Writing Contra Dances

Writing contra dances

adapted from a letter to a dancing friend who had expressed interest in writing his own dances

I’d like to try to write some dances – I guess start with a contra.  Would you please send me some standards in the correct format and provide any pointers? Writing dances somehow seems similar to blocking actors, and I enjoy working that puzzle.

Basics: A generic contra dance consists of 32 bars of music, an A part (8 bars, or 16 steps), which is repeated, followed by two B parts. There are exceptions (Money Musk is only 24 bars, for example, and David Kaynor’s original Cherokee Shuffle fit that slightly crooked tune); similarly, some tunes follow a different musical pattern (e.g., ABCB). For now, stick with the standards.

1. You need to decide on the overall structure of your dance:

• Duple improper = the dancers take hands four and the active couples cross over at the start of the dance.

• Duple proper (many of the older dances) = the dancers take hands four and no one changes sides

• Becket formation = couples are in long lines, standing next to their partner facing another couple across from them

There are a few other possibilities, triple minor (hands six), Tempest formation, so-called “indecent” formation (twos cross over), but I’d encourage you to start simply.

2. Within that structure, you insert the figures that form the various building blocks of a dance.

• Some figures have a set amount of time needed. A ladies chain across is 8 steps, and so a full ladies chain (16 steps) takes up a full A part or a B part. Right and left (over and back) similarly takes a full 8 bars. A balance is four beats, so the swing following that can be 12 beats to fill out a musical phrase.

• Other figures are more flexible. In 8 steps of music, it’s possible for an allemande right to go once around (leisurely and with arms extended), once and a half (more active), or even twice (requires tight turns and everyone working together.)

3. How far do the dancers move each time through the dance? Most dances are “single progression,” where the ones move one place down the hall each time through the dance and the twos move up one place.

4. What makes your dance distinctive? Is is a particular movement, or a combination of figures? Does the choreography fit within the general notion of what constitutes a contra dance?

5. Here are some samples of different kinds of notation:

Chorus Jig
duple proper

A1   (8)        1s separate and go down the outside (about two places)
       (8)        1s return along the outside
A2   (6)        1s go down the middle, taking small steps
       (2,4)     Turn alone and come back, taking slightly longer steps
       (4)        Cast off
B1   (16)      1s turn contra corners
B2   (16)      1s balance and swing; end facing upon proper side

You Can’t Get There From Here
by Carol Ormand
duple improper
(The dance begins in a wavy line, with women in the center holding left hands with each other and right hand with neighbor. The Ones are facing down)

A1  Balance the wave (4)
      Neighbors allemande right 3/4 to a long wavy line with women facing in                                 and men facing out (4)
       Balance the long wave (4)
       Neighbors allemande right 3/4 to short waves with men in the middle (4)
A2  Balance the wave (4) and swing neighbor (12)
B1  Circle 3/4 and swing partner on the side
B2   Circle 3/4 and do-si-do neighbor 1-1/2 to progress

Some dances are “double progression,” which eliminates waiting out when you reach the top and bottom of the set. Here’s one simple dance like that that I use often

A.D.P.D., or Awesome Double Progression Dance
by Donna McAllister.
duple improper

A1  Down the hall four in line, actives in center.
       Turn alone, return
A2  Circle left
       Left hand star
B1  Balance & swing new neighbor
B2   Long lines forward and back
        Actives swing, end facing down

To see other examples, there are many online sites that will be of use.

• The single most useful source for dances is the annual syllabus created from the programs at the Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend.

• This page from NEFFA provides numerous links to other websites with dances.

Dances written by Gene Hubert, who created many modern classics. Some are complex, others are easier.

Contradancers of Hawaii list more than a dozen of the older chestnuts.

Cary Ravitz has a thorough look at the art of writing dances. Many of Cary’s dances are complex and suited for more experienced dancers, and I don’t agree with some of what he has to say about what makes a dance good or how to program an evening—his taste runs to every dance having a partner swing, for example. That said, his general comments will certainly give you plenty to think about and there is some solid information about various figures and how long they take.

In my numbered items above, I don’t talk about the style of the dance, but that’s an important piece. Folks writing new English country dances, for example, start with a specific piece of music and compose figures to that tune. This is not generally done with contras, although there are modern compositions (e.g., Wizard’s Walk) where that is the case. Many of the older contra dances do have a particular tune or tunes associated with them, which is one of the things I like about them. You just wouldn’t use the tune “Chorus Jig” for some modern dance, or at least I wouldn’t.

Some dances are stately, some are energetic and driving, some are forgiving and others require intense concentration. There is a common tendency in writing dances [SOAPBOX ALERT!] to write dances that can be danced, but require such split-second timing and precision that their general use is limited. It is hard to write a simple dance that hasn’t already been written, and most folks writing new dances tend (still on soapbox) to focus on complexity at the expense of accessibility.

Ted Sannella’s two books (Balance and Swing and Swing the Next) are wonderful collections of dances along with his careful notes about teaching them. Ted was an impeccable dance choreographer, and it’d be easy to fill several programs solely with his dances. The books focus on his contras and squares, with some attention paid to his triplets and to other formations as well.