Contra survival guide for ceilidh-goers

This page is written for folks who are at home with English Ceilidh but fancy a go at Contra dancing. It tells you what the differences are rather than starting from basics.

Generally contra dance evenings work on the same open-door policy as ceilidhs: newcomers always welcome. If you're with other newcomers, try to split up rather than be all in the same part of the hall at the same time, as you'll be able to take cues from the others more easily.

BTW, I talk about "men" and "women" because in a given dance they will play different roles; obviously the parts don't actually have to be played by people of the stated gender!

Super-condensed version

All you really need to know:

  • Do swings in ballroom hold, always finishing with the man on the left.
  • Ladies' chains and right and left throughs are by default halfway.
  • Balances are two hands balance forwards and back, rather than stamp-kick.
  • An "allemande" is a palm-to-palm hand turn; give back the same amount of weight you're given.
  • Most dances are longways improper, so swap sides when you get to the end of the set and come back the other way next time through.
  • Direct your energy horizontally instead of jumping about.
  • Smile at everyone you can!

Now in more detail...

Swinging and the golden rule of swings

Finish all swings with the man on the left. It doesn't matter which round you were when you started, you finish with the man on the left.

This means that sometimes you'll change places with someone just by swinging with them, and the caller won't say to swap places -- it's just taken as read that you always finish this way round.

The swings themselves are always ballroom hold (the one with a blunt end and a pointy end). If you let go of the pointy end first then you'll always finish the right way round: the man's right hand is behind the woman's back.

Dance style

I consider ceilidh a "vertical" dance style. You jump up and down a lot. Conversely, contra is "horizontal". Your body moves pretty much flat, with the energy being spent swinging and bouncing off each other with the various moves, and the choreography in good contra dances enables this.

Contra dancing is often described as being "well-connected", meaning that you're connected with the other dancers, either physically (through hand holds where you're giving good weight) or with the eyes (there's a lot of eye contact).

Many people add spins all over the place. There are no set rules about this, but usually the goal is to spend more time looking at each other (especially in do-si-dos). They're completely optional, but like ceilidh, embellishments are fine and encouraged provided they don't mess up the dance for other people. As a man, even if you know how to lead a twirl, don't force a woman to do one who doesn't want to!

Set formations

Nearly all contra dances are longways for as many as will. Other formations (usually Sicilian or 3-couple longways, the latter sometimes referred to as "triplets") are sometimes used, and contra dance evenings will often include a small number of squares (of which more later); however longways sets are the main form.

Contra dances evolved from longways duple minor (proper) dances. This is where the set goes down the room with as many couples as will fit (as opposed to having a fixed number of couples). Ceilidh dances which use this include Nottingham Swing. Before the dance starts, we take "hands 4 from the top" to pair couples up into 1st couples (closer to the music) and 2nd couples (further from the music); each pair of couples is technically a "minor" set, hence "duple minor".

After one time through the dance the 1st couples move down the room one place to meet a new 2nd couple, and the 2nd couple move up a place to meet a new first couple. Every other time through there's a couple standing out at each end; they come back in the other direction as the other number the following time through. Otherwise you keep your number every time through the dance.

Longways formation

These days contra dances are almost always longways duple minor improper (just termed "longways" in contra). "Improper" means that before starting, all the 1st couples change sides. This has the advantage that the person either side of you along the lines is of the opposite sex, as well as the person on the other side of the set. The extra complication is that when you're standing out at the end of the set, because you change number, you must also change side before you come back in. If you're facing up or down to the rest of the set with the man on the left, you'll be the right way round.

In most modern contra dances the 1st and 2nd couples actually do the same thing, although that's not always the case.

In more complex contras, the "progression" often doesn't happen neatly at the end of a time through the dance; you might end up inactive at the end mid-way through the dance, and be required again at unexpected times. These "end effects" should ideally be explained by the caller if counter-intuitive, but in general, be ready to come in again at any point, and make sure you switch sides before coming back again in the other direction. And if it's confusing, (a) it's not a disaster since you'll be back in the body of the set in no time and (b) take consolation that you're doing a complex dance.

The set formation is probably the single most confusing thing to beginner contra dancers, because it's easy to get lost if you don't twig what's happening. Just remember what side of the set you started on, and make sure you progress one place each time through if it goes wrong.

Becket formation

The other variant is Becket formation, where you start standing next to your partner on the side of the set, facing another couple. Ceilidh dances which use this formation include the Rifleman and the Yarmouth Long Dance. Unlike those ceilidh dances however, each time through you move one (or two) couples along the side to face a new couple.

It's actually a variant of the regular longways improper formation, but with each minor set of 2 couples rotated a quarter at the start. In fact some callers will form the sets as regular longways improper and then rotate each minor set a quarter to get to Becket.

Again, remember which side you started and which way the progression is going in case it goes wrong, so you can pick it up next time.

When you get to the end of the set, stand out one turn as normal, usually facing up or down to the rest of the set as in a regular longways improper set. The action will return shortly.

Figures

I'm not going to list every figure in contra, just the things that might catch you out if coming from ceilidh. Many more figures are described here, albeit not from a strict contra dance perspective.

  • Ladies' chain: Like a regular ladies' chain, but only halfway. If the dance wants a full ladies' chain (most don't) then the caller will explicitly say "and chain back" or similar, as a separate move.
  • Right and left through: Again, actually means "half right and left through". Also, the left hand bit (on the side) is usually replaced by a courtesy turn (the "scoop the lady up" bit of the ladies' chain), so you finish facing the same way.
  • Allemande: Possibly a corruption of the French "a le main", or "by the hand", this is the common hand turn, done with a palm to palm (thumbs up) grip, with biceps engaged. The hands should be about halfway between the two dancers, with each matching the weight given by the other. While this can in theory be done with or without thumbs interlocking, I suggest without; it's safer that way.
  • Balance and swing: Take two hands with the person you're about to swing; balance forwards and back, and then go forwards again straight into a ballroom hold swing. As opposed to the "stamp, kick, stamp, kick" style of balancing which, while fun in a ceilidh, really isn't done in contra!
  • Star: Lots of confusion abounds about the "correct" way to do this. There are basically two ways: "hands across" (handshake hold with the person diagonally across from you in the star) and "paddlewheel" (hand on the wrist of the person in front of you in the star, keeping your thumb on top). Some say the latter is the "correct" way to do it; the truth is different contra dance communities in the US vary, and there's no reason why they shouldn't in England too. If the caller tells you to use one or the other to make the dance work better, that's a different matter!

Squares

Technically, square dances aren't contra dances, but they're often done in the same evening. Squares done in contra dances are usually old-time squares, which are substantially simpler than the complex figures you get in Modern Western Square Dancing, which is a separate dance genre in its own right; they're also done with the same vigour found in the rest of a contra dance evening.

Couples are numbered the same way as normal, with 1st couple having their backs to the band and the rest numbered anticlockwise.

Usually there will be a main figure that's walked through, and some "breaks" where the caller gives you some moves that haven't been walked. Just pay attention and do the best you can. Going "wrong" can be as much fun as getting it right!

In squares, your "partner" is usually the person you're currently dancing with (on the man's right, women's left) and your "corner" is the person standing on the other side. In the middle of the dance, this is probably not the person you originally asked to dance, and in some breaks, you partner can change every few bars! A good caller will usually help you out by using phrases such as "current partner", but if not, it's probably the person you swung last.

And finally

If you've got this far you're better off trying it rather than reading any more. Find your local contra dance series and have a go!