Basics of Contra Dance Form

This page discusses the basics of contra dance form. It is important for beginning callers, musicians and organizers to understand how the choreography of contra dancing fits with the music. Here is a good place to start. 

Overview

Contra Dances are generally done to tunes that are 32 musical bars (64 beats) long. The tunes usually have an A part and a B part, each of which is 8 bars (16 beats) of distinct music. The A and B parts are each repeated, to make a form that is described as AABB, with a total of 32 bars (64 beats). The dances are made up of sets of figures (such as forward and back, allemande, do-si-do) that are mostly 4, 8, or 16 beats long, strung together in a pattern that results in 32 bars (64 beats) of dancing. Once through the tune equals once through the dance.

The dancers dance the figures once through with their partners and neighboring couples, and then move on (progress) to a new couple and do the pattern all over again. We usually repeat the dance 10 or 15 or 20 times through. The caller prompts the figures for as long as is necessary until the dancers can do it on their own. The band plays the music in this form (ideally without dropping any parts or adding any extra beats) until the caller decides to end the dance.

Let's break that down a bit and look at a specific dance and tune. At this point don't worry about trying to figure out the specific dance - it's just an example.

Sample Dance and Tune

Here's the simple contra dance "Broken Sixpence" by Don Armstrong. 

Broken Sixpence, by Don Armstrong; from Rebecca Lay

longways; duple imprope

A1: Neighbor do si do (8)
      two gents do si do (8)

A2: two ladies do si do (8)
      Ones swing, end facing down (8)

B1: go down the hall, 4 in line, turn alone (8)
      up the hall, bend the line into a ring (8)

B2: Circle Left 1x
      star Left 1x

The numbers in parentheses represent the number of musical beats that each figure should take. For example, the A1 has a neighbor do-si-do for 8 beats, and then a gents do-si-do for 8 beats. "Longways" indicates that the dance is done in long lines of couples, with each person standing across from their partner and next to their neighbor. "Improper" means the number two couples in each group of four cross over, so that the long lines are gent - lady, gent- lady, etc.

Now, here's the simple Irish reel "Silver Spear," a common contra dance tune (click the image to see a larger version).

You can see the relationship between beats (red dots) and bars (the horizontal lines that divide the music), as well as the structure of the A and B parts. [Note to musicians: this concept of "beats" may be different than what the time signature says about beats per measure, depending on how the music is written out. It reflects the way dancers hear the beats - and callers match the figures to the music - when the tune is played at dance tempo. Don't think too much about the time signature.] The musical notes are the melody of the tune, while the chord letters give information to the rhythm musicians about how to accompany the tune.

If you were dancing Broken Sixpence to the Silver Spear, the neighbor do-si-do would take up the first line of music (8 beats, 4 bars), then the gents do-si-do takes up the second line, and that is the end of the A1. The band will repeat the A part; this time the ladies do-si-do takes up the first line, and the ones swing takes up the second line, and that's the end of the A2. For the B1 dancers go down the hall while the band plays the third line, and back up the hall for the 4th line. Repeat! B2: Circle = 3rd line, star = 4th line. Then we have reached the end of once through the dance and once through the tune. The dancers have progressed to face new couples; the band repeats the tune from the beginning, and the caller starts at the beginning of the figures for the second time through.

Presto! A contra dance!

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