NEFFA Essay: Almost All You Need To Know To Enjoy A New England Style Dance

by Larry Jennings, 1998

December, 1994: About 1975, when the dance scene was far different from today, I wanted to encourage dancers to aspire to dancing according to my vision of zesty, urban contra dancing. At the time, it seemed important to describe actual figures as part of this encouragement. So I created a handout on my own typewriter covering every square millimeter of space — all in all, a frankly homespun piece meant to impart a concern and interest on the part of the proprietor of the series. For historical interest, I present the document, practically verbatim, below. It thus takes the now outmoded view that otherwise unspecified calls are to the active dancers or to the men and that there are half and whole figures. I have, however, edited the description of swing and allemande; I don’t want to take a chance on my naive descriptions being propagated. I emphasize: today I would talk about connection, phrasing, and customs, not about figures.

First Consider Contras

Form sets, facing your partner across. Join below the couples who have already formed. *Survey your set. Anticipate dancing with (and helping, if need be) all those compeers. *Consider what readjustments might make your neighbors more comfortable. Is an additional set desirable? Should a set be moved or split?

Decide exactly where you’re going. Go there with easy, purposeful, smooth, determined steps. Don’t skip, march, or leap.


  1. ACTIVE COUPLES gradually work down the set; INACTIVE COUPLES up the set. You must always know which you are. The actives and inactives change roles at the end of the set, sometimes having to cross over with partner in the process. Otherwise unspecified calls apply only to the active couples [not any more — Ed.].
  2. When you meet an individual head-on, veer left.
  3. Join hands serve to give firm but elastic connection. Arms are usually extended and relaxedly self-supporting. Try not to be tense.
  4. The context or the caller tells you which people you are dancing with at the moment. You must always know who they are.
  5. At the end of each phrase, your mind should have you in an exact position, facing in an exact direction, even if your body is only approximately doing these things (don’t be military).

Observe #3, #4, and #5. Support your own arms proudly.

Noting #3, #4, and #5, grasp the wrist of the dancer in front of you.

Right hands are joined, resting on the woman’s right hip. Left hands are joined at about shoulder height (note #3), her palm facing out. This ‘New England Position’ gives comfortable connection and graceful appearance. *If you meet another couple, veer right.

Using #4 and #5, identify dancer A (facing you) and dancer B (beside you). Observing #2, change places with A, but make no turn for the moment. In actual fact or in spirit, attach yourself to B and rotate 1/2 turn counterclockwise, so that you are again facing A. That is half right and left. For full right and left, do all that again.

Ladies (note #4), taking right hands momentarily, go to the men who were formerly opposite them. Each man engages the oncoming woman appropriately so she is on his right (usually in New England position) and they rotate counterclockwise to face their buddies. That’s half ladies chain; repeat for full ladies chain.

From the center of the set, each active dancer dances forward 3/4 of a turn to a position one notch down the set. The active dancer usually attaches appropriately to the inactive dancer and they rotate as a pair, but in some contexts the inactive dancer must instead play follow the leader, or conceivably even remain stationary.

New England’s greatest contribution to mankind. Take modified ballroom position, gent’s left hand taking lady’s right hand of mid-arm, right hips almost touching. The right foot, leading the left, traverses a very small circle, taking weight on the beat; the left foot, following a slightly larger circle, propels on the off-beat. Think of going forward, not sideward. Strive first for smoothness, later for speed.

Almost as rewarding as swing. Join designated hands, fingers pointing up (not a handshake grip), and move forward. Adjust the speed to comply with the musical phrasing. A zesty makes this a satisfying venture by ensuring helpfully strong connection. This ahead so as to comply with #5 as you complete the action.

Dance in most any reasonable way for four counts. The usual is to move slightly right or forward on the first count and back to place on the third count.

Dance around the designated person clockwise, usually returning to place.

Observing #2 and #5, dance forward individually past your opposite.

A recently revived weaving figure for 3 or 4. Noting #4, pass alternate shoulders until you run out of people. Loop in the direction of the last shoulder you passed and reenter passing that same shoulder with a new person. Make loops wide and distinct.

GYPSY[Definition supplied by the editor]
Dance around the designated person clockwise (“right shoulder”) or counterclockwise (“left shoulder”) while facing them throughout.

Next, Consider Dances Done In Quadrille Formation (SQUARES)

When a Square is announced, form sets as indicated. Join in any vacant position; all places are equal. *Familiarize yourself with the other members of your set. If you are constantly considering who you are going to be dealing with next, you can repay someone for having saved you when it was you who had the mind lapse.

The vital thing is to know where you are, which way you are facing, and who the caller is talking to. Unlike contras, it is unwise to assume that you know in advance what is going to be called (though a repeating pattern is usually discernable). Therefore you must constantly be rethinking your position. For example,

are those in positions #1 and #3 at the moment or a little while ago.

are #2 and #4. Your

may change. For women he is the man near your left shoulder or who was there a little while ago.

is right shoulder. For men, reverse the shoulders.

Beyond that…

experience is the best teacher, so join a set. But some hints may help.

  • The caller tells you who he’s talking to and keeps talking to the same people till he says otherwise. Of course you may have to participate, even if he isn’t talking to you. So you must always listen.
  • If a man and a woman can conveniently face so his right shoulder is next to her left shoulder, they usually do so, when standing in a square or at the end of a swing, for example
  • Otherwise unspecified calls are directed to the men (maybe they need the most help), and the women deduce what is required of them. For example, if the call is ‘cross the set and swing your opposite’, it is clear who moves and who stays put. A moment’s thought tells the men how to avoid collisions. In an otherwise unspecified promenade, return to where the men came from a little while ago.

There is not much beyond Contras so far as basics go – just a few grand figures.

Starting with right hand to your partner, pass successive dancers with handshake grasps. 

Allemande right (usual pigeon wing grip) till you can conveniently reverse your direction around the ring.

All four ladies deal with their partners and opposites as usual in a ladies chain, but use a right hand star as they pass in the center of the set.

Traverse a small, formal square around your corner, 4 counts to each side. Usually the heads start toward the center of the set, sides separating for partner.

Other formations may be encountered, but let’s instead discuss the Joys of Dancing


The best way to make friends and improve your dancing is to select someone whose dancing you admire and ask him to dance (or her, such asking is unisex). Do not apologize or belittle yourself. Instead, ask for constructive suggestions and accept your responsibilities to your set. By asking his (or her, still sexless) help, you will flatter your newfound friend and he will immediately appreciate the situation.

Try going to a sampling of as many different Dance Series as possible. It will improve your dancing, widen your horizons, and may give you a pleasant surprise. And you will then know for a fact that your own favorite Series is really the best for you.


  • Dance zestily.
  • Dance cooperatively.
  • Since dancing means moving, it’s not mostly where you go, it’s how you go there.
  • Don’t plod; rather, get a smart start, letting your body weight carry you into those determined steps.
  • Have your arms available to make firm but elastic connection. Then you can be led rather than pushed through a mind lapse.
  • Respond quickly. Where must I go? Need I get there with dispatch?
  • Seek a partner whose abilities differ from your own. Take this and other responsibilities equally – Men, Women, Beginners, Old-timers, all the same.
  • Espouse extroversion – eschew introversion.
  • Nothing is more characteristic of a person’s individuality than his name.
  • Reread these aphorisms next week – they will make more sense then.

Now that everything’s straight…think again what readjustments you could make, and actions to take, to make your neighbors (i.e., everyone else in the room) more comfortable.Want to know more? Ask that partner whose dancing you admire or me, Larry Jennings.

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