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…

This is something  I’ve been kicking around for a while, a different format to ruminate over the choreography of contra dance. I’ve seen many blogs die after a half dozen posts, so I hearby promise:

  • To ignore this blog for a year or two
  • To post several times in a row without any useful content
  • To get off-topic, by discussing related choreography, general contra dance stuff, or my non-existent pet cats
  • To break any or all of the above rules, including this one

We’ll see how things go.