Know (the basics) & Go (have fun at a contra dance)
Contra dancing is a community dance form originally from New England. Unlike many other kinds of
dancing, you can master its basics in a single evening.
There’s no fancy footwork to memorize. It doesn’t call for great athletic ability; you just
need to be able to walk and know your left hand from your right.
Every contra dance is a repeated sequence of easy-to-learn parts; these parts and the way they fit together
are taught before the dance begins, and then the caller reminds you which part is next
while you are doing the dance. The people you dance with will be (for the most part) helpful
Everyone is there to have fun and knows that experience levels will run the gamut from first-time beginner to
Even though contra dancing is easy to learn, it always helps to be prepared when
you’re doing something for the first time.
This page is intended to provide some guidance and orientation for those new to contra
dancing; this includes folks coming for the first time and those who have experienced a dance or
two and want to make more sense of what they are doing.
At your first dance
A few items of general advice:
Plan to arrive early and participate in the newcomers’ workshop.
The newcomers’ workshop happens before
every contra dance (around 7:30). Led by the caller, with help from a few experienced dancers,
the workshop focuses on introducing a few of the most common contra dance
figures—the “moves” that are the fundamental building blocks of any contra dance.
Wear comfortable clothing and shoes. (See the section below.)
Jump right in and dance the first dance. And the second one. You may be tempted to sit and watch, but
you'll learn much faster if you just do it.
Seek out partners who seem to have some experience.
If you come with a friend or spouse who is equally green, it’s really
best if you split up for the first few dances.
Don’t wait to be asked to dance. Be proactive and ask someone.
Don’t blame yourself for being lost. When confusion reigns,
it’s probably not your fault; it’s likely that one or more of the more-experienced
people around you has momentarily forgotten how the dance goes or isn’t doing a figure correctly.
Loosen up and remember to have fun. The goal is to have fun together, not
to be perfect.
Accept help—up to a point. Most of the people you are dancing
with are eager to help you out with bodily cues, quick verbal reminders of what figure is next,
and friendly pushes in the right direction. If, however, you experience anything that feels abusive,
controlling, or hurtful in any way, recognize that this behavior is completely out of line and
report the perpetrator to a board member.
Be patient with yourself. Even though contra dancing is relatively
easy, there are many things to learn. It will take awhile to master.
Skip figures if you’re behind. The essence of contra is connection
with the music and others, so if you
are out of sync with the music and other dancers, do what's necessary to get back into sync.
Usually this means skipping or shortening a figure. Contra dance callers summarize this advice with the
phrase “Better never than late.”
Protect your body. The people you dance with can get carried away
and do things that may present dangers to others. Be aware of this possibility and employ
commonsense caution and avoidance. If you are dancing the follow role and someone dancing the lead role tries to do
things to you (e.g., twirls) that don’t feel comfortable, you may decline to participate by
holding your arm down, and you may ask the person to be more gentle.
Remember that it just gets better and better! Once the figures
and the movements of a contra set become closer to being second nature, you’ll experience the
great joy of contra dancing more readily and more frequently.
We've included additional information about contra dancing below. You don't need to
know any of it before your first dance to do well and have a good time. But we invite you to read on.
How a contra dance works
One contra line made up of three groups of four in
improper formation. Most contra
dances—and nearly always the first few of the evening—are in this formation.
Active couples (also called number 1 couples) move down the hall with each progression; inactive
or number 2 couples move up the hall.
During a single contra dance, you do the whole dance with a partner. You and
your partner, who make up a couple, dance with
another couple (your neighbors) one time through the music and then move on, or
progress, to another couple. In the course
of the dance, you and your partner dance with every couple in your line.
In the formation that is most common (called improper),
one of the couples in each group of four (also called a minor set)
is facing down the hall, away from the band, and the other
is facing up the hall. The first couple, the one facing down the hall, is the number 1 or
active couple. The second couple, facing the band,
is the number 2 or inactive couple. (This terminology originated before the
modern era, when most dances had the active couples doing most of the figures; now, active couples
are generally no more “active” than the inactives.) When
it comes time in the dance to progress, active couples move down the hall and inactives up the
hall to form new groups of four. A couple keeps moving in the same direction in the line until
it reaches the bottom or the top, at which point the two dancers wait “out” one time through the music and
then get back “in,” their active/inactive status now switched.
Each of the dancers in a couple has a dancing role—either lead
Traditionally, the lead role is danced by a man and the follow role by a woman—thus the
alternative terms gents and ladies.
However, gender and dancing role have no necessary correlation:
a woman may dance the lead role and a man the follow role. Further, the person
dancing the lead role is not leading in the same strict sense that pertains to ballroom dancing.
Although the lead may indeed be the person who initiates flourishes and other modifications,
the only essential difference between the lead role and the follow
in contra dancing is that the lead is positioned to the left of the follow and the follow to the
right of the lead when completing a swing, a courtesy turn, and many other figures.
This is why there can be such a thing as
gender-free contra dancing.
From the traditional-role perspective, some callers
communicate the relative positioning of lead and follow with the phrase “the
woman is always right.”
When a caller indicates that it’s time to dance (by saying “Line up for a contra
dance!”), the dancers in the hall have the job of forming one or
more lines, or major sets, in a way that allows the caller to begin teaching the dance with as
little intervention as possible.
The first thing you do is find a partner. Then, you and your partner go and join one of the lines
that has begun to form. A line always begins at the top of the hall, and couples add on to it (at
"the bottom") as they arrive. If it appears that another line will be necessary to comfortably
accommodate those present, you may form a new line by standing at the top of the hall and encouraging
others to join you. At our dances there are usually two lines, although
sometimes the evening begins with only a single line. The caller is usually the one who determines
how many lines there should be, and often encourages people to join the shorter line so as to
equalize line length.
The standard procedure is for partners to line up so that, when facing the band, the man
(or the person dancing the lead role) is on the left and the woman (or the person dancing
the follow role) is on the right, and the two are across from each other. When everyone does
this, it creates a line of men and a line of women. It makes things easier for the caller, and
helps get the dance going faster, if pairs of couples begin taking hands and forming little
circles of four, beginning at the top of the line, or set, before the caller begins teaching.
This is called taking hands four.
When the lines are formed, the caller makes sure that everyone “has hands four”
and then (95% of the time) asks number one or active couples (every odd-numbered couple)
to switch places. This creates, in each group of four, the man-woman-man-woman configuration
used in the most common contra dances, those known as improper dances. The first
few dances of the evening are nearly always improper. Once everyone does this, the caller
is ready to walk through (teach) the dance.
Contra formations and other types of dances
Although improper contra dances are the most common, you’ll rarely, if ever, experience an evening of contra dancing
that doesn’t include other contra formations and other types of dances.
At the end of the first half and the end of the evening, there
will be a couple dance—most commonly a waltz. At some dances (not
usually ours), the second half begins with a
Scandinavian couple dance called the hambo.
Traditional dances that aren’t contras.
Sometimes the caller will throw in one or two dances during the evening that aren’t
contra dances but are evolutionarily related. These include square dances, Sicilian circles,
circle mixers, triplets, and one-off dances like the Levi Jackson Rag.
These dances are usually easy and incorporate many of the same figures
used in contra dancing.
Traditional contra dances.
There are quite a few contra dances that pre-date the modern era. Many callers like
to call one or two during an evening for the sake of variety and to keep these forms alive.
These dances include proper contra dances,
which retain the men-in-one-line-and-women-in-another
formation used for lining up, and triple minor dances,
in which the four-person minor set is
replaced with one consisting of three couples, one active and two inactive.
Modern contra dances in innovative formations.
Since the modern revival of contra dancing began in the 1960s, contra dance choreographers
have invented several new formations. The most common of these—and one you’re almost
certain to experience at one of our dances—is the Becket formation.
In a Becket dance,
couples form groups of four in which each couple faces the other across the hall. It’s
the improper formation rotated one-quarter of a circle.
Clothing and shoes
Contra dancing does not require any particular type of clothing. No one will expect you
to dress a certain way. Most dancers wear clothing that is comfortable and doesn't
restrict movement. Shorts and tee shirts for men and simple skirts and blouses for women are common.
Things to consider:
When many people dance in an enclosed space, it tends to get warm, and contra
dancing is vigorous enough to make you sweat. So wear clothing that will keep
you as cool as possible, even during winter. Men who sweat copiously may want
to bring an extra shirt or two.
Many women who are agile enough to spin in place like wearing skirts
that balloon out when they spin; these women also like to wear bicycle shorts or
similar tight-fitting shorts instead of regular underwear, for obvious reasons.
Hats, scarves, necklaces, waist packs, and purses are not ideal for wearing on the
dance floor because they can get in the way or fly off.
It is not uncommon for men to wear skirts or kilts.
Shoes are an important consideration. You want shoes that are light, make you feel
safe and secure while moving on the dance floor, and allow at least some slip.
Many contra dance figures
involve pivoting on your feet at least a little,
and if your shoes stick to the floor it makes the figures
harder to execute and less fun, and it may be stressful on your knees. Many experienced
dancers eventually get leather- or suede-soled shoes made for ballroom dancing, and can't
imagine dancing in anything else. Beginners, however, generally prefer street shoes with
less slip and more secure footing. High heels are not recommended.
Social norms—What to do and not to do
A contra dance is an inclusive community activity. The contra dance community
values safety, respect for others, civility, equal opportunity, tolerance of differences, unselfishness,
creative expression, teamwork, connection with others, patience, and support for personal
Here are a few specifics that arise from these values:
Join in at the end of the line.
Give the caller your attention.
Women may ask men to dance.
You may dance with someone of the same gender. When there is an imbalance in gender
numbers, dancing with someone with the same configuration of chromosomes as yourself is
sometimes the only way to get on to the dance floor. Besides, it can be great fun. But check
to see that one of you is able to dance the role (lead or follow) not traditionally
associated with your gender. There are a few men’s ties available for women to use
in identifying themselves as dancing the lead role.
A man and woman dancing together are not limited to their traditional roles. Switching roles
can be very enjoyable. But be prepared to cause some confusion among other dancers and
to be able to rectify it.
Find your partner for the next dance after the end of a dance.
Refrain from asking a person for the next dance during the middle of a dance, when you
pass them by in the line or dance with him or her as a neighbor.
Similarly, don’t ask a person to dance with you for a dance other
than the one that is coming up next. These forms of “booking ahead”
are common among contra dancers generally, but FCD discourages them because
of their many negative consequences,
particularly for the dance community. See
Ten reasons not to book ahead.
Note that you aren’t booking ahead if you have a “standing date” with your spouse or partner to dance,
for example, the last contra of the evening together.
If you feel you cannot complete a dance—because you are feeling ill or dizzy or confused or
exhausted or because of a minor injury—don’t suddenly drop out in the middle of the dance
if at all possible. Wait until you are out at the top or the bottom of the line.
Before a dance begins, it is OK to take your place in the line and then go drink some water, but it is very important to
be back when the caller begins teaching the dance.
Changing partners every dance is encouraged. No one will complain if you dance with your spouse
or sweetheart dance after dance, but be aware that this is not the norm.
You may decline an offer to dance. But be aware that some dancers may consider a refusal to be rude.
If you have a good reason not to dance with someone—you fear he will injure you, for example,
or he doesn’t respect your personal space—it is best to be honest about your reasons. That way,
you don't have to make vague excuses and you may actually cause the person to change his behavior.
Experienced dancers are encouraged to ask newcomers to dance. Similarly, those already on the dance
floor are encouraged to ask those sitting out for the next dance.
It is NEVER OK to subject another dancer to verbal abuse, sexually suggestive remarks,
unwanted touching, roughness, or sexual propositions. If you experience any of these behaviors, be sure
to inform one of the dance managers.
As a general guideline: we are all at a dance to have fun, so anything that maximizes your fun, helps others have more fun,
and doesn’t negatively impact others is good.