NEFFA Essay: Five Common Myths About Beginning Contra Dancers

by Greg McKenzie

It is a tradition in contra dancing that newcomers learn at regular dances, not in separate lessons. Experienced dancers know that dancing with beginners is an integral part of contras. Some do it out of a sense of duty. Some actually enjoy it. I personally find it to be one of the most satisfying experiences in contradancing. If you find that surprising, it may be because you believe one or more of these “myths” about beginners. What follows are five commonly held beliefs that I would like to challenge. Also included are my own “Rules For Dancing With Beginners” to contravene those myths. My purpose is not to convince anyone to dance with beginners but rather to help you enjoy it.

Myth #1. “The best location for beginners is far away from the orchestra where the dancing is not so intense or confusing.”

Not true. The best location for beginners is at the top of the center lines. This is where they can best hear the caller and the caller can see any problems which may develop. Unfortunately, newcomers are often slow to find partners and, therefore, tend to congregate far from the orchestra. Experienced dancers can help by using some forethought and making themselves available early. Rule #1 is “Have a plan.” Don’t wait for a beginner to approach you. Take the initiative and position your partner where they are not surrounded by other beginners. This means more fun for them and for you. By helping to mix newcomers in with experienced dancers–and vice versa–you will be increasing the enjoyment of all dancers in the hall.

Myth #2. “Experienced dancers can help by explaining the basic figures.”

By far, this is the most common mistake. Verbal explanations are often more confusing than helpful and can increase anxiety by giving too much information. Almost all of what is dealt with in these efforts at explaining will be learned during the walk-through with far less effort. In fact, by offering instruction in the dance line you will be teaching beginners to look to you for guidance rather than the caller. Rule #2 is “Do not teach.” Your most useful role is to help your partner relax and build their self-confidence. Even when asked specifically for an explanation it is almost always better to assure your partner that all will soon become clear and direct their attention to the caller’s voice.

Myth #3. “Experienced dancers can help by correcting errors made by beginners.”

Negative comments, critiques, or even careful suggestions almost never help. Help beginners with a gentle and encouraging lead in the right direction. When talking seems absolutely necessary, express yourself only in positive terms. Be creative. If your partner is bouncing up and down during swings compliment them that their swings are getting “much smoother.” Rule #3 is “Be positive.”

Myth #4. “When a group of dancers is completely lost experienced dancers nearby should shout instructions to them.”

Rule #4 is “Help only the one(s) you are dancing with.” When a problem develops nearby–particularly if your partner is involved–it is actually best to ignore it (mercifully) until it is your turn to dance with the confused dancers. Instructions from uninvolved dancers will draw the beginner’s attention in the wrong direction and are likely to increase their anxiety. You can be most helpful by providing a good example.

Myth #5. “Experienced dancers should be tolerant of beginners.”

A beginner’s greatest fear is that, because of their inexperience, you will not enjoy yourself. If you are merely “tolerant” their fear will be realized. Make it your job to relax and enjoy yourself and let your partner know that you are having a good time. Maintain your sense of humor, particularly when the entire line crumbles into horrifying confusion, chaos and hopeless mayhem. As soon as your partner realizes that you will enjoy yourself–no matter what happens–you will be able to see them visibly relax. Rule #5 is “Enjoy yourself.” Remember that the greatest compliment you can pay to any dancer is to say that dancing with them is fun.

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in the Spring, 1987 issue of the Bay Area Country Dancer. As long as credit is given, this article may be reproduced.

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