BackSession 1: Standard figures   Session Index  Next session

Figures and Steps


Dancing to the music

New dancers can get so overwhelmed by all the figures that they don't even notice the music, so you need to stress that there are 8 steps for most figures — and point out the exceptions as they come along.  If necessary get people into a big circle and just do circle left, circle right, into the middle and back twice, etc. so that they can hear the connection between the music and what their feet are doing.  And show them the difference between “plodding round” and a “dance walk”.  It doesn't have to be anything fancy, just standing up straight and moving with conviction, with weight forward rather than back on the heels.

If you're not confident about rhythms, I suggest you read my callers' notes section on Fitting it to the Music and listen to some of the tunes at the bottom.

Nothing particularly original in the following sequences, but useful for teaching figures.  I got the idea from Brenda Godrich when we were running the “Beginners” sessions at Cecil Sharp House.  She would teach the first sequence and dance that four or five times.  Then the second.  Then the third, and at that point keep the music going and bring back the other sequences, first as learnt, then with variations.  It teaches the basic figures, it's fun, and people rise to the challenge of coping with the same figures in a different order.

When I started dancing the standard was “Put the lady back where you found her” after a swing, and that was how the old American contras worked.  But in modern contra and square dancing you always finish a swing with the lady on the right, so I've put together a fourth sequence to reflect this — you also get to swing people other than your partner which is useful.  Or you might consider a sequence where you change partner every time and therefore get to swing lots of different people.  For this, instead of balance and swing partner you could call:

Men give left hands and pull by; give right to the next man and pull by.  Swing the lady you meet (new partner).

If you're going to use all four sequences I think it would be better to split this into two chunks, separated by a couple of other dances.  That also gives people a chance to change partners.

Sequence 1        Print this danceTop of page

Format: Sicilian circle.  Music: 32 bar jigs/reels

A1:Circle left.  Circle right.
A2:Men cross; ladies cross.  Men cross back; ladies cross back.
B1:Balance and swing partner.
B2:Forward and back.  The couple with the inside man arch: move on to the next couple.

Circle   Top of page

Get them doing good circles, giving weight and not holding their hands in contorted positions.  Elbows should be down in a “W” shape.  Point out that if circle left is followed by circle right you can get away with being sloppy and only go about three-quarters of the way round, but if it's followed by something different you really need to get all the way round in eight steps.  A good circle should be fun — the whole group working together to create something enjoyable.  Demonstrate giving weight in a circle — not trying to overpower someone, but with enough tension in the arms to get the circle moving well.  If there's not enough tension, make the circle bigger until there is.  If you're circling left you need to pull the person on your right — it's no use pushing the person on your left (though I understand the temptation).  And that brings me on to…

Giving weight   Top of page

A difficult concept to put across to people, even with demonstrations.  Demonstrate a right-hand turn 1½ in 8 steps, where you have to give weight to get there in time.  Get them to try it for themselves.  In fact you could throw this into a sequence:

B1:Men right-hand turn 1½.  Ladies left-hand turn 1½.  [or have the ladies turn first]
B2:Balance and swing partner, and finish facing in original direction.

Similarly a two-hand turn.  It's the same in stars and circles, swings and various other moves, so don't be afraid to mention it again and again.  Spaced repetition is the secret of effective teaching so that people will remember what you've taught them.

Crossing over   Top of page

In A2 I would suggest cross right, turn right each time.  Point out that you don't need to stop moving after the first cross; you can take four steps to turn around and then you're just in time for the second cross.  Once again you're thinking in terms of 8 steps.  It's the same with “lines forward and back and cross over”: 4 steps forward, 4 steps backward, 8 steps to cross over and turn around to face back in.

Balance   Top of page

I suggest you teach an English kick balance twice followed by a 4-bar swing, and also an American balance forward and back followed by a 6-bar swing.  There's a time and a place for both.

The kick balance was always taught: Step onto your right foot, then hop on it while you kick your left leg across in front of the right, then step left and kick right across.  But some ceilidh callers teach it the other way round — possibly because they think the phrase “balance right and left” refers to which leg you kick out rather than which leg you step onto.  I assume the move derives from “set right and left”, so that's the way I always teach it.

Swing   Top of page

Demonstrate a pivot (buzz step) swing.  You start right foot to right — outside each other, not interlocked.  You take a reasonably close ballroom hold and you look at each other — no good doing the swing as if you wished you were somewhere else.  (I usually demonstrate this wrong approach and then the right approach.)  Explain the principle — the left foot is pushing but it never gets in front of the right foot which is the anchor.  I describe the movement as like pushing a kid's scooter.  Point out that you can also do a walked swing, though the pivot step is more fun, and that one person can do a walk while the other does a pivot.  Get people to practise and don't be afraid to correct people (tactfully) who haven't got it — it may take a few repetitions.  I also demonstrate the “bouncing up and down” swing and observe that this is exhausting and I really don't want to do it!  You might want to show that the man's left hand joined to the lady's right hand isn't strictly necessary — it's the man's right hand on the lady's back that provides the necessary connection.  Point out that finishing the swing with the lady on the right and the man on the left is very easy — you just open up the pointy end and you're there.  Also emphasise that (because of the way the ballroom hold works, not for sexist reasons) it's the man's job to steady the lady as she comes out of the swing.  (With a confident partner I demonstrate just letting go and her spinning off into space.)  At that point the man is moving forwards into the set whereas the lady is moving backwards out of the set, so if the swing is followed by something like a ladies' chain she's going in completely the wrong direction — he needs to cancel out her momentum so that she can then move forwards.  This is not some philosophical point; it's simple mechanics.

People ask where the man's right hand goes, and the answer, politically correct or not, is “on the bra strap”.  But it also depends on the relative heights of the two dancers.  You don't want it so low that the lady is leaning backwards, nor so high that her head bashes into your chest!  (I sometimes demonstrate both these mistakes with a partner who I know will cope with them.)

Forward and back   Top of page

Point out that the forward and back is again an 8-step move; to be precise, it's 3 steps forward and feet together; three backward and feet together.  It's called a Double and turns up a lot in Playford dances.  The same applies when lines go forward and back in a longways set.  If they just can't be bothered to do this, get them to stamp on the fourth beat.

Sequence 2        Print this danceTop of page

Format: Sicilian circle.  Music: 32 bar jigs/reels

A1:Right-hand turn opposite.  Left-hand turn partner.
A2:Ladies chain over and back.
B1:Balance and swing partner.
B2:Forward and back.  Outside man arch: move on to the next couple.

Turn   Top of page

Whether it's a one- or two-hand turn, it's a handshake hold in English-style dances.  In American-style dances it's usually hands clasped around each other — but I recommend not with thumbs linked or if somebody trips you're likely to lose a thumb.  Even worse is the totally flat palm — this is the “You can't hurt me because I'm not giving you anything to hold onto” approach adopted by some male contra dancers in The States!  Look at the person you're turning, rather than wishing you were with someone else, and give some weight.  (I demonstrate failing to do both of these.)

Ladies' chain   Top of page

In the ladies' chain, rather than just pulling by to get at the other man, the ladies should move on a curved track.  There are 8 steps for the chain across, which is more than enough.  The man's job is to move to his right so that the lady coming towards him doesn't just walk into him, and to help her in the wheel around rather than her having to drag him.  You can make this point in a fun way by demonstrating it as inept man who doesn't do these two things — don't believe people who claim that you should never mention or demonstrate the wrong way of doing something!

In American Squares and contras they don't do things by halves, so if you're calling these please don't say “Half a ladies' chain”.  Even in traditional English dances I don't use “Half a” — I'll say “Ladies chain across”. If I want you to go back again I'll say so.  The other important point is that when you're calling, “Half a” conveys nothing.  “Half a right-hand star”?  “Half a hey”?  “Half a double figure eight”?  Give me the important words first.  “Hey for four — half-way”.  “Right-hand star — half-way”.  I need to know what figure I'm doing before I need to know how far I'm going in it: time enough for that when I've started moving.

After teaching these two sequences and then mixing up the calls to keep everybody on their toes, I suggest doing a couple of straightforward and quite different dances such as La Russe and Clopton Bridge (see below).  Then do sequence 3 and sequence 4, and then mix up the calls from all four sequences.  And if there's any time left, another fairly straightforward dance — though there's no harm in showing the new dancers that the experienced dancers can do a lot more, and will dance with the newcomers and do their best to get them through more challenging dances.

Sequence 3        Print this danceTop of page

Format: Sicilian circle.  Music: 32 bar jigs/reels

A1:Do-si-do partner.  Do-si-do opposite.
A2:Right and left through, and back.
B1:Balance and swing partner.
B2:Forward and back.  Inside man arch: move on.

Do-si-do   Top of page

A do-si-do is once again an 8 beat move: 3 steps to pass by (moving diagonally right on the third) and feet together; 3 steps to fall back on the other side and feet together.  In American contras some people spin round to their left (sometimes two or three times) during a do-si-do, but in Playford-style dances it's called a “back-to-back” (the English form of the French “dos-a-dos”) and they wouldn't have spun round in Playford's day.

Right and left through   Top of page

In a right and left through, the challenge is to get the ladies turning left rather than right after the pull by with the right hand.  Demonstrate as a lady that if you start with a right-hand turn half-way you're facing out of the set — there's nobody there to do anything with!  As soon as she does the pull by she needs to face the man on her left (her partner in this case).  Make sure the men do a courtesy turn — some men put their arm round the lady's waist, some don't, and both are fine provided he's turning in towards her rather than just pulling past her.  That's why it's called “courtesy” — the Scottish phrase “polite turn” means the same thing.

Again, in American Squares and contras they don't do things by halves, so don't say “Half right and left through”.  Other people will disagree with me here, and certainly in Scottish you do say “Half a” whereas in American you don't; English is somewhere between the two.

Sequence 4        Print this danceTop of page

Format: Sicilian circle.  Music: 32 bar jigs/reels

A1:Do-si-do opposite.  Swing opposite — finish in each other's place.
A2:Do-si-do partner.  Swing partner — finish in each other's place.
B1:Right-hand star.  Left-hand star.
B2:Promenade all the way round this couple, and on to the next.  Forward and back.

Star   Top of page

In English-style dances a star for four people is hands across, so you're shaking hands with the person diagonally opposite you.  In effect you're doing a turn with them, so the same rules apply: look at them and give weight.  In many parts of the States the standard is a wrist-grip star for squares and contras.  Put your hand on the wrist of the person in front of you in the star but don't grip tightly — that won't help anyone.  What you don't want is the “bunch of bananas” star where people just shove their hands into the middle: that looks and feels terrible, and you can't give any weight if you need to turn it further than usual.

Promenade   Top of page

In England the promenade is normally done with a cross-hand hold: right in right, and left in left below them.  In The States you will find other kinds of promenade.  Some men twirl the lady clockwise in the last four beats of the promenade, which is easy provided the right hands are indeed above the left, and is useful when promenading a new partner round a square because it tells the lady where the man's home place is.  A twirl is fine provided the lady wants to be twirled and there's time for it.

Jargon   Top of page

You need to be aware that a lot of these terms are “jargon”, defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as:
special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.

You get so used to them that you think they're self-explanatory, but they aren't.  At the end of walking through a contra, where the dancers are back where they started, you say “pass through” — and they think “Pass what through what?  Pass my hand through my hair?”  What you need to say is: “Face your neighbour, up and down the line.  Pass them by the right shoulder to meet your new neighbour.  That's called a pass through.”  Similarly you say to a group of experienced dancers: “Hands four from the top” and they know exactly what you mean, but newcomers will think: “Where's the top?  The top of what?  She's obviously telling us to do something, but there's no verb in the sentence.  My partner and I have four hands between us.  Does she want us to raise them in the air?”

Suggested Dances   Top of page

Of course there are lots of dances you can choose from, but here are a few possibilities.  The Round's Core Repertoire is at and there are suggestions for finding other dances at

La Russe        Print this danceTop of page

I would use 4 steps to meet, a kick balance right and left, and a 4-bar swing.  Going back I tell people to pull their right shoulder back and cast round their partner to their home place, though this doesn't always work!

Barley Reel        Print this danceTop of page

I know this uses a Strip the Willow which isn't in the list, but just teach it on the fly.

Clopton Bridge        Print this danceTop of page

With a step-hop, so a different style from any that have gone before.

Bridge of Athlone        Print this danceTop of page

Absolutely standard barn dance repertoire.

Sheldon Lions' Jig        Print this danceTop of page'_Jig

Different enough to keep the experts thinking — and that's always a good thing!

Conclusion   Top of page

Wow!  That seems an awful lot to cover in one session!  Reassure the new dancers that if they come back there won't be nearly so much to learn next time.  You don't need to learn dances; you need to learn figures.  Once you're happy with a do-si-do or a right and left through you'll find they crop up in lots of dances.

I hope the experienced dancers won't find this session too simple.  For me as an experienced dancer, one of the joys of this kind of dancing is helping other people to enjoy it too.  Why else do you think I've written all these notes?!