Common Dance Figures

Contra dancing consists of a set number of figures that are easy to learn but can be combined into interesting dances that can bring a lifetime of enjoyment.

Here are some terms you will hear at most contra dances. Over the next few weeks and months, we will post photos and videos to illustrate the terms.

Allemande—An allemande is a hand turn. The caller will call either an “allemande left” or an “allemande right,” and two dancers firmly join hands about shoulder high (with elbows down and thumbs pointing up), and each moves forward around each other, rotating around a point midway between them.

Balance—A balance is a four-count movement that can be danced in a number of different ways. The most common variants in mid-Missouri are Balance and Swing, Balance the Ring, and Balance a Wavy Line. For a Balance and Swing , a dancer takes two hands with a partner and steps forward (2 counts) and then back (2 counts), and then swings (12 counts). To Balance a Ring , four dancers take hands and step toward the middle (2 counts) and then back (2 counts). To Balance a Wavy Line, a line of dancers facing alternate directions and holding hands (shoulder high, with elbows down), will step to the right for two counts and then step to the left for two counts. Dancers balance a wavy line. “Balance a wavy line.”

Circle—When the caller tells you to form a circle, join hands with the others in your group and move around the circle to the left or right as indicated by the call. The hand connection should be firm but relaxed. There may be as few as four or as many as a roomful in a circle.

Courtesy Turn—In a courtesy turn, the man puts one arm lightly around the woman’s shoulders and assists her as she turns to face back in to the line of dance.

Do-Si-Do—When doing a do-si-do, two dancers move around each otherm, moving forward to pass by right shoulders and then backing up to pass by left shoulders. (Unlike what you might remember from learning to square dance in junior high, contra dancers do not cross their arms in front of themselves when doing a do-si-do.)

Hey—The hey is a figure in which dancers weave in and out past one another without giving hands and end up back where they started.

Ladies Chain—Two couples face each other. The ladies move forward, take right hands and pull past each other, passing right shoulders; then take left hands with the opposite gent and do a courtesy turn with this gent. The two ladies have exchanged places.

Line up for a Contra—A Contra Dance is formed by a long line of couples. When the caller says, “Line up for a contra,” take your partner and join the line at the “bottom of the set” (i.e., away from the caller and the musicians). When the dancers first line up, the women will be in one line and the men will be facing them in an opposite line. For most modern contra dances, the caller will then say “ones cross over,” which will put the dancers in “improper position” (i.e., alternating men and women).

lining up for a contra dance

Lining up for a contra dance

Long Lines Forward and Back—This is just what it sounds like. The designated dancers move forward in time to the music and then backward, as in “Long lines forward and back.” Many other figures are performed in lines, in which dancers move up the hall (i.e., toward the band) or down the hall (i.e., away from the band) “Up the Hall in a Line of Four”

Right and Left Through—Two couples face each other and take right hands with the person opposite, then pull by, and do a courtesy turn to face back in.

Star—To form a star, four dancers place their left (or right) hands in the center, as indicated by the call, to link with the others and move forward on a circling path, usually once around.

Swing—Contra dancers love to swing. There are lots of right ways to swing. Generally, in contra dances, couples will take a ballroom dance position and rotate clockwise around each other, using either a light walking step or a faster “buzz step.”