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Contredanse (also Contra-dance and other variant spellings) refers to several folk dance styles in which couples dance in two facing lines. The name derives from the name of a French dance very popular in the 18th century and means "counter-dance". Some authorities (including the Oxford English Dictionary) consider the name's origin to be a corruption of the English country-dance, while others (including Merriam-Webster) consider that to be folk etymology).

Among prominent classical composers to have written contredanses are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.


New England Contredanse

A New England contredanse is an American traditional dance evolved from English country dance and European contredanse.


At the end of the 17th century, English country dances were taken-up by French dancers — hybrid choreographies exist from this period that use the steps from French court dance in English dances. The French called these dances contra-dance or contredanse. As time progressed, English country dances were spread and reinterpreted throughout the Western world, and eventually the French form of the name came to be associated with the American folk dances.

Contredanse events

Most contredanse events are open to all comers, regardless of experience, and the tradition is to change partners for every sequence (so you don't need to bring a partner). A typical evening of contredanse is 3 hours long, including an intermission. During a typical event, a dozen or so dance sequences are done. Almost all dance sequences are "walked through" before the music begins as the caller teaches that particular sequence. The music begins and the dancers repeat that sequence some number of times before the dance ends. Then the dancers thank their partners, and find new partners for the next dance.

At public dances, music is invariably provided by a live band playing jigs and reels from the British Isles, Canada, the USA, and, as a novelty, tunes exhibiting the musical motifs of other exotic locales (eastern Europe, Russia, etc.). Contredanses are held all across the United States (and also Belgium, Denmark, England, Canada, Czech Republic and Australia).

No special outfits are worn, but "peasant skirts" or other full, light weight skirts are popular with women (and some men), as these have a very pretty effect when swinging. Low, broken-in, soft-soled, non-marking shoes are recommended.


Most New England contredanses consist of a sequence of about six to twelve individual figures. These figures are prompted by a caller (like a square dance) in time to the music as the figures are danced. As the sequence repeats, the caller may cut down their prompting, and eventually drop out, leaving the dancers moving to the music.

Types of Sets

New England Contredances often are arranged in long lines of facing or opposing partners, called sets. The three predominant arrangements or formations are proper, improper, and Becket. Becket formation is named after "Becket Reel" by Herbie Gaudreau, probably the first contredance to use this formation. The dance itself is named after the town of Becket, Massachusetts. Unlike the so-called "whole-set" dances like the Virginia Reel, you and your partner are primarily interacting with an adjacent couple for each round of the dance. The sub-groups of two couples is known as the "minor set". Rare dance sequences have three couples per minor set; these are called "triple minor", while the usual grouping is called "duple minor". Couples consist of one "lady" and one "gentleman"; ladies are usually women, and gentlemen (often abbreviated "gents") are usually male, but contre dancers are notorious for taking the "opposite" gender role.


L1 L2 L1 L2 L1 L2 L1 L2...
G1 G2 G1 G2 G1 G2 G1 G2...


G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2...
L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2...


L1 G1 L1 G1 L1 G1 L1 G1...
G2 L2 G2 L2 G2 L2 G2 L2...
(key: band is to the left, L=lady, G=gent, 1=1st couple, 2=2nd couple)

Sets are generally arranged so they run along the length of the hall, with the "top" of the set being the end closest to the band and caller. Correspondingly, the "bottom" of the set is the end furthest from the caller. Dancers moving toward the band are moving "up the hall", and "down the hall" when moving away. As a dance progresses, so do the dancers: the arrangement of the figures causes each couple to move together up or down the hall, when they reach the end of the hall they reverse direction across the set. When a couple reaches the end of the line, they simply turn around and join back in, going in the opposite direction.


A figure is a short dance "step" or "move", sort of a choreographic building block. Most figures take eight counts of music, although figures with four or sixteen counts are also common. Each dance is a collection of figures assembled to allow the dancers to progress along the set. "Weight" refers to the weight of dancers as they pull against each other. Many figures must be done faster and with extra flair if "weight" is applied. Most experienced dancers often feel that this is more entertaining.

Basic Figures for Singles and Pairs
  • Allemande: Two dancers join either right or left hands in a thumbs-up grip and walk around each other.
  • Balance: The couple faces each other with both hands joined (less commonly with one hand joined) and, in time to the music, takes two steps toward each other, and then two steps apart. Often followed by a swing. Balances may also be done in lines or circles.
  • Butterfly Whirl: The gentleman and lady turn around, while keeping hold of their partner's waist. Facing the same direction, with inside arms reaching across their partner's backs, in a circle the lady walks forward and the man backs up. This often leads into a ladies' chain, or something with the ladies in the center. A common figure that leads up to this is gentlemen do a left hand allemande, then "scoop up" their partner by putting their arm around the ladies waist. Next the men let go and the two couples butterfly whirl back to place.
  • California Twirl: The gentleman raises his arm and allows the lady to walk under it. This figure allows the pair to turn around and switch places.
  • Courtesy Turn: Generally done when the ladies are crossing the set to the gentlemen. The gentlemen allows the lady to turn around while moving, continuing to move forward. The gentlemen moves backward during the figure.
  • Do-si-do: Two dancers begin facing each other, move so as to pass right shoulders, then back-to-back, then left shoulders, ending where they began. Sometimes they do-si-do 1 1/2 times, exchanging places. As an embellishment, experienced dancers will often add a spin to this move. Often, newcomers ill-advisedly copy this flashy, but potentially disorienting behavior. As a rule, the dancers do not cross their arms in front of themselves or put their hands on their hips while performing this move, as square dancers usually do.
  • Gypsy: This relatively recent addition to the repertoire was adapted from English country dancing. The pair looks each other in the eyes and walks around each other in the designated direction, without touching each other. The amount of eye contact depends on various factors including individual comfort and local tradition.
  • Promenade: As a couple, with the lady on the right, the couple walks where the caller directs. There are several different handholds. In one method, the gent holds hands with the lady, left hands (his arm across his body by) low, and his right arm across her back with right hands above the lady's right shoulder. In another method right hands are joined, and left hands are joined, and both are kept in front of the dancer's body, with the right hands on top. The gent may choose to spin the lady under his arm at the end as a flourish. Promenades are frequently used to bring dancers back to place (often useful when dancers get lost mid-dance).
  • Roll Away with a Half Sashay: This figure starts with the lady on the gent's left. With the lady's right hand holding the gent's left hand, she turns to her right and stands facing the gent. At the same time, he slides to his left to meet her. The gent then takes the lady's left hand in his right hand, and slides again to his left. The lady now turns away from the gent, moving to his right. At the end of the figure, the lady and gent have exchanged places. Basically, the gent takes a step or two left while the lady is pulled in front of him, changing hands and moving slightly right, so that they end up side by side with the lady on the right. This move is done much less successfully if the gent doesn't give enough weight.
  • Swing: A standard ballroom swing. The couple takes standard ballroom position, with the lady's left hand on the gent's shoulder, the gent's right hand on the lady's waist, and their free hands clasped together in the air. (Experienced dancers often experiment with other ways to place their hands ( One can either walk, use a buzz-step, or one partner walk while the other uses the buzz-step. For the buzz-step your right foot remains on the ground, with your partner's right foot to the right of it. Your left foot pushes against the ground repeatedly, moving you in a circle clockwise. Weight is very important in this figure. Usually ends facing across the set, sometimes down the set, rarely up the set, but always with the gent on the left and the lady on the right. It is STRONGLY recommended that newcomers get an experienced dancer to teach them this figure before the dance begins.
  • Turn Alone: Each person turns around in place. When in the center of a line of four it is polite to turn towards the person on the end. This often follows "Down the Hall Four In Line," (see below).
  • Turn as a Couple: In this figure the couples turn around in such a way that the ladies remain on the same side of their gent, normally the right hand side. The California Twirl is commonly used to turn as a couple.
Basic Figures for Four or More
  • Star: The four dancers in a minor set all join either right or left hands in the center of the set and walk around the set. A star usually turns one full time around, less commonly stars will turn 3/4 or 1 1/4 turns. There are two styles of stars, and which style of star is used generally depends upon local custom, although there are some dances that specify one or the other:
    • New England style, sometimes called wrist-grip stars or wagon-wheel stars: Each dancer places his or her hand on the wrist of the person in front of them as they face around the circle, forming a 'wagon-wheel' shape.
    • Southern style, sometimes called hands-across stars: Each dancer joins hands with the person directly across the set (usually the person of the same gender). It does not matter whose hands are on top or bottom (ladies' or gents').
  • Ladies Chain: A half ladies chain, which is more common and usually what a caller means when they just say "ladies chain," has the ladies joining right hands in the center and pulling past each other to the opposite gent; the gents then give the ladies a courtesy turn (see above). This causes the ladies to trade sides in the set. A full ladies chain is two half-chains in succession, with everyone winding up where they started.
  • Long Lines Forward & Back: All dancers face toward the dancers across the set from them, and join hands with the dancers beside them to form "long lines" on the sides of the set. These two lines then, in unison (ideally), take four steps together, and then four steps backward.
  • Right & Left Through: Both couples face each other across the set. They walk toward each other, passing through in the center such that the ladies pass left shoulders with each other and right shoulders with the opposite gent. The gents then give the ladies a courtesy turn (see below). The effect is that the couples trade sides of the set.
  • Petronella Turn: Four dancers, equally spaced around a small ring, move into the position of the dancer on their right in four steps while rotating (spinning) individually clockwise 3/4. This movement is adapted from the eponymous dance "Petronella," a traditional contra dance derived from a Scottish country dance of the same name. As a controversial embellishment, the folk process has added a "clap-clap" of hands on beats 3.5 and 4 of the 4-beat movement.
  • Hey For Four: The dancers execute a series of passes and turns with the other dancers in their minor set, crossing to the opposite side of the set and then returning. This complex sequence of moves usually proceeds as follows, with all dancers ending up where they began:
Hey For Four
Hey For Four
    • The ladies begin passing right shoulders in the center of the set
    • The ladies then pass left shoulders with the opposite gent
    • The gents then pass right shoulders in the center, while the ladies make wide looping turns on the sides to turn around
    • The gents then pass left shoulders with their own ladies
    • The ladies again pass right shoulders in the center while the gents make wide looping turns on the sides to turn around
    • The gents then pass left shoulders with the opposite lady
    • The gents pass right shoulders in the center while the ladies finish where they began
    • The gents then continue to cross the set to finish where they began

Note that this figure is executed smoothly, with all dancers moving all the time, and not piece-by-piece as this description might suggest. It is strongly recommended that newcomers get a few experienced dancers to teach them this figure.

  • Half Hey: Half a hey for four. Instead of crossing the set and returning, the dancers merely cross the set once.
  • Figure Eight a weaving figure in which dancers pass between two standing people and move around them in a figure 8 pattern. A full figure of 8 returns the dancer to original position; a half figure of 8 leaves the dancer on the opposite side of the set from original position. In doing this figure, the man lets his partner pass in front of him.
  • Circle of Four Four people join hands and walk around in a circle. Normally the circles turns first to the left, and then back to the right so that no progression takes place.
  • Down the Hall Four In Line Two couples join hands so that they form a line of four, and walk down the hall, or away from the music.
  • Cross Trail
  • Pass Through This figure is often used to progress (couple one to moves down the hall and couple two up). You walk across the set, passing the person opposite you by your right shoulder, without use of hands.
Advanced Figures
  • Box the Gnat Similar to the California Twirl in that the dancers end up facing the opposite direction after the lady walks under the man’s arm. However, here the couple starts off facing each other, and takes right hands. As the lady goes under the man’s arm, they turn to face each other again.
  • Swat the Flea Same as Box the Gnat, but it starts with the dancers joining left hands.
  • Turn Contra-Corners: The most common of the Advanced Figures.
  • Right Hand High, Left Hand Low
  • Dixie Twirl
  • Flutterwheel
  • See Saw (left shoulder do-si-do) Instead of starting the do-si-do with the right shoulder, the dancer starts with the left shoulder. (Two dancers begin facing each other, move so as to pass left shoulders, then back-to-back, then right shoulders, ending where they began. As an embellishment, experienced dancers will often add a spin to this move, like in a do-si-do.)
  • Star Through

External links

See groups at:

Contra dance defined:

Find Dances at:


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