BackAmerican with Style

These notes were first used in a workshop for the Hitchin Staplers in 2011.

American contras are very popular these days, but most people in England have no idea what style Americans use and just look completely wrong.  Colin will demonstrate how modern Urban Contra Dancers do it, and teach something of the ethos, so that the next time you're dancing in The States you have some chance of fooling the locals!

I didn't have time to cover all this in a 3-hour workshop.

When I started dancing, the contras we danced were the old ones from the CDM's: “All the Way to Galway”, “Arkansas Traveller”, “Fairfield Fancy”, “Judge's Jig”, “Timber Salvage Reel” and so on.  Contras were dances where you danced much more with your neighbour than with your partner.  Contras have changed a lot since those days and while I still call “Bucksaw Reel” and “Devil's Dream” I don't call many of the others.

Let's start by defining terms: What do I mean by American Dance?  After all, Charleston, Jive, Swing and many other dance forms are American.  I'm talking specifically about Squares and Contras.

But Squares and Contras can mean different things to different people.  The traditional squares had visiting couple figures, or sometimes both head couples working together and both side couples.  Often the dances were well-known, so there was no need for a caller; you could go in as fourth couple and learn the dance.  Modern Western Square Dance (MWSD) developed from this, with hundreds of new figures, but also a different style — and no known dances — there has to be continuous calling because no-one knows what's coming next.  Traditional contras have much more action for the ones: often the “inactives” really were inactive, doing nothing for ¾ of the dance.  Think of the classic traditional dance “Chorus Jig” for instance: “Ones down the outside and back.  Ones down the centre and back, cast off (so the twos get to do a wheel around).  Ones turn contra corners: the twos and threes get one left-hand turn — if it's duple minor rather than triple minor (hands 4 rather than hands 6) they get two left-hand turns.  Ones balance and swing”.  Modern contra is almost always duple minor improper, ones and twos doing the same, no-one standing still for more than 8 beats, with a partner swing and a neighbour swing every turn of the dance.  And the style is different — there are lots of twirls.

I want to teach four things, then we'll put them into a dance.


You don't get this in MWSD, which isn't phrased to the music.  You can balance with one person or in wave.  It's not an English (or even worse, Scottish) set right-two-three, left-two three.  You give hands — one or two — and it's a forward and back movement — more of a lurch — with significant eye contact.  And you balance once before a swing, not twice.  In a (right-handed) wave it's normally right and left rather than forward and back — in fact many people will do right and left even if the caller specifies forward and back — and the eye contact is even more intense.  In a left-handed wave it's normally left and right.


Americans love it- they expect two in most contras — but many of them (particularly the men) are not very good at it.  And many contra dancers swing for too long — I'm not going to teach you how to do that!  You can read about swinging at

  Demonstrate balance and swing.

I asked for comments on these notes on the Contra Callers' Discussion List and got some disagreement and amplification.  Some disputed that it was a lurch — and America's a big place; I'm not saying they do it everywhere like that, just that it's my experience.  Some said a walking swing was perfectly acceptable, or even better, particularly if the music is very fast, and you can have one person doing a walk while the other does a buzz-step.  One pointed out that though it only lasts about two seconds, a balance gives you the opportunity to know if you're about to swing with a terrified newcomer, an experienced dancer, someone bursting with energy, or a person who is tired or possibly even feeling unwell — and to adjust your swing appropriately.  An article from Northern Junket in 1955 describes 50 Variations of the Balance on page 13 — number 8 is what you still get in the South of England.

You don't have to swing for a full 8 bars; you can twirl the woman into it and out of it to use up half of them.  Good contra dancers use a buzz-step (pivot) swing — see the article at

It's much more energetic than in England — violent even.  Women at Dance Camps discuss contra dance injuries.  If there are contra workshops, they're more about avoiding injury (to you or others) than about style or figures.  It's aerobic exercise.

  Practice swing, then with twirl before and after.

Twirls and eye contact are what it's all about.  I'm not saying you have to twirl all the time, though some Americans do: some don't even know the non-twirling version.


Unlike the English back-to-back, many people twirl to the left in a do-si-do — you can synchronise it for eye contact.  This can sometimes even make the dance flow better — do-si-do partner, allemande left corner.

Ladies chain

  Just go for it — see how long it takes.  Yes, you can do it in 6 bars — 12 steps — but there's 16 beats of music.  So what do you do?  Slow down?  Contra dancers don't know what that means.  Instead they twirl.

First rule: It's the woman's choice.  Arm up as she approaches the man means “twirl me”; arm down means give me a regular courtesy turn.  Some men fight this.  She chooses the number of twirls: it could be just one; it could be two or three.

Second rule: She's doing the work; you have to support her, and send her off in the right direction into the next figure.

  Demonstrate with music.

The same with a swing — finish it on time and leave the lady facing the right way for the next move.

  Demonstrate the wrong way.

Often the figure ends with a neighbour swing, and I find the man ahead of me swings for too long and then dumps her and on to the next — I'm always left to pick up the pieces and start the next move late!

Let's try the first dance Tony Parkes ever wrote: Shadrack's Delight.  This is an excellent dance — Tony says it was beginners' luck, but he's a very modest man — and includes everything I've been talking about.  You may have danced this many times, but let's try it the way Americans would dance it.  However, I'm not going to do it as many times as they do in The States (19 or so) because I'd get fed up with it and I expect you would too!

A big part of the ethos in The States is: “Thank this partner and find another”.  It applies to Contra and English.  I'd been living in Massachusetts for a while, and at the regular Monday night dance there was one couple who wouldn't — they danced together the whole time and had eyes only for each other.  I felt affronted by this; it's not what the dance community is all about.


Often known as “Reel of four” in England, though never in The States.  First let's try the standard version, then we'll add extras.  Any extra is fine if doesn't interfere with other people and you start the next move on time.  You can do an extra twirl at the end in the same or the reverse direction.  One thing I hate is that occasionally I've seen men keep their eyes on their partner the whole time, so they're walking backwards part of the time.  Very clever — so why do I hate it?  Because in a hey you're supposed to be interacting with three other people, not just your partner.  It's the Dance Community thing again — a phrase which I don't think I've ever heard in England though it's commonly referred to in The States.  You can also spin off each other in the middle — not going round each other, but putting an arm against the other person's body then pushing off.  One thing they would never do in The States is a skip or skip-change step.  And one final tip: turn your shoulders as you move through the hey if it's crowded.

I'm not saying you have to twirl all the time, just showing you how and when some people do it.  I've seen one man twirl fast through an entire hey — I was glad I was just watching.  It would have been like dancing with a lawn-mower!


In my experience urban contra dancers in The States always use a pack-saddle (wrist grip) star, though David Millstone points out that there are communities — around Brasstown, North Carolina and elsewhere in the South — that use a hands-across star.  Put your hand on the wrist of the person in front of you.  I think it's harder to get into, and harder for inexperienced dancers, but that's what they do.  In fact teachers of English dancing over there don't say “star”, always “hands across”, in case some closet contra dancer tries to use the pack-saddle.  And here's a case where you don't give weight — no point in squeezing someone's wrist hard!  Sylvia Miskoe, in rec.folk-dancing on March 4, 1999 said:

Wrist grip stars became popular after the appearance at New England Folk Festival (NEFFA) of the Lithuanian Dance Group doing their dances and they all used wrist grips.  The square dancers thought it was a neat idea and adopted it.

Older contras had the action completely in the minor set — you dance with this couple for one turn of the dance, then move on at the end.  Not now.

We'll try Carol Ormand's Stars of Alberta.

  Demonstrate hand holds — for balance, for allemande, for box the gnat.  Not a flat palm of wrist-to-wrist, which some American men use, presumably because they're afraid of someone grabbing hold of them — you can't give any weight.

Now squares.  There's a lot of prejudice against them among contra dancers, though things are getting better; I think two reasons for the improvement are Kathy Anderson and Lisa Greenleaf who are both superb contra callers, great fun, well respected, and love calling squares.  I've hit the prejudice myself.  For instance in Portland, Oregon I was given a written set of rules: “Only three non-contras in evening.  Not two squares back-to-back” (which I would normally do, as it saves time).  Contra dancers love the groove — they just want to dance it 19 times through.  They can't do that in squares: they have to think!  Also a lot of good (even top) contra callers aren't good at calling squares.  Either they call simple squares (boring) or they try something harder which breaks down (confusing).

Kathy does Southern squares — a bit more like MWSD — faster, not phrased to the music, with the music more of a background beat.  On the other hand the New England “Quadrilles” — and there's a word that goes back nearly 200 years — almost always have a 32-bar figure (like most contras) and 32-bar breaks, and they're strongly phrased like contras.

Where did the differences between traditional squares and MWSD come from?  If you're interested in the background I strongly recommend that you read “Step by Step through Modern Square Dance History” by Jim Mayo, who was the first chairman of Callerlab, the MWSD callers' association.

Page 23, a quote from “Hoagie” — Howard Hogue, 1951:

I was very interested to get West and see just what had happened to square dancing in the last ten years.  Wow!  What a change from the old visiting couple dances, with the caller far from any idea of timing, rhythm, or music, to dances like “Throw in the Clutch,” “Yucaipa Twister,” etc., and the callers phrasing perfectly, with good rhythm, and slowed down from 160 to 140 (beats per minute) — which is still pretty fast.

Allemandes are hand not elbow as in MWSD.  When did that change come in?  Ralph Sweet has a web page in which he says that in 1965…

Earl Johnston called a meeting at my barn to form the Springfield Area Callers Association, mainly for the purpose of trying to get us all to switch from the “up-hand” or “arm-wrestling” grip to the forearm grip.  People from his clubs, coming back from dances in California, the National Square Dance Convention, etc, were INSISTING that we change.  Big Controversy.  Some clubs even folded because of this.  Somewhat connected to this was the “Men with hairy, sweaty arms” problem which was worse with the forearm grip.  So a national law was passed that no matter how hot it was, all men had to always wear long-sleeved shirts.  We did adopt the forearm grip, but the traditional square and contra dancers still use the old hand-grip.

Let's try a phrased square: Banjos in Love by Erik Hoffman which is fairly recent and has half a hey in the break.

And now one that Hoagie mentioned in 1951: Yucaipa Twister — and I'll try to do the rhyming patter though it's not my usual style!

I tried it, but I really don't believe it's possible to dance to the rhyming couplets that I have on my card, so part-way through I reverted to my normal style and it went much more smoothly.

More about twirls

Some twirls require giving weight.  One of the clichés of modern contra dancing is Gents allemande left 1½ and swing partner (or opposite).  If you're floppy you can't get round 1½ in 8 steps, and you certainly can't twirl out of the allemande as some men would want to.

Some twirls aren't on the spot: you're going somewhere.  The traditional dance Rory O'More had a tidal wave of actives, with a balance, slide right, balance, slide left.  Modern contras are more likely to have two tidal waves, or waves of four across, so that everybody is active, and most people do a twirl rather than a slide — though the option is yours.  Again, giving weight (or support) helps everybody.  Concentrate on where you're going, not the twirl.  You need to make a positive move on the right foot; the second needs to have turned through 180°.  I think the third should get you facing in your original direction, so that the fourth step is just a sideways close — you've done twirling on the first three.  Otherwise you're off-balance, with your right foot pointing the wrong way.  Think about pulling your shoulder back and your feet will follow.  In English terms, it's a turn single while travelling a short distance.  And do make sure that when you move to the left you pull your left shoulder back — I think it's easier.  If you get disoriented, just remember that the balancing and spinning gets you right back to where you started, and that whether you spin or slide you're still facing the same direction at the end of each move.

Moving Pieces by Dave Colestock, 2003 has a Rory O'More move but also a Swing Through which comes from MWSD.  Also a right and left through, which varies by State: in Maine they give hands; in Massachusetts (next door) they don't.  Things are changing though; David Millstone says that he's finding more and more dancers giving hands on right and left through.  It's still not the norm in New Hampshire, Vermont and much of Massachusetts, but certainly as you go south and into the Midwest they give hands.

A Pirate's Life for Me by Nathaniel Jack, aged 16 at the time of composition, perhaps too young to know the rules or care!  This has a Rory O'More spin with an extra bit for men, and also “Pass the Ocean” from MWSD (though most contra callers won't call it that).  Also a gipsy, both a gipsy meltdown and a gipsy and move on.

Another moving twirl comes from the dance Petronella, which was originally a Scottish dance with just the ones moving, and in this case the twirl was already there, not a flourish added by modern contra dancers.  Now it's egalitarian American: everybody gets to do the balance and twirl.  Again, think of where you're going (one place to the right round your foursome) and pull your right shoulder back.  No, I'm not going to teach the clapping, which most musicians hate!  And this dance is in Becket formation, which is very popular these days as you can finish with all swing partner at the side of the set.

Ellen's Yarns by Rick Mohr is a good example of a Petronella dance — after the second balance the twirl is a bit more, to meet your partner from the next circle for that final balance and swing.

Complementary Contra by Gene Hubert — Give-and-Take, 2004 — (complementary to Tony Parkes' “Shadrack's Delight”) has a “bend the line” into a circle.  Bend the line is from MWSD but there it's hardly ever followed by a circle.  Another twirl opportunity as the line comes up the hall.

The Devil's Backbone by William Watson, 1999. A double contra (not very common — Americans aren't keen on anything too different) using part of a MWSD figure called “Spin Chain and Exchange the Gears”, though William actually took the figure from an English dance “The Short and the Tall” by Ron Coxall.

You can also have heys in squares.  An extreme and terrific example is Hey-mania by Ron Buchanan who writes interesting and challenging squares often based on traditional American figures but explored in new ways.  This one's instead based on the traditional English hey.

The Lazy “H” by Ed Gilmore, probably 1950's.  Phrased.  Not a “Visiting couple” dance, but each couple in turn leads the figure.  You never get that in MWSD; the caller may say “2 and 4 go forward and back” but the dancers probably wouldn't know who was two and who was four as they always work together.

One more figure which will be new to some of you — variously called “Mad Robin”, “Sliding Doors” or “Shuttle”.  Contra is evolving all the time.  Read “Contra Dance Choreography” by Mary McNab Dart — it's on the CDSS website at and contains a lot of good stuff, both the interviews and her conclusions.  Tony Parkes explains how he came to write “Shadrack's Delight” and she talks about how contra almost died out, is now extremely popular, and is basically a totally different thing.

Silver Anniversary Reel by Jim Kitch uses Shuttle, and also has “Pass the Ocean”.

Ready for your final exam?  Let's try “Goody Two Shoes” by Micah Smukler, 2003.  Micah's the son of another caller and dance writer David Smukler and this is a terrific dance with two Rory O'Mores and two Petronellas!  And you're never out — don't even consider the possibility!

One final bit of advice — if it's hot in The States, drink lots of water or you'll find yourself falling on the floor.  But if you don't want to travel that far, where can you dance in this style?  Clubs in England do contras but they can be lifeless.  I dance with the Cambridge Contra group on alternate Fridays — live music and usually four or five competent callers.  London Barn Dance Company at Cecil Sharp House one Saturday a month — top bands and callers but lots of beginners dancing.  If you're a beginner, I recommend that — actually I recommend it to anybody, but you probably won't get that “peak experience”.  My best recommendation is the Alcester Contras in Warwickshire, one Saturday a month.  They have top bands and callers and tremendous energy from the dancers.  Book in advance though — they're often sold out!

John Sweeney has some other links at

And the final dance in The States is always a waltz, and almost everybody gets up and does it.  Some of them aren't very good, but they all have a go!