figure and nobody would question it.

Maybe you would say that my dance “The Heathfield Rag” has a cop-out ending, when everyone swings to finish proper.  I like to think I got away with it on that occasion!

A Bad Dance   Top of page

Longways duple improper
A1:Allemande left neighbour.  Swing neighbour.
A2:Ladies chain across.  Ladies pass right shoulder to start a reel of four.
B1:Finish the reel of four.  Left-hand star.
B2:Do-si-do opposite.  Ladies chain back.

Some composers would be quite happy with this one.  But it's jerky.  I think of allemande left as a change direction move — you finish with your back to the person you've turned — and then you have to swing them.  And there's a complete change of body flow from anti-clockwise to clockwise.  I've written it in A's and B's, so you can see that the hey is across the music — some people just list the figures.  Again, going from the left-hand star to a right shoulder do-si-do is very awkward — and if the room is crowded, having everyone do-si-do across the set at the same time is not going to be a good experience for the dancers.

  Let's try a few turns of this, to make sure you understand why I call it a bad dance!

I could easily write an American contra the same as hundreds of others.  It would be improper, and you'd swing your neighbour to progress.  So:  Right-hand star, left-hand star.  Circle left, circle right.  Balance and swing neighbour.  Ladies chain over and back.  It would work, it would fit the music — but was it worth writing?!

Now I'm going to get rather technical.  I want to talk about a factor which can be important and which you need to keep in mind:

The Progression   Top of page

Of course, you may not have one.  Most Playford set dances (I mean those written as set dances rather than those converted from triple minor) start and finish each figure in the same position.  But longways dances for as many as will are always progressive, and many other formations are too.  There are two decisions to make: do you keep the same partner or change, and where does everybody end up after one turn of the dance?  Here are most of the formats I mentioned earlier, with examples of dances where you change your partner or keep your partner, just to remind you of the available possibilities.

FormatChanging PartnerKeeping Partner
SquareMany American SquaresNewcastle
CircleSybil's RoundaboutSellenger's Round
Sicilian circleIf I had Maggie in the WoodEscort to Leicester
Longways dupleLeft Diagonal MixerMorpeth Rant
2 couplesBillingsdale PatternParsons Farewell
3 couples longwaysUnrequited LoveChestnut
4 couples longwaysHeswall & West Kirby JubileeNonesuch
5 couples longwaysPentonvilleVirginia Reel
6+ couples longwaysThe AstronomerTrumpet Vine

Let's start with the simple one: keeping the same partner.

Progression, Keeping Partner   Top of page

Longways duple minor: the obvious two are single progression (virtually all Playford, 17th/18th century and traditional dances) and double (some American contras).  Double progression has the advantage of no neutrals, and more people having a chance to be ones.  Other obscure cases: “The Giant's Staircase” in Zesty Contras has a reverse double progression: ones move up, twos down.  Don't tell the dancers this; it will only confuse them.  “Contra Madness” by Gene Hubert has a quadruple progression — just to prove it can be done.  “Forty Years of Penguin Pam” by Seth Tepfer has a quintuple progression.  And of course Becket formation (“Bucksaw Reel” formation) — can be single or double progression.

Longways triple minor: practically always single progression (“The Bishop”, “Sackett's Harbor”).  Double progression means the twos and threes don't alternate, and there are problems at the top — some new ones come in half-way through the figure.  Triple progression is a really good idea, used by Tom Cook (“Wakefield Hunt”), Alan Davies and me among others.  The twos and threes alternate as usual, but the ones move down the set at three times the normal speed, so more couples have the chance to be ones — and there are no neutrals.

Two couples — there's no real point in the couples ending in each other's places.

Three couples — most Playford dances (such as “Grimstock”) have no progression.  17th/18th century: if genuine these have all been converted from triple minor, which usually means a standard progression ending 2-3-1.  The telltale “and the ones lead to the bottom” at the end of “Fandango” or “Circular hey, then one extra change for the ones and threes” of “Chelmsford Assembly” gives the game away.  Sometimes this spoils the dance — I've danced “The Bishop” as a three-couple set and it was a disaster — in which case a better solution is to switch the twos and threes over at some point, then the ones can legitimately finish in the middle to give a reverse progression, ending 3-1-2.  Tom Cook uses this quite a lot: “Come Let's Be Merry”, “A Trip to Castle Howard”, “The Merry Salopians” (known in the States as “The Old Mill”), etc.  See the section on Adapting Triple Minor Dances for much more on this topic.

To me a progression means that each couple dances once in each place — so I'm discounting Sharp's version of “Maiden Lane” which ends 1-3-2.  The version danced in Boston has a standard progression, and I believe that's what Playford intended.

Four couples — again, Playford dances (such as “The Phoenix”) don't usually progress.  Again there are standard progressions (“The Real Princess”) and reverse progressions (“Cheers for the Happy Pair”).  A double progression (top two couples to the bottom) is no good — twice through and you're home.  Nor is 4-3-2-1 any good, for the same reason.  But 4-3-1-2 is fine, and used in Gail Ticknor's dance “Taxing Times”, and there must be others.  I believe the two most interesting are the symmetrical progressions: 2-4-1-3 and its opposite 3-1-4-2.  This is where the end two couples do the same thing (at the same time), and the middle two couples likewise.  If you know Tom Cook's four couple version of “Jamaica” you can think it through and work out that it's the first kind.  With “Slof Galliard” I had to use my bits of cardboard — but I knew it was a symmetrical dance, so it had to be one of these two; there are no others.

Of course you can play tricks; “Winter Memories” appears to be a symmetrical dance but actually isn't — it's a standard progression.  The same with “The Bonny Cuckoo” (Gail Ticknor again).  But I think you ought to be consistent.  If a dance is clearly symmetrical — middles do this, ends do that, all do something else — I think it spoils the dance if in the last 8 bars the ones (who have never been mentioned) work their way to the bottom to give a standard progression.  Maybe that's just me being fussy and it wouldn't bother most people.

By now you may be thinking: “This is far too mathematical; where's the creative part?”  But if I were teaching the rules for writing four-part harmony it would be just the same.  The treble and bass should move in opposition; avoid consecutive fifths and consecutive octaves; the leading note should rise to the tonic; no awkward leaps; no large gaps between the top parts — it is very mathematical.  A composer has to learn the rules and practise them until they become second nature; then the creative process can start.

Let's do just one more to show the possibilities, then I'll stop all this technical stuff.

Five couples — now the permutations start getting larger.  Playford-style — still probably no progression.  I'll go out on a limb and say that there are no Playford or 17th/18th century dances specifically written for five couples — though Playford says that “Step Stately” can be danced by 3, 5, 7 or 9 couples (and I think he's wrong about 7 or 9).  That dance, incidentally, has no progression in the first figure, duple minor single progression in the second figure, and triple minor double progression in the third figure (that's the progression I said would give problems).  If you really want to know a five couple dance with the three standard Playford introductions where you do figures from different positions (well, most people do), I have written one called “Mysterious Ways”.

Standard progression dances are legion in the English barn dance repertoire: “Virginia Reel”, “Waves of Tory”, “Bridge of Athlone”, “Sheep's Hill”, “Stoke Golding Country Dance”, “Drops of Brandy”, etc.  Reverse progression (bottom couple up to the top) — I know only one, and predictably that's Pat Shaw (“Salop Galop”).  The other two progressions retaining the same order — I can't think of any.

“Ones and threes move down two places” is very clever, and is used in a few Scottish dances.  Older Scottish dances were all originally duple minor or triple minor, and often a triple minor dance starts by getting the ones into middle place so they have people on either side to play with — “Fandango” and “Devon Bonny Breastknot” could both be Scottish dances.  With a five couple set, both ones and threes are working couples — they do exactly the same.  Once they've moved down a place they have a couple either side — but the middle couple of the entire set are the bottom of one minor set and the top of the other.  It's a busy place to be!  At the end of the turn of the dance, the actives move down another place.  Ones are now in third place, so in true Scottish style they are the working couple a second time (together with the new top couple), after which they finish at the bottom.  All but one of the 5-couple Scottish dances in my repertoire are of this form: “Airie Bennan”, “Black Mountain Reel”, “Earlstoun Loch”, “Polharrow Burn” and “Scotch Mist”.  I've used the same idea in “Bright and Beautiful” and “The Morland Waltz”.

Gail Ticknor's dance “The Percolator” has a progressed position of 5-1-4-2-3, my dance “The Fifth Dimension” has a progressed position of 5-4-1-3-2 and I'm sure there are other possibilities — just make sure a couple visits all five places.

Six or more couples — you're on your own!  But I do have a Progression Checker which will tell you whether your progression works.

I could have written another set of notes for change-partner progressions, but I don't want to take up any more time on this aspect of dance composition (or scare you off the whole idea).  I want to go from the general to the specific, and show you how I composed some of my dances.

The Indian Princess   Top of page

I'd written the tune several years before, as a second tune to Playford's “Indian Queen”.  On this occasion I decided to write a dance which would be a cut-down version of “Indian Queen”.  Of course you can take a longways duple minor dance and bend it round into a Sicilian Circle without changing it much.  But I wanted to cut it down to a single circle, so you're working with one other person rather than three.  “Indian Queen” starts with first corners set, turn single and two-hand turn.  Obviously in a circle formation everyone could do that with their partner.  But then second corners do the same — and in a circle you wouldn't want to repeat the movement with your partner again.  So I decided to replace the turn single with a pass through, so you do the two-hand turn with the next person.  I could have started A2 with this person, and the pass through to yet another for the second two-hand turn — but that means all you do with your partner is one set, and I didn't want it to be that much of a mixer; I think you should do a fair chunk of a mixer with your original partner.  So I decided to finish the two-hand turn facing your original partner — but in each other's place.  A2 is the same in this direction, so you do the two-hand turn with yet another person — plenty of interaction — and finish in your original place for the start of B1.

Right- and left-hand stars become right- and left-hand turns, the back-to-back stays the same, and three changes of a circular hey becomes three changes of a grand chain round the big circle.  That works really well, because you dance with three people in each turn of the dance, and then move on to the next three.

When I tried it out, I immediately discovered that there was time for the turn single in A1 and A2 — so it became even more like “Indian Queen”.  It's ostensibly simple — but it gets people disoriented (as some of mine do).  And it's remained one of my most popular dances since I wrote it in 1982.  Click here for the final version with a link to the tune.  Does it fit the rules for “A good dance”?

Renata   Top of page

You don't always know when you've got it right!  For instance, I wrote “Renata” and thought it was right, but there were a couple of awkward moments where I had to put in a “set” to use up two bars of music (which didn't suit the smooth phrase of the music), and it was too complicated — no reference points.  Graham Knight and Margaret Whaley actually had the courage to tell me that they didn't like it (this is very rare), as a result of which I changed it and made it a lot better.  Ultimately the real test is to call it, and of course dance it yourself.  People rarely tell you what they think — they don't want to appear critical, or they don't think it's their place.  Often people can't put a finger on it — but you change something and they say “Oh, that's much better”.

Original version

Format: 4 Couples longways, 3 & 4 improper

Music: 4 x Own tune

A:Middles face the ends: Reels of four on each side.
B:In fours, second corners cross (1st Lady & 2nd Man, 3rd Man & 4th Lady); first corners cross.  Ends face partner, middles face neighbour: set; two-hand turn half-way.
C:In new fours, second corners cross (those who crossed second last time); first corners cross.  Circle 8 to the left half-way.
D:Middles change hands, lead neighbour out; separate and cast to nearer end while ends lead in to middle.  All set to partner; two-hand turn half-way.
Progressed position is:  3, 1, 4, 2.

Improved version

A:Middles face the ends: Reels of four on each side.
B:In fours, second corners cross; first corners cross.  New middles right-hand star half-way; turn single left.
C:In new fours, second corners cross — the same people who crossed first before, but crossing with someone else; first corners cross.  Circle 8 half-way.
D:Middles change hands, lead neighbour out; separate, cast to nearer end while ends lead in to middle.  All two-hand turn partner.

Dunant House Waltz   Top of page

I went to Holland in 1991 to call for their Christmas Course, at Henri Dunanthuis in Zeist near Utrecht, which was where I first met Fried Herman, Sharon and David Green who were part of her entourage, and Roger Davidson from New York who was her musician.  He wrote a tune called “Dunant House Waltz” and the band played it at the end of the week.  A few weeks later, out of the blue, I got a letter from Antony Heywood — then Chairman of the Dutch Folk Dance Society — saying “I hear you're planning to write a dance to Roger's tune.  Please can we have it by the end of the month — we'd like to display it to Nel who's retiring as housekeeper after many years.”  I had no intention of writing a dance — but I rise to a challenge!  So you might count this as another one which I wrote as a commission.

Anyway, of the three important ingredients the tune was given — a 32-bar waltz in the form AABA — I was hoping Roger would replace the final A by a C, but he never did.  What about Style and Format?  You could have a Playford-style dance in waltz time — up a double, siding, arming — but this seemed incongruous to me; the waltz hadn't been invented then.  Better to have the same figure repeated a number of times.  Format — it could be a circle, but I find this formation a bit limiting — you can only write so many circle mixers!  Longways duple or Sicilian circle only allow two couples working together at a time.  A set dance offers more possibilities, so the standard choices seemed to be 3 couples longways, 4 couples longways or a square.  I didn't have that long to write it, so I discarded any of the more obscure formations that my brain might have come up with and decided on three couple longways with a partner change.  This means that the progression is either the men move down one place and the ladies move up one place, or vice-versa.

If you know the final version, try to forget it for the moment.

I wrote a dance — it seemed OK on paper, but I wasn't sure.  Often I'm quite confident — I know it's all right — but this time I needed to try it out before sending it off to Holland.  I don't have my own club (series), but I was running “Beginners” at Cecil Sharp House every Thursday with Brenda Godrich.  At the end I grabbed her and four other volunteers, her husband Vic played the tune on fiddle, and we tried it out.  Let's walk it through and I'll explain my thought processes.

Version 1

Format: 3 couples longways

A1:Middle couple set right and left; cast right shoulder round one person.  Half reels of three across the set, middles passing left shoulder with that person's partner.
A2:Middle couple set to each other (facing up and down); cast right shoulder round the same person (all now improper).  All two-hand turn partner.

The first half ends with everybody improper.  Now the progression and change of partner — circling to a line.  Remember this position — we'll be going back to it.  Now, as in an American Square, middles lead out to the couple on your right, circle left with them, middles break with your left hand and draw the lines out back into a longways set.

But that's no good — we've got two ladies together at the top as new partners.  So let's go back and try it the other way:

B:[1-4]  Middles out to your left, circle left with this couple and break to lines of three up and down (2nd man at the top on the men's side with 3rd lady and 3rd man below him).

That's quite a long way to go in eight steps, but we'll see how it works with the music.  Where are we?  First lady and third man are still in their home place, and the middle couple are improper.  We could circle left half-way — that would get everyone to a reasonable progressed position with the ends now improper — but we can't go straight from “circle to a line” into another circle.  It would be very disorientating; we first need to stop the flow, and establish who the new partner is.  So we add a bit of partner interaction.

B:[5-8]  All give right hand to opposite (new partner): balance forward and back; change places turning the lady under.

We've got eight bars left.  We could circle left half-way and then have the middles change sides somehow.  But I prefer to finish a figure with everybody moving, so let's do the circle half-way at the end.  That gives us four bars for the middles to change sides — and they've just done a box the gnat, so we don't want another one of those, or a turn 1½.  Half figure eight is the obvious choice.  Up or down?  The whole dance has been symmetrical up to now, so the answer has to be “both”.  Given the right hand hold, it has to be man up, lady down.

A3:New middle man up, lady down: half figure eight to change sides.  Circle 6 half-way.

Men are now  3, 1, 2; ladies are  2, 3, 1.  Repeat the dance twice more, with new partners.

  Let's try the dance to the music.

Now here's an important point: my dancers said it was OK.  People will!  They're so impressed that you can write a dance at all, and they feel pleased that they're the first ones to dance it — they don't like to criticise.  A lot of composers would have let it go at that — and it would have been danced once in Holland and then forgotten.  (It's the same problem when writing tunes, by the way.)  Fortunately I wasn't satisfied.  I felt that going from the twos' second cast into the two-hand turn was a bit rushed, and so was the leading to lines into the balance forward and back.  So a week later I got the same guinea-pigs to try out a revised version.

Version 2

A1:Middle couple set right and left; cast right shoulder round one person.  Half reels of three across the set, middles passing left shoulder with that person's partner.
A2:Middle couple set to each other (facing up and down); cast right shoulder round the same person (all now improper).  Half reels of three up and down the set, middles passing left shoulder with the person at the other end.

Instead of the middles leading left I wanted to go for the natural direction — which is also the way they're going after the second reel — but we know that won't work if they break with their left hand.  So:

B:[1-4]  Middles out to your right, circle left with this couple and let go with your right hand to break to lines of three up and down (2nd man at the top on the ladies' side with 3rd lady and 3rd man below him).

I've got rid of the two-hand turn, which was one of my objectives.  The circle to a line doesn't have so far to go, which was the other.  We're still going to need the circle half-way to get us to progressed positions, but this time the ends are already improper — we don't need a box the gnat to change sides.  So we want some partner interaction which doesn't change positions.  You could do a turn, but I decided on a back-to-back.  A3 is the same as before.

B:[5-8]  All back-to-back with opposite (new partner).
A3:New middle man up, lady down: half figure eight to change sides.  Circle 6 half-way.

Men are now  3, 1, 2; ladies are  2, 3, 1.

  So let's dance version 2.

My guinea-pigs liked the symmetry of the two half reels, but apart from that it was worse than the first version!  The “circle to a line” confused people (including me) and for some reason the middles wanted to go the other way in the half figure eight — possibly because moves from the middle are usually “man down, lady up”.  So I went back home to my bits of cardboard — rather disconsolate, and with time running out.  I wanted the middles to lead right into the circles, because that's what you do in American Squares and because that's the way the middles are moving after the second reel of three, but as a middle man I wanted to let go with my left hand to form the line, since that's again what I do in American Squares.  But I couldn't have both the things I wanted because the people in my circle were the wrong sex.  And as I sat there and struggled, a flash of lateral thinking hit me — if I changed sex it would all work!  In other words, let's start with the twos improper.  You hear about authors or composers or other creative people struggling with what they're trying to produce, and suddenly inspiration strikes; that's exactly how it felt.  If I'd been in the bath I might have rushed naked through the streets shouting “Eureka” — but the bath isn't a good environment because it would make my bits of cardboard soggy!  So let's see how that change affects everything.

Version 3

Format: 3 couples longways, Twos Improper

A1:Middle couple set right and left; cast right shoulder round one person.  Half reels of three across the set, middles passing left shoulder with that person's partner.
A2:Middle couple set to each other (facing up and down); cast right shoulder round the same person (all now in partner's place).  Half reels of three up and down the set, middles passing left shoulder with the person at the other end.
B:[1-4]  Middles out to your right, circle left with this couple and let go with your left hand to break to lines of three up and down (2nd man at the top on the men's side with 1st lady and 1st man below him).

This time we don't need the circle left half-way; we've got the other form of the progression.  It flows, it's not too rushed — in fact there we are in our progressed positions with a whole twelve bars to spare.  We still want the bonding moment:

B:[5-8]  All back-to-back with opposite (new partner).

Eight bars left, and nowhere to go.  So what shall we finish up with?  Something clever like a Morris hey with the twos crossing both times?  No — something simple — how about circle left and right!  It's the first time the set has worked together as a complete unit, and that's just what we need after the flurry of changing partner and position.

A3:Circle 6 left and right.

Men are now  2, 3, 1; ladies are  3, 1, 2.  Repeat the dance twice more, with a new partner each time.

I sent it to Antony, who wrote back “We renamed it Farewell to Nel and it was a great success”.  I objected to the change of name, but by that time it had got to the States, so some people may still know it by that name.  Even Roger Davidson in his book “Music for the dance” says that his tune “Dunant House Waltz” is for Colin Hume's dance “Farewell to Nel”, and so does Peter Barnes in his “English Country Dance Tunes” Volume 1.  No it isn't; it's “Dunant House Waltz”.

Jug of Punch   Top of page

I was booked to call at Sidmouth Festival in 2000, and I was doing a couple of Playford workshops with a band called “Jug of Punch”, the second of which was entitled “Modern Playford”.  “Jug of Punch” is a song I used to sing in my Folk-singing days, so I thought it would be a good idea to finish with a dance to this tune — bringing the Playford style right up to date, since this was less than two weeks before the Festival.

But the tune is only 8 bars of 3-time.  Maybe I should write a B-music.  On the other hand, there are plenty of early Playford dances which have only an 8-bar tune and they're jigs or reels — even shorter — “Dargason”, “Put on thy Smock a Monday” (which I have actually now written a B-music to), “The Old Mole”, “Mage on a Cree” (which Pat Shaw has written a B-music to) — lots of others.  So I decided I'd live with a short tune.  I wanted the three Playford introductions, to show that this really was “Modern Playford” — but then the whole dance would be over in 24 bars!  So a longways progressive might do the trick — repeat the three figures as often as you like.  Could I fit the standard introductions into three-time?  Why not?  Lead up three steps, fall back, that again.  Side into line right shoulder three steps, fall back for three, same left shoulder.  I wouldn't want to do Sharp siding there and back twice in twelve steps, but I don't use Sharp siding in my dances.  Arm right in six steps — they should manage that.  So each figure is 8 bars — 24 steps — and I've used up half of this on the introductions.  12 steps for each of the three progressive movements.  The first one leapt at me: ones cast, twos lead up, all two-hand turn.  The second one I thought of was a double figure eight — we normally have 16 steps for this, but with good dancers it should be tight but possible in 12.  On the other hand, you need to think of what comes before and after a tight figure, or you may discover it's impossible in context.  A double figure eight is fine after siding, but at the end of the double figure the ones tend to be facing out, which will make it awkward getting into the arm right.  A better idea would be to use the double figure eight in the final figure, so that it then flows more easily into the lead up a double.  It also means that after the arm left the second man can hand his lady up into the crossing up — and you must persuade the first man who's already facing down they he doesn't need to do that twiddle before casting — he just goes.  So what about the body of the second figure.  You could try the classic: first corners cross, second corners cross, circle half, ones cast, twos lead up — but in three time that's very busy.  You could follow the corners cross with everyone cross with partner — but then there would be too much music!  Then I thought of: first corners cross right, turn single left, left-hand star ¾ to progressed place.  It's quite unusual — I've used a similar movement in “Karen's Tuba” with a circle instead of a star, but who would notice that?  It seems the right amount of dance for the music: 3 steps to cross, 3 to turn single, 6 for the star ¾.  But how will the dancers feel about a left-hand star into an arm right?  Not too happy.  If we make it a right-hand star we have to change the first part, so: second corners cross left (which should seem fairly natural after siding left with partner), turn single right, right-hand star ¾.

I tried the dance for the first time at Sidmouth.  As I walked it through I realised that the third figure didn't progress — I'd used a full double figure eight!  I thought very hard for a few seconds — this was the final dance of the session and there wasn't any spare time — shut up all the people who were offering helpful suggestions, got into a set and walked it, then told the dancers to do the figure eight and “progress somehow” (which they did).  I got away with it, but it needed to be fixed properly.  Perhaps the obvious solution is to follow the double figure eight with “ones cast, twos lead up”, but there's not enough time for that.  So let's think it through slowly and clearly.  When you analyse it, a double figure eight splits into four quarters.  Ones cast, twos cross moving up.  Twos cast, ones cross moving up.  And the same again.  So after three-quarters of a double figure eight you have the twos at the top, proper, probably facing up and out, and the ones at the bottom improper, probably facing in.  The final three steps then seemed obvious to me: ones two-hand turn half-way (ready for the next “Up a double”) and twos turn single away (also ready to meet and lead up a double).

I was also told by two people that the left crossing for the second corners in the second figure was awkward (dancers always expect to cross right shoulder) and that it was a real jolt after the cross left to do a turn single right, with only three steps for each.  So I changed it to a right shoulder cross.  See the whole dance here, with a link to the music.

The Hitchin Diamond   Top of page

I was asked to write a dance for the Hitchin Staplers' Diamond anniversary in 2018, and the specification was: “A 4-couple longways set, not too difficult, not using the Up a double / Siding / Arming introductions.  'Modern Playford' style.  Smooth and flowing.  Preferably involving a diamond.”  So before you read on, think about what you would have done.

Version 1

4 Couples longways, 2 & 4 improper

A1:On the right diagonal (those who can): set to same sex; cross over.  New middle men (1 and 4) set; cross over.
A2:“Bomb-burst”: Top pair lead up, bottom pair lead down, others lead out on the sides; face this person and pass by right shoulder.  Two-hand turn partner half-way, into a diamond; set to the centre.
B1:Ones and fours, two changes with hands, no courtesy turn, to face the next person.  All pull by right; give left to the next and turn half-way, men doing a courtesy turn to face in (but no arm round the waist).
B2:Twos and threes (not with partner) lead the same movement, which gets you back to the original diamond.

Clearly in 32 bars I wasn't going to get people into a diamond and back into a four couple set with a reasonable progression — dancing in each of the four positions — so I went for 48 bars.  I was pleased with the fact that the diamond is with your partner, and as you can see I've managed to fit in two diamonds.  I sent it to Ann Gibson the chairman with a note: “I've written two thirds of a dance, but I think it's too difficult — I often have this problem!  What do you think?”  She wrote back:

It's really interesting to see this process.  We do like the main idea with the LW set in the A part changing to a diamond for the B part — and presumably changing back again in the C part.

But yes, it does seem to come at the expense of making it quite difficult, perhaps more difficult than we want.  Moves which are just slightly unusual e.g. leading out but not back in again, two changes but no courtesy turn, in an unusual formation, we think would be quite a challenge.  Also, apart from the set to the centre at the end of A2, there are no 'recovery' times or moves that can be left out to catch up or that keeps you in the same place for a short while to gather your thoughts.

Having said that, I walked through what you have written so far with some of the display group after a practice recently.  Without warnings from me first time through, they did start to lead back and turn in after the 2 changes as predicted but once having seen the pattern, on a second walk through they flowed without hitches through the moves and also realised they were leading out too far and making the diamond too big.  A good caller could give all those warnings in advance.

Consequently we think it has the potential certainly for more experienced dancers, but, being very cheeky, is it possible to come up with something a little bit easier without abandoning the diamond idea, though we appreciate that to get anything involving a diamond in modern Playford style cannot be absolutely straightforward.  If it's too difficult we fear it just won't get danced often enough.

This was just the sort of feedback I wanted, and I agreed that if a dance is too difficult it won't get danced much.  You've no idea how long I struggled to produce a simpler version with the required progression!  I tried of all sorts of moves.  See what you think of this:

Version 9

4 Couples longways, 2 & 4 improper

A1:On the right diagonal (those who can): set to same sex; cross over.  New middle men (1 and 4) set; cross over and stay facing out.
A2:“Bomb-burst”: Top pair lead up, bottom pair lead down, others lead out on the sides; set to this person.  Pass by right shoulder; two-hand turn partner half-way, into a diamond.
B1:All lead in a double; change hands and lead out.  gipsy right partner.
B2:All circle left half-way (slip-step).  Fall back in side lines; lead forward.
C1/C2:Exercise for the student.

Of course I gave Ann the C1 and C2 moves as well, but if I gave them here you'd think “Oh yes, that's perfectly logical” without any awareness of how much hard work it took.  I'd like to think of this as the “art than conceals art”, so you have a go!  I'd expect a symmetrical dance to have a symmetrical progression, rather than a cop-out like “Ones cast to the bottom, the others two-hand turn enough to get the new 2's and 4's improper”.  So it needs to finish either 2-4-1-3 or 3-1-2-4 with everyone on the correct side.  Over to you!

And I then wrote two tunes before I came up with a third one that I was happy with!

One final point: it's certainly not true that you write a dance sequentially from beginning to end.  If I want to write an American Square with a move from MWSD such as “Spin Chain and Exchange the Gears”, that's where I'll start.  Then I'll probably continue from there to the end, see where people have ended up, realise that the ladies are out of sequence or the head couples still have their original partners, and go back to where I started and change people's positions until the final formation is correct.  Then write the moves that get people to where I started.

Another example: my inspiration for the dance “Close Harmony” was a mental image of Celia, Victoria and Jenni moving in to the centre of the set in a triangular formation, curtseying, then casting out to their respective sides and continuing to move round the outside in that direction.  I wrote the dance from that starting point.

Barbara's Waltz   Top of page

I usually write my own tunes, so fitting the dance to the music isn't a problem — I adjust one or the other as necessary.  But if you want suggestions about how to write a dance to fit a particular tune, Barbara's Waltz explains my thought processes.

Titles   Top of page

I dare say a good title can make or break a dance, just as with a book or a piece of music — do you think Vivaldi's “Four Seasons” would be so popular if he'd called them “Violin Concertos 13-16”?  I sometimes struggle with titles, and so do other people.  Ted Sannella would often use one part of the figure as the title: “Circle Three-Quarters, Pass Through” or “Do-si-do and Face the Sides”, for instance.  When he came to write his triplets he gave up completely and just identified them by numbers.

If the dance has its own tune, use the same title for both unless there is some good reason not to.  I don't see the point of two names where one will do, and it could mean that the band don't think they have the music because the caller refers to the dance title and their index is of music titles.

Make sure that your title comes across when the caller announces it, rather than everyone saying “What?”.  If you're writing the dance for a person or group you might use their name in the title, but don't feel obliged to.  I don't go for puns in titles, but Pat Shaw certainly did.  Maybe it's worthwhile keeping a list of possible titles for when you need one.  Finally, don't use a really obvious title — somebody else has probably already done so!

Writing American Contras   Top of page

If you're interested in writing modern-style contras, Cary Ravitz's notes at will give you lots of ideas.

This plea for help was sent to the Traditional Dance Callers' List:

My name is Chrysann Magoon, I am 18 years old, I have been contra dancing for a number of years.  Recently, as part of school project, I have been asked to try my hand at writing contra dances.  I would like to know (in your opinion) what makes a contra dance enjoyable?  And, what can I do to insure the success of my dance?

Ron Buchanan provided the following very useful notes:

  1. A good dance has a clear story line.  It makes an intuitive sense to the dancer.
  2. It fits well in a 32 bar tune.

1 — Story Line

An introduction such as (The gents meet / the ladies meet) or (visit the opposite / visit your own).  All four come together (Circle or hey).  Then perhaps — presentation — yourself, your partner and your neighbors to the community at large (Lines forward and back) or (down center).

Presentation doesn't always exist in every dance, but you will notice it if it's missing from the program.

Somewhere there needs to be a hook, something that stands out and makes the dance unique, something clever.  This will usually be the hard part and will create some sort of tension followed by resolution.

Then the dance needs to have a conclusion (the resolution).  This is where you usually find the progression.  It's best to meet the next couple/neighbor on A1.

This contra story line is not complex; don't overdo it.  Make sure there is some familiar stuff, places to recover.  If you have another hook, write another dance.  Don't throw everything you know in one dance.  For instance: If you are going to write a limerick it has 5 lines — it is not MORE to write one with 6 or 4.

2 — Music

Write the moves down in a circle.  You have eight 8-count moves or the mathematical equivalent.  Try moving A1 to each 8-count place.  Move it until you end the swings at the end of the 16 (real important) and begin the balances on 1 (not as important).  This may change the dance to Becket formation.  That's OK — all contra dances are both improper and Becket.  Every contra dance has trail buddies, however you may not use them.  It may help you to think of a contra as a squished circle rather than couples in a line.

Moving A1 around will radically change the character of the dance and will show you where this hook is going to work best (early or late), and may stumble you into a completely different dance.  Then you need to sort out if this is primarily a partner dance or a neighbor dance.  Don't be afraid of making this very deliberate.  I use them in the program differently, but that's a separate matter.

Other points

Don't worry about the level of difficulty.  It's a separate matter also.

In the end it's very hard to judge your own work.  The real question is, will other callers use it?

The best way to write a good contra is to write a dozen or so dances.  You may stumble into something.  Then you can start to reinvent the wheel.

Dance writers lack the vocabulary to pass on their skill.  We all start with trial and error and have to realize that most of what we write we have to pitch out.

Good luck, have fun.

Writing American Squares   Top of page

A good square follows the same rules as any other good dance — it needs to flow, fit the music, have something novel and so on.  First you must decide what kind of square you're writing.  The original kind, known as the “visiting couple” square, has the ones going out to the twos and doing a figure with them, then repeating the same figure with the threes, then with the fours, and then going home for a break involving the whole set such as allemande left, right and left grand, swing and promenade.  Then the other couples in turn lead the same figure.  I've never written one of those, though I have written squares where each couple in turn leads the figure.  The next kind is where the head couples lead the figure and then the sides, with both head couples doing the same thing and both side couples doing the same thing.  These are normally change-partner figures, so the head men lead the figure twice and the side men lead the figure twice, with a break at the beginning, middle and end.  And the third kind is Modern Western Square Dancing (MWSD) which builds on this and introduces hundreds of new figures — at the last count there were 5125 calls in Burleson's Square Dance Encyclopedia though many of these are not used any more.  Read more on  I'm not a MWSD caller or composer, but I'm quite happy to borrow one or two of their figures and put these into a traditional-style dance; I'm much happier writing, calling and dancing squares which are phrased to the music.  You'll find most of my squares start with one couple or pair of couples moving, then involve the others, and after people have started moving they don't stop for more than four bars.  But this isn't a cast-iron rule — “More or Less” is in a form where couples join one at a time until they're all moving, then drop out in the same order.  That one worked out quite easily, but sometimes I may try ten or twelve sequences before getting it right or abandoning it altogether.  Usually I start with an idea, which may not be the beginning of the figure, and fit things around it until I've got something I'm happy with.  You need to be flexible, aware of the possibilities, willing to scrap your cherished idea if it just isn't going to work — and keep pushing the bits or cardboard around!

Walt Tingle has criticised me for publishing breaks with most of my Square Dances because it encourages callers to do the same break all three times (even though I tell people not to do this), but you might find that a less confident caller really needs a break written out so that he has the whole thing on one card before he's willing to try your dance.  Even if you don't do that, you might want to make suggestions such as “Break not ending with a promenade” where the figure starts with the heads promenading three-quarters, or “Break involving some swinging” where the figure has not had any, or even “Simple break!” where the figure is complicated and there's a danger that people may not be home in time for the start of the break.  I talk a lot about Breaks in the last of my 8 sessions, and also on my Square Dances page.

Writing Singing Squares   Top of page

This one came about because Seth Tepfer from The States was asking if there was a singing square to “Save the last dance for me” — it seemed an obvious candidate.  He wanted one suitable for contra dancers rather than Modern Western Square Dancers, so I decided to have a go.

I don't think writing singing squares is as easy as some people have suggested.  Yes, in principle if you have a 32-bar figure you can fit it to any 32-bar tune, but surely there's more to a singing square than that.  The words need to fit the tune most of the time, and it's nice to incorporate some words of the original song.  One standard MWSD trick is to speak the words “Circle left” or “Sides face — grand square” at the start of the break and then sing a line of the song while the dancers continue without a prompt.  But it's good if you can fit all the words into the singing call itself.  And this tune has an extra two bars (“You can dance” and “You can smile” in the first verse) to confuse the timing.  I think for a singing call to be convincing you have to fit in with the memorable parts of the tune, which this certainly is.  So the “You can dance” part needs to be three syllables as in the original song.  You might get away with an extra beat at the start for something like “Head ladies chain” but I'm not keen on that, and if you get as far away as “Heads right and left through” you've said goodbye to that rhythm altogether.

So here's what I originally came up with.

Save the Last Dance for Me

7 x Own tune + 8-bar tag


Circle left - -
Yes, the music's fine, like sparkling wine, go and allemande left.
Box the gnat - -
Do a wrong-way grand going hand-over-hand till you meet again.
Then do-si-do, and after that box the gnat and then you promenade.
So darlin',  save the last dance for me, mmmm.


Heads you swing - -
While the sides pass through, separate, go round two to a line of four.
Forward eight - -
Come on back, roll away, and the ladies pass right to a hey for four.
But don't forget who's taking you home, and promenade this new lady.
So darlin',  save the last SWING for me, mmmm.

TAG  (last four bars repeated)

[spoken]  Swing your partner.

Save - - the last dance for me.

Format: Break, Figure twice for heads, Break, figure twice for sides, Break, Tag.

Possibly MWSD dancers would find it too simple (except that the hey hasn't made it into MWSD).  Contra dancers might be unsure of “box the gnat” and might need to hear “grand right and wrong” rather than “wrong way grand”, though of course you would walk it through and make sure they understood the terminology you were going to use.  But they still might prefer:

Do a grand right and wrong to the sound of the song till you meet again.

I often walk a singing square through by speaking the words of the call — taking the time required, but getting them used to the words I will be using when the music starts.

I put in the swing at the end of the figure as I think there will be music left at the end of the promenade (because of those extra two bars at the start of the hey).  It does mean that for the active couples the second and fourth times through the figure they've just finished the previous figure with a swing and then they swing again — but that's what contra dancers live for, right?!

Finally, I haven't included the “middle eight” (“Baby, don't you know…”).  I decided there was enough in the dance without that, and it means the band (who have probably never played the tune before) don't have to worry about when it comes in — just tell them to keep going until you say “tag” and then repeat the last four bars to finish.

Seth was not too keen on a swing at the end of the figure followed by the actives swinging at the start of the next figure.  He suggested “Heads do-si-do” rather than “Heads you swing” at the start, but I protested that this lost the three note rhythm.  Then he suggested that the swing should come after the hey.  This struck me as a much better idea, since the promenade could then start on the phrase.  So the figure now finishes:

But don't forget who's taking you home, just swing this one then promenade.
So darlin',  save the last dance for me, mmmm.

Seth called the dance on Friday 4th February 2005 (the first time anyone else has debuted one of my dances), and reported that the dancers loved it, though he was too concerned with remembering the words and working with the band to notice how it went!  He had made a few changes to the words, including “meet like that” to rhyme with “box the gnat”.  He said he had a hard time with the line “Come on back, roll away, and the ladies pass right to a hey for four” and he thinks he used different words every time:

Come on back, roll away with a half sashay ladies start a hey
Come on back, roll away, and the ladies hey pass right for four

I eventually called the dance at Lichfield Folk Festival in June 2007 (trying to ignore the square in front of me who were not taking it seriously!) and found there was a little too much time for some of the moves.  I made the mistake of speaking the words “Circle left” before the start of the line of music (as you often do) rather than remembering that they went to the first three notes of the tune!  I think the band spotted this the second and third times and shortened the music for me.  I also realised that after the roll away it would flow much better if the men started the hey, passing left shoulder.  I may yet try it again and make other changes, but I don't often call singing squares.  Here's a link to the current version.

Presentation   Top of page

If you're only going to call your dances yourself, maybe you can ignore this.  But if you want to pass the dance around to other callers, submit it to CDSS News or English Dance & Song, or publish it in a book or on the World Wide Web, you need to think hard about how you word it and how you lay it out.

It's easy to be ambiguous.  I think I'm very clear, but people still contact me with questions about the dances in my books or on my website.  One person asked “When you said so-and-so, did you mean this or that?”  And actually I hadn't thought of either of those possibilities — I meant something else again.  I don't believe you need to be as pedantic as Cecil Sharp: he wrote his books for people to go away and study and learn, not for people to call from.  You need a half-way point between filling in absolutely all the details and the way you would write it on a card for yourself.  My books contain more words than my cards, but they're recognisably in the same style — you're welcome to compare the two.  I don't see any point in writing out a dance in technical language which each caller will then have to translate into English.  If you publish a dance it may be called by someone in England, America, Holland, Denmark, Australia…  Are you sure they'll know what you mean when you're not around to tell them how obvious it is?

Choose a layout and be consistent.  Maybe it sounds minor, but presentation is important.  Always write the instructions out with A's and B's, and say how many bars each line is if it's anything other than 8.  I'm sure people can get used to the Scottish way of: “Bars 1-8: Reel of four.  Bars 9-12: Circle left”, but it's not what English or American callers expect.

I always write instructions rather than descriptions, so I would say “First man set to your partner, cast to second place, second man move up” rather than “First man sets to his partner, casts to second place, second man moving up”.  I know it sounds minor, but it's a different way of looking at things.  These are instructions which a caller is going to use: think about the way a caller would say things.

Get someone else to read the instructions.  Don't rely on them to find all the mistakes, but you'll be amazed at what they make of your perfectly clear instructions.  And if they say it's ambiguous, don't argue with them; by definition they're right!

Use positions rather than numbers if people are not in their original places.  In a 3-couple set it's no good saying “Ones face the twos” if the twos are at the bottom and the ones aren't sure who the twos are.  “Middles face the bottoms” is much clearer.  Usually people know who the ones are, so it's fine to say “First man”, but if you've finished a three couple set with ones in middle place and the final instruction is “Ones cast to the bottom”, don't be surprised if the new top couple decide they must surely be the ones by now.

Be clear on timings.  If you have 8-bar lines of music and simple figures it will be obvious — but I've seen contra callers who clearly didn't know whether the balance in the wave came at the end of A1 or the beginning of A2, and I would guess they just write their cards as a list of figures without any mention of A's and B's.  Cecil Sharp is very good at indicating how long each move takes.  Bernard Bentley in the Fallibroome books is not — he'll give you three moves in eight bars without any indication of how they fit to the music.  And if you don't know how long a move takes, find out!  Don't just hope that the caller or the dancers will work it out somehow.

Point out the problems.  If you're not a caller, get someone else to call the dance with you dancing.  See what problems he or she has explaining the dance, and what the dancers get confused about.  Sometimes it's difficult to know how much extra help to give.  It's very reassuring in a complicated dance to give little hints to let people know that they're in the right place: “The set is now upside down”; “Back in home place”; “Top two couples now improper”.

If you publish music in a book, you need to make it look good.  My first two books had hand-written music because that's all there was, but things have moved on and there is now plenty of free software around to enable you to produce professional-looking musical notation.  If you're not a musician, ask someone who is.

And a final point which I thought was obvious.  In 2022 two people kindly gave me copies of books of dances they had produced.  Both very nicely presented — but with no indication of how to contact the author.  You may think that your book will only be bought by people at your local clubs, but how do you know that?  If the book contains good dances, it will travel.  If it doesn't, why have you published it?!  I give my address, phone number and email address at the front of my books.

See also my notes to callers on Interpreting instructions.

Now let's start to write some dances.  This is for you — I'll give you any help I can, but you're going to make the ultimate decisions.  And you can choose how much feedback you want from me — I can be more or less fussy, as you wish.  I'll call the dance for you if you want me to.  I'll even write a tune for you.  I can write an average tune very quickly; if you want a better tune that might take a little longer!

I would prefer you to work in groups of two.  With two, you have someone to bounce your ideas off, someone to discuss things with — possibly someone with a different background and experience.  With three or more you can sometimes get passengers; in England we call a class a workshop, and I expect everybody to work!  But it's up to you — decide who you want to work with.  If you want to work on your own, or in a large group, that's fine by me.  If you need a group of people to try something out, or you want the musicians to play a tune for you, or you want my opinion on something, all you have to do is ask.  We'll all be trying out the new dances as they're ready, and we'll give feedback as required.

New Dance Evaluation Criteria   Top of page

Gene Murrow has kindly allowed me to use the checklist he developed for his English Dance Composition Class at Pinewoods.  He points out that rather than being an aid to composing a dance, it is an orderly way of evaluating a dance (new or old).  My preceding notes provide “the means”; the checklist references “the ends”.

A summary of the criteria suggested by the approximately 20 participants in the Dance Choreographers' workshop at Pinewoods English Week 2000.  Six were active dance composers, three were the musicians playing for the class, and the rest were experienced country dancers interested in trying out and evaluating new dances and music.


Patterns (Individual figures)