What is Contra Dancing?
Contra is danced to Celtic, Quebecois, Old Time, New England, Southern Appalachian, Jazz, Blues, and all sorts of other music played by live bands, either from Atlanta or elsewhere. In a contra dance, parallel lines of dancers begin the dance by standing opposite -- or "contra to" -- their partners. A dancer and their partner form a Couple, two adjacent couples form a Set or "Hands Four," and multiple sets form a Line.
There is no fancy footwork involved in Contra dancing (that is the other sort of line dancing) but, in each dance, the instructions given by a Caller do form a series of repeating figures that dancers eventually memorize. As this happens, the Caller provides fewer and fewer prompts until they drop out entirely; leaving you, your partner, and the others in your Line to finish the dance, accompanied only by the exciting, lilting, haunting, and/or pulse pounding music provided by that night's band. Dance Nirvana, Contra style!
Worried About Being New At This?
Don't be. You are in good company -- we were ALL new to Contra at one time. Beginners are always welcome at ACD dances; prior experience is not expected. So grab your (smooth soled, slippery) dance shoes and come on over for your first -- or second, or seventieth -- dose of Dance Trance!
There is a Dance Basics Workshop on Fridays from 7:30-8:00pm at Decatur Recreation Center. New dancers are strongly encouraged to arrive for the workshop no later than 7:20pm (if you arrive late you will either miss some of the teaching or force the instructor and other students to accommodate for your late arrival). The workshop includes a teaching session for the basic figures and courtesies.
How To Be A Great Dancer
8 Basic Notes
- Dance Basics Workshops: Most dances around the country host a Dance Basics workshop before each dance. Attend them! If you are a new dancer, these workshops will help you get comfortable on the dance floor more quickly. Once you become an experienced dancer your attendance is still necessary ... if you serve as a partner and a cheerleader to new dancers they will catch on more rapidly.
- Clothing: There is no dress code and there is no such things as a contra dance "costume" (except on Saturday night of our annual Atlanta Dance Weekend in November). That said, dancing is a very active form of exercise so dressing to stay cool is highly recommended. As a result, most women choose to wear dresses or skirts and some men prefer to dance in kilts or long skirts as well. This is only because skirts are cooler and more comfortable than pants and twirling in them is more fun; it means nothing more than that.
- Shoes: Wear comfortable shoes with smooth soles that are designed to "slide." Don't wear tennis/gym/running shoes. We dance on a wood floor and rubber soles are intentionally designed to grab, not skid, on wood so trust the voices of experience... your ankles and knees will be much happier if you don't wear rubber soled shoes. Socks work well too.
- Partnering: Contra dancing is a group activity as well as a partner dance. Over the course of a dance, you will interact with everyone in the set including, but not limited to, your “partner,” your “neighbor,” and, in some dances, your “corner” and/or your “shadow” or “trail buddy.” So don't be concerned if you aren't bringing a partner to the dance. In fact, if you do bring a partner, and you both are newcomers, we strongly recommend that you split up and seek out experienced dancers, especially for the first few dances. Oodles of experience has taught us that new dancers get the hang of things much more quickly if they dance with experienced dancers instead of with other beginners. So if you come with another new dancer, don't be shy ... divide and conquer!
- Dance roles: When a couple who are dancing together are standing side by side, the dance role of the person on the Left is called the "Lark" (Lark=Left) in modern usage or the "Gent" in traditional usage and the dance role of the person standing on the right is called the "Robin" (Robin=Right) in modern usage or the "Lady" in traditional usage. NOTE: Even when the traditional terms (Gent / Lady) are used, those terms refer only to dance roles, not to gender or gender roles. Women can and do dance the Lark/Gent role and Men can and do dance the Robin/Lady role. As a result, each couple should decide between them, while lining up for the dance, who will dance Robin/Right/Lady and who will dance Lark/Left/Gent.
- Get Ready, Get Set...: As each Line forms before a dance begins, the first two couples in the Line (starting at the end where the Caller and Musicians are located -- aka "the Top of the Hall") join hands to create a "Hands Four." As soon as the first Hands Four has been created, the next two couple join hands in their own Hands Four, and then the next two couples, so on and so on. The sequential forming of Hands Four continues all the way to the other end of the line ("Bottom of the Hall"). Within each Hands Four, couple #1 (usually) begins the dance by facing down the hall with their back to the Caller, and couple #2 (usually) begins the dance by facing up the hall towards the Caller.
- ...Go!: Don't worry about not knowing the dances in advance. All dances are completely explained and "walked through" by that evening's Caller before they are danced. It is considered polite to listen quietly during the walk through, even if you are already familiar with the dance that is being taught.
- Making Mistakes: No matter how long they have been dancing, EVERYONE makes mistakes from time to time. This is so common that some dancers even refer to the times in which they turn the wrong way or forget what the next move is as "the mandatory space-out moment." So if you make a mistake or miss a figure, no worries! Relax, have a quick laugh, and remember: It’s only a dance!
9 Tips on Technique
- Glide, Don't Bounce: When you are dancing all alone, feel free to skip and hop with joy as much as you want. When you are swinging, circling, doing a right hand round, or any other dance move that involves physical contact with someone else, please seek to glide smoothly, as if you were dancing on roller skates while balancing a book on your head.
- Make eye contact: Make eye contact with everyone with whom you are executing any sort of figure, however briefly. This is considered to be a polite way of acknowledging the other person's presence as your momentary partner in the dance figure. As an extra added bonus making eye contact with the person you are circling reduces dizziness during sustained turns (swings, right shoulder 'rounds, allemandes). If eye contact makes you uneasy, look at the other person's ear, chin, forehead or anywhere but the floor or at the walls. Watching the walls or floor while spinning is absolutely guaranteed to make you dizzy.
- Give Weight: Picture the arm tension you use when helping a seated person stand up. In contra, this arm tension is called "weight" and "giving weight" provides the energy both people use in a swing, allemande, robins/ladies chain, circle four, petronella twirl, and any other contra dance move that involves touching hands with someone. When dancers who are touching hands keep arm tension, i.e. give weight to each other, it helps propel both of them through the figure. Conversely, when two people are touching hands and one of them is "noodle armed," both dancers will have to work extra hard to maintain their balance and energy. As a result, many experienced dancers consider noodle arms to be 'unfriendly.' Try not to be a noodle arm!!
- Feel the Music / Count the Beats: Contra dances are written to fit the music; listen for the downbeats and let your body flow with the rhythm of the dance. You can also count to 8 over and over in your head if that helps since each musical phrase is designed to take 8 beats. The biggest cue will always be the rhythm of the music but counting the 8 beats over and over, silently to yourself, can help you stay on phrase as you go from figure to figure and even experienced dancers do this from time to time.
- Swing Smoothly: Make certain that your own feet — not your partner's arms — are in charge of supporting your weight during a swing. Making your partner support most of your weight against the tug of centrifugal force during a swing puts you at risk for being dropped onto your posterior. And remember, glide, don't bounce, while you turn. Having to hang on to someone who is bouncing all over the place while turning in circles can be jarring -- not to mention tiring -- for their partner.
- Twirl Safely: "Twirling" is a popular embellishment and is most commonly a move that Larks/Left/Gents initiate for Robins/Right/Ladies. Leading a Robin into a twirl by (gently, smoothly) raising their right hand should be considered to be a suggestion only — it is the Robin's prerogative to follow the lead or override it. Note: When leading a Robin into a twirl don't grip their hand tightly (they should be able to release their hand from yours without having to tug) and never "crank" their arm. Cranking your partner's arm while it is over their head can cause serious injury to their shoulder (torn rotator cuff, frozen shoulder, surgery, extended time in a sling...). As a result, people who have had dance-related shoulder injuries in the past are prone to PTSD reactions when a partner so much as grips their hand too tightly or unexpectedly tries to abruptly or rapidly raise their arm. Don't do that.
- Better Never than Late: All dances are designed and timed so that each figure should work with the musical beat to flow seamlessly from one figure to the next. That means that if you get behind in the count -- and this does happen!! -- you should either shorten, simplify, or skip the current move entirely in order to be ready to start the next move in time and on beat. If you get terminally behind or lose your place entirely, simply wait for the next partner/neighbor swing and pick up from there!
- It's Not a Race: Just as it is better to be never than late, don't hurry so much that you get ahead of the count -- there are no points given for being the first one finished!
- Exit Gracefully: If you must drop out mid-dance, please try to hang on until you are out at the top or bottom of the Line. From there, you and your partner can usually leave the dance without disrupting anyone else in the set. If you MUST leave the dance before getting to the top or bottom of the Line, try to wait until you and your partner are dancing with your neighbor and their partner and then pull the other three people out of the line with you as you leave. The removal of an entire Hands Four will keep the overall set from being disrupted and the other couple can simply run down to the bottom of the line and get back into the dance.
10 Points of Etiquette
- Be sensitive to the safety of your fellow dancers:
- Never force a dancer to twirl by cranking their arm;
- Never jerk a partner's hand, arm or shoulder;
- Never apply excessive force;
- Never squeeze with a tight grip;
- Never push a dancer beyond their comfort level;
- Never "dip" your partner if you haven't both been trained to do so safely.
- Change partners after every dance, even if you arrive with your Sig O. That is expected and considered to be polite.
- When the caller is teaching, silence should prevail. Just because the people standing near you know how to do a move, or have memorized the dance, doesn't mean that everyone has. Do not hesitate to politely ask people who are talking to "shhhh" during walkthroughs and, for your own part, always pay attention, take "Hands Four" promptly, follow instructions, and be quietly patient while others learn.
- Everyone, even experienced dancers, can space out during a dance and turn the wrong way, forget the next move, or otherwise bring unintentional chaos to the set. If that happens to you or someone near you, don't be shy about offering or accepting (gentle, cheerful) help in getting things straightened out.
- Smiling and making eye contact with strangers are normal parts of the contra dance culture but predatory or intimidating behavior is NOT normal. If another dancer makes you feel uncomfortable or causes you any pain, please bring it to the attention of one of the dance organizers immediately so that they can take steps to keep the dance community safe and comfortable for all.
- A delicate reminder: Dancing generates heat and keeping dry can sometimes be a challenge. As a courtesy to all, consider packing a hand towel, fresh shirts, breath mints, and, if needed, antiperspirant. If you use cologne, please do so sparingly — a surprising number of people are sensitive to fragrances.
- Protect our (rented) floor and the feet of neighbors you may accidentally step upon. Wear shoes with clean, soft soles.
- Anyone may ask anyone else to dance. Women may ask men, women may ask women, men may ask men, and men may ask women. We have no clear policy on whether dogs may ask cats.
- Make plenty of eye contact, however briefly. Eye contact isn't just for the person you are swinging, it is considered to be polite to make eye contact with anyone you touch, however briefly, as a way of acknowledging that they are your compatriot in the dance, however fleetingly. For example, if the caller asks you to "balance the line," look at the person you are balancing towards and then shift your attention to look at the person on your other side, as you balance towards them. Similarly, it is polite to make brief eye contact with the person whose hand(s) you have just taken when beginning a four in line down the hall or a circle left/right.
- Always say thank you -- to organizers for organizing, to instructors for teaching, to callers for calling, to musicians for playing, to partners for dancing, to sound techs for sound, and to anyone and everyone else who made your evening a pleasant one.
(The "How to Be a Great Dancer" section is courtesy of Peter Baumgartner and Kimbi Hagen, ACD. Click here to download a condensed, pdf, version.)
Contra dance Instructional Videos
We have produced a series of great instructional videos that teach contra dancing. The YouTube versions are listed below: