Good Contra and Square Dancing Defined

I recently came upon a well-written and decidedly opinionated piece about good dancing. Since the opinions reflect much of my own thinking on the subject, I’d like to draw your attention to it. Written some twenty years ago by a respected caller of contras and squares, a choreographer (“Al’s Advice” is a classic contra written by Paul) and a fiddler (Volo Bogtrotters), the article presents six concise points.

“A good dancer has complete awareness of how it all fits together: the music, the calls, the figures, his/her partner, neighbor, corner, opposites, etc., the whole set, the whole floor, and, maybe most importantly, his/her own body and all its parts. There are lots of things that the good dancer does that are seemingly unknown or totally unimaginable to many twirl and barf dancers.”


  1. Good dancers fit their movement to the phrase of the music. Most contra dancers dance at one speed and are thus often guilty of finishing a figure too early. For example, a good dancer should be able to pace an unembellished ladies chain or right & left through to fit stylishly in an eight beat phrase. Another example is thinking all swings are the same–if in a square the caller says “only once around,” then by god, swing only once around. (As you can quess, this happened to me the other night. The beginners did fine, the experienced contra dancers didn’t listen. They must have felt they had a right to swing as long as they wanted.)
  2. Good dancers embellish appropriately. I’ll bet many people who think of themselves as good dancers couldn’t get through a dance without all the extra twirls. They don’t know what the basic movement is or what it feels like. If you don’t understand that, the embellishments lose some of their character, and even their potency. Embellishments and flourishes work when they come at the right time in the right situation with the right people. They should not be automatic. One simple example is the do-si-do and the now ubiquitous twirls. A good dancer paces it out and gets a feel for the timing before venturing any twirls. Same with the hey, the ladies chain, the grand right & left & others.
  3. Good dancers know where a figure is going so they can direct their momentum to the flow of the dance. This is a much bigger challenge in squares. Who/where do you face when you end a swing? Or a do-si-do? How do you break a circle to lead on to the next? Or to form a line? The challenge of flow in contras is more controlled , but there are subtle shifts of flow where the dancers have to direct their own energy. Not every gypsy or do-si-do or star or circle is the same.
  4. Good dancers make better dancers of the people they dance with. And not just their partners. A good dancer helps the people he’s in contact with move on to the next figure with ease and grace (see point #3). Gentle pressure clearly tells the person where they’re going next. If they didn’t know, it will help them figure out the dance. If they did know, they will recognize it as good dancing (see point #3). The good dancer also appropriately teaches dancers he encounters who are lost. This is best done by gentle, but firm shoves and encouraging words.

    In the heat of the dance, and during the caller’s walk through, good dancers don’t fill the air with more words. But they still help teach the dance. Sometimes it’s just by example. Other times it’s by being an active inactive (doing the small complementary moves that help the active dancers) or standing ready to go, pointed in the right direction, with the proper hand ready to extend, and a smiling face looking at the active dancer soon to be engaged.

  5. Good manners. Good manners. Good manners. A good dancer listens and walks through the figures with the caller during the walk through, even though he/she has done all this a million times. The good dancer helps beginners see what the caller is trying to do. Also, the good dancer doesn’t twirl a lady/gent who clearly isn’t ready or willing to twirl. Etc. etc. etc.
  6. And here’s one definition by negativity. A good dancer is not self-centered. He/she doesn’t lose him/herself in flirtation or twirl-a-mania. Contra and square dancing are not just couple’s dances; they are done in a set. A good dancer dances with awareness of everyone he/she is interacting with in that figure (see my discussion of the hey a few arguments back).