Tips on Being a Better Contra Dancer


© Copyright Cary Ravitz 2017

Last modified 6:54 PM, 31 Mar 2017 - File size 25K - Count 489

Cary Ravitz
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The Mechanics of Dancing
Handling Complex Dances
                    Odds and Ends of Contra Choreography
Social Issues
Dancer Injury, Illness, Dizziness
Flourishes, Twirls, Swing Dance Moves


This is a set of tips on how to be a better contra dancer, mostly stolen from my Notes on Calling Contra Dances. These assume a basic knowledge of contra dancing and are aimed at anyone who has done an evening of contra dancing, from one dance to years of dancing. It explores details that may be obvious to you, details that callers seldom teach, details that some dancers or callers get wrong, details that I contrived that many people will disagree with, details that are worth discussing and debating long after the dance is over, and more.

Being a better dancer will make the dance more fun for you, for your partner, for your set of four, for every dancer in the room, and for the caller, band, organizers, and maybe the sound person.

This is a work in progress and comments are welcome (contact information above).



Connection - Dance connects music and people.

Dancing solo is the connection of dancer to music. Rhythm, melody, and harmony connect to body motion, shared rhythm (foot tapping, rhythmic clapping), and mental musical enjoyment.

Dancing with a partner adds a connection between dancer and partner, physical, visual, and emotional via frame, eye contact, and shared experience.

Contra dancing and other set dancing adds a connection between the dancer, the set, and the caller.

These connections are synergistic, improving one connection will improve other connections. Being a better dancer will make a better experience for you, your partner, the rest of the set, the band, and the caller. The goal here is to maximize this total experience.



Fun - If the dances aren't fun, there's not much point to them, except maybe exercise. Have fun. You will find that as your dancing improves, you will have more fun.

Help other people have fun -


The Mechanics of Dancing

Rhythm of the beat - If all you can do is move to the beat, you are dancing. If you can do every figure at a dance, but step off the beat, that's not dancing. Feel the music.

Timing of the phrases - Contra dancing is (should be) rigidly connected to the phrases of the music. There are two dance beats or counts to one bar of music. Sixteen count figures and figure sequences are matched to eight bar musical phrases (A1, A2, B1, B2). Eight count figures and figure sequences are usually matched to four bar musical phrases (the first and second half of each eight bar musical phrase). And swings almost always end at the end of an eight bar (sixteen count) phrase.

Matching a dance figure with the phrasing of the music may take adjustments to walking speed or path length, or the addition of a flourish. This skill is critical to being a great dancer.

Weight - "Weight" is just enough tension between two dancers to establish a connection that allows cooperative movement and lead and follow signals. For face to face situations, it is established, in general, by leaning back at the feet, without bending your frame, just enough to connect. In rotation, the leaning is replaced with centrifugal force. Here the tension is raised with rotation speed and can be reduced by reducing separation distance. Weight is the primary connection between the dancers, although eye contact is also important.

Tension in a circle is another aspect of weight, just a different orientation. A slight tension is needed for connection in a stationary circle, and the tension increases to hold centrifugal force for a rotating circle.

"Weight" is horizontal, not vertical. It is holds dancers at the right distance, countering leaning back or centrifugal force. It is not used to hold a dancer up.

Many contra dance figures use a weighted connection to assist motion - swing, allemande, pull by, any twirl to swap, circle, star, butterfly whirl, gate, Rory O'More and Petronella spins.

Frame - Frame is the position used by two face to face dancers to give the right weight, left and right. It makes the right connection for lead and follow signals and an enjoyable experience. I can't describe it very well here and it varies with each pair of dancers. Seek out help at the dance and try varying positions and holds, especially if swings don't feel comfortable.

Lead and follow - In contra dancing, lead and follow can be the leader assisting the follower in a contra dance figure or leading a swing dance inspired flourish. Contra dance figures are sometimes lead by the man and sometimes by the woman, for example in a zigzag, if the man leads out the woman leads in. A good lead and follow is part of the dancer to dancer and dancer to music connection that makes dancing fun. There is a very good Lead and Follow FAQ at (as of June, 2006).

The purpose of a lead to to impart information - a suggestion to a specific movement. A lead should not force movement.

Leading should be a smooth push or pull applied with just enough force to inform the follower of the leader's intent. The push or pull may be smoothly increased until the follower begins the intended motion. Some leads in contra dancing may assist the follower into the right motion, but still the push or pull should be smooth and not jerk the follower, throw the follower off balance, or force the follower into the motion.

After the initial indication of the lead, the lead guides the timing of the move. This should take almost no force.

The follower must be sensitive to the leader's leads and respond quickly. That means your weight is on your forefoot and you have a good line of communication (elbow tight enough to respond instead of unbend).

The follower should not anticipate the lead. It is up to the leader to handle the timing of a flourish and this should take into account the inevitable delay of the follower figuring out what the leader is trying to make happen.

When a follower is not experienced with a lead, the lead may require additional force, ramped gently with additional time allotted.

Hand links for contra dancing - Hold versus link - I use of the term link when talking about handholds. You need a secure handhold that does not squeeze either hand and allows quick release from either side. Imagine a chain link that is tight when pulled. But the link is in only one direction and if you release the tension the link vanishes.

Swing dance link - for balances, circles, lines, and hands across stars, this is just a finger hold that holds only in tension and is released easily by either dancer. Each dancer bends their fingers (all fingers together) at the middle knuckle and then the hands are linked. There is no finger wrap or squeezing. The lady's hand is on top by convention.

Allemande link - thumbs up or held to hand, wrists straight, elbows down, base of hand to middle of palm, fingers lightly wrapped, no squeezing. The link force is from the base of one hand to middle of the other palm, and holds only while both dancers hold the tension.

Wrist hold link - used in some stars, wrap the top of the wrist of the person in front of you in the star, with just enough wrap to hold the centrifugal force in the star.

Handshake - for a pull by, held for the entire pull by but held lightly enough so that either dancer can get out of the grip easily. There is no weight in a handshake grip except to initiate a pull by. Handshakes imply a squeeze - they are not links that can be released by just one participant. You must take care to use the minimum force needed at the moment.

Squeeze - if you find that your hand is being squeezed by other dancers, ask yourself, are you giving the other dancers a hand that they can link to. If you hold your hand limply, there is no way to link and dancers will squeeze your hand to try to hold against the pull.

Steps for swinging - Swings may be done with a buzz step, walking step, or pivot step. The buzz step and walking step are compatible, i.e. they may be done together. The pivot step requires that both dancers pivot. Regardless of the step, you should always feel the same connection of frame and weight. And the swing should always be smooth and level, not bouncy. Different partners and different floors require different steps to be smooth. Use whatever step it takes to be smooth in the current situation. And you can vary the step to go with the music.

Allemandes - Tension is created by centrifugal force (in the frame of reference of the dancers) associated with rotation. Elbow angle should be held against the centrifugal force to keep the right distance between dancers.

Elbows should point toward the floor. Anywhere else is dangerous to other dancers.

The grip should be the base of each hand pressed against the middle of the palm of the other hand. Wrists should be straight. There should be no squeezing of fingers, just a gentle wrap for connection.


Handling Complex Dances

For complex dances - These tips apply to traditional contra dances and some of them may not be valid for a specific dance.


Odds and Ends of Contra Choreography

Wavy lines connected at the ends? - When the set is configured in long wavy lines, should the people at the top and bottom take hands to make one continuous loop? If the dancers need someone in that hand then the answer is yes. For example, if everyone is with their partner in the wavy lines and the next call is allemande your trail buddy, then they should have already taken hands. Otherwise no - it distorts the lines for no reason.

Petronella claps - Petronella claps are not part of the petronella spin, they are an optional flourish. Petronella claps are good for synchronizing the dancers, but they remove the weighted connection that occurs when the dancers take hands at the end of the spin. This connection may be a star, swing, allemande, and the connection is preferred over the clap.

Diagonal progressions - A diagonal right and left through or 1/2 hey is a double progression figure - you interact with a couple in the diagonal figure and then go on to a new couple. For these figures if there is no-one to do the diagonal figure with, you stay in place.

The figure often called a slice, forward to the left and straight back, is a single progression figure. Everyone dances this figure and it may takes you in or out of the dance.

Orbits - In a clockwise orbit it flows nicely if the orbiters from adjacent minor sets pass by the right instead of left. (And in a counter-clockwise orbit it flows nicely if the orbiters from adjacent minor sets pass by the left.)

Half poussettes - A half poussette may be called as six or eight counts. If eight counts are used by the dance, extend the path so that all of the allotted time is used.

Zigzags - In a zigzag, dancers should maintain their orientation. If you start facing down, you should face down for the entire figure. The steps are predominantly sideways. The distance to lead out should be enough so that the figure takes the appropriate amount of time.

Allemande 1/2 - This figure is often called as four counts, although it can be done in as little as two counts. Increasing the path length is not really an option so adjust your speed to use the allotted time.

Down the hall, turn alone - With down the hall, four in line, turn alone, it is traditional and preferable that the inside dancers turn so that they make eye contact with the adjacent outside dancers. And the outside dancers should turn so that they make eye contact with the adjacent inside dancers.

Heys - Heys are taught as the women (for example) pass by the right in the middle, then neighbors (for example) pass by the left on the side, etc. What is often missing is that, at the same time, the men should be looping from their current position to the women's starting position, which puts them in position to pass by the right in the middle.

Contra Corners - The problem that I encounter here is that the posts (the dancers standing on the side of the set) often don't have their left hand ready. And when they do, they are often looking in the wrong direction. If you are a contra corners post, at the start of the figure have your left hand ready for an allemande and face to the right diagonal. After allemanding your first corner have your left hand ready for an allemande and face to the left diagonal. This will make it easy for the dancers that are turning contra corners to allemande with you.


Social Issues

Social issues -

Smile -

Eye contact - Eye contact is part of the contra dance culture, but it is not required.


Dancer Injury, Illness, Dizziness

Tips for avoiding injury, illness -

Tips for avoiding CAUSING injury, illness -

To minimize dizziness -


Flourishes, Twirls, Swing Dance Moves

Flourishes - Flourishes, usually added twirls or spins, are widely misunderstood. They are added to the dance for two basic reasons, for fun and to help timing and flow. Fun flourishes must be controlled to avoid hurting the timing and flow of the dance, and often give flourishes a bad name. But many flourishes can help the timing or flow of the dance by taking up time, orienting a dancer in the right direction, or giving a dancer the right momentum to flow into a figure. For example ladies chain into a circle left works better with a twirl than with a courtesy turn. Flourishes should stay within the dance timing and within your own space.

Twirls to improve flow - Twirls are often useful to improve flow, having the property that the twirl can be ended with the twirling dancer facing any direction. They must be started at an appropriate time so that they end ready for the next figure.

Twirling from a balance into a swing - The nice thing here is that you typically have 12 counts from the end of the balance to the end of the swing. You can do some fancy moves and still have time for a swing. Any swing dance move that takes you from open to closed position can likely be adapted.

Substitutes for a swing - I'm not aware of anything I would rather do in this time period than swing, but you can do just about anything that you and your swing partner agree to here. Be aware of how the swing integrates into the dance so that you can make your substitute flow.

Dancing while out at the end of the line - In a contra with one progression, you have 64 counts out at the end of the line. It often begins at the start of the dance cycle but may not. It often ends facing the dance with women on the right, but it may not. So pay attention to what is going on in the line and be ready to reenter the dance correctly.

The swing dance step may be replaced by a balance step, four counts per complete step (forward and back). Any swing dance move can be adapted to this step. And of course you can do any two person contra figure - balance and swing, gypsy, any twirl to swap.