My latest contra hypothesis:

A dancer at rest wants to remain at rest until acted upon by an external dancer.

Consider the following fragment after a partner swing:

B2 Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
   Hands-across star left 1

It’s got nice flow, simple moves, and low piece count. So in theory it should work great.

In practice, not so much. Women will often miss their entry into the star, realizing this too late, and thus confusion ensues. (Especially if they try and catch up by running around the outside of the star.) The problem is the (relatively) far away men’s allemande gives women no forced jump-start out of their status quo field.

Now consider this, also after a partner swing:

B2 Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
   Neighbor swing

Here, the women are actively swept into motion by the already-moving men — first by their approach, and then by physical contact. There’s no stationary women problem. (Aside — All these issues also apply to stationary men. I’m just trying to keep the examples consistent.)

An active dancer can act upon an inactive dancer at different levels of subtlety. Ranking some examples:

(Assists can come from unexpected places. In “A Dance for Dan,” men can assist their neighbor into the A1 allemande, because they’re already holding the correct hands from long lines.)

Other cases of inactivity inertia include the corner crossings from “Fun Dance for Marjorie,” entering the long waves of “Trip to Peterborough,” and the A1 of “Frederick Contra.” (Balances don’t seem to count as stationary. The dancers are still active, and there’s the expectation after every balance that they’ll immediately do something.)

So dances can still function, and sometimes well, even if they have this “problem.”  In “Broken Sixpence”, if the men do-si-don’t, nothing bad happens. “Snake River Reel” is easily recoverable. Even a more unforgiving sequence (like the men’s allemande/star left case) will still work.

It’ll just have more hidden complexity than you’d expect.



(I suspect English Country Dance choreography suffers from this issue a lot more than contra.)


Another belated update to my reviews page.

Heart of Glass

by Cary Ravitz

Yes, it has two swings, and a star promenade. And it’s one of my favorite closers.

Why? It’s all about the piece count.

“Piece count” is a rough measure of difficulty invented by Larry Jennings. (See “Zesty Contras”.) It’s the number of independent chunks to memorize for a dance. So “balance and swing” would be one piece. Piece count can also be thought of as the number of times a regular dancer needs to think “what is the next move”?

Assigning precise piece counts is partly an art. Not all pieces are equally hard to remember. And composite piece count could be fractional.

For instance, remembering that a star left follows a ladies chain is easier than remember a new neighbor do-si-do follows a ladies chain. (So the combination of ladies chain, star left might only have a piece count of 1.5.) Or to be more subtle, remembering that a ladies chain follows a long lines is easier than remembering a long lines follows a ladies chain. (Exercise at home: Which dances have ladies chain followed by long lines?)

Piece count at least relies on:

  • Physical expectations: How the actual momentum, facing, and hand-holds make the next move obvious.
  • Muscle memory expectations: How the dance’s adherence to the rest of the common contra dance choreography environment/norms makes the next move obvious.
  • Familiarity with the specific dance: The initial high piece count of ‘333‘ has lessened after having been danced over and over and over. Meanwhile, many of today’s dancers need to think more about the individual pieces of contra corners, as that figure has dropped in popularity. (Exceptions include everyone who’s about to comment saying “but I teach that regularly.”)

By any measure, “Heart of Glass” minimizes piece count excellently. The least-obvious transition is the swing/men’s allemande left. Even that one is too common, and men already have forward momentum and free left hand out of the swing. As for the rest? If there’s a star promenade, the obvious place is after the allemande. Star promenade always goes into a butterfly whirl, out of which the hey is very natural for all. The full hey fits the full phrase of music. And the resolve of balance and swing in the B2 after a hey is the expected thing. Starting a becket dance with a circle conforms to cliches, and the pass through is needed somewhere for progression.

So people don’t often need to think about what happens next. And can just dance.

What this means is the dance pretty much runs on autopilot, which is perfect for the brain-dead end. Yet to me it feels like it has more meat than “Midwest Folklore.”

The most common contra formation is the hands-four. There’s plenty of them — “improper,” “proper,” “reverse progression indecent Becket”. This essay is an attempt to catalog them all, and how to get from one to another.

Ground rules

A couple basics. For most of this post I’m considering the specific four spots on the floor where people take hands-four. I’m ignoring rotations smaller than 90 degrees, like the diamond formation, (see also Larry Jennings’ sawtooth formation), or skew translations.

I use “formation” to describe two different concepts. One is the position of the dancers at the beginning of a dance. Another is the position after every move, especially if it finishes on one of the four original spots. Discussion of other spots — like a wave of four, a diamond, a line of four — are saved for later.

When used as a general term, “Becket” means that you and your partner are on the same side of the set. Even if it’s a proper-like “Becket” where all the men are above the women.

Facing/orientation of dancers is irrelevant for this discussion.

The couple traveling down the set is always the ones, regardless of their orientation or position.

Hands fours are shown from the caller’s viewpoint on stage, so the top of the screen is the bottom of the hall.

“First diagonals” refer to first corner positions — when facing across, those on the right diagonal of a hands-four. In a regular improper set-up, they’d be the women. Then “second diagonals” would be the men. In this post, I use “corners” and “diagonals” interchangeably.

In an article this long, there’s bound to be typoes. Let me know if you suspect some.

Asides and digressions are colored in olive green.

Defining the problem

Here’s the standard improper formation:

 W2 M2
 M1 W1

Removing the labels give you four holes to fill with four unique objects (M1,W1,M2,W2):

 () ()
 () ()

Basic combinatorics tells you there are 24 (4*3*2*1) possible arrangements.

The most useful way to group these is by the identity of the person on your diagonal. In improper, this is your same-sex neighbor. In proper this is your opposite-sex neighbor. You could also have your partner on your diagonal. Once this is fixed pretty much everyone else falls into place, and you can only vary things by symmetries of rotations (improper to becket) or reflections (improper to indecent) around the central point.

The improperish formations family

Let’s start with your same-sex neighbor on the diagonal, and limit it to those where you’re across from your partner. (i.e. no Beckets yet.) Best-known is improper:

 W2 M2
 M1 W1

Applying the mirror transformation through the center of the set gives a formation best known as “indecent”, though it’s picked up other names as well:


Applying the mirror transformation across the set gives the ones below the twos:

 M1 W1
 W2 M2

(Dashed lines are just showing where the mirror is, relative to the original improper formation.)

I call this “Progressed improper.” You get there from improper after a neighbor balance and swing. It’s used in a handful of dances, especially by Rick Mohr, like “Leave the Wine” and “The Grass Valley Glide.”

And finally, you can apply both these transformations to the base improper, and get “progressed indecent.”:

 W1 M1
 M2 W2

(Digression: You could number the progressed indecent couples differently by defining the top couple as ones, and the bottom couple twos. Now couples are improper, but progressing backwards. You’ve got “Galena.”

One of the side stories of this analysis is that “progressed indecent” is just reverse-progression improper. You can permute this stuff, so indecent is also reverse progressed improper, and any other confusing grouping you care to use.)

So these four formations, labelled the A-group (Across from partner) are

Improper  |   Indecent  |  Prog Impr  | Prog Indecent
 W2 M2    |    M2 W2    |    M1 W1    |    W1 M1
 M1 W1    |    W1 M1    |    W2 M2    |    M2 W2

Rotating them 90 degrees gives the B-group (Becket), the other four formations with a same-sex neighbor on your diagonal:

           |  Indecent   |  Indecent   |
Becket-cw  |  Becket-cw  | Becket-ccw  | Becket-ccw
  M1 W2    |    W1 M2    |    W2 M1    |    M2 W1
  W1 M2    |    M1 W2    |    M2 W1    |    W2 M1

(I’m using italics to represent the B-group. This will matter later.)

(cw and ccw are clockwise and counterclockwise, representing the direction of progression.)

Most modern contra dances have only symmetrical moves. Getting from one of these formations to another is easy, either by rotating the set (a rotational transformation), or a symmetric changing of pair(s) of dancers (a reflection transformation).

Summarizing all the possible transformations:

Improperish formations family

The small number in the upper left-hand corner of each formation box is merely a convenient label.

Here’s tracking “The Baby Rose” by David Kaynor:

(Balances, do-si-do, and star left 1 don’t change positions of anyone.)

  • It starts in Box 1, improper.
  • The neighbor swing trades places with your neighbor on the side. Five steps clockwise gives Box 6, progressed improper.
  • The circle left 3/4 moves you six steps counterclockwise to Box 8.
  • The partner swing trades places with your neighbor on the side, five steps counterclockwise to Box 3, Becket cw.
  • Ladies chain has the second diagonals trade, three steps clockwise to Box 6.
  • The progression, or redefinition of hands-four moves you five steps counterclockwise back to Box 1.

Digressions: There’s one more transformation — redefinition of hands fours, or progression. This is equivalent to trading with the person on the side. As M1, you just need to assume that M2  and W2 can represent any number of potential neighbors, and W1 is either a partner or a shadow. Redefining hands fours in Becket formation takes you from a hands-four with your partner to a hands-four with your shadow.

Also, be careful with these transformations — they are not commutative — the order you apply them in matters. For instance, “circle left 3/4, then trade places with person on side of set” gives a different result from “trade places with person on side of set, then circle left 3/4.”

Four of these formations are special, and show up at some point in just about every modern contra dance. All swing partner on the side results in Becket-cw or becket-ccw. All swing neighbor on side yields indecent or progressed improper.

The proper formations family

So far we’ve avoided the proper formations, where your opposite-sex neighbor is on your diagonal. There’s eight, with similar transformations between them. Once again, there’s an (A)cross and a (B)ecket group.

Proper formations and their relationships

But how do these relate to the improperish family?

Improper  |   Proper
 W2 M2    |    W2 M2
 M1 W1    |    W1 M1

You can’t get between the two of these by any rotation or reflection around a central point of symmetry. Instead you have to use an asymmetric move, like ones half figure-eight. More on this in a bit.

Diagonal formations

The final eight formations have your partner on the diagonal, so I am call them the diagonal family. No dance starts here, and it’s rare to even visit.

DIagonal formations and their relationships

Even though there’s no Beckets, there still is an A-group and a B-group. This will only be relevant when discussing transformations between families.

Other family members

There’s more formations than just  the four corners of a square. People can be in a line of four, a star promenade, a diamond, a wave of four, and probably much more. While I can’t group these by the above individual formations, I can classify them into a general family. (Improperish, Properish, or Diagonal.)

The trick is to apply a rotationally symmetric transformation around the center of the hands-four, until you can make a match.

  • In the case of a diamond, this is just a 45 degree rotation.
  • In the case of a wave of four, this is two equal rotations in the same direction (both clockwise, for instance) around two points symmetrically arranged around the center of the hands-four. In a standard wave of four (improper formation, and do-si-do to a wave), those two rotation points are the neighbor right-hand connection. If you rotate each pair of dancers 90 degrees clockwise, you find out you’ve got something in the improper family.
  • The same thing applies to a line of four, but yields some unexpected results. (A line of four is the same as a wave of four, as dancer facing is irrelevant.) Take the line of four at the beginning of “Scout House Reel.” In this case, the two rotation points are the hand connection with your neighbor. Rotate each pair of dancers 90 degrees clockwise, and you’ll find you’re in the diagonal family. (“String of Swings” uses this exact trick, as I describe in more detail later.)

Transforms between families

Going from one of these three families to another requires an asymmetric transformation. From a given formation in one family (say, Becket-cw), there are eight transformations to the formations in another family.

  • Two involve a non-diagonal pair of dancers trading places. For instance, ones half-figure eight.
  • Four involve three dancers circling left or right one position, while the fourth dancer stays put. Circles of three are the equivalent of two half-figure eights, one perpendicular to the other.
  • The final two involve a transformation equivalent to a quarter double-figure-eight across or along the set. (Not quite as exotic as it sounds. One example is face down-the-hall, go down the hall, centers turn as couples while ends turn alone, bend the line. See “The Double Rainbow.”) (This is the equivalent of two transformations — one asymmetric non-diagonal pair of dancers trade places, and then everyone symmetrically trades places with the person in the perpendicular direction.)

The specifics of the transformations between families get complex. I’m leaving out the circles of three, as they’re not practical within the modern contra dance aesthetic.

To truly see the transitions, you need to break the (I)mproperish and (P)roperish families into sub-families of becket (B), and across from partner (A). In the case of the (D)iagonal family, you and your partner are never on the side of the set, though there still are the arbitrary-labelled A and B sub-families.

The necessary pair of dancers to swap is the pair that’s not on a diagonal in either formation.


The arrows represent half-figure eight/quarter double-figure eight transformations. For instance, to swap from proper becket to improper becket, either the ones must trade places with their partner, or the twos must trade places with their partner.

Circles of three represent the missing transformations, like going from Improper-A to Proper-B.


The Diagonal Dilemma

(by Gene Hubert)

One of the first dances to intentionally try to get dancers in diagonal formation, as clearly indicated by the name. It starts proper.

  • The A1 down-the-hall action swaps a same-sex neighbor pair to get into diagonal formation
  • The A2 has a circle left and ones swing that keeps things in the diagonal family
  • Then there’s the neighbor swing. There are an unequal number of rotations. (M1and W2 will swing N & 3/4 around, while W1 and M2 will swing N & 1/4 around until facing across. N is an arbitrary integer.) As far as families are concerned, this is equivalent to one opposite-sex neighbor pair turning 1/2 while the other doesn’t turn at all.  This brings us back to the improperish family for the start of the B2.
  • And in the B2, the one gypsy 1 & 1/2 swaps a partner pair to get back into progressed proper formation. Redefining hands fours returns things to proper, with new neighbors.

The neighbor swing here brings up a major point — an unequal interaction between one pair and another pair is the more general case of one pair trading places and the other pair doing nothing. To go from improper to proper, the ones could two-hand turn 1 & 1/2 while the twos two-hand turn just 1.

There’s a detail in the down-the-hall that I’ve swept under the rug, with two factors that cancel out. But first, let’s look at the next dance.

String of Swings

(by Rick Mohr and Bob Isaacs)

If you look at the hey passes (NL,2R,SSNL,1R,Nl,2R,SSNL,1R) (SSNL = Same-sex-neighbor left), you’ll see partner pairs are always meeting in the center, a sure sign of the diagonal family. They get there through an asymmetric opposite-sex neighbor interaction, just like the unequal neighbor swing rotations of “The Diagonal Dilemma.”

To do this, the ones merely step between the twos.

This is the equivalent of man one and woman two allemanding left 1/4, while woman one and man two allemande right 1/4. The net difference is equivalent to one opposite-sex neighbor pair swapping. Now the dancers are in the diagonal family.

In most dances, like “Scout House Reel“, there is a bend-the-line move following the down-the-hall, which is again the equivalent of one opposite-sex neighbor pair swapping, bringing things back into the improperish family. But not in “String of Swings.” Here, people just turn to face their neighbor, and keep using rotationally symmetric moves. They stay in diagonal formation throughout the hey, the allemande, and the twos swinging.

The neighbor swing resolves things back into the improperish family with unequal-rotation neighbor swings. Where it stays until the ones step between new neighbors.

With most  down-the-hall dances, the asymmetric entry into the line of four is cancelled out by the asymmetric bend-the-line. But if there’s no bend-the-line, watch out.

The Diagonal Dilemma, revisited

Now we can tell the full “Diagonal Dilemma” story:

  • The A1 starts proper.
  • Forming the line of four puts things in diagonal family
  • The same-sex neighbor swap at the bottom of the hall actually resets things back to proper family
  • Bending the line puts things back into diagonal family
  • The neighbor swing returns it to the improperish family
  • And the ones gypsy puts things back into proper

Equal Opportunity” by Jeff Spero is left as an exercise for the reader.

Andes Anomaly

(Cary Ravitz)

This is a very complex dance. But for looking at families, it’s simple.

Most of the interaction (stars, rory slides, balances) is done with the person on your diagonal. If done without the A1 rollaway, this would be your same-sex neighbor. With the rollaway of just one partner-pair, things are now in diagonal properish formation, and it becomes your opposite-sex neighbor. The dance stays in that family through a series of complex maneuvers. It only gets resolved back to the improperish family with the final partner swing, with unequal swing rotations for the ones and the twos.

Cary Ravitz has since explored the diagonal formation deliberately, presumably when submitting for the “Greenfield Formation” contest.

An Other, Whirled

(by me, written based on all of the above)

I wanted to write a same-sex star promenade dance. That meant I couldn’t lead into the figure with the standard same-gender allemande in the middle. My choices were either a partnership (the ones) allemanding, or the first corners. I went with the ones allemanding, assuming it’d be easier for them to self-identify.

So I needed diagonal formation. The quickest way to get an opposite-sex neighbor pair to swap was with a long lines, selective neighbor roll away.

Then I needed a resolution to get out of diagonal formation. The easiest unequal opposite-sex neighbor interaction was a neighbor swing. So I had to pack in two swings, making the rest of the dance choreography very tight.

Had I gone with first corners doing the allemande, I could have just gotten into the proper-Becket family, and gotten out with a partner swing, skipping the neighbor swing and allowing for more fun stuff out of the star-promenade, like a hey.

Hull’s Victory


It starts proper. Then things get odd.

There’s an asymmetric partner-pair exchange, as the ones allemande right halfway. Simultaneously the twos shift up until they’re outside the ones to form the wave of four. This is an asymmetric opposite-sex neighbor interaction. (More technically an asymmetric interaction with the place where the opposite-sex neighbor will be.) These two transformations resolve to the diagonal family.

Most of the B1 is ones lead down, turn-as-a-couple and come back until between the twos. This changes formation groups from diagonal-B to diagonal-A, so their same-sex neighbor is on the side. (They are now directly between their neighbors, facing up.) This lets them interact asymmetrically with their same-sex neighbor during the cast, returning things to the properish family.

The Women’s Wall

(Al Olson)

Contra corners is a quirky figure, a triple minor figure shoehorned into a duple-minor set. It has a different symmetry. In most figures, the center of rotational symmetry is the middle of a hands-four. In contra corners, the center of rotational symmetry is directly between the ones. (There’s another directly between the twos.)

The dance starts proper, and at the end of the A1 is progressed proper. The contra corners, plus turning the second contra corner enough, has the ones on the sidelines, facing their first contra corner. This means the ones have swapped places, putting things in the improperish family. (Progressed improper.)

Then things almost get weird. All the men are facing down, and the women are facing up, looking for a neighbor to swing. If the swing finished faced across, this would be an unequal rotation between neighbor swings, putting things in the diagonal family. Except that Al Olson makes them have an equal rotation by all facing the “women’s wall”, so things stay progressed improper.

The final move that changes formation is the ones swing, and end facing up, which returns the formation to progressed proper.


(by Jim Kitch)

The first half of this dance is unremarkable. After the second circle, things are:

W1 M2
M1 W2

After the small shift left, you have

M1 M2

(WS stands for a shadow woman)

Two things have happened here: the shift left half a position, and redefinition of hands-four. Combined, those are the equivalent of swapping the ones, putting things back in the properish family. (Here we’re treating woman one as equivalent to her shadow.)

(Note we have to start with the improperish-B family to get to the properish-B family, with everyone across from a same-sex neighbor.)

The resetting of hands four is very unusual in this dance. In most dances, resetting of hands-fours keeps two dancers together from the original hands four. The tiny shift left keeps three dancers together from the original hands-four. Normal transformation rules no longer apply.

The end of the dance resolves with a partner swing, returning things to the improperish family.

(I’m not completely satisfied with the above explanation. I may revisit this.)


(Ted Sannella)

The dance starts improper. Then the ones do something while the twos stand still, putting things in the diagonal family, which seems to violate my entire analysis system.

The catch is my rules above only apply when couples are trading places by a 180 degree rotation between themselves, or one couple is rotating 180 degrees relative to the other couple. But all bets can be off in exotic asymmetric moves. Like the first move of Fiddleheads.

Sometimes we can break it down.

Fiddleheads starts improper.

 W2  M2
 M1  W1

After the ones cross, it’s proper.

 W2  M2
 W1  M1

Then the ones individually go around one, and step into the middle to form a diamond. To make things clearer to see, I’m rotating this diamond to the left 1/8.

 W2  M1
 WS  M2

First, WS stands for woman one’s shadow. As far as families are considered, a person can just as well be represented by their same-sex shadow. So the net effect of the first move of the A1 is to change the position of M1 and M2. This is an asymmetric same-sex neighbor swap, putting things in diagonal family.

There’s something else weird going on here. M2 moved from being next to his partner to being diagonal from his partner, without either physically moving. This happens from redefining the square of the hands-four. The twos start on the sideline of a square, and end up on the diagonal of a new, smaller diamond. This is only half the area of the original square, but in a dance situation it doesn’t matter, because dancers will (hopefully) naturally expand or contract the hands-four to the needs of the dance. And the next need is a ring balance.

After the petronella turns and the redefining of hands fours, however, you have a truly odd formation:

 M2  W2

The resolution cannot be neatly explained in terms of pairs of dancers swapping. The ones swing is the equivalent of ones allemande left 1/4, and face down. This happens to put things in proper formation, but when you go off the charts and work outside of 180 degree pair swappings, things can get a lot more interesting, and a lot less predictable.

The remaining analysis of the dance is straightforward.

That’s enough about duple minors for now. At some point I may revisit symmetries. But hopefully some of this was comprehensible, and will let you better understand how to cope with — and use — these odd set-ups.

First off-topic post — squares. But far from the last.

One of many projects that I’ve been working all-too-slowly on is helping with the reconstruction of the 1988 Ralph Page Legacy Weekend syllabus. Tapes of many of the sessions have been discovered — I’ve been transcribing some, and filling in gaps for the untranscribed. One of the most interesting dances, which probably won’t be put in verbatim in the final syllabus, is Ted Sannella’s interpretation of Ninepins.

Ninepins is a fairly stock traditional dance, a square with a fifth man in the middle, where there’s a bit of partner changing and silliness. But take a gander at where Ted takes the concept:

The Walkthrough

“Okay, keep your sets please. And could (we) have an extra man in the middle of every square? .. Extra man in the middle of every square. Ralph Page loved to do a Ninepin, and that’s what we’re going to do now.”

“Okay, now do we have any set without an extra man in the middle? Every set has five gentlemen and four ladies — okay? Well. What a situation. We have five gentlemen vying for the attention for four ladies. What could be better, ladies? The object of this, in case you’ve never danced a Ninepin before — it’s sort of halfway between a dance and a game — is to get a partner, ladies, and hold him as long as you can, and stay within the figures that are called. And gentlemen, you try to avoid being in the center. You try and avoid being in the center.”

“Now, for instance, let’s just do a for instance. Allemande left your corner …. right to your partner, grand right and left. Get in there, ninepin. Give your hand to somebody and get into the grand right and left. Keep going, keep going, keep going, Swing! Promenade, promenade to the ladies place. To the ladies place. And if you’re slow, you probably are the new ninepin. Either you’re slow or you’re unlucky. Okay. Great. Okay.”

“Let’s go back to original places and give everybody equal share. (Unintelligible.) Let’s get the original ninepin in the middle. As Ralph used to say, ‘Most anything is fair in this dance.’ Be polite, but don’t be non-aggressive. That’s not a contradiction. Okay.”

“And the promenade will always be to the lady’s place. The promenade will always be to the lady’s place. Ralph always said that you can always tell during his dance who the married people were. They didn’t have any trouble getting partners.”

“Square your sets. The dance itself is sort of made up as I go along.”

The Calls

" - Bow to your partner. - Bow to your corner.
Bow to the ninepin, all the way around - - - -
First lady swing the ninepin - - - -
- - - - Second lady swing the ninepin
- - - - Third lady swing the ninepin
- - - - Fourth lady swing the ninepin
- - - - - Keep swinging -
- - - and everybody promenade - -

How about that? Did we get a new ninepin already? - - - -
- - - - To the lady's place. Heads go forward
and back - - Side ladies forward and back
- - - - - head ladies chain
Go ahead ninepin, grab one of them - -  chain 'em back
- - - - - side ladies chain
- - - - - chain 'em back, don't let them get away
- - - - swing your corner - -

- - - - Next corner allemande left
- - - promenade.. that person - -
- - - - - to the lady's place -
- - - - head couples forward and back
Side couples forward and back. Head couples right and left through
Sides right and left through. Heads right and left through
Side couples right and left through. - - Head ladies chain.
- - Side ladies chain - - Head ladies chain

Side ladies chain - - Heads go forward and back
- - - - Swing your corner - -
- - - - Swing your next corner -
- - - - Promenade - -
- - Ninepin to the middle this time - - -
- - - - Allemande left on the corner
And right to your own. Grand right and left, everybody,Everybody go round the land.
Keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going

Keep going ... Swing! Swing! Swing! Swing! - -
- - - - Promenade, now promenade all.
- - - - - - - -
- - - - - - Ladies to the center and back
- - - - - - Gents to the center and back
- - Ladies to the center and circle around the ninepin
- - - - - - - -
And the other way back, the other way back - Swing! Swing! -

- - - - - - - -
- - - - Promenade - Promenade all
- - - - - - - -
- - - - - Gents to the center and back
- - - - - Ladies to the center and back
- - - - Gents to the center and circle
five, circle five to the left - - and the other way
back, the other way back. - - Swing! Swing! -

- - - - - - - -
- - - And take your corner, promenade your corner
- - - - - - - -
- - - - Allemande left your corner
And a right to your own, grand right and left - - - -
- - - Swing - - - -
- - - - Now swing your corner - -
- - - - Next corner allemande left

Go once and a half around, swing the next corner. - -
- - - - - -  Swing the opposite
lady across from you - - - - -
- - And promenade your corner - -
- - - - - - - -
- - - - - Now ladies to the center
- - and back. And gents to the center with a right-hand star.
Five hands right-hand star, - - and a left hands back.

- - Keep the star, pick up a lady with an arm around
- - - - - - - -
- - Now the inside out and the outside in, reverse that star
- - - - - - - -
And the inside out and the outside in, the other way back - -
- - - - And the ladies roll back one
- - - - Keep the star going - -
- - - - And the ladies roll back two

- - - - - - - -
- - - - Now the gents back out with a double turn
Go two and a half times - - - - -
- - The ladies are in, the ladies are in - -
- - - - - - - And the ladies back out
We've got a double turn, go twice and a half - - - -
- - - - - - - -
And the ladies roll back once - - - - -

Now swing that lady behind you - - - -
- - - - Promenade, promenade all
to the ladies place - - - - - -
- - - - All join hands and circle around
the ninepin - - - Get closer, closer, closer, -
closer, closer, closer - Swing! Swing! Swing!
- - - - - - - -
- - And promenade your corner - - -

- - - - - - - -
- - - - Allemande left your corner -
Allemande right with your partner - Allemande left on the corner
- Right to your partner, grand right and left around the ring.
- - - - - - Keep going, -
keep going - - Keep going, - - keep going -
Keep going - , swing the next - - - -
- - - - - - and promenade

Promenade, around you go, promenade and don't be slow
- - - - All join hands, go into the middle
- - - - - - And one more time
- - - - And swing your partner, swing with your own
- - And somebody swing the ninepin also! - -
- - - - And promenade. Now you know where
and I don't care - - - - - -
And take that lady off the floor and thank him too."

There’s the regular formations, the unusual formations (4-face-4, Sicilian circle), the bizarre formations (zia, 3-face-3, tempest), and then the truly unique. Over time I’d like to look at some of the last category, and see what they reveal.

The first example is fairly normal. It’s “La Plongeuse.” For a description of the dance, see the 2007 RPDLW syllabus, page 9. (I first encountered it at this weekend.) For a video, see here and here.

First off, it’s a great dance for advanced barn/ONS dances. I’d recommend not making the sets too long, as more than 15 couples can create significant down time.

Second, it’s unphrased. The length of the various figures depends on the length of the line.

The formation is longways set, as in Galopede or the Virginia Reel. In a duple minor contra dance, there is a major set (the entire line), and minor sets (hands fours). In a longways set, there is only a major set. In a major set you can do something with only your partner, something with the entire set (circle, or forward and back), or a figure with specified couples. (Typically it’s the ones doing something, like sashay down and back, or reel the set.) Progression typically involves the top couple going to the bottom somehow.

Neighbor interactions in this format are hard. If there are neighbor interactions, they’re always the same neighbors (see Blobs or Polka Contry) This is because the progression (ones to bottom) gives a cyclic sequence, where the same neighbors are always above and below you:

(Numbers are couples in a longways major set, left-hand side being top of the set. One number represents two people.)

1st time: 123456789
2nd time: 234567891
3rd time: 345678912
4th time: 456789123
5th time: 567891234
6th time: 678912345

and so forth.

This is as opposed to a longways duple minor set, where there’s interweaving of neighbors as half the couples progress in each direction:

1st time: 123456789
2nd time: 214365879
3rd time: 241638597
4th time: 426183957
5th time: 462819375
6th time: 648291735

What I want to look at first in La Plongeuse is the dip-and-dive section. It can be thought of as a whole-set-figure, ending where it starts. Or it can be broken down piecewise:

(Couple number is their current position in the set, not their original.)

Top group of four: Top couple arches, other couple dives
Almost top group of four, with one couple out at top: 
         Bottom couple arches, other couple dives
Top two groups of four: Top couple arches, other couple dives
Almost top two groups of four, with one couple out at top: 
         Bottom couple arches, other couple dives
Top three groups of four: Top couple arches, other couple dives
Almost top three groups of four, with one couple out at top: 
         Bottom couple arches, other couple dives
Top four groups of four: Top couple arches, other couple dives
Almost top four groups of four, with one couple out at top: 
         Bottom couple arches, other couple dives

This is almost a duple minor version of the following simple double-progression contra:

(2) Ones arch, twos dive
(2) With N2, twos arch, ones dive

with the twist that it’s only started by the top couple. As the top couple progresses down the set, the dance snowballs as couples get tagged in. And when the top couple returns to place, the other couples still have to finish the dance to their places.

Similarly the pousette section is a snowball form of this alternating contra:

(4) Partner pousette clockwise 1/2 around N1
(4) Partner pousette counterclockwise 1/2 around N2

( This snowball concept is very traditional. Dudley Laufman sometimes advocates this way of teaching a contra. Only the very top couple need know the sequence, and others will get in when they reach them. And back in the 1800’s, you read about longways sets only started by the top couple, where the top couple chooses the figures for that particular dance.)

Depending on how you count the pieces, you could call the cast and lead as a very short contra of ones down the outside, twos lead up the center. Or you could call it a whole-set figure. At this point it’s a matter of perspective, like breaking a hey into a series of shoulder passes.

So what you’ve got a dance that has it both ways. It has a chance to do major-set figures, while simultaneously adding in a duple minor aesthetic, letting you mix with all the neighbors. The boundary between longways and duple minor is thinner than I once thought.

Downtime is roughly equal to the number of couples times the length of a single progression.  For the dip and dive, that’s roughly one second per couple. For a full-length contra, that could be many minutes. Obviously short sequences are preferred for modern crowds.

Even with that down-time, it’s a very neat concept to apply to barn dances and family dances.  There are probably more examples that I’ve missed right under my nose.

This concept even appears in 1651, like the first part of Nonesuch. (Video.) There it feels like a proto-progression, with the kinks still being felt out. So this hybrid sort of dance is something old, nothing new.

But they never had a chance to write a blog post about it.

Back when I was first building my site, I was looking for some quick and dirty content beyond the generic dump of new contra dances. Not many people discussed contra dances written by others. Which led me to create my reviews page:

I’ve since wantonly neglected these pages. It’s time to add some fresh material, which I’ll preview here. But first, an apology and amends. When I did “Nice Combination“, I just wrote “One could argue that this dance needs no review. And I will, at least till I have time to expand upon this entry. Stay tuned.” It’s been over five years of broken promises. It’s well past time to fix that.

The Nice Combination

by Gene Hubert

This is one of the most commonly called contra dances, with good reason.  Each figure makes natural sense from the previous one, without glitches or flaws. Good flow is its middle name. (And first, and last.)


  • The A1 balance is right hand to right, requiring a quick hand change to enter the swing.
  • The swings must be different speeds. Man one and woman two need to rotate another 180 degrees more or less than the other couple, so all can face down.
  • The down-the-hall timing. Four beats to turn as a couple in the first half of the A2 and only two beats to bend the line in the second half of the A2 should mean the whole set drifts up the hall and crashes into the band.
  • In the bend the line to circle left, man one and woman two have to shift from counterclockwise to clockwise flow. (MWSD callers view this as terrible choreography.)
  • Coming out of the partner swing, women are moving backwards. They need to go forwards for the ladies chain.
  • After the star, men are facing the wrong way to find their new neighbor.

Yet the dancers seem to ignore all that. *[1] Why?

Thanks to constant exposure to these specific transition challenges, we’ve learned how to tweak and smooth them out. The contra community has adjusted to make this choreography work, with small momentum/body positions shifts and anticipations. For many, these have become instinctive, like the men assisting the women forward into the chain.

Consider the following B2 from “Sweet Music“:

B2 Right and left through
   Men roll away partner
   Star right 3/4

This has major hand change issues from courtesy turn to roll to star right. And the timing’s fuzzy. But in a community regularly exposed to this fragment, they would learn to adjust.

This only works with sequences that are done regularly. And some sequences are easier to work through than others. *[2]The Nice Combination” is only a nice combination because we say it is.

[1] Not exactly. Try calling it and watching the brand-new male dancers, and seeing which way they face out of the B2 star.

[2] For instance, swing one neighbor on the side, then next neighbor allemande left. If the swing ends early and the women do an assisted free clockwise spin out of the swing, it can work. But that’s a lot of adjusting for a dance that could just be rewritten.

Repeated dances fascinate me. These are two almost-identical half dance fragments duct-taped together, with only the slightest variant between them to progress. Canonical examples are “Hay in the Barn” and “Midwest Folklore.”  They all take the form of:

A1/A2: Set of figures, swing one person
B1/B2: Same set of figures, swing the other person

The set of figures must swap the couple pairs on the side of the set, between partner and neighbor. In other words, their net effect must either be:

The fragment must be open to a progression ambiguity, in order to get to new neighbors. In other words, it needs to be tweakable so that a figure could be done with either old or new neighbors. But the fragment must also have a non-progression version, so you don’t create a contra mixer.

In the case of “Hay in the Barn,” that ambiguity comes immediately before the swing, out of the hey. In the case of “Midwest Folklore,” that ambiguity comes immediately after the swing, by a figure that could be done either across, or on the left diagonal.

It’s best that the progression ambiguity doesn’t come in the middle of the set of figures, but rather falls on a phrase boundary. The problem is interference. Each figure should only lead into one specific figure. (Exception: Swings.) If not, that makes it a bigger challenge for dancers to remember.

With the repeated half dances, by putting the transition boundary at the top of the tune, you work with the dancers’ expectations. They’ve already been trained to the default of looking for new neighbors at the beginning of every sequence. (Yes, there’s many dances that progress elsewhens. But these are typically more complex and done less often.) All this helps sweep the interference issue partly under the rug.

Now, for some examples of how easy it is to create them.

Here’s a simple 32-beat fragment, where someone crosses the set:

A1 Long lines forward and back
   Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
A2 Swing someone

All I need is the progression. One easy option is swapping the long lines with a slice:


A1 Slice left
   Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
A2 Neighbor swing
B1 Long lines
   Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
B2 Partner swing

But that’s not the only choice. After a neighbor swing, you could either keep your original hands four, or define new hands four depending on which men allemande:


A1 Long lines
   (new) men allemande left 1 & 1/2
A2 Partner swing
B1 Long lines
   Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
B2 Neighbor swing.

The ending point of the B1 allemande could also be tweaked, yielding a third dance:


A1 Neighbor swing
A2 Long lines
   Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
B1 Partner swing
B2 Long lines
   Men allemande left 1 & 1/2, look for next

All three are viable. I’d lean against the first, as the two half dances are more different. (Slice vs. long lines.) This may just be an aesthetic question.

But it’s not enough that you can write the dance. Is it worth dancing?

The first problem is it’s a boring fragment. We could spice it up, at the cost of some but not all of the progression options.

A1 Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
   1/2 hey (PR,WL,NR,ML)
A2 Someone swing


A1 Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
   Someone star promenade 1/2, butterfly whirl
A2 Women allemande right 1
   Same someone swing

The fundamental problem is that this will be doubly rough on men’s left arms and hands. This is a weakness of double dances — they can easily be too much of one thing, whether that’s allemande strain or clockwise nausea. While it’s possible to create a dance out of two moves,


A1 Balance ring, petronella turn, balance ring, petronella turn
A2 Balance ring, petronella turn, partner swing
B1 Balance ring, petronella turn, balance ring, petronella turn
B2 Balance ring, petronella turn, next neighbor swing

I wouldn’t want to dance this one, outside of an April Fool’s medley. (Attentive readers will also note it doesn’t progress at the top of the tune.)

There’s still a lot of double dances could be written. For instance:

A1 Neighbor gypsy and swing
A2 Ladies chain, star left 1, women loop right
B1 Partner gypsy and swing
B2 Ladies chain, star left 1

A1 Slice left, ladies chain
A2 Balance ring, roll away partner, swing neighbor
B1 Long lines, ladies chain
B2 Balance ring, roll away neighbor, swing partner

A1 Neighbor gypsy and swing
A2 Promenade, pass through to a wave of four, swing through
B1 Partner gypsy and swing
B2 Promenade, pass through to a wave of four, swing through

A1 Neighbor balance and swing
A2 Right and left through, balance ring, petronella turn
B1 Partner balance and swing
B2 Right and left through, balance ring, petronella turn

Further examples are left as an exercise/challenge to the blog reader.

But what if the fragment has a non-removable progression?

For instance:


A1 Circle left 3/4 to wave of four, balance, walk forward
A2 N2 neighbor balance and swing
B1 Circle left 3/4 to wave of four, balance, stand around looking 
     baffled for four counts
B2 Partner balance and swing



A1 Circle left 3/4, balance ring, California twirl
A2 N2 balance and swing
B1 Circle left 3/4, balance ring, California twirl
B2 Oops, facing shadow.

These dances can be fixed by the “Manga Tak” rule:

  • If facing new neighbor swing them.
  • If facing shadow, don’t swing them, instead gypsy/allemande/do-si-do and return to your partner. Swing your partner.

And once again, put the progression at the top of the music.

A third type of dance is the semi-identical half dance fragments, where you take the same figure category and use it two different ways. Typically it’s having both genders do the same thing, as in “Kiss the Groom“, “Roll Away Sue”, “Mad Mad World“, “Renewal,” “Sarah’s Journey“,  or “Bevy of Butterflies.” In this case, usually one gender crosses the set  in one half dance, and in the other half dance the other gender crosses the set.

You need to have everyone to cross the set an even number of times, elsewise couples vibrate and don’t progress. To balance the books, a long lines in one fragment needs to be replaced with a half-hey/promenade/right and left through/similar thing. Usually in these dances every move is slightly different, so this also helps with interference issues.

It’s very easy to write a double dance — in fact it’s hard to find one you can’t. The difficult part is determining the ones you shouldn’t.

(All this is but a spring-board to the topic of putting together non-identical dance fragments, but that’s for another month.)

Crossing the Set

This is how you get from a neighbor swing to a partner swing, and back again.

This is also  a quick and dirty way to check choreography, to make sure things progress correctly and everyone keeps their partner.

In a rotationally symmetric contra (in other words, nothing proper), there are pairs on the side of the set where all the swinging happens. You are either on the same side of the set as your neighbor, or as your partner. (If you’re next to your shadow, you’re also on the same side of the set as your partner, just in a different hands four.)

To get to the other pairing, say to transition from a neighbor swing to a partner swing, one gender needs to cross the set.

For instance, take the original version of Marian’s Delight:

Marian's Delight
A1 Neighbor balance and swing
A2 Long lines
   Women do-si-do 1 & 1/2
B1 Partner gypsy and swing
B2 Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
   Neighbor promenade across

(Yes, the star promenade is a bit of folk process.)

And with the crossings labelled:

Marian's Delight
A1 Neighbor balance and swing
A2 Long lines

Nobody crosses the set

   Women do-si-do 1 & 1/2

Women cross the set to get to their partner

B1 Partner gypsy and swing
B2 Men allemande left 1 & 1/2

Men cross the set to get across from partner, ready for progression

   Neighbor promenade across

Everyone crosses the set to be progressed.

Sometimes you can talk about crossings for a set of figures, like a whole 16-beat section, or a string of moves connection to swings. In Marian’s Delight, the entire B2 has the women cross.

In a dance, both men must cross the set an even number of times, and women must cross the set an even number of times.

  • If one number is odd, and the other even, it’s a mixer.
  • If both are odd, couples vibrate, progressing back and forth between two hands fours.
  • If both are even, it’s not a guarantee the dance works, but it’s a good start

You need to be a little careful with some figures, like fractional circles and stars. With circle left 3/4, if done after a neighbor swing, it has the women cross. But if done from initial improper formation, it has the men cross.

I’m planning on sometimes getting technical on this blog, using concepts and words that some readers may not have encountered. Or I may have made them up out of thin air. I’m putting up short posts to link to, rather than explaining them for every post.


“Interference” is a very useful term that I learned from Bob Isaacs. It means having the same move appear in multiple different contexts.

One way that a dancer learns a dance is by the transitions — the flowchart of what follows each move. If you have a dance like:

A1 Neighbor balance and swing
A2 Ladies chain, 1/2 hey
B1 Partner balance and swing
B2 Ladies chain, right and left through

the ladies chain is a branch junction in the dance sequence. And sometimes memory will trick the dancers into heying when they should be doing a right and left through.

In the above example, they’ll still be in the same place. In other examples, like “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes“, they won’t. This is a complexity price that demands more mental attention from the dancers on the floor, and increases the number of breakdowns.

There are exceptions. There’s no way around the swing, if the dancers want both a neighbor and partner swing. And a figure in different contexts (neighbor allemande vs. partner allemande) helps matters.

Sequential repetitions of the same figure (like petronella turns, or circle/slide/circle) are also fine, as are repeated figures that lead to the same figure, like “Hay in the Barn”.

While this is not a hard and fast rule, avoiding interference is a way to remove unnecessary complexity from a dance.

It was one of those nights. I’m calling “Pearls of Wisdom” and I see the wrist-twisting allemandes of death straight down the line. I give a quick demo, tell them to talk to each other, and see no change in behavior, including the person I demoed it with. And at times like this I wonder, what if I just didn’t call dances with allemandes?

(Ralph Page did something similar. In Boston he got so sick of people balancing ‘the wrong way’ that he finally stopped calling dances without balances ever again at that venue. But in my case it’s merely an academic exercise. I’m not seriously planning on doing this.)

There’s some major choreographic hits here. Amongst the losers:

  • Contra corners.
  • Orbits.
  • Almost all star promenades.
  • Grand right and left, either in a contra line, or in a square preceded by allemande left.
  • Allemande to allemande to allemande transitions.
  • Hands-across stars to allemandes, or verse vica.
  • (Wo)men allemande 1 & 1/2, neighbor swing
  • Wave entries.

The final damage is heavy: 57% of my active repertoire would be lost. (65% of the circle mixers, and 80% of the wave dances.) But 43% of the repertoire still is a lot of dances to work with.

This all assumes the lost dances couldn’t be modified. That, of course, is a lie.

Take the biggest loss, for instance, the swing/men allemande left 1 & 1/2/swing combination. This one is already changing. At one time (early 1990’s??) it was

A2 Men allemande left 1/2 to wave of four
Balance wave of four
Neighbor swing

Nowadays, this is

A2 Men allemande left 1 & 1/2
Neighbor swing

And some present-day folk are changing this to

A2 Men pass right/pull by left
Neighbor swing

presumably to maximize swing time.

Making this change means I’d keep another 15% of my collection, up to 58%. That’s a much better number.

But wait, there’s more:

  • A loose allemande (say 1 & 1/4 in eight beats) changed to a gypsy.
  • Allemandes that trade places with an opposite-sex person replaced with box the gnats/swat the fleas, perhaps preceded by balances to fit the timing.
  • Wave entery with do-si-dos, circles, heys, or single-circle to a wave.
  • Direction changes in grand right and lefts on the side tweaked into swat the fleas and pull by. (See “333“.)
  • Star promenades directly out of swings, or through other more obscure methods.
  • The central orbit could be replaced with a gypsy once around in the middle.
  • The men allemande left 1/2 / half hey swing connector could mutate into a full hey with a single ricochet.
  • Allemande left shadow to swing partner has the simple fix of making the shadow action a gypsy or do-si-do.
  • The resolution of walking forward to a new wave (say as in “Summer of ’84“) would be harder without introducing the curlique. (A curlique is to a box the gnat as a star through is to a california twirl.)
  • Allemande 1 & 1/2 on the side can get translated into balances and twirls to swap. (Box the gnat/swat the flea)
  • And half allemandes get cheated into pull-bys.

Swapping from long waves to waves of four is still very difficult, without creating new moves.

In the end only 20% of my repertoire would be gone. It’d still be contra dancing, seen slightly askance through a mirror. The result would be more complex, and less connected. And a lot more gypsies, do-si-dos, pull-bys, and twirl to swaps.

Not that I’m planning on actually pulling the trigger on this.

At least not on a regular basis…