Photo from River Falls Lodge by Patrick Smyth of Contra Dance Carolina

An Aesthetic of Contra Dancing


The level of activity in a dance is another important aesthetic criterion for today's dancers. In examining the words used to describe this aspect of a dance, I found only a few words that described a dance of low activity: "inactive," "laid back," "let-them-down-easy," and "slow." For a dance of high activity, however, there were many more terms: "aerobic," "active," "driving," "exhausting," "dances that go all the time," "hard driving," "high energy," "kick-ass contras go go go," "lively," "physically active," "rat race," "raucous," "rowdy," "tiring," "vigorous," "wild." Tony Parkes suggests that dancers today seem to prefer dances with a high level of physical activity:

Contra dance choreography has changed, largely in the direction of more people active more of the time. Most of the people who are doing contra dancing now seem to be doing it partly as a social activity, but partly as a form of exercise. And you'll hear people talk about aerobic contras versus older types of contras. (T. Parkes 1990)

This trend will be discussed in more depth in Chapter 6, in an examination of the change in choreography over time. Here we will simply note it as another ingredient in what makes a good dance for today's contra dancers.

Dance composers say that it is important to have enough activity within a dance, but not too much. "Enough" means that the dancers do not find themselves with time on their hands between figures, which causes them to stop and disrupts the flow of the dance. Gene Hubert provides an example of this balance of activity:

There needs to always be enough to keep the dancers busy, but not too much....The dance shouldn't make them stop. I guess the best example I can give is, if you circle left three-quarters and swing, it really only takes about six [beats] to circle. But you can eat up the rest of the phrase, of a sixteen count phrase, by swinging....But if you circle three-quarters and dosido, it's like there's nothing else to do....Those are things that I just won't put in a dance. (Hubert 1990b)

The other side of the coin is that a dance should not be so active that the dancers are exhausted when the dance is over. Ted Sannella speaks to this point:

Another thing that a good dance choreographer has to think about is that a dance be not too vigorous, too tiring....Some figures are more tiring than others, and if you string them all together in a row, it makes a very exhausting dance. (Sannella 1990a)

In addition to the level of activity as a whole, a dance composer needs to think about the balance of activity between the active couples and the inactive couples. Today's dancers prefer dances in which this balance is about equal, and are not as interested in dances in which the inactive couples have relatively little to do. One reason for this is that as contra dancing has become more popular, the lines have become longer, and it can take a long time for an inactive couple to reach the head of the set and become active:

I feel strongly that dancers today want dances which feature roughly equal roles, which is to say, everybody does pretty much the same thing. It seems that nowadays, at least in the communities I dance in, the lines are long, and you don't really want to run a dance an incredibly long amount of time in order so that you have to change roles....I prefer to write equal dances these days. (Pearl 1990)

This is indeed one of the major changes when one compares the contemporary contra dance with the traditional contra dance. The dances in which these roles are unequal are still used, however, not so much as a staple, but rather as a source of variety or as a way of giving the dancers a rest when they are hot or tired:

I think on a hot night...I will probably call more dances where the twos are really inactive. And people will moan and groan about it, but I think the very fact that they've got the energy to moan and groan is a good sign. (Kaynor 1990b)

Unequal dances do have some advantages which members of the dance community have perhaps lost sight of, since these dances are not as commonly called now. In addition to the opportunity to catch one's breath, an asymmetrical dance gives one a stronger sense of progression:

You feel like you have a sort of goal when you're getting close to the top of the set. And there's also sort of a tendency at the bottom of the set—you know, you have only one or two more times to do whatever you're doing with your partner, so you've got to make it good. (Bixby 1990)

Another area in which a balance of activity is helpful is between the sexes. It is desirable in a dance for the men and the women each to have interesting things to do, and for there to be some same-sex interaction. Choreographer Susan Elberger from Lexington, Massachusetts, describes her effort to establish this balance:

I try to make sure that the men and the women get equal time to dance with each other. One of my favorite dances of the dances I've written is one where there's a "balance and swing" with your neighbor, a "balance and swing" with your partner, and "allemandes" for the women and for the men, so that everybody gets to dance with everybody. (Elberger 1990)


The last aesthetic criterion mentioned by my informants is that a dance should have something special about it that makes it memorable to the dancers, that reminds dancers that they've done the dance before and that they like it. We have seen already that in the minds of the composers a dance has a "gimmick," something around which the rest of the dance is composed. The special quality discussed here often corresponds to the choreographic gimmick, but not always. It can be anything about the dance that the dancer finds special and memorable. It may be an innovative sequence that no one has seen before and that is fun to do, such as this example described by Larry Edelman:

Steve Zakonhas really pioneered a sequence of figures that he uses in several dances, example being "Southern Swing," where the women..."right allemande" in the middle, then give left to their partners, pull their partners in the center and the gents "chain" across and give left to their opposite and turn once and a little bit more. And it's just a nice sequence that no one's really [used before]. (Edelman 1990)

It may be an opportunity for the dancers to innovate in ways that catch on in other communities. Dan Pearl's dance, "Beneficial Tradition," has a series of four little pauses as the dancers pull across the set each of four times, and as quoted in Chapter 4, dancers in Philadelphia throw their free hand over their heads and shout "hey!" or "ho!" at each of these pauses. I saw this dance done in Cincinnati, and there the whole room of dancers inserted a loud stomp with both feet in each of the pauses. It began with a few dancers, and soon everyone was doing it. I asked the caller, Steve Zakon, what usually happened when he called that dance. He said sometimes the "hey!" and "ho!" spread throughout the room, and sometimes the stomp. It just depended on who started it. Dan Pearl's reaction to this is as follows:

I think that's great....It's a distinctive thing that people remember, and they say, "ah, I've done this dance before. I like this dance." And they have my blessing. It might mean that the dance will stick around. (Pearl 1990)

Another special quality that some dances have is the element of surprise, particularly in a sequence where one's partner disappears into another group of four dancers and then reappears unexpectedly. There are many dances with this device, and Ted Sannella's dance, "Fiddleheads," is a good example:

I like dances with surprises...."Fiddleheads" by Ted is one....Your partner goes one way and you go the other way, and you're both in different groups of four people. But after two "Petronella turns," if you turn half a turn more, there's your partner and you swing. (Theyken 1990)

This quality of uniqueness or specialness is what helps dancers recognize a dance and remember it among the hundreds of new dances that come their way. There are many "good" dances being called across the country now, but not all of them have this quality that makes them stand out and perhaps remain more consistently in the repertoire.


In 1983 Eric Zorn and Gerry Prokopowicz of the Chicago Barn Dance Company perpetrated a "Bad Contra Contest" for which they solicited entries from many of the contra dance composers who were composing at that time. The contest was conceived as a joke, as a spoof on serious dance writing contests. Eric Zorn described the contest as

an educational tool that would spur the judges, those who wrote the dances, and those who read the final writeup of the contest to think quite seriously about what makes up a Bad Contra in order, perhaps, to throw some light on the ever-elusive subject of what makes a good contra. (Zorn 1983:3)

The entries had to fit a standard thirty-two bar contra tune, contain more than a simple repetition of a figure, use a timing of moves that is feasible, emphasize existing moves rather than new self-invented moves, and be theoretically danceable. Zorn described the quest as follows:

We're not looking for dances that are boring or don't work. We're looking for a truly malignant dance—one that inspires not yawns, but boos—one that is both unpleasant and awkward—one that has the capacity to clear the room and stop a good time dead in its tracks. (Zorn 1983:2)

I would like to discuss one of the entries to this contest, in order to highlight the qualities of a good dance. The dance under consideration will be Gene Hubert's entry, "Balance Yourself":

Duple Improper

A1 Balance and swing your neighbor. Star left.
A2 Half ladies chain, all swing partners.
B1 Circle right, allemande right your partner once.
B2 Half ladies chain, all balance individually twice.

(Zorn 1983:4)

This dance displays many typical qualities of the contemporary contra dance, which helps to highlight its flaws. Like most of today's dances it is in the improper formation. The choreography includes two "swings," one with one's partner, and one with one's neighbor. The social interaction is typical in including not only these two-person interactions, but also figures that are done in a subset of four dancers (the "circle" and the "star"). The dance is phrased to fit the music. And it is a typical symmetrical dance in which both the actives and the inactives have the same roles. Hubert describes some of the characteristics that qualify this dance as a "bad contra":

You start by balancing and swinging your neighbor...a four count "balance" followed by a four count "swing"...followed by a "left hand star," which goes the opposite way, which is terrible flow. And a four count "swing" is unforgivable. Inexcusable. (Hubert 1990b)

The first "swing" is not only inexcusably short, but it ends in mid-phrase, a place where dancers notoriously have trouble stopping a "swing." Moving from a "swing" into a "left-hand star" is hard for the women, since their left hands are behind their neighbors' upper arms. As Hubert comments, the "swing" is a clockwise motion, and a "left hand star" is counterclockwise, so the movements do not flow into one another, but require the dancers to stop and change direction.

In the second A section the women must switch hands to begin the "ladies chain." A "partner swing" follows, and because the "chain" is normally followed by a "courtesy turn," it is awkward to begin a "swing" from that position, the partners' arms being around each others' waists. This did not in fact turn out to be as awkward as Hubert planned it to be, because the dancers changed the "courtesy turn" to a "twirl," from which a "swing" could comfortably be reached.

In the first B section the dancers leave the "partner swing" and go into a "circle right." This is awkward for a couple of reasons. First, the "swing," as we noted, is a clockwise movement, and the "circle right," like the "star left," is a counterclockwise movement. In addition, the expectation of dancers is that a circle will go first to the left, not to the right.
The second half of B1 is an "allemande right" once around. Once more this reverses the direction, requiring the dancers to go back in a clockwise direction. It is also a very slow movement to allemande one time in four bars. Eric Zorn writes:

In his notes, Hubert indicates that the "allemande" in B-1 is one time around so that dancers will have a lot of time to kill, but we found the dance much less pleasant with a double "allemande" in this spot and so we changed it, having, as we do, almost no respect for the written word. (Zorn 1983:4)

The second B section begins with a half "ladies chain"—again! We have seen that using the same figure twice in a dance can make it hard to remember (and this one will be hard enough as it is). In addition, the "ladies chain" requires the ladies to pull by with their right hands, hands which have been busy allemanding in the previous figure, so this is physically hard to do. The last figure, "balance" individually twice, is simply silly. One doesn't balance individually in contra dancing, and to do it twice is that much more ridiculous:

The individual, ridiculous "balances" at the end added just the right touch of humor necessary for an ideal Bad Dance....The judges were quite impressed overall by this effort, especially Zorn, who carried the torch for this dance through much of the contest. (Zorn 1983:4)

Hubert's dance did not win the contest. It was won by a dance beginning "actives balance forward and swing" ("Rory O'Bore" by Kathy Anderson). But his dance is very instructive in contrasting a "bad" dance with a good one. And what about that quality of specialness? "Balance Yourself" is certainly memorable, though whether a dancer would want to do it again is questionable.

The following chart summarizes the aesthetic criteria discussed in the first section of this chapter. It provides a portrait, not of every "good" dance, but of the typical "good" contemporary contra dance.

Table 1. Aesthetic Criteria
for the Contemporary Contra Dance


1. Transitions are smooth, take advantage of momentum, and do not require backtracking or moves that are physically awkward.
2. The choreography avoids "too much flow" which can leave the dancers dizzy.
3. Assisted changes of direction facilitate good flow.
4. The choreography avoids right-left distinctions made by individual dancers.
5. The last move flows into the first move.


1. The dance includes "swings," most desirably with one's partner.
2. Figures with strong connection are used to facilitate good flow.


1. Triples and proper dances are less popular.
2. The improper and Becket formations, which facilitate symmetrical moves, are more commonly used.


1. The choreography is complex enough to offer a challenge.
2. The dance is simple enough so dancers can remember it without continuous calling.
3. Care is exercised in using a figure twice (with the exception of the "swing"), as it makes the dance harder to remember.
4. There is a challenge for the experienced dancers that still allows the beginners to recoup.
5. There is a reward for the successful completion of a difficult sequence.


1. The choreography contains a variety of interactions with partner, neighbor, the larger set, and members of the same gender.
2. Interactions are satisfying and not frustrating.
3. A social plot is desirable.


1. The dance for the most part conforms to the dancers' expectations with regard to the order of the figures, the timing of the figures, the direction of motion, and the social interactions within the dance.
2. Unexpected moves may be used judiciously to add spice to a dance.


1. Figures can be successfully performed in the time allotted by the music.
2. Figures conform to the musical phrase.
3. "Balances" are located at the beginnings of phrases, and "swings" run until the ends of phrases.
4. Tempos are appropriate to the difficulty and the intricacy of the choreography.
5. Unforgiving moves are buffered by forgiving moves.
6. The dance contains places in which dancers can improvise.


1. The activity level is high enough so that dancers do not need to stop and wait for the next move.
2. The activity level is low enough so that dancers do not become exhausted.
3. There is a balance of activity between the active and the inactive couples, and between the sexes.


The dance contains something special that makes it memorable.