Photo by Stew Stryker.

Changes in Contra Dance Choreography

This chapter is a survey of some of the ways in which the choreography of the newly composed dances differs from that of the more traditional ones. We will look in detail at the formations, figures, and transitions used in contemporary dances, and contrast them with those used prior to the 1950s, to get a clear picture of what changes have taken place. This survey lays the groundwork for Chapter 7, in which we will examine some of the social characteristics of the contemporary dance event, and see how current social issues both affect and reflect these choreographic changes.

The information in this chapter comes from three sources. The first is Rickey Holden's book, The Contra Dance Book, in which he collected all the contra dances that he could find in this country in the mid 1950s. This collection provides a basis for comparison with the dances available now in the early 1990s. My second source is the interviews I conducted, in which callers and choreographers gave me their opinions as to how the dances have changed in the last forty years. My third source is a large chart that I made for the purpose of examining the changes in the transitions used in contra dances during the last four decades. This chart lists the common contra dance figures across the top of the chart and again down one side, and thus provides a location, in the form of a square, for every possible transition from one figure to another. The transitions from one hundred dances have been entered into these squares, including twenty pre-1950s dances, twenty early composed dances (1956 to 1973), twenty dances composed between 1973 and 1983, twenty dances composed after 1983, and the top twenty dances mentioned at the time of the interviews as being current favorites in the repertoire. Although the chart is too large to reproduce here, the patterns that it reveals are summarized throughout the chapter.


One of the most noticeable changes that has occurred over the last forty years has been a shift from dances that are primarily in the proper formation (in which the men line up on one side of the set and the women on the other), to dances that are primarily in the improper formation (in which every other couple crosses over before the dance begins, leaving lines of alternating gender on each side of the set). Approximately two-thirds of the dances in Rickey Holden's book are in the proper formation. The dances on my chart show a trend toward the improper formation over time. Of the twenty pre-1950s dances, fourteen are in the proper formation; of the dances composed between 1973 and 1983, six are proper dances; the dances composed since 1983 include only one proper dance out of twenty. Clearly the proper formation has been falling out of favor. Why should this be so?

There seem to be two major reasons for this shift in formation, and they are interrelated. First, as choreographers began to explore the possibilities of the contra dance form, they found that the improper formation led to more choreographic possibilities and therefore gave the fullest range to their creativity. This is because in the improper formation a man and a woman are standing next to one another in the line, which allows the dance to begin with any of the figures involving a member of each gender; in addition, all the dancers can be involved in that first move. In the proper formation, on the other hand, a dance beginning with an opposite-sex move must be for the active couples only, since the two genders are on opposite sides of the set, and there is generally not room for everyone to dance in the center at once. Steve Zakon explains how this works:

[The proper formation] encourages the actives to both start and end it, and have the majority of the moves in it....You want to balance and swing someone?...The one below is not a lady, so the gent reaches across to his partner....Improper, you're standing next to someone of the opposite sex. All of a sudden "swing" and "dosido" and just all these things...come right to mind. (Zakon 1990)

A related reason for this shift is that today's dancers prefer dances in which everyone is active all the time. The improper formation clearly facilitates this by making it possible for the dance to begin and end with figures performed on the sides of the set by everyone simultaneously. The performing of figures—particularly the "swing"—on the sides of the set gives the dancers significantly more room than they would have were they all to swing at once in the center:

Figure 15
Figure 15. Swinging on the Sides and in the Center

In addition to the shift from the proper formation to the improper formation there are now dances composed in Becket formation, in which the dancers stand next to their partners, facing another couple across the set, a formation that is not found in the earlier dances. This formation was an innovation of Herbie Gaudreau's in his dance, "Becket Reel," an early composed dance named for the town of Becket, Massachusetts. There has been a small but steady output of dances in Becket formation from contemporary contra dance composers, and this formation continues to be a frontier for choreographers looking for new areas in which to work.

Another change during the last several decades has been the shift away from triple formation dances. In these dances every third couple is active, and consequently the minor set within the dance includes three couples instead of two. Almost one-third of the dances in Rickey Holden's book are in the triple formation. Today, however, it is rare to dance a triple formation dance, and many of the newer dancers are unacquainted with them.

The reason that the triple formation dances have fallen out of favor appears to be two-fold. First, the triples are a little bit trickier to teach and to dance. This is because as the active couple works its way down the set, the other couples alternate between the number two role and the number three role. A single couple will be number two one time through the dance and number three the next. This is confusing to dancers who are accustomed to maintaining the same role all the way up the set:

I don't know too many people writing triples, I think partly because they are harder to get across....That "two" to "three" to "two" to "three" is tricky....You really have to pay attention! (Hendrickson 1990)

With larger groups to teach, callers prefer to avoid dance forms that make the teaching job more difficult and more time consuming.

Another reason for the triples going out of fashion is that in a triple dance there are two inactive couples for every active couple, which means even more standing around than in the duple proper dances. This is unacceptable to most of today's dancers, who want continual activity in their dancing:

In a triple minor two couples are inactive for every active couple. Lots and lots of waiting. (Zakon 1990)


Another way in which contemporary choreography differs from that of the older dances is that in a large proportion of the new dances the roles of the active and inactive couples are symmetrical—meaning that their moves are identical, although they may be moving in opposite directions along the set. Of the ninety contra dances described in Rickey Holden's book, there are three that are symmetrical in the sense of giving everyone the same moves ("Dud's Reel," "Oregon Trail," and "Polka Contra"), which is about three percent of the total. If we look at the dances on my chart, and in particular at the "top twenty" group plus the twenty composed in the last decade, thirty-one of forty, or seventy-eight percent, are completely symmetrical. This is a significant change.

The choreographing of symmetrical moves is in part a response to the preference of the dancers for an equal activity level for everyone and is therefore related to the rise of the improper formation and the decline of the triple formation dances. Symmetrical choreography is also a response to the growing number of dancers at the dance events; the resulting long lines make the traditional active-inactive role division problematic. In a long line the inactive couples remain inactive for a long time before reaching the head of the set and becoming active; and the active couples stay active long enough to become tired out. Symmetrical dances avoid these problems by allowing everyone to be equally active regardless of their location in the line. Larry Edelman elaborates on this point:

Proper dances...are very unequal dances....That's often not appropriate today...because some dance communities are so large that the dance would have to be so long for everyone to get a good shot at being active, that people don't like the inactive dances. So that choreography doesn't meet the needs of a large dance hall. An example would be Glen Echo [in Washington, D.C.] . . .fifty yards, you know, from end to end. (Edelman 1990)

The use of symmetrical dances has led to some changes in the terminology employed by callers in teaching the dances. It no longer makes sense to speak of "active" and "inactive" couples, when in fact everyone is equally active throughout the dance. Some callers refer to these couples as the "number ones" and the "number twos" instead:

There are dances where...nobody's inactive, especially a lot of the newer dances that the people write. Everybody goes all the time. But how do you distinguish to a new person who comes in? "I don't understand! I've been spinning around for five minutes! Who's active?" When you say, you're a "one" and you're a "two" and you change numbers at the top and the bottom, that makes more sense. (Hendrickson 1990)

Another approach is to use the terms "partners" and "neighbors" and do away with the distinction between the couples moving down the set and the couples moving up the set. Modified terminology also helps callers move away from addressing the calls only to the active couples, a practice that was standard in calling the older traditional dances. For example, consider the common call, "balance and swing below." For the active couple the person one swings is "below" (meaning down the set and away from the music). But for the inactive couple that person is "above." With the symmetrical dances it is no longer appropriate to direct the calls to the active couples, since everyone is doing the same thing. When "swing your neighbor" is used instead of "swing below," the call applies equally to everyone.


Another way to view the changes in contra dance choreography is to look at the kinds of figures that are being used today, to see how these differ from the figures used in the older dances. New figures have been added to the repertoire in recent years, and the popularity of the traditional figures has increased in some cases and decreased in others.
Although the "swing" was a part of contra dancing long before the current revival, it has taken on a greatly increased importance for today's dancers. Hardly a dance is called today that does not include a "swing," and most of the new dances include two "swings"—one with one's neighbor and one with one's partner. If there is no "swing" in a dance, many of the dancers will grumble. Tom Hinds has experienced this problem from the points of view of both caller and dancer:

I don't like the attitude of people that if you don't swing your partner then they get all mad. But I guess if I'm dancing with a partner I would really want to swing, I get mad too. (Hinds 1990)

The graph below shows the number of dances on my chart that include a "neighbor swing" and the number of dances that include a "partner swing" for each of the time periods represented:

Figure 16
Figure 16. Swing Frequency Over Time

The graph indicates that there was first an increase in the number of "neighbor swings," and then the number of "partner swings" increased to equal and eventually surpass the number of "neighbor swings." This may reflect a gradual shift in emphasis from community interaction to partner interaction, a trend discussed in Chapter 7.

Another kind of figure that has gained prominence over the last twenty years is what I have called the "fractional figure." In the traditional dances one finds "circle to the left and back to the right," "ladies chain over and back," and other figures that include a return to place. In the contemporary dances one almost never does a "chain" over and back. The "ladies chain," "right and left through," "star," and "circle" are almost always done in one direction only, and some other means is used to return to the starting position, if indeed one does return. So these kinds of figures have been essentially broken in half. In addition to breaking figures in half, choreographers have begun to use fractional figures such as "circle three-quarters," "allemande once and a quarter," and the like. There is a very good reason for this. We have seen that in a symmetrical dance "partner swings" usually take place on the sides of the set, since it is too crowded for everyone to swing in the middle. From the starting position of the improper formation it is necessary to turn the minor set of four people either three-quarters, or once-and-a-quarter in order to position the dancers next to their partners on the sides of the sets. Consequently fractional circle turns have become common to facilitate this. As dancers have become more and more accustomed to fractional turns, the concept has spread to other figures that are not related to swinging on the sides of the set, and one finds, for example, a three-quarters "hey" in some contemporary dances. Today fractional figures have become an expected and understood part of the figure repertoire.

Another new way of using old figures is to dance them on the diagonal; that is, instead of doing a "right and left through" with the couple directly across the set, one faces left (or right) with one's partner and does the figure with the next couple down in that direction:


Figure 17
Figure 17. Diagonal "Right and Left Through"

One of the first dances that used this kind of movement is Herbie Gaudreau's "Becket Reel," to which we have already referred with regard to the Becket formation. A diagonal "right and left through" followed by a "right and left through" straight across the set leaves the dancers in their progressed position in Becket formation, and this sequence is still commonly used. Other figures may also be danced on the diagonal. "Dancing Sailors," by Ed Shaw and Al Olson, includes, for example, a "hey for four" on the diagonal.

Dancing figures on the diagonal involves dancers with others who are outside their minor set of two couples. These figures also contribute to the "surprise" element in some dances, an element regarded as desirable by many people, because a diagonal figure may separate partners who can then be reunited.

Many of the figures being used in contemporary contra dance have been purposefully or inadvertently borrowed from other traditions—in particular from the Western square dance, Appalachian square dance, New England square dance, and English country dance traditions.

The borrowing of...things from other dance styles is, you know, a way that you can create something new, but still stay within a tradition anyway, whether or not it's the tradition. (Breunig 1990)

An early example of this is Fred Feild's dance "Symmetrical Force," which includes a "four-leaf clover," a figure from Appalachian square dance. (This particular borrowing may have been unintentional. See footnote 4 at the end of page 62.) Dan Pearl's dance "The Rendezvous" includes a sequence in which each couple circles left with the other couple in their minor set, and then moves on to circle left with the next couple down the line, a move which is identical to the way couples progress around the circle in Appalachian square dance. Ted Sannella, in his dance "Salute to Larry Jennings," uses a "grand right and left" around the outside of the whole set, and in his dance "CDS Reel" he has the whole set circle left as a unit. These figures are borrowed from the square dance traditions. The "hey for four" and the "gypsy," which are quite commonly used in today's contra dances, are borrowed from English country dance.

In addition to borrowed figures there are also newly invented figures that are used in the composing of contra dances. The example given by Larry Edelman in the discussion of uniqueness in Chapter 5 is repeated here as a good illustration of such a figure:

Steve Zakonhas really pioneered a sequence of figures that he uses in several dances in different ways in each one, an 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], that kind of sequence of "allemandes" and pulling across the set. (Edelman 1990)

Several choreographers observed a trend toward the use of more figures in which the dancers don't touch one another: figures like "heys" and "gypsies." Both of these figures are borrowed figures that are not found in the older contra dances, and both, particularly the "hey for four," have become quite popular in contemporary contra dance:

There's less body contact, but there's more opportunities for kind of individual stylizing. Your individual body can move more freely, because you aren't arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip with someone else. (Kaynor 1990b)

These "no hands" figures are more challenging to dance, particularly for beginning dancers, because one does not benefit from the security of holding onto other dancers; but they provide more opportunities for improvisation.

There has been a parallel rise in figures that provide strong physical connections between dancers, connections which facilitate smooth flow and greater speed in a dance. We have already noted the increased use of the "swing." "Allemandes" provide a smooth way to change direction quickly, and their use has also been on the increase in recent years. "Circle left" is being used more frequently in contemporary contra dances, while "circle right" is being used less, and I would speculate that this is a result of the attempt to conserve momentum in the transitions between figures. A "circle left" meshes nicely with the "swing," while a "circle right" does not. These figures provide the strong physical connection needed to perform today's faster, more complex dances.

A dance sequence that seems to have fallen out of favor is "down the center (or the outside) and back" followed by "cast off." This sequence is found only in dances with clearly differentiated active and inactive roles, and there is no place for it in the contemporary symmetrical dance. This is an important change, since the "cast off" was the primary means of accomplishing the progression in the older dances, and in the contemporary dances it is almost never used.

According to my chart, another figure which has declined in use is the "right and left through." My guess is that this figure is less frequently used today because it does not provide strong connections between the dancers, and consequently is not as effective in producing smooth flow and speed in the dancing.


Contemporary contra dance composers have been increasingly interested in how the dance figures fit together—how one figure flows into the next:

We've gotten into kind of exploring how figures can transition into each other. A lot of the old dances are really straight-forward, you know? The "ones" did something, and then everybody did something, and then the "ones" did something else...and then you all ended up with a "right and left" over and back or something like that. And nowadays there's the delight figure flowing into another. (Kaynor 1990b)

Smooth and effective transitions allow for faster and more complex dancing, since neither speed nor complexity works very well if one has to pause or stop between figures.
In making the transition chart, I listed separately the different directions in which a figure can be accomplished (e.g. "allemande left" and "allemande right" are listed separately), and the completed chart is consequently forty figures long and forty figures high, including a total of 1600 possible transitions. Of these 1600 transitions, only 280 were actually used in the one hundred dances I entered on the chart. Let me remind the reader here that I included twenty dances from each of five categories: pre-1950s dances; early modern composed dances (prior to 1973); dances composed between 1973 and 1983; dances composed after 1983; and the twenty most named dances in the interviews. Because each era is represented by only twenty dances, there are some statistical limitations to this analysis; but I believe it is possible to infer some general trends from these data.
The number of transitions used in each of the four time periods is as follows:

Figure 18
Figure 18. Transition Use through Time

These numbers are interesting because they suggest that the number of transitions used began to increase as the composing of new dances got underway, reaching a peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which time the older transitions were still being used and newer ones were being added. Then as the older ones began to fall away, the most popular transitions became a somewhat different set from that of the earlier dances.
Below is an ordered list of the most popular transitions used in each of the four time periods noted above:

Figure 19
Figure 19. Changing Popularity of Transitions

Each list includes only the transitions that clearly separated themselves from the others in popularity. There are only three transitions listed for the 1973 to 1983 era because although many more transitions were used during that period, few stood out as being more popular than others. It seems to have been a period of choreographic experimentation, corresponding to the rise in popularity of contra dancing as the current dance revival got underway.

The transitions that have decreased over time include the sequence "down the hall and back" and "cast off;" the "chain" and the "right and left through" over and back; and the transitions from a "cast off" to either a "chain" or a "right and left through." These have fallen away, in part, because of the decrease in popularity of the dances with unequal roles. We have seen that the "cast off" is a figure that is used primarily in unequal dances, and consequently it is not in vogue today. The use of the whole "chain" and the whole "right and left through" has probably decreased because of the interest of choreographers in building more variety into their dances, by having the dancers return across the set in some other way after doing half of one of these figures.

The transitions that have increased over time include the "balance" followed by a "swing," the "swing" to a "circle left," the "circle left" to a "swing," and the "swing" to a "lines forward and back." These transitions reflect both the increasing popularity of the "swing" and the interest in good flow. The "circle left" and the "swing," as we have seen, work very well together since they are both revolving figures and they both revolve clockwise. The transition from one of these figures to the other was not used at all in the older dances, as far as I know, and it is very popular in contemporary dances. I suspect that the popularity of the transition from the "swing" to "lines forward and back" is related to the need to stop the revolution of the "swing" with a non-revolving figure so that the dancers don't get dizzy.

The changes in the transitions over time are consistent with the changes in the figures, showing the same trends toward fewer dances with unequal roles and more dances that are vigorous, complex, and smooth flowing.


Today's dances are more complex than the traditional dances. They use more intricate combinations of moves, they use more moves of shorter duration within a single dance, and they are often danced somewhat faster than the older ones were. One reason for the increasing complexity of the dances seems to be the continuing development of new choreographic ideas and the efforts of the choreographers to implement them:

Sometimes just in order to get one interesting transition in a dance, half the problem is that you've got to get [the dancers] rearranged in a way that you order to use that transition. And so you've done a bunch of things to shuffle the dancers around, and then you've done the gimmick you want to do, and then you've got to get them back where they started. And so you end up spending a lot of time in your choreography doing all this rearranging and then dearranging. And the dances get more and more complex. (Diggle 1990)

Some of my informants speculated that the desire to create complicated choreography is related to the choreographer's fascination with numbers and with spatial relationships:

I think a lot of people that are turned on to dancing, or calling for dances, or making up dances, also have some part of their mind...that's also highly mathematical, and they need to play with numbers. And playing with dance figures is just like playing with numbers. I think a lot of people enjoy doing that. I know a lot of callers do that. I know it, because they've said so. (Sutherland 1990)

In the same vein, others suggested that the fact that many dancers work with computers contributes to their enjoyment of complex sequences:

I would say that [many] of the people that go contra dancing today in the Boston area these days are computer oriented. They work in the computer industry or high tech of some sort. And so they bring all that right in. And if you look at Zesty Contras...those are very busy dances. Plus a lot of mathematics involved in there, when you turn one-and-three-quarters around. (Laufman 1990)

More complex dances are created, in part, because there is a demand for them. Dancers are interested in fast and vigorous dancing, an interest stemming not so much from the social aspect of the dance as from a desire for physical challenge. They work on developing their physical skill in the performing of contra dance and derive some of their enjoyment from this physical skill:

[When you] get good at something, there's a different level of enjoyment that you undergo than you did initially when you were worrying about a lot of other things than just doing the dance, or getting through the dance alive without having mortally embarrassed yourself. (Marshall 1990)

The increasing complexity of today's contra dances shows itself in the choreography in a number of ways. We have seen that new figures, fractional figures, and diagonal figures are being incorporated into the dances. It is also true that the new dances contain more and shorter figures than the older traditional dances, which consist of fewer and longer figures:

Traditional dances have very few parts. And these days more of the dances have more parts: four-count figures as opposed to eight-count figures, or in eight counts you do a couple of things rather than just one thing. In the older dances you had sixteen-count figures. (Kopp 1990)

The new dances often include moves in which dancers dance with those outside their own minor set, which was virtually unknown in the older dances. This means that dancers occupy a greater number of different positions and see more new faces in the course of a single repetition of a dance. As we have seen, partners may be separated from one another during a figure, to be reunited at some point later in the dance.

The transitions, as they have become smoother, have also become more precise, often requiring closer timing. Many of my informants feel not only that the timing has become closer, but that the dance movements have actually become faster in recent years. A number of reasons were suggested for this phenomenon. We noted earlier that there are an increasing number of dancers who are looking at the dance primarily as exercise, and these dancers enjoy faster dancing for its aerobic value. Bob Dalsemer speculated that the increased speed of the dance movements is also related to the crowded conditions on the dance floor. Because there is not room to execute expansive figures, the dancers add speed to the figures to compensate for the smaller space. If there is not room to perform a wide, elegant "allemande left" once around in eight counts, one can get a different sort of satisfaction from performing that "allemande left" twice around in a more confined space:

When space is at a premium, and you don't have room to spread out, faster tempos give you kind of a substitute for that lack of expansiveness. (Dalsemer 1990)

Faster movements within the dance may be encouraged by tempo changes in the music. Some figures, the "swing," for example, are actually easier to dance at a faster tempo. Bob Dalsemer suggested that the failure of many callers to control the tempo of the band contributes to the increasing speed of the dances:

Bands tend to feel that if you're going to be popular with the dancers, the easiest way to do that is to have a lot of energy....And the energy musically is often, and I think erroneously, created by faster tempos. (Dalsemer 1990)

The willingness of dancers to dance more quickly has in turn created new choreographic opportunities in the use of timings that would have been unacceptably fast a few decades ago:

The fact that the dancers are willing to move a little faster means you can do things like "allemande" twice around in eight counts. That would have been unheard of thirty years ago....You couldn't get the dancers to go that fast even if you wanted to. (Diggle 1990)

In sum, today's dances are more complex than the traditional dances, and this complexity is reflected in the figures and transitions being used, in the construction of the "gimmick" and the way it is set into the dance, in the use of more figures of shorter length in a single dance, in the inclusion of sequences that reach outside the minor set, and in the increased speed at which the dances are being performed.


Another innovation of the last few decades has been the multiple progression dance, a dance in which the number one couples move more than one place down the set in the course of a single repetition of a dance. Most such dances are double progression dances, but there do exist some triple progression dances and at least one quadruple progression dance ("Contra Madness" by Gene Hubert). Steve Hickman recalls the beginnings of the use of double progression dances:

I can't remember the name of the first double progression dance. What an astounding idea! To progress two places! And then the inactives would get to be active twice as fast! (Hickman 1990)

His comment suggests one reason for the creation of these dances—the attempt to move the dancers more quickly through the ever lengthening lines so that in the unequal dances everyone gets a chance to be active without requiring the dance to continue for an inordinate amount of time.

Multiple progression dances usually include figures that involve dancers outside the initial minor set, since the dancers change minor sets as the second progression begins:

Most of the traditional dances keep you pretty strictly in your group of four all the way through. [Today] you get into multiple progression, or dances where you do things outside your minor set, sometimes significant amounts of stuff outside your minor set before you get reconnected with your partner maybe. Those are all pretty much modern innovations. (Diggle 1990)

One result of these innovations has been the creation of complex "end effects" in the dance. End effects are the peculiar things that happen at the end of a set when a couple has reached the bottom (or top) and is waiting to come back into the dance going the other way. In the traditional proper dances these couples simply stand out one time through the dance and then reenter from the same position. In the traditional improper dances the end couples need to change places with their partners before reentering. Today's dances, however, include at least two other kinds of complications that occur at the ends of the sets.

First, a multiple progression dance requires that the couples at the ends must make the necessary adjustments much more quickly in order to be ready to reenter the dance in half the time normally allotted (if it is a double progression dance) and even faster if it is a triple progression dance. This means that the common practice of taking a little break at the ends of the set doesn't work, and a couple needs to be ready to reenter the dance almost immediately.

Second, in a dance in which there are figures that reach beyond the minor set, the couples on the ends will find themselves out of the dance some of the time, but required to reenter temporarily in order to do an "allemande" with someone, or to be a part of a diagonal "hey" or some other move that reaches outside the minor set in their direction. In a Becket formation dance it sometimes happens that the couple at the end must refrain from entering the dance at particular intervals. For example in a left diagonal "right and left through" when there is no couple to their left, they must simply stand there and wait until there is a couple in the proper location for them to accomplish the figure.

Today couples at the ends need to be aware of when to cross over, when to be ready to reenter the dance more quickly, when to reenter temporarily, and when to absent themselves temporarily. Despite these complications, most dancers seem to deal readily with end effects, and a set rarely falls apart because of them. Often a couple will simply be whirled back into the dance by the next approaching couple, even if they have no idea what is going on.


One of the most obvious changes from the older dance scene to the contemporary one is in the sheer numbers of dances being composed and danced today. In the 1950s the repertoire was smaller. Many of the same dances were danced from week to week, and the dancers knew and requested these dances by name. Ted Sannella recalls:

Before...we just did the same ones all the time, and we never even thought about changing them or making up new ones....We did have some new ones. But then it would be like one dance a year that would be new....You didn't have the situation where every caller had half a dozen of his own that he had just written that he wanted to try out, like you do now....It wasn't deemed necessary, I guess. People were satisfied. It's only in more recent years that the dancers I think are becoming more demanding. They like new things. (Sannella 1990a)

Today's dancers try so many new dances that they rarely remember their names. Favorites come and go:

The constant need for new material is one of the aspects of the new breed of dancer....And if they get a good one, they'll dance it to death. And when it's been danced a lot and people thoroughly know it, the caller assumes...the people are tired of this. Or I'm tired of this. And so I'm going to delete it and add something new to my program. This need for constantly finding something new is not bad. It's just significant of this new era of contra dance. (Park 1990)

The need for new material may also be related to the faster pace of today's world, and the faster turnover and change in other aspects of life. Improved communications is one area in which we see this. Because it is increasingly easy to travel, the members of a dance community no longer depend on their local caller for all of their material. They can learn new dances from callers all over the country, either through dance camps or through the hiring of traveling callers and bands:

A lot of it is because of the smaller world that we live in. Callers are traveling now all over the country, and before you had the local caller calling for the local dancers. And he was the only caller they got to see. (Sannella 1990a)

Whatever the reasons, where there used to be a smaller and more stable number of contra dances in the common repertoire, there are now hundreds of dances circulating throughout the country, with new ones being composed every day. Only a small percentage of them remain in circulation long enough for the dancers to know them well or to ask for them by name.

The following table summarizes the primary changes in contra dance choreography over the past several decades.

Table 2. Changes in Contra Dance Choreography


1. The triple formation and the proper formation are used less frequently.
2. The improper formation and the Becket formation are most commonly used.


1. There is less distinction between the roles of the active and inactive couples.
2. Terminology has been altered to reflect this change.


1. The use of the "swing" has increased.
2. Fractional figures are common.
3. Figures danced on the diagonal are being used.
4. Borrowed and invented figures have been added to the repertoire.
5. "No hands" figures have become more popular.
6. Strongly connected figures are used to facilitate good flow.
7. The use of figures requiring unequal roles has declined.


1. The sequence "down the center and back" and "cast off" has declined in use.
2. Figures that cross the set and return are now used more often in their half form.
3. Transitions are designed to build momentum for vigorous dancing.


1. Sequences are more complex.
2. Figures of shorter duration are common.
3. Dance movements are faster and use closer timing.


1. Dances have been composed that progress the dancers more than one place in a single round of the dance.
2. Both single and multiple progression dances may require dancers to dance outside their minor set of two couples.
3. More complicated choreography has resulted in more complex adjustments that must be made at the ends of the set.


There are many more dances in circulation now.


In the course of this chapter we have noted some general trends that accompany the choreographic changes in contra dance. Let us recapitulate these trends as we draw this chapter to a close.

Contra dance choreography has reached a stage of development in which there is an interest in trying out all the possibilities inherent in the form. This desire is reflected in the use of the more flexible improper formation and the newer Becket formation; in the use of fractional and diagonal figures; in the borrowing and inventing of figures that were not formerly included in contra dances; and in the composing of multiple progression dances, which move the dancers up and down the set more quickly.

We have seen that dances with equal activity for everyone have come to be preferred, both to avoid problems with long dance lines, and to provide more physical activity for the dancers. In response to this trend, dance figures have been changed, added, or dropped in order to make symmetrical choreography work. Figures that are only for the active couples have lost favor, and fractional circles that place couples on the sides of the set have been added. This trend has contributed to the popularity of the improper formation and the dwindling use of the proper formation and the triple formation.

A third trend has been the preference of today's dancers for dances that are physically challenging. This preference has led to dances that are faster and more complex, and that have the smooth flow necessary to support this greater speed and complexity: "Swings" are more popular now because they are vigorous; the "circle left" flows easily both into and out of a "swing"; and "allemandes" make rapid changes of direction possible. Consequently these figures are used more frequently, while the less connected figures such as the "right and left through" are used less often, because they tend to slow down the action. As choreographers seek the smooth flow required for physically challenging dances, there has been a change of emphasis from the figures themselves to how these figures are put together—the transitions between the figures.

Finally, there seems to be a greater need today for the stimulation of new material, which provides a market for a constant flow of new choreography and experimentation on the dance floor. New contra dances continue to spread across the country, carried by traveling callers or traded at dance camps, and as a result there is a continual turnover of the repertoire at many community dances.