Notes on Choreography

for Duple Minor Improper Contra Dances

2012

© Copyright Cary Ravitz 1998, 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017

Last modified 9:46 PM, 3 Feb 2017 - File size 87K - Count 27840

Cary Ravitz
859-263-5087
ravitz_at_ravitz.us   (replace _at_ with @)


Introduction
Partners, Neighbors, and Shadows
Figures
Formations
Progression
Diagramming Dances
Sequence of Figures
The Structure of a Dance
Black Boxes, Inside and Out (2-2015)
Complex/Difficult Dances
New or Unusual Figures and Transitions
                    What to Avoid
Symmetry
Aesthetic Considerations
What Makes a Dance Good
My Rules of Choreography (rev 2013)
Writing a Dance
An Evening of Dances
Ending a Dance
Proper and Cross Contra Formations (2013)
More on Formations - Reverse Progression, ... (2014)
Six Count Figures (2017)


Introduction

These notes are about the choreography of duple minor (two couple minor sets), improper contra dances, i.e. modern contra dances. They are for potential and practicing choreographers and callers and assume that you have a working knowledge of contra dancing.

This information is based on my experiences dancing, calling, and writing dances. It is part fact and part opinion. For choreographers, I expect that you will disagree with many parts of it, but perhaps it will give you something to consider. For callers, I hope that you will learn something that will help you understand complex dances more easily and choose better dances to call.

This is an update based on my notes from 1998 and 2003. And I have made a number of revisions in 2017.

Top


Partners, Neighbors, and Shadows

Your partner is beside you, women on the right at the start of any duple minor improper contra. Your neighbors are the people in your minor set other than your partner or trail buddy.

A shadow, also known as a trail buddy, is someone that you meet (generally in your minor set) on every cycle of the dance (your partner might be considered your primary shadow). Every opposite sex person that is on the same side of the set as your partner is a potential shadow. Anyone else that you meet is a neighbor. Shadows appear in your minor set when you progress differently from your partner, for example ladies chain on the left diagonal. In Becket formation long lines, the person beside you that is not your partner is a shadow that is not in your minor set (there may be other shadows in the same dance).

Excluding end effects, if your partner is in a different minor set in a dance walkthrough, then in your minor set one opposite sex person is a neighbor and one is a shadow. Look up or down the set for your partner. The opposite sex person that is on the same side of the set as your partner is the shadow.

At the end of a set a partner or shadow may dance the part of a neighbor.

Top


Figures

The figures that make up a contra dance, such as do-si-do, swing, and circle, have several interesting characteristics. Figures may change the position of the dancers. Some do -

And some don't. For callers, these figures are very handy to repair a dance that is off the music. They can be dropped or added without messing up the dance -

Some figures are positionally equivalent to other figures. For example star right 3/4 is the same as circle left 3/4. Right and left through across is the same as 1/2 hey. Balance and roll to the next position to the right as in Petronella is the same as circle left 3/4.

Figures may change the orientation of the dancers. Some do, such as star and hey. Some don't, such as long lines forward and back, right and left through across, and circle. And some allow dancers to change their orientation, such as swing and do-si-do.

Figures provide different relationships with your partner. In some figures partners move together, for example right and left through, swing, star, circle, and long lines. In a hey they do the same motion but not together. In a ladies chain they do completely different motions. This can be used to nice effect -

Figures can be modified to include a progression -

Ladies or men allemande 1+1/2 in the middle (or any multiple of 1/2) has an implied movement by the dancers that are not participating in the allemande. These people should, in general, move to the side slightly to line up with the person on the other side of the set. This sets up the minor set for a swing, allemande, or wavy line (for example) and leaves the two couples aligned. It also makes the usual allemande fractions work out precisely, for example allemande 1+1/2 in the middle / allemande 3/4 on the side to long wavy lines.

The swing is an important part of any dance and it has unique characteristics. There is no specific number of rotations. It ends at a phrase break. It ends with the woman on the right, regardless of the positions at the start of the swing (for other figures the ending position depends on the starting position). And it allows transition to a variety of figures, including circle left (clockwise), star left (counter-clockwise), promenade, long lines, ladies chain, hey, right and left through, women allemande right, and men allemande left (although some work better than others).

Each figure requires a certain number of dance counts to execute. Some of these are easy, some require the dancers to slow their pace, and some are rushed, requiring the dancers to move briskly to get to the next move on time -

Top


Formations

Duple minor means that each minor set is composed of two couples. Improper means women are on the right for each couple. Triple minor sets are beyond the scope of these notes.

I use the term improperish to refer to any formation where women are on the right side of a couple (with partner or neighbor) - this is any improper or Becket formation that isn't reverse improper. I use the term reverse improper to describe women on the left. Some people use the term indecent.

Proper only has meaning in the context of contra lines - men are on the right side line (from the caller's view) and women are on the left side line. From the dancer's view, proper is women on the left if you are facing down, women on the right if you are facing up.

The traditional duple minor contra formations are proper, improper, Becket, and Sicilian circle. Becket includes clockwise and counter-clockwise formations. Reverse improper (often referred to as indecent) has some usage. Improper, reverse progression has a little usage. I have written a few dances using cross contra formation. Some have tried Becket, woman on the left (can be clockwise or counter-clockwise).

Regardless of the formation, ones progress down the hall, twos progress up the hall. A Sicilian circle is a (generally improper) contra line bent into a circle, counter-clockwise is down the hall.

To be specific -

And you could use Becket, woman on the left; Becket, woman on the left, counter-clockwise; reverse proper; proper, reverse progression; reverse proper, reverse progression; reverse improper, reverse progression. But I don't see much point to it.

Regardless of the starting point, most contra dances are predominantly improperish because many (or most) of the figures are designed to start and/or end women on the right. A typical proper, reverse improper, or cross contra dance will become improperish after the first or second figure, stay improper through the last swing, and then progress into its original formation.

The formation influences the dance. For example, one big advantage of Becket dances is that you can end the dance with a partner swing. Another is that the dance can progress either left or right, giving more flexibility in its construction. An improper contra could end with a partner swing but the swing would be in the middle of the set, causing problems (having only the ones swing is not an acceptable solution for me). And it could be reverse progression, but that can be confusing.

Sicilian circles have a couple of advantages over improper contras. There are no end effects. And you can do large circles left and right. One disadvantage is that you dance with only half the people in the set.

Proper dances are more difficult than improper dances because at the start of each cycle it is not obvious which couples are ones. I don't know of any payback for this difficulty, so I have never written or called any proper dances.

Reverse improper dances have no advantage over improper dances, however some useful progressions result in reverse improper formation. From a partner swing on the side -

Top


Progression

My definition of progression is that point when you leave one minor set and join another minor set, minor set being defined by position on the floor rather than people in the set. This is not the same as progressed position, which is the position that allows a progression. When you are in progressed position you can turn to face a new neighbor to progress.

    original set      6 5   4 3   2 w     (odd numbers are ones)
                      6 5   4 3   2 m

    progressed        5 6   3 4   w 2
    position          5 6   3 4   m 2

    progressed     - 5   6 3   4 w   2 -
                   - 5   6 3   4 m   2 -
    

You can progress multiple times in a dance sequence. A progression on a diagonal is equivalent to two single progressions - you dance with and then past a couple on the diagonal.

If you draw an X on the floor in the middle of each minor set, then in a single progression dance the Xs will move with each cycle.

    original set      6 5   4 3   2 w
                      6 5   4 3   2 m

    progressed     - 5   6 3   4 w   2 -
                   - 5   6 3   4 m   2 -
    

In a double progression dance, the Xs stay in the same place.

    original set      6 5   4 3   2 w
                      6 5   4 3   2 m

    progressed        - 3   6 w   4 -
                      - 3   6 m   4 -
    

In a double progression dance no one is ever out at the top at the beginning of a cycle.

Partners can progress separately. For example, women chain on the left diagonal is a double progression for the women but the men stay in the same minor set so they do not progress. This sequence may be resolved by the men doing a double progression move or the women may unprogress singly while the men progress singly. For example -

Top


Diagramming Dances

Diagramming a dance is useful to verify that it works, to determine where people should be at various parts of the dance, and to explain the dance to others.

In general you need to diagram the one man (m) and woman (w), everyone else in same minor set (-), and the position of the minor set (enclosed by |). The head of the set is to the right. For example -

               Jump Start - improper contra
      |- w|
      |- m|
               neighbors balance and swing
      |w -|
      |m -|
               right and left through across
      |- m|
      |- w|
               1/2 hey
      |w -|
      |m -|
               star right 3/4
      |- -|
      |w m|
               partners swing
      |- -|
      |m w|
               circle left 3/4
      |- w|
      |- m|
               pass through up and down
      |w -|
      |m -|
               look for a new neighbor (progress) to do-si-do
    |- w|- -|
    |- m|- -|
    

The minor set of interest moved one place for a single progression. Diagramming the man's (or woman's) trail buddy (t) may be useful.

                   Whitewater - Becket
        |- -|
        |m w|
                   long lines forward and back and partners roll away
        |- -|
        |w m|
                   look for your trail buddy (progress)
      |- -|- -|
      |- w|m t|
                   long lines forward and back and trail buddies roll away
      |- -|- -|
      |w -|t m|
                   circle right 3/4
      |w -|t -|
      |- -|m -|
                   look for a new neighbor (progress)
    |- w|- t|- -|
    |- -|- m|- -|
                   neighbors swing
    |w -|t -|- -|
    |- -|m -|- -|
                   circle left 3/4
    |- -|- -|- -|
    |w -|t m|- -|
                   trail buddies allemande right 1+1/2
    |- -|- -|- -|
    |- w|m t|- -|
                   look for your partner (progress)
      |- -|- -|
      |w m|t -|
                   partners balance and swing
      |- -|- -|
      |m w|- t|
    

The minor set ended up one place to the left for a single progression, clockwise. Note that the man's trail buddy (t) is always on the same side of the set as his partner (w), so it's easy to spot a trail buddy without diagramming her.

If you have a dance with wavy lines it will be helpful to to indicate the direction that each person is facing. And if the dance becomes proper at any point it will be helpful to diagram the two man or woman so that you know what type of neighbor the ones are dancing with.

Top


Sequence of Figures

Each of the standard figures has merit for the dancers, assuming that they are not overused. So a primary focus in choosing a sequence is the transitions between figures.

Figure pairs that force hands to be separated before the first figure is finished should be avoided -

An exception to this is circle left or right / allemande right or left, perhaps because the nice feeling of continuing the rotation with a smaller radius overcomes the undesirable feeling of tearing your hand away before the figure is finished, or perhaps just because this transition is used often.

A couple of points about timing are important. Timing in the middle of a phrase is not necessarily strict. For example, with star left / star right 3/4 with a new couple, nominally each star takes eight counts, but to walk both figures at a steady speed, the first will take a bit more and the second a bit less. The dancers will work this out.

When a rushed move is followed by a balance, and the music is too fast to make it easy, the dancers will reach the balance late and the dance will lose its flow. Some examples are -

This doesn't mean that dances that use these combinations are bad, but the caller should note that the music should not be too fast for the dancers to get to the balance on time. And the rest of the dance should match.

There are a few commonly used transitions that I don't like because I don't think that they flow very well -

Others work well only with a flourish that helps the dancers to face the right direction -

Top


The Structure of a Dance

The figures of a dance might be classified as -

Viewed in this way many dances look very similar. The structure of the dance implies the length of the central figure, the possibility of combining the central figure and progression, and it imparts a shape to the dance that dancers will feel. When writing a dance, I find it helpful to start with a desired structure and work within that framework. A few of the many common forms include -

improper contra

For example Woven Waves. This structure gives widely separated swings, but limits the complexity of the central figure. Note the progression is one of the black box common sequences discussed below.

Becket

For example Pigtown Petronella. The first section yields the black box common sequence circle left 3/4 / swing.

Becket

For example Heart of Glass. This structure allows for a neighbor swing, 16 count partner swing, and a 32 count central figure unencumbered by a progression. The first section produces another black box common sequence, circle left 3/4 / pass through / swing.

Top


Black Boxes, Inside and Out

This section replaces "Common Sequences".

A black box is a device that can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs, without knowledge of its internal function. In a contra dance, you might have a black box sequence that starts at the end of a neighbor swing, runs 16 counts, and sets up the dancers for a partner balance, ladies having changed side, and another, that starts at the end of a partner swing on the men's side, runs 16 counts, progresses and sets up the dancers for a new neighbor balance in improper formation. Then you could create a dance like this ("p" here means a progression is included)) -

Now you can choose any black box sequence from the two categories to create the final sequence. Many dances have this exact structure. But there is typically nothing unique in these dances, just commonly used black box sequences. For a more interesting dance, use one of these common structures - or - Prepare a central figure, choose appropriate black boxes, and you are done.

A Set of Black Boxes

I have limited the black boxes to 16 counts maximum here. It seems to me that anything longer is more central figure than connecting figure. These are the transformations -

No progression

Improper with progression Reverse improper with progression Becket with progression Becket counter-clockwise with progression

No progression

From neighbor/partner swing to 8+ count partner/neighbor swing, ladies change sides, <=8 counts
  • Improper
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • BB, Partner swing
  • ...
  • ...p
  • Improper
  • ...
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • BB, Partner swing
  • ...p
  • Becket
  • ...
  • ...p
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • BB, Partner swing
  • Becket
  • BB, Neighbor swing
  • ...
  • ...p
  • Partner balance and swing

From neighbor/partner swing to partner/neighbor balance, ladies change sides, 16 counts
  • Improper
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • BB
  • Partner balance and swing
  • ...p
  • Becket
  • ...p
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • BB
  • Partner balance and swing
  • Becket
  • BB
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...p
  • Partner balance and swing

From neighbor/partner swing to 8+ count partner/neighbor swing, men change sides, <=8 counts
  • Improper
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • BB, Partner swing
  • ...
  • ...p
  • Improper
  • ...
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • BB, Partner swing
  • ...p
  • Becket
  • ...
  • ...p
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • BB, Partner swing
  • Becket
  • BB, Neighbor swing
  • ...
  • ...p
  • Partner balance and swing

From neighbor/partner swing to partner/neighbor balance, men change sides, 16 counts
  • Improper
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • BB
  • Partner balance and swing
  • ...p
  • Becket
  • ...p
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • BB
  • Partner balance and swing
  • Becket
  • BB
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...p
  • Partner balance and swing

Improper with progression

From partner swing on improper ladies' side to progress improper, new neighbors balance, 16 counts
  • Improper
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing
  • BBp
  • Becket counter-clockwise
  • BBp
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing

From partner swing on improper men's side to progress improper, new neighbors balance, 16 counts
  • Improper
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing
  • BBp
  • Becket
  • BBp
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing

Reverse improper with progression

From partner swing on reverse improper ladies' side to progress reverse improper, new neighbors balance, 16 counts
  • Reverse improper
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing
  • BBp
  • Becket
  • BBp
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing

From partner swing on reverse improper men's side to progress reverse improper, new neighbors balance, 16 counts
  • Reverse improper
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing
  • BBp
  • Becket
  • BBp
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing

Becket with progression

From partner swing on Becket home side to progress to 8+ count neighbor swing, ladies change sides, <=8 counts
  • Becket
  • BBp, Neighbor swing
  • ...
  • ...
  • Partner balance and swing

From partner swing on Becket home side to progress, neighbor balance, ladies change sides, 16 counts
  • Becket
  • BBp
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing

From partner swing on Becket home side to progress to 8+ count neighbor swing, men change sides, <=8 counts
  • Becket
  • BBp, Neighbor swing
  • ...
  • ...
  • Partner balance and swing

From partner swing on Becket home side to progress, neighbor balance, men change sides, 16 counts
  • Becket
  • BBp
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing

From neighbor swing, men on Becket home side to progress, partner balance, Becket home side, 16 counts
  • Becket
  • ...
  • ..., Neighbor swing
  • BBp
  • Partner balance and swing

From neighbor swing, ladies on Becket home side to progress, partner balance, Becket home side, 16 counts
  • Becket
  • ...
  • ..., Neighbor swing
  • BBp
  • Partner balance and swing

Becket counter-clockwise with progression

From partner swing on Becket home side to progress counter-clockwise to 8+ count neighbor swing, ladies change sides, <=8 counts
  • Becket counter-clockwise
  • BBp, Neighbor swing
  • ...
  • ...
  • Partner balance and swing

From partner swing on Becket home side to progress counter-clockwise, neighbor balance, ladies change sides, 16 counts
  • Becket counter-clockwise
  • BBp
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing

From partner swing on Becket home side to progress counter-clockwise to 8+ count neighbor swing, men change sides, <=8 counts
  • Becket counter-clockwise
  • BBp, Neighbor swing
  • ...
  • ...
  • Partner balance and swing

From partner swing on Becket home side to progress counter-clockwise, neighbor balance, men change sides, 16 counts
  • Becket counter-clockwise
  • BBp
  • Neighbor balance and swing
  • ...
  • ..., Partner swing

From neighbor swing, men on Becket home side to progress counter-clockwise, partner balance, Becket home side, 16 counts
  • Becket counter-clockwise
  • ...
  • ..., Neighbor swing
  • BBp
  • Partner balance and swing

From neighbor swing, ladies on Becket home side to progress counter-clockwise, partner balance, Becket home side, 16 counts
  • Becket counter-clockwise
  • ...
  • ..., Neighbor swing
  • BBp
  • Partner balance and swing

Top


Complex/Difficult Dances

I do my best to make each dance that I write as simple as possible while encompassing the goals that I have set for it. If the goal is a strange individual progression then the dance will be difficult. If a complex sequence of moves is required to make a central figure work, I will use it. But there is no reason to add complexity except to accomplish your goals.

Here are some things that tend to make a dance difficult. No hands moves - it's a lot easier to lead lost dancers with hand holds than with hand signals and verbal instruction.

Reentry with the lady on the left - it happens regularly and confuses people regularly.

Figures that take less than eight counts - these can make the dance fun, but too many can make a mess.

Multiple individual progressions - this causes dancer disorientation and nasty end effects. In return it can result in a totally unexpected partner reunion that people will like.

Complex figures done with your partner - if there is a complex figure done with a neighbor, people that understand the figure will go down the line showing new neighbors how it works. If the figure is done with your partner, there is no mixing of knowledge.

Diagonal heys - these tend to straighten out and put the dancers out of place. For example in the sequence 1/2 hey on the left diagonal / right and left through across the dancers will generally need to look a little to the right to find the correct couple for the right and left through.

Top


New or Unusual Figures and Transitions

New or unusual figures and transitions can be good or bad. They are almost always difficult to call. You've got to convince the dancers that you know what you are doing, get them to listen, convince them that it will work, and convince them that it is worth their time to learn. Even for a simple new figure this is not easy.

The first time that I called neighbors allemande right 1+1/2 / star right the reactions were - I assume that you mean star right with a new couple and are you sure that you have the dance written down right? The transition works but you've got to convince the dancers.

Over the years, unusual things can become ordinary. A number of figures have become commonplace in the last fifteen years, probably because they are useful, easy, and fun -

Unusual transitions that have been reasonably successful in the last 15 years include -

Many other new figures and transitions have been successful in individual dances, and they add to the character of the dance.

Top


What to Avoid

A few things should be consciously avoided when writing a dance. Dances that use a continuous clockwise rotation for more than about forty counts can make even experienced dancers very dizzy. The common sequence balance and swing / circle left 3/4 / swing is twenty-eight counts and doesn't cause problems. Add another eight count circle left at the end and things get questionable.

The dance pace should be even. Mixing figures that require brisk movement in one phrase with deliberately slow movement in another breaks the flow of the dance.

Some figures are boring when repeated and some benefit from repetition. Circle lefts are very handy but I don't like to use two in one dance. One do-si-do is enough. Many dances use two ladies chains, but I'm not partial to this. One balance and swing is enough, although two swings are desirable. But I limit the swings to a total of 20 counts.

Some figures seem to demand repetition. Balance and turn as in Petronella, balance and slide as in Rory O'More, and half a square through seem to need a repetition to be complete. If you only use one it seems to be just a trick to get people where you need them, not a figure that you wanted in the dance.

Watch out for excessive shadow interaction. People don't choose their shadow and they are stuck with them for the entire dance. In a Facebook discussion on shadow swings, Chris Page pointed out two reasons for shadow interactions - they are used to set up a partner lost and found situation, and they give you a second partner-like dancer. I use the first reason often. I do not like the second reason. You do not choose your shadow so in this case the caller is choosing your second partner. And it takes time away from your chosen partner. I will not write or call a dance with a shadow swing or gypsy.

Swings that end in the middle of a sixteen count phrase are not easy for dancers or callers. If the music doesn't have a clean break at the end of the swing then many dancers will not know when to stop. Consider it part of the challenge of writing a dance that this is not allowed. A somewhat popular exception to this is the sequence ones swing in the middle / neighbors swing on the side.

Avoid dances with too many figures. Each transition is a mental and physical effort. This is fun if not overdone. I like to see at least one sixteen count figure or figure pair. For example a balance and swing, hey, or two Petronella turns lets people mentally relax for the entire phrase. I also like to see four count figures kept to a minimum.

Top


Symmetry

Symmetry is one aspect of a dance that can make it feel like a work of art rather than an odd sequence of figures that happen to work together. And it is one of the most interesting aspects of a dance, often providing a sense of wonder that the symmetry can be fit into the rigid structure of a contra dance. It can take many forms - a figure (or sequence of figures) done with neighbor then partner, a figure done by women then men, a figure done by ones and then twos, mirror image figures, medleyed pairs of dances that trade partner and neighbor roles, and more. Symmetry is not required for a dance to be good. It is just one factor that can elevate a dance beyond ordinary. Below are some of my favorite examples from my dances.

Snake in the Hey uses a simple symmetric sequence -

Fractal Frolic and Fractal Fling use an ordinary star promenade followed by a star promenade with ladies in the middle to make an interesting symmetric figure. And this pair of dances make an example of almost identical dances that invert neighbor and partner roles. This example can be generalized - for any improper contra that progresses with ladies chain / look for a new neighbor to balance and swing, there is a symmetric Becket dance that progresses with ladies chain on the right diagonal / look for your partner to balance and swing, in which all other figures are identical except for trading the roles of partners/trail buddies and neighbors. This can be applied nicely to, for example, Gene Hubert's Shades of Shadrack and Jim Kitch's The Green Eyed Girl (with the last figure replaced by ladies chain across). Gene Hubert's The Nice Combination and The Dance Gypsy comprise a similar inverted pair.

Flip-Flop is an example of a dance that alternates ones and twos dancing the same sequence on alternating cycles of the dance. Also see Jim Kitch's Alternating Corners. You can run any non-symmetric improper contra this way. The alternate version is the same dance sequence with ones and twos swapped and up and down the hall reversed.

Roadkill and Megadance are examples of dances that use a sequence of figures twice with partner/trail buddy and neighbor roles reversed, in this format -

These dances are simple when viewed as a sequence of simple symmetric figures but complex when looking at the unusual individual progressions that follow from the structure.

The Enchanted Forrest and Passion Breakdown, for example, offer symmetric, medleyable alternate versions.

Top


Aesthetic Considerations

Dances are not exercise routines, they are dramatic stories. Not necessarily stories that you can put words to, but stories of feeling.

I have never liked the term storyline when used with contra dances. It implies that a literal story goes with the dance. But in the context of a contra dance, storyline may refer to a level of fun, tension, or other feeling, not necessarily a literal story.

In this context, the partner swing is the climax of the story. The neighbor swing is a lesser climax. The central figure is a buildup to the climax. The partner swing is an emotional climax because it is the ultimate dance connection of two people and this is reinforced by the unique rules of a swing - regardless of the entry into a swing, it ends at a phrase break with the woman on the right. (So you've got a figure sequence that is more fun than a swing? Try it without a swing and see how it goes.)

I have heard a caller teach something like - neighbors balance and swing, circle left 3/4, partners swing, now that we have the swings out of the way we can do something interesting. The rest of the dance may be interesting, but the climax is in the past.

So - think about the emotional flow of a dance, not just the physical flow.

Top


What Makes a Dance Good

I've seen inspired sequences of figures that made poor dances and dances that flowed beautifully that were not fun. And I've seen almost trivial sequences of figures that made very good dances. You will have to dance a dance to see if it is good, but when writing a dance I try for certain things.

A dance should flow well. One figure should lead to the next by position, direction, and handholds.

A dance should be easy to remember. Having a good flow is the best first step to this. Repeated moves, especially from the same or similar positions will detract from it. For example if there are two partner courtesy turns on the same side of the set, the dancers will sometimes confuse where they are in the dance at the end of the courtesy turns.

Given that the swing is the climax of a dance, the central figures of a dance should build to that climax. Neighbors balance and swing, circle left 3/4, partners swing, for example, to start a dance leaves 32 counts for the central figures and progression, but it all happens after the climax - not good.

A dance benefits from a theme or symmetry that holds it together as a dance rather than an unrelated sequence of figures. But if overdone this can make the dance boring.

A dance needs a hook - something to make it special. This can be a new or unusual figure, transition, or sequence of figures. It can be a transition that allows a special flourish such as swing / star left (I like to swing with left hands held and twirl the lady into the star) or do-si-do to a wave (I like to swing instead of do-si-do and twirl the lady into the wave).

The hook can be a sequence that unexpectedly works. Sutton Hey by Ken Bonner uses neighbors allemande right 3/4 / men pull by / partners box the gnat / hey. The timing is unusual - three counts for the allemande, two for the pull by, and three for the box the gnat. It works great and the hey follows nicely.

The hook can be a lose and find your partner sequence. I sometimes try to confuse the dancers in between the lose and find to make the reunion unexpected.

A confusing progression can be a nice hook. It will also make for a difficult dance.

The level of partner interaction is an important aspect of a dance. It can range from nothing to spending the entire dance with your partner. I like dances where you spend most of the dance with your partner, dances where you split time with partner, neighbors, and trail buddies, and dances where you spend most of the dance with neighbors and trail buddies and return to your partner for a balance and swing. Each of these has a place in an evening of dances.

To me, a partner swing is essential for a good dance, and a partner balance and swing or gypsy and swing is desirable. A neighbor swing is also desirable.

I think that it is nice for the dancers to change position with every figure. Do-si-do, circle or star once around, and other moves that leave the dancers' position unchanged make a dance easier but less interesting.

I prefer that dancers not stand still during a dance. Men or women allemande in the middle and actives only moves leave half the dancers standing. This won't ruin a dance if it is kept within reason, but I always look for dances that keep everyone moving all the time.

I like to see dances with no balances or reverses of direction such as long lines forward and back. I will only call these once or twice in a night, but they have a special feeling that I like.

Top


My Rules of Choreography

A lot of people get upset when I talk about rules for contra dances. Why should there be rules? Why should we be limited?

Rules create a structure that pushes you into what makes something fun/good/useful, based on experience. Imagine music without 8 tone scales and 1/3/5 chords - it might still have a danceable rhythm but it will likely sound awful.

Having rules doesn't mean that you can't break or change the rules. Some innovation occurs within the rules and some occurs by breaking or changing the rules. Explicitly expressing rules makes it easy to find rules to break, which can be very useful. Other rules are imbedded so deeply that you don't even realize that they are rules. Keep in mind that the rules are a collection of experiences and should not be broken without reason.

Some rules of contra dance are deeply embedded and implied - four 16 count phrases to match the music. Some of my rules are to prevent physical problems in dances (dizzyness, wear) - only one circle left per dance. Some prevent boredom - only one of each of the standard figures in a dance. Some are artistic - partner swing comes after the neighbor swing. I chose them based on my dance experiences.

Rules hopefully make you think about the dances that you write and help you decide if there are better ways to do things. When you write a dance, at some point in the process you are likely to have satisfied the original concept and have created a working dance. At this point I suggest looking at your rules. If they are all satisfied then perhaps you are done. If not, it's time to start looking for variations that will satisfy your rules. If you succeed, the dance will be noticeably improved.

Here are my rules. I use these rules to evaluate dances that I have written or am considering calling. They are personal, and looking at the current body of contra dances, published and called, most choreographers and callers would have serious disagreements with a number of them. I am documenting these guidelines to help you understand my dances and to encourage you to think about your own guidelines.

The first rules are rigid - I allow no exceptions unless the theme of the dance requires it.

These next rules are more loosely followed.

And these are some artistic rules.

Top


Writing a Dance

My preferred way to write a dance is to start with a concept - what it is about the dance that will make it special. This can be a figure, a transition, a sequence, an unusual progression, a theme. This gives you a starting point to build the dance around. Without a concept to guide you, it is likely you will end up with a boring dance with no distinguishing features.

For Roadkill I started with the sequence -

After working out how this sequence moved people, I determined where partners had to start so that they end up progressed and together for the second swing. That reduced the problem to finding a move that put partners in that position. Starting from Becket formation, long lines with a trail buddy roll away put people in the right position. This also left time for a balance and swing at the end. It all worked out easily.

For Whitewater I started with this progression -

The first progression separates partners. The second progression causes confusion as people expect to find their partners but don't. And the third reunites partners. There are two other equivalent ways to look at this progression that may make it easier to work with -

or -

For Interstate 75 I started with this progression -

I worked this out from Becket formation as -

The wonderful initial figure from Peter Lippincott's Snake River Reel is interesting to work with. From improper contra formation -

This figure is also used in Trip to Lambertville by Steve Zakon-Anderson and Snake Oil Reel by Roger Diggle (and perhaps others that I am not aware of). But none includes a sixteen count partner balance and swing, so I decided to look into it.

Assuming that you are starting from an improper contra formation with the figure in A1, the only phrase for a partner balance and swing is B1. (You are out of position for A2 and B2 must end in position for the next cycle.) It is nice to end the dance with the ladies set up to move forward, such as a hey or ladies chain. If the partner swing is on the man's side then the dance could end with circle left / ladies chain across. If the partner swing is on the woman's side then the dance could end with right and left through across / ladies chain across.

So that leaves A2 to get partners together. It seems best to start A2 with men allemande left. They could go 1+1/4 to their partner in six counts but that will cause timing confusion and leaves you ten counts to work with. That leaves 3/4 in four counts or 1+3/4 in eight counts, leaving them facing out at their neighbor with right hands free. You now have twelve or eight counts to get partners together. The obvious ways to get partners on the same side, ladies chain, circle 3/4, ladies allemande 1+1/2, and men allemande 1+1/2 don't fit. Ladies do-si-do 1+1/2 or gypsy left 1+1/2 work but don't sound very good to me. Also keep in mind that the women have been standing still for four counts at the start of A2 and men have had eight counts of standing still in A1.

Perhaps you can do better in Becket formation or moving the figure to a different phrase. Or you could time it so that it starts four counts before a phrase, putting the balance at the start of the phrase.

My solution to the problem, which I called Snake in the Hey, was to replace ladies walk to a wavy line with ladies allemande right 3/4 to a wavy line. This moves the ladies to the other side of the set so in A2 men allemande left 3/4 puts partners together with 12 counts to go. I used partners box the gnat / 1/2 hey to set them up for a balance and swing. And right and left through / ladies chain was the obvious finish. It is interesting how a small change can impact an entire sequence. This is part of what makes writing contra dances interesting.

Another solution, which I noticed a year after writing the above, is men allemande left 3/4 / 3/4 hey. This puts partners together on the woman's side. Then partners balance and swing / right and left through / ladies chain. This turned out to be Roger Diggle's The Snake River Strut.

After you have written a dance, go back and look for variations. Substitute equivalent figures, shift the timing, and see if you can fit it into Becket verses improper contra. Then choose the best version or document good alternatives.

Top


An Evening of Dances

A random selection of good contra dances will not, in general, make for a good evening of dancing. Here are my guidelines for programming an evening of contra dances. They are somewhat limiting, but they provide a framework that makes it easier to create a coherent program. As with many of my choreography notes, these are here to cause you to think about the subject, not document right or wrong.

Let's start with swings - I would suggest that half of the dances in an evening have a sixteen count neighbor swing, balance and swing, or gypsy and swing, and all of these have an eight count partner swing. The other half of the dances should have a sixteen count partner swing, balance and swing, or gypsy and swing, and half of these have an eight count neighbor swing. The exact numbers are not critical, but it is easy to get far off of them if you are not careful.

Single swing dances have much more time for interesting sequences and progressions than two swing dances. And since dances without partner swings are not well received, it is easy to fill an evening with dances that have no neighbor swings. My limit is one fourth of the dances. If you want more interesting sequences for the other dances, search out creative two swing dances.

Then consider repetition of figures and sequences. The most common figures, allemande left or right, circle left, and star left or right, are used often in any evening of dances. But you can minimize the abuse of these figures. First, avoid dances that use these figures more than once. Then find dances that do not use specific figures, for example one dance might have no circle lefts and one might have no allemandes. You should then be able to put together an evening with, on average, less than one of each of these figures per dance.

Common sequences can dominate an evening of dances if you do not watch out for them. Look for men allemande left 1+1/2 / swing, circle left 3/4 / swing, right and left through / ladies chain across, and ladies chain / star left, for example.

Improper contras often progress in B2 after a partner swing in B1, so the progressions can be repetitive. You can relieve this repetition by using dances that progress in the middle, many Becket dances (but some improper contras also).

With two swing dances, long, interesting sequences can push the two swings together, resulting in the common sequences men allemande left 1+1/2 / swing or circle left 3/4 / swing. Look for dances where the swing is part of the interesting sequence.

For variety, consider dances that have unusual figures or sequences that may be danced only once in an evening. Rotate the waves, zig-zag, star promenade, and two or four leaf clover are relatively rare figures (in my experience) and will make a dance feel completely different than other dances of the evening.

Medleys are another way to add variety to an evening. I think it is important to have a connection between the dances of a medley, either a symmetry or a common sequence. Choose dances that connect properly with each other at the change. You can shift the change into the dance - it doesn't have to be at the start of A1. Or modify the start or end of one of the dances for the transition. Make sure that you don't switch the direction of progression by, for example, changing from a clockwise Becket dance to a counter-clockwise Becket dance without including a compensating transition.

I avoid dizzy dances. At a glance, avoid multiple circle lefts and multiple allemande rights. And if you must do one, keep it short and surround it with dances that are not dizzy.

Some dances, to me, stand out as far better than typical contra dances, and these should be used regularly. But you cannot, in general, do a whole evening of them because it would violate my other rules. Still, don't let the rules force you into an evening of average dances.

No walk through dances are great, especially after the dancers have been standing still for a while (after a break or announcements). But not at the expense of having the dance break down, so choose the dances carefully. The first dance after the break should be easy and if possible, danced with no walk through. Get people dancing as quickly as you can.

And finally, I put special requirements on the last dance of the evening - it should be partner oriented and have a neighbor swing, it should be reasonably easy, and it should not have oddly placed balances or four count figures. This helps ensure a successful dance and allows the band flexibility in tune choice.

Top


Ending a Dance

I think that every dance should end with partners together, preferably in a swing. Practically, this makes it easy and quick to acknowledge your partner before finding a partner for the next dance. Aesthetically, it just feels right.

Many dances end each cycle with a partner swing. In this case the dancers need to know when the dance is about to end so that they can end the swing appropriately rather than starting into the next figure. Many bands will make this obvious, but some will not, and some will play fake endings for dramatic effect. So give the dancers a cue, for example "last time" just before the last cycle or "that's all" before the last swing ends.

For dances that have partners together at the end of B1, you can call a partner balance and swing to end. If there is no partner balance and swing in the dance, this is my preferred ending. If B1 is a partner balance and swing, and you don't like to do two in a row, you can often use the first figure of B2 to help. For example, if the next figure is right and left through, use pass through across and swing. If the next figure is circle left, use circle left once around and swing.

If B1 ends with neighbors together, write out a short final sequence for your dance card. You can use the first half of B2 to get partners together for a swing or the second half of B1 to set up a partner balance and swing. Men allemande left 1+1/2, ladies allemande right 1+1/2, or circle left 3/4 will work.

Top


Proper and Cross Contra Formations

This is a quick overview of proper and cross contra formations. These are variations of contra dance sets. Proper puts all of the men on the same side of the full set. Cross contra puts partners diagonally opposite in the set of four. Contra dance formations can be the starting point of a dance or transient within a dance.

Proper dances have a very long (and unfamiliar to me) history, presumably predating improper dances.

Chris Page researched the possibilities of dancer position in the set of four and wrote a detailed analysis (2013, contrachoreography ). He found two dances that are, apparently, the earliest dances that use cross contra formation - The Diagonal Dilemma by Gene Hubert (1988) and Equal Opportunity by Jeffrey Spero (1992). Both of these dances set up partners diagonally opposite in the set of four within the dance. In The Diagonal Dilemma this sets up a ones swing in the middle and in Equal Opportunity it sets up a ones chain and ones pass right to start a hey. The dance writeups by the authors do not name this unusual formation and I have filled the void with the term cross contra.

I am using the term cross contra to describe any rotation or mirror with diagonal partners. I don't think there is enough value here to name the variations individually.

In a contra dance set of four, partner man, partner woman, neighbor man, neighbor woman, there are three basic formations, distinguished by the diagonal dancer. Chris refers to these formations as improperish, properish, and diagonal. The diagonally opposite person may be

To get from/to improperish to/from properish - ones trade places or twos trade places.

To get from/to improperish to/from cross contra - one man and two woman trade places or one woman and two man trade places.

To get from/to properish to/from cross contra - men trade places or women trade places.

You can get from improperish to cross contra without calling "one man and two woman ..." - go from improperish to properish, then properish to cross. For example from partner swing on the side, to progress and move to cross contra, circle left 3/4 (8), ones California twirl (4), look for a new neighbor, ladies box the gnat (4).

No symmetric contra figure can move from one formation to another because the diagonal person stays the same - chain, right and left through, hey, circle, star, etc.

The usual simultaneous swings end facing the other swinging pair with the woman on the right. So at the end of any such swing the set is improperish. Because of this, proper and cross contra formations will typically be transient.

What makes cross formation useful is the meeting of partners in the middle in figures such as push off hey, chain, and gypsy for four. Where improperish gives you same sex middle meetings, properish gives you opposite sex neighbor meetings, cross contra gives you a partner meeting - much more satisfying.

What makes proper formation useful? It's traditional. Meetings in the middle are opposite sex. The usual contra corners starts proper.

Top


More on Formations - Reverse Progression, Becket Counter-Clockwise, Reverse Improper (2014)

I consider "reverse progression" to be a misnomer. By definition, ones progress down and twos progress up. In an improperish set of four, if the couple closer to the band progresses up, then they are the twos. This is not improper formation. If you are calling a dance in this formation, I suggest starting the instructions from improper and turning two places. Or you can, in general, convert it to Becket or Becket, counter-clockwise by changing the starting point to the figure that follows the partner swing (or other partner interaction).

A similar situation arises with Becket formation. From improper formation, circle left one place to give Becket formation. The ones are on the left side of the set from the caller's perspective, and they progress down the hall, i.e. to the left or clockwise.

From improper formation, circle right one place to give Becket, counter-clockwise formation. The ones are on the right side of the set from the caller's perspective, and they progress down the hall, i.e. to the right or counter-clockwise.

Since I consider Becket and Becket, counter-clockwise to be two different formations, I start the instructions from improper formation and turn to the Becket orientation that preserves the status of ones and twos, left one place for the usual, or right one place for counter-clockwise. This helps the dancers understand the dance because they know where they are headed. It also preserves the concept of ones and twos.

And a linguistic issue - I call an improperish formation with ladies on the left, "reverse improper". Other people call this "indecent". To me, indecent has a negative connotation that I don't want applied to a dance. Proper is a high level of goodness, decent is just acceptable. So improper means not great and indecent means not even acceptable. I'll stick with reverse improper.

Top


Six Count Figures

There are several figures that are best or often danced as six counts - These take special handling to fit into music with 8 count phrases. Some possibilities include -

Dances that use six count figures don't match the music as well as dances with eight count figures, but there can be a good payback in dance flow.

Top