Chris Page's contra dance site

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New to contra dance?

Boy, have you taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. This site is for people interested in the technical and historical details of contra dance -- i.e. myself. Except this page. This one's for you.

So what is contra dance?

It's a participatory sport, not a spectator sport. So the best answer is to find a local dance, and just go. But if that's not enough, there's:

How do I find a dance?

There's an exhaustive links page, with regional sub-pages that list local dances.

Or google 'contra dance' and your state. Most local dances have at least some sort of minimal web page.

What should I wear?

Street clothes. That's street clothes that you'd feel comfortable doing a lot of walking in, with the caveats of feet and heat:

What if I make a mistake?

It's not if, it's when. But everyone else will too. The experienced dancers just have more practice making mistakes, and keep going, secure in the knowledge that the world won't end. Nor will the dance. In time you too will believe this.

Do I need a partner?


Our tradition is to dance with many different people throughout the evening, so there will be plenty of people looking to dance with you. You may have to ask them first. And to emphasize the obvious, women are encouraged to ask men.

Do I need the lesson?

One of the dirty little secrets of contra dancing is that you don't need the beginner's lesson. The evening is structured so that everything is taught, starting with the first dance. Every single evening is organized expecting there will be brand new people.

That's not to say the lesson is useless. It devotes more time to early topics that might get hurried through. It gives you more of a breather. It can also cover style points or aspects of connection. So if you're the kind of person that likes to wade in gradually rather than cannon-balling into the deep end, then the pre-dance lesson is especially for you. And it certainly doesn't hurt anyone.

There are even dances series that deliberately do not have a beginner's lesson so that people won't think they need to know stuff beforehand.

Am I coordinated enough?

Go watch the following video, taking close note of the dancers starting at 2:30. Now, if you're in a wheelchair, or deaf, or blind, or have regular severe muscle spasms, you'll have to work harder than most, but with effort you can do it.

And if they can do it -- and do it well -- then so can the rest of you. It may take a few evenings of practice before you feel comfortable. At first it's confusing, but that will change. The footwork is mostly walking steps, and can be done solely with a walking step. And the timing for being an advanced dancer involves counting to eight.

Any other advice you can give?

Come in time for the first dance of the evening. If at all possible, do the first three dances, as they form the easier material. Don't watch from the sidelines and then join once things get tricky.

Smile. When faced with that, people tend to smile back.

Ask experienced dancers to dance. It's the quickest way to learn, and most of them expect it. Maybe they'll hunt you down before you can ask. (This is a symptom of a good dance community.) The corollary is don't ask someone else who's brand new to dance, as this is a recipe for personal frustration. And as another caller (James Hutson) best put it, if you came with someone special, allow each other the gift of dancing with other people in order to learn better and have a better first time.

Applaud the band. Thank your partner. Then applaud the band again.

Remember the whole point of contra dance is to have fun. Sometimes we lose track of that forest.

Questions for after the first dance

Here I focus on the negatives, as the positives don't need rebuttal and are best discovered on your own.

Should I be reading this section if I haven't gone to a dance yet?

No. Reading this will just give you a lot of worries of things that probably won't happen to you, but will happen to a small percentage of people out there.

How do I avoid getting dizzy?

That would be the swing. The simplest way is to ask the other person to please slow down.
There are other solutions. In the swing you can put on the brakes, keeping the other person from swinging to fast, but this is a more advanced skill. Another technique is to maintain a stable reference frame. In English, that means staring at the person you're swinging rather than the room that's spinning around you.
But the main technique used by contra dancers is to build up a tolerance level by doing it repeatedly. That means they (and you?) want to do it More and More, guaranteeing there's always a new generation of new dancers that have to break through the nausea barrier.
As a side note, some dances are more nausea-inducing than others, but those are more unusual cases.

Why was everyone staring at me?

Every sub-culture has customs that seem perfectly normal to those within, but totally bizarre to the rest of the human race. Eye contact is one of ours. It's another way to connect. And chances are the other person was just trying to be friendly, or playful.

Do what you feel is comfortable, but a) try and gently push your comfort zones at first, and b) ignore the few insisting you match them in a staring duel.

I couldn't get a partner!

I do truly sympathize. My second contra dance ever I could only get partners for two out of the last six dances. I nearly gave up with contra dance right then and there in frustration. In retrospect, I'm glad I stuck with it.

My main suggestion is to try and find another contra dance community. Different groups have different awareness of those left out on the sidelines. If anything, look for the smaller dance groups, where people look out for each other. Often the dances advertised as hottest and bestest are the worst for new people struggling to find a partner for the next dance. In short, it may not be you, it's them. Also, severe gender imbalance can lead to shortage in partners.

Another possibility is to ask quicker. In some dances I've been to, that means turning to the nearest available warm body, and within fifteen seconds asking them to dance. This is not an easy thing for beginners, but you might want to give it a try. Especially if everyone else is.

The final suggestion is a big can of worms, but it's called "booking ahead." That means agreeing with someone else not to do this dance, but rather a dance that's one, two, or more times off in the future. I don't recommend this unless most everyone else is doing it, and it becomes a survival technique. In which case, if you're sitting out a dance, ask someone if you could have the next dance either while hands four is forming, or when they're out at the top or bottom of the set. I really don't recommend booking ahead more than one dance.

I felt like I was messing everyone up!

You probably weren't. One of the great things about contra dance is that every thirty seconds, you become Somebody Else's Problem. So there's no great discomfort for the others. There will be a few people upset about you, but that's their problem, not yours. And like anything else done by humans, there will be a small but memorable percentage of people that are snobbish, cranky, having a bad day, or just downright unpleasant. I repeat, that's their problem, not yours.

That leaves two people that were affected by you. One is your partner, who probably knew what he or she was getting into, even if you didn't tell them outright. The other person is you. The bad news is you're stuck with yourself. But you can improve yourself by doing it again, and asking experienced dancers for tips.

How do I learn better technique?

Keep doing it, and come to other beginner sessions. Different callers emphasize different things.

Watch and ask the experienced dancers. The trouble is picking out those experienced dancers. They're not necessarily the ones spinning around and throwing in all sorts of extra flourishes. They are the ones always in the right place at the right time, ready to guide you with a gentle gesture or even just a look, and smile while doing so.

Technique is not formally taught at regular dances. If you do go to dance weekends or festivals, though, look out for workshops. Or maybe ask the leaders of your dance community if they plan on holding any special workshops of their own.

I hope to see you on the dance floor!

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