Essays IndexHenry's Home Page

(A few years ago I withdrew this essay from my web site.   My “Afterword” explains why I withdrew it -- and why I’ve decided to put it back on my web site.)

Analysis of a Bad Contra Dance

The following is a dance that was called at a recent contra dance evening I attended. It was the first dance after the intermission and it was called to a hall which was half full of beginner dancers. It was a disaster. People were scurrying in vain to get the dance right. The caller was screaming loudly and unhelpfully; the lines were falling apart and drifting to the bottom of the hall.

A1     Alaman R Neighbor, 1s Alaman L Partner;
          DoSiDo Neighbor.

A2    1s Balance & Swing Partner.

B1    1s Down Center past orig cpl, Handy Hand Alaman next couple;
         Come back up, Swing Original Neighbor.

B2    Circle Left;
         Star Left.

What went wrong?

It is my contention that this contra dance is among the worst contra dances ever written. It should be entered in the “Bad Contra Dance” contest and it should win. Here is what is wrong with this dance.

The first eight beats contain two alaman moves. That means that each alaman move is given four beats. Most often alamans take eight beats. In some cases they take six beats; sometimes a 1/2 or 3/4 alaman move which is followed by a balance, takes only four beats. Trying to do a full alaman right followed by a full alaman left, with two different people, in eight beats is almost impossible and extremely hectic.

The three moves in the first sixteen beats of the dance are particularly difficult because you are shuttling back & forth between your neighbor & your partner. First you alaman your neighbor, then you alaman your partner, then you go back to your neighbor to dosido.

After these three moves you are once again asked to move to a different person, your partner, but at least you are given sixteen counts to balance & swing. Then the dance falls apart big time: it becomes a mad scramble to complete four moves in sixteen counts.

Four moves in sixteen counts! That means four counts for each move! The first move asks the active couple (and they are very active!) to go down the hall two in line, past their original neighbors to new neighbors who are far away down the line - partly because an “active couple down the center” splits the set apart as the inactive couple steps back to give the active couple room.

The active couple now has only four beats to do the handy-hand alaman that will make them change direction & head back up the hall. They have four beats to get back up the hall and then they have four beats to swing their original neighbor.

A four beat swing! Who ever heard of a four beat swing? Of course you could try to rush the previous three moves so you’ll have a longer swing, but those moves are already rushed.

It is at this point that the set starts drifting down the hall, that people end up far away. The progression occurs at this point as the active and inactive couples switch places after a swing. Normally the swing occurs when the active couple is above the inactive couple and the switch is a mere switch of positions in the same place, but because the active couple is approaching the inactive couple from down the set, the switch (the progression) leaves the inactive couple one position further down the hall. (This can be avoided if the caller Makes Sure (!) to tell the inactive couple to move up the hall while the active couple is promenading down the center).

This flurry of activity -- four moves in sixteen beats -- makes everyone late for the last two moves, a circle left followed by a star left. Trying to do a full circle in one direction followed by a full star back in the other direction is disorienting in the best of circumstances. To do all this once you’ve started late is almost impossible as you try to remember, after the hectic four beat swing, and the incomplete circle & star, which direction you were heading in in the first place.

So far I’ve explained why the dance is almost impossible for even experienced dancers to do well, but once you add the mistakes most beginner dancers make the whole thing becomes hilarious.

Beginners tend to alaman too far, they over-rotate, or turn back on themselves. When the active couple is asked to alaman right their neighbor, beginners tend to alaman all the way and then some -- which means the number one man has his back to his partner. My wife, an experienced dancer, vividly remembers trying to get her partner to do the second move with her -- an alaman left, but he had his back to her and her wild gesturing was simply not seen by her beginner-partner.

She did finally get him to understand that the alaman right with a neighbor was followed almost immediately by an alaman left with her, but then the poor fellow had to find his neighbor (who was miles away) for a Dosido.

Gene Hubert once pointed out to me that beginners need moves that involve holding on to others: four down the hall, circle, swing, star. Moves out in space -- dosido, hey, alaman one person followed by alaman another person -- are difficult for them. Left on their own, they don’t know where they are supposed to go. If they are holding on to someone, that someone can help them get to where they need to be.

This dance is full of “moves in space.” After you alaman your neighbor you are hurled into space & must find your partner. After you’ve done that you are once again hurled into space & you must find & dosido your neighbor. Still in space you must find your partner again, but at least then you are in a comfort zone: somebody to hold on to. That comfort zone does not last long.

The caller failed to point out that it is essential that the active couple hold on to inside hands as they go down the hall. If they hold on to each other’s hands that makes it easier for the beginner to be guided down the hall and the command “handy-hand” is easier to follow. Handy-Hand? The only hand that you have available. Use that hand to alaman your next neighbor, and then you are hurled back into space to find your original neighbor. At least the next moves involve holding on to people: a swing, a circle & a star.

My wife gave me a hilarious rendition of her attempts to help her poor, hapless-but-willing, beginner partner. She held on to his hand as they went down the hall, but the handy hand alaman meant that he was catapulted away from her as both she and her partner ended up on the outside of an already spread apart set -- remember, having one couple go down the center of the set spreads the set apart as the other couple steps away to give the couple room to go down the center.

Her partner was miles away as she tried desperately to signal to him to come back up the set. The whole thing was made even more difficult by the fact that the move preceding coming back up the set was an alaman -- and as I said earlier, beginners have trouble figuring out how far to alaman. They almost always alaman too far, they over-rotate, so once again, in this dance, her partner had his back to her as he folded in upon himself at the end of the alaman.

Remember there are only four beats to go down the hall, four beats to alaman, four beats to come back up the hall, four beats to swing. That sequence of four quick moves was a disaster. He could not execute the moves quickly enough, and after the “go down the hall” she could not get his attention to guide him back up the hall.
I’ve only talked about the active couple so far. Most of the time the inactive couple is standing still, bewildered. The first move is easy enough: someone grabs their hand for an alaman right, but then they are left alone for four beats and then they are asked to do a dosido.

They don’t know what is going to happen to them next. In the second half of the dance they have no idea which direction to face. First someone from far away -- from above, from another minor set, comes at them and gives them a hand to alaman. They have no idea which is their “handy-hand” - and it changes when they come back in at the ends.

After being rudely spun around in an alaman they have no idea which direction to face. Someone from above has come at them and spun them around. Now someone from below is hurtling at them, at warp speed, to do a four count swing at the end of which the men must remember to leave the lady on the right as they start a circle left (heading in one direction) followed by a star left (heading in the opposite direction).

The changes of direction are fast & furious and lead to hilarious consequences, befuddled beginners. First you are “attacked” from above, then you are charged at from below, then you circle left, then you star right, at which point you are once again hurled into space and asked to find a totally new neighbor for an alaman right.

Long ago I used to discuss with my literature classes which is the greater satire: the satire written by Jonathan Swift about boiling & eating children (A Modest Proposal), a satire that 90% of the readers soon realize is a satire; or the satire by Daniel Defoe (How to Treat Dissenters) that so fooled most readers that they didn’t realize Defoe was being satirical. Those being made fun of thought Defoe was serious and that one should do to dissenters what Defoe proposed one should do to them. The people who were fooled by Defoe’s satire were so angry with Defoe for “fooling” them, that once they realized he was making fun of them, being satirical, they threw Defoe into jail.

Which is the worse Contra, one written to be a bad contra or one written to be a good contra which succeeds in being a horrific contra? I suggest it is the one written to be a good contra which succeeds in being the worst contra I ever danced & a hilarious contra to boot.


I withdrew this essay from my web site because a long time after I wrote this essay, whose title was “A Very Bad Contra Dance”, I found out the dance was written by one of the greatest contra dance creators of all time, Ted Sannella. Shock! Horror! How could I call a contra dance written by one of the greatest contra dance choreographers of all time “A Very Bad Contra”?

First of all, great writers can have off days: this could be a very bad contra. After a lengthy email correspondence with Eric Zorn I realized I might be wrong about this contra dance. He insisted this was not a bad contra dance. He insisted that the moves I labeled as “ridiculous” were not ridiculous at all, & that properly called, this could be quite a good dance. He planned to test his theory by calling this contra at his next dance. I don’t think he ever did because during our correspondence I learned the name of this contra & who wrote it -- and I told him.

The point of my essay is that a poor caller can really make a mess of a difficult contra -- and that a good caller can call a difficult contra and make it look like an easy contra.

Why am I putting this essay back on my website? The truest answer is because, before I pulled it, somebody (Squarez) read this essay & publicly praised it: they thought it was wonderful, well worth reading. The second reason is that I think this is a funny essay. I find it difficult to write funny essays -- and I love reading anything that is funny. Laughter is the best medicine -- so read and enjoy -- and so what if I’m wrong!

Copyright 2006   Henry Morgenstein

Essays IndexHenry's Home Page