Using Contra to Teach Square Dancing

What is Contra?

Contra is an American form of folk dance where you dance with a partner. You dance a series of moves with another couple, and the end of which you progress (move on) to a new couple and repeat the same sequence of moves with them. The sequences are almost always 32 bars (64 steps) long, and are known as “once through” the dance.

You can see a video of it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsnhN_LK-9k

Why is it good for teaching SD?

Many of the moves used in Contra are the same as the basic moves in SD, and moreover most basic and mainstream moves can be danced with 4 people (the exceptions are the circle based ones such as Grand Square and Right and Left Grand, and those requring 8 people: Eight Chain Thru, Pass to the Centre, Spin Chain Thru, Ferris Wheel, Dive Thru and Trade By). You also can't have a 1/4 or 3/4 tag formation, but there are no moves that rely on that formation.

But why use it?

Fundamentally it’s far less boring in the initial stages – people are learning while having fun, and don’t really see it as “lessons”. In fact you don’t even have to tell them that they’re learning square dance! But on top of this:

Suitable for any number of dancers

Where contra really wins is that to dance it you only need an even number of people - not a multiple of 8 as with a square formation. So you only need one angel, and people don’t have to sit out (except for 32 bars) which means teaching is quicker as you don’t have to swap people in and repeat.

Repetition reinforces, but is not boring

The repetition reinforces the move into the mind. In a square dance this gets boring very quickly, but in contra it doesn't because you're always doing it with new people.

Simpler to identify who you’re doing the move with

One of the things beginners struggle with is what formation the move is being done in (line or box) and who they’re doing the move with. Using contra, the formation is obvious, and you don't have to work out who you're doing the move with - it's always the other couple.

Twice as Much Dancing

Since everyone dances all the time, there is more dancing done than e.g. Head Ladies Chain, Side Ladies Chain.

Variation from Square

Squares have to be used for certain moves, so using contra for those that work that way gives variety.

So how do you use it?

You need to start by understanding the formation and the progression.

The best way to use Contra to teach SD is to use a particular variation of the contra formation called Becket. In this formation the dancers are in two long lines, the lady is on the right hand side of the man, and everyone is facing another couple across the set.

                                                       

At the end of 32 bars, everyone ends up one person’s distance to the left of where they were, and hence will be facing a new couple. At the ends of the set, there will be a couple “out” (i.e. with no other couple to face) – these couples sit out the dance for one time through and then come back in on the other side of the set, so on the third time through no-one is out.  See images for more details (with grateful thanks to Taminations from whom I have shamelessly borrowed the icons).

If there are an odd number of couples, one couple is out at the bottom (furthest from the music) of the set, and comes in for the second time through when a couple is out at the top, so there is always one couple out.

The simplest progression in Becket formation is to end with a Right Hand Star and have everyone slide left to meet a new couple.

Then what?

My approach is to start with a simple sequence, take them through it without music, getting them faster each time until they’re quick enough that I can add the music in. Once they’ve done that I use a second sequence which is similar to the first but has a couple of new moves in it. This process continues with a couple of new moves or other new things each time. Every so often I go back and do an earlier sequence, or a mash up of earlier ones, so they don’t forget what they’ve learnt.

The initial sequences I use are:
1: Some basic but easy moves, including Ladies Chain twice because that is the hardest of the starter moves to do because the man and woman do something different:
Ladies Chain 8
LHS 8
F&B 8
R&L Thru 8
Circle L 8
Ladies Chain 8
Promenade Across 8
RHS & slide left 8

2: Similar to the first with two new moves
Ladies Chain 8
LHS 8
Pass Thru, Partner Trade 8
F&B 8
Circle L 8
Flutterwheel 8
Circle R 8
RHS & slide left 8

3: No new moves but introducing fractions and changing orientations (across / up and down the set)
Lines F&B 8
Ladies Chain 8
R&L Thru 8
Flutterwheel 8
Circle L 3/4 8
Pass thru (up and down) 8
Circle L 3/4 8
R&L Thru 8

4: Two new moves, two new concepts (sweep and ½ sashay)
Lines F&B 8
Square Thru 4 8
California Twirl 8
Ladies Chain 8
Flutterwheel, Sweep a 1/4 8
Lines F&B 8
Circle L 3/4 8
Slide and 1/2 sashay 8

5: Two new moves plus a sequence of 4 step moves (mostly 8 steps before)
Lines F&B 8
Pass Thru 4
Ladies U Turn Back 4
Box Circulate 4
Partner Trade 4
Box Circulate 4
Walk and Dodge 4
Partner Trade 4
Ladies Chain 8
Circle L and slide 8