NEFFA Essay: Your Introduction To Contra Dancing

A Syllabus for a Half Hour Pre-dance Session

by Larry Jennings

To Reader: This syllabus was prepared for my use at the Austin TX third Friday contra of Sept 15, 1995. It is not intended to be used as is by others; it is intended to be suggestive. Accordingly, I have spelled out those ideas which were new to me at the time; I have been merely indicative of things which I deemed I knew how to handle. Note, in particular, that I considered it obvious that there would be a musician standing in the center of the circle. I have to confess that it wasn’t obvious to Mike Head, but he rose nobly to the occasion.

  • Form a circle so we all can see each other.
  • Come to accommodation with your own body – many stretching exercises possible, but we do only one – stretch arms up and out – just barely relax them – feel connection between own hands – join hands – feel connection around entire circle
  • How do you get moving? Show what happens to body if you reach forward with foot [body goes back] – show what happens when lead with body!
  • Two problems remain: where to go and how you interact with people you meet on the way – urge you to focus on “how” rather than “where”
  • Musicians and dancers are in a feedback loop – but music comes first – so invite the musician to stand in center and let the music begin
  • Without speaking, leader gets circle going to left – stops it – gets it going to right – “now you see why we must be connected” – you get signals from all over – learn how to receive these signals
  • Easier to keep together if the musician will tell us when to start a new thing – so have agreement – he will give us a little signal after eight counts and a bigger signal after 16 counts – practice observing signals by circling left and right, going in and out, & stopping occasionally (under leader’s body-language direction).
  • Most of the dances we do involve a continuing relation between two people we call partners. The caller needs to be able to talk separately to the individuals in a partner pair. At most dances they are called the “men” or “gents” and the “women” or “ladies”. It is usually assumed that the people called “men” are men and similarly for the women, except, if there is a shortage of one sex of dancer, it is generally acceptable for one member of a couple to dance an opposite sex role.
  • Custom is that anyone can initiate a partnering arrangement – so do that
  • Conventions make life much easier – give two: woman has palm down, man palm up; and woman stands on man’s right, man on woman’s left – so get that way, woman’s left hand in man’s right, well connected
  • Transfer connection – woman rolls left to swap (man sliding right) – then man rolls left to swap (woman sliding right) – do that with music, four counts for each roll to swap
  • Review (with music): 1. Cir L 2. Cir R 3. W roll L to swap with pt; M roll L to swap with pt 4. Into cntr & bk – It is the custom to change partners after every dance – practice doing that, even though what we just did was only a dance fragment, not an entire dance.
  • Practice a less dynamic type of connection – take skater’s position (right over, left under) – it is important to realize that sometimes the man initiates action, sometimes the woman – just as an exercise, promenade wherever the man chooses for eight counts, then wherever the woman wants for eight counts
  • Two-hand turn – go forward – two good things: excitement whilst staying put and strong connection automatically established – two- hand turn no longer common, but is the forerunner of “swing” and may be used for a swing if you’re tired
  • So we can expand our practice: 1. Cir L 2. Cir R 3. W roll L to swap with pt; M roll L to swap with pt 4. Into cntr & bk 5. Cw two-hd turn with pt 6. Ccw two-hd turn pt 7. Prom under M’s control 8. Prom under W’s control – Now we’re all out of our circle – choose new partners and return to circle so we can all see each other again
  • Allemande – similar to two-hand turn but stronger – describe – practice with partner, 1-1/2 with each hand
  • Swing – accommodate to partner – walking OK – for zesty swing: right hips together; think of going forward – lead with right foot going around a very small circle on the beat, left foot going around slightly larger circle pushing on the off beat
  • Balance – often used as intro to swing – improvisation very common – for starters: step on right foot; bouncelet on right foot; step on left foot; bouncelet on left (a bouncelet is, of course, a little bounce)
  • So we finally have: 1. Cir L 2. Cir R 3. W roll to swap with pt; M roll to swap with pt 4. Into cntr & bk 5&6. Almd L pt; almd R corner; almd L pt 7&8. Bal & sw corner who is new pt As a coda last time: Prom the one you just swung
  • You probably know that contra dancing involves figures that we have not discussed. The best way to learn them is from the other dancers in the context of a dance
  • Just to give you the idea, let’s look at two examples: star (left and right); ladies chain (first with a courtesy turn, then with a turn under, often called a twirl)
  • Thank the musician and send him off to get ready for the dance.


If time permits, I plan to merely show (with two couples) the sequence for the first dance. I chose “Forest DeBondi (adapted)”: 1&2. Bal & sw N 3. Act: go dn cntr; turn ind 4. Ret; cast off 5. Star L 6. R hds across 7. W ch 8. Ret Notes: Here and elsewhere I indicate phrasing using the scheme of “Zesty Contras”: the eight eight-count phrases are indicated by “1., 2., …8.” The leader might find time to tell the group that a standard dance is 64 counts long. I like to give some suggestions that may interest experienced dancers as well as beginners. For instance: I have a love affair with half shoulder-waist position, which, if used in the cast off, avoids having the woman’s left arm all tied up behind the man’s back. I also like to suggest that the man loop left as the women are passing hands in phrase 7.

If the leader has time and doesn’t mind being a little cute, he might mysteriously announce “please form a duple, improper contra set. If you don’t know what that means, find somebody who does and ask her for the first dance. In that way you would be following the most important rule for beginners: dance with an experienced partner, especially early in the evening when the caller has programmed suitable dances.”

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