BackSession 7: American Contras   Session Index  Previous session  Next session

Figures and Steps


Click to play videoA contra is a longways dance — some of the old “chestnuts” were triple minor, and proper, but that was long ago.  Mary Dart in her book “Contra Dance Choreography” (1995) asks how it can be that the contra dance has achieved such a remarkable comeback, after coming so close to extinction.  Her conclusion is that the contra dances enjoyed in the States today bear little resemblance to the traditional ones.  The text of the book is now on the CDSS website at and makes fascinating reading.  Modern contras are almost all longways duple improper, everyone moving all the time, the ones and twos doing the same thing, and (most important of all) with both partner and neighbour swings.  I find that older dancers in England don't feel the need for two swings, so I tend to call more interesting contras with just one swing — usually with partner, though most of the older contras in the CDMs such as “All the Way to Galway” have a neighbour swing.

There's no skipping or slipping in modern contras.  It's a walk, but it's a purposeful walk.  And there's no change of speed of movements; modern contra dancers set off at a particular speed and stick to it.  If they get there too soon, they put in some twirls or flourishes to fill up the music rather than slowing down or taking smaller steps.  Contra is still evolving — it's not the same as when Mary Dart studied it in 1995.  Swing dance and Blues dance moves are prevalent at some contra dances, with perhaps a dip instead of a swing.  I've never seen that in England, but click the image on the right to see it in The States — admittedly this couple is neutral, but if you Google “Techno Contra” you'll see it in the dance itself.

Balance the wave

A wave is a line of people facing in alternate directions with hands joined.  For instance, a contra with the ones improper might start “Do-si-do your neighbour 1¼ (or once and a bit) to a wave” — you finish giving right hand to your neighbour and the women give left hands.  To Balance in a wave you normally balance towards your neighbour and away, which would be to the right and left in this formation.  It definitely isn't an English or Scottish set (right 2 3 , left 2 3).  I'd say it's more of a very positive step to the right and then bring your left foot close to it but without putting your weight on it, then the same to the left.  But there are many varieties of balance, and some people will tell you I'm talking nonsense.  Americans give significant eye-contact to the person they're balancing towards; I've got used to this now so I'm no longer intimidated!  If you want people to balance forward and back — for instance if they're then going to move forward to another wave or to turn the person coming towards them — you need to say so very positively before they've had a chance to balance right and left.  Don't do what some callers do: “Balance the wave (pause) I would suggest forward and back in this dance”.  Some people will balance right and left whatever you say, so don't let it get to you.

Rory O'More spin   Top of page

Callers in The States say, “As in the dance Rory O'More”, but hardly anyone on the floor would ever have danced that old chestnut, and anyway the original move was for the ones only.  These days it's usually done in two parallel waves, so everyone is involved.  I teach it first with a slide: you balance right and left, then slide right face-to-face with this person, to finish giving left hand to them and right to the next.  Some hot-shots will want to twirl straight away, but it helps the newcomers if everyone does it with a slide first.  Normally it's followed by balance left and right and slide left, back to where you started the move.  Then I explain that modern contra dancers love to twirl, so instead of sliding to your right you pull your right shoulder back and twirl once around.  Get them to do the balance first, as that sets up their momentum for the twirl.  You'll find that maybe 5% of the dancers will twirl the wrong way, so I emphasise that it's not a cast, it's a travelling turn single, and I demonstrate that if you're spinning to your right it's natural (to me at any rate) to pull your right shoulder back.  And the twirling needs to start on the very first step, otherwise people only spin half-way and there's general confusion.  Remind them that with a slide they would stay facing the same wall all the time, so if they twirl they must still finish facing that wall.  You'll also need to stop people doing a right-hand turn half-way — remind them that in the slide they're passing face-to-face, not going round each other, so it's just the same if they do a twirl.

Now do the second half, balancing left and right and pulling left shoulder back to twirl anti-clockwise.  This time at least 10% of them will twirl the wrong way and be quite unaware of it.  It's up to you how far you push the teaching!

Petronella spin   Top of page

Unlike the Rory O'More spin, which is a modern invention, Petronella had the spin from the start — 1818 if not earlier.  “Petronella” started as a Scottish dance (indeed it's the first dance in RSCDS Book 1) and the RSCDS version has exactly this move (for the ones only), except that the travelling turn single comes first and then the set.

In modern contras the Petronella spin is almost always done in a circle of four people.  You balance in and out, then pull your right shoulder back to finish one place round to your right.  If necessary you can start by saying, “Circle right one place”.  Wait for them all to decide which way that is.  “OK, that's where you finish.  Come back and I'll show you how you get there”.  This time because the balance is forward and back rather than right and left, you don't get the same momentum going into the spin.  Again you will find a few people pulling their left shoulder back to do a cast rather than a travelling turn single, and again they need to pull back the shoulder from the start or they won't get all the way round.  Some people clap twice at the end of the spin — musicians usually hate this, but that's the living tradition for you!

If I'm running a workshop which involves both Rory O'More and Petronella spins, I often finish with “Goody Two Shoes” by Micah Smukler which is very challenging but people love it once they've got it — Micah gives some useful teaching tips on the web page.

Turn contra corners   Top of page

This move comes from another chestnut, “Chorus Jig”, which I've given below.  It's triple minor, as is “Sackett's Harbor”, but in modern contras the figure is always compressed to duple minor which means that the twos are also threes (if that explanation isn't too confusing), in other words they're working with two different sets of ones.

Here's the duple minor description.  It starts with everyone proper, the ones below the twos.  (In fact if you're dancing a modern contra and you get into this formation you can guarantee that “contra corners” is coming up.)  The ones do a right-hand turn three-quarters, then man down, lady up to do a left-hand turn with their first corner.  The ones meet again with another right-hand turn three quarters, then man up, lady down for a left-hand turn with their second corners.  The ones meet again and (usually) do a balance and swing, finishing facing down (with the man on the left and the lady on the right) towards their new twos — improper, as nature intended!

People get confused by this move so I always start by saying, “Look on your right diagonal.  Ones, that's your first corner.  Make sure they're looking at you.  Now look on your left diagonal.  Ones, that's your second corner.  Now ones look straight across: you start the move with your partner”.  Don't rush this bit; a few seconds here can save a lot of confusion later.

I tell the twos to stand there with their left hand out and turn anybody who comes at them, and hope you don't get two at the same time!  Actually if they're awake they can help the ones by looking at the person who is supposed to be turning them — they need to look on the right diagonal for the first turn and the left diagonal for the second.  Neutral ones at the top of the set, and active ones at the bottom of the set, can do the move but they only get one corner each.  This means the neutral ones at the top need to be proper, which they may not be expecting.  The final swing gets the ones at the top improper, ready to start their first turn of the dance, and gets the bottom ones proper (if they're thinking) so that they can be twos for the next ones.

Box the gnat   Top of page

Done by a man facing a woman.  You take right hand in right and change places, but instead of just a right-hand turn half-way the man turns the woman under his arm (she turns to her left) and they end facing each other.

California twirl   Top of page

Done by a man and woman side by side, with the man on the left.  Take inside hands (man's right, woman's left) and raise them to make an arch; both move forwards to change places, the woman going under the arch.  Finish facing the opposite direction, still with the man on the left.  (Some Americans do it with them both moving backwards, which I can't describe and can only think is a mistake!)

Chorus Jig        Chorus Jig: Music in PDF, MIDI and ABC formatPrint this danceTop of page

Interpretation: Community Dance Manual, 1960's.
Format: Longways triple or duple, proper
Music: Own tune (which is actually a reel, not a jig)

A1:Ones down the outside and back.
A2:Ones down the centre and back, cast off with the twos.
B1:Ones turn contra corners: partner right hand, first corner left, partner right, second corner left.
B2:Ones balance and swing.

This version (as a duple minor) appears in Community Dance Manual 4, published by the English Folk Dance and Song Society in the 1960's.  For more information than you want, see my 200 Years of American page.

People might find the contra corners move easier in a triple minor, because the twos and threes only have their own ones to worry about.  Once they're happy with that, you could stop the dance when a neutral couple at the top are about to come in, and take hands four from the top to cut it down to duple minor.  In the States, the twos sneak in a partner swing while the ones are going down the outside and back, and/or swing someone in the next line when the ones are going down the middle and back.  Originally it would have been an unassisted cast; these days the twos help the ones round with a gates movement, to do which they need to start by facing up.  If the twos do the natural thing and face down towards the ones leading up towards them, the turn finishes with the twos facing out, which isn't much use.  The traditional style is with an arm round each other, but some men may not be comfortable doing this, in which case an elbow hold is fine.

Sackett's Harbor        Sackett's Harbor: Music in PDF, MIDI and ABC formatPrint this danceTop of page

Interpretation: Community Dance Manual, 1960's.
Format: Longways triple, proper
Music: Own tune (32-bar reel)

A1:Lines of three forward and back.  Circle left ¾.
A2:Ones lead “down”, turn individually and lead back, hand cast round twos to middle place.
B1:Ones turn contra corners: right forearm turn partner, left with first corner, right partner, left second corner, finishing back in middle place.
B2:Lines of three forward and back.  Circle right ¾.

This time I'm specifying forearm rather than hand hold because it's quite busy getting back into lines, though hand is probably more traditional.  The hardest move in the dance is that circle right, so keep reminding people!  Sometimes I'll call, “So which way does the circle go?” and they all shout out “Right” — it works!

I recommend that people join hands in their new lines of three at the start of each turn of the dance rather than long lines all the way down — they need to know who they're with for the following circle.  But once you've got these points right, the dance always goes down well.

There are tens of thousands of contras on the web, with many more being added every day.  Most of them have the obligatory two swings, and many of those don't really have anything special in them.  I like a dance where I think, “Oh yes, that's the one where you…” and although I have over 500 contras in my repertoire I can only remember about three of them!

There is now a Contradance Database called The Caller's Box which includes instructions if the author has given permission.

Here are some contras I particularly like.

Alternating Corners by Jim Kitch: Page 15.

Delphiniums and Daisies by Tanya Rotenberg: calling/acdol/dance/acd_275.html.

Fiddleheads by Ted Sannella: Page 25

Here's to the Fiddler by Tony Parkes: contra/dances/tony_parkes/ heres_to_the_fiddler.html

Inflation Reel by Tony Parkes: contra/dances/tony_parkes/ inflation_reel.html

3, 33-33 by Steve Zakon: contra/dances/steve_zakon/ three_33_33.html

Cambridge Reel by Hugh Stewart: contra/dances/hugh_stewart/ cambridge_reel.html

Devil's Dream, Traditional American: contra/dances/ devils_dream.html

You will find the instructions for many more contras at contra/dances together with links to other pages of instructions.

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