Essays IndexHenry's Home Page

ECD  &  Contras, a Comparison

For a number of reasons many contra dancers do not like English Country Dances (ECD).  The most common complaint is that ECD is too slow, too stately, and too often some dancers stand around while other dancers get to do all the moves.  The complaint against ECD echoes the complaint against "proper" contras: they are not aerobic enough.  There is too much standing around & waiting.

There are other reasons why contra dancers do not like English Country Dances.  The Swing is the most popular move in Contra dancing and, with the rare exception of one or two dances, there are no swings in English Country Dances.  Some English Country Dances are very complex and take a long time to teach.  Contra dancers want a minimum of teaching, a maximum of dancing.  For some Contra dancers, English Country Dances remind them of pompous nobility, a class system -- all that America is not.  I have met dancers who say they can't stand the feelings ECD engenders in them.

Personally, I love the very different feel of English Country Dances.  I, too, do not like the more complex English Country Dances.  I like the simple flowing dances that do not take too long to teach.  In some English Country Dance workshops, I have encountered the contra dancer's ultimate nightmare: 45 minutes of teaching, six minutes of dancing.  But there is a beauty in English Country dances that is simply radically different from the beauty found in Contras.  In addition, the music is sublime, and it is music that you will miss hearing if all you do is Contra dances.

One final word which is aimed primarily at American dancers.  When we think of English Country Dances we are really thinking of one "sub-set" of such dances: Playford Dances, or dances that were popular hundreds of years ago.  We think English Country Dance is a "dead" form, an ancient, irrelevant, stagnant form that was done in drawing rooms by genteel nobility and is simply being aped/revived in our time.

We know (or should know) that on any given night, nine out ten of the Contras we dance were written within the last twenty years.  If you dance English Country Dances today in England, perhaps eight out ten of the dances were written within the last twenty or thirty years.  English Country Dances are a living dance form in England.  In England, Contras are merely one kind of English Country Dance.  It is only in America that Contras are seen as a totally different kind of dance, one that is not anything like English Country Dances.  As I explain in another essay, contras are simply one kind of English Country Dance.

What follows is a list of differences between Contras & English Country Dances, and the differences are listed so that you will know what to expect & hopefully you will not be put off by a beautiful, but different-from-Contras, dance form.


1)    As I mentioned above, there are no swings in ECD.  A swing is an intimate, prolonged, one-on-one move.  Few, if any, such moves occur in ECD; the two-hand-turn was the old equivalent.  English Country Dances are reserved; hand contact is the best you get.  However, eye contact with your partner is encouraged (especially in America): that is how intimacy is engendered.

2)    In ECD, often only two people are "active" while others stand around.  In part this reflects the need to give everyone "rest" time.   (See my essay on proper/improper contras.)

3)    Though there is much rest time, when it is your turn, you must execute the move on time because English Country Dances are "unforgiving."  A "forgiving" dance allows people to catch up.  For instance, in Contra dancing some forgiving moves are "down the hall four in line," and "balance & swing your partner."  These are sixteen count moves, and if you're late getting to this move, you have plenty of time to catch up.
            In ECD, if you're not on time, everyone else in your foursome (or six-some) is thrown off stride.  There are very few forgiving moves in ECD.  ECD is full of of four & eight count moves that must be executed correctly, on time.  So you may stand around a lot -- but it is crucial that the "standing around" time be an alert kind of standing around -- because when it is your turn to execute the move, you must do it on time.

4)    Keep your head up -- Watch others.  In English Country Dances there is little holding, assisting, touching.  You are executing a move with one other person (Siding, Casting, Setting), but you are not touching them.  You do it alone, yet you do it with someone else.  So, if you are supposed to be doing something, someone else will be doing it too, looking for you to do it with them.  Keep your head up, watch others.

5)    Often English Country dances are in triplet formation: three couples to a set.  The concept of couple number three, or of first couple in second position, baffles Contra dancers.

6)    First man, first woman; Second man, second woman; (Sometimes) third man, third woman.  You need to be aware of your position, because sometimes the call is to the first man & second woman.  Contra dancers just need to think of "first" as "active" or first couple, and to think "inactive" or second couple.  When in doubt, remember "keep your head up," watch others.  If you are supposed to "do" something, someone will be doing it with you: looking at you, or holding out a hand to you.

7)    First Corners & Second corners.  First corners is the first man & second woman.  Second corners is the first woman and second man.

There are certain moves that are very common in ECD, and absolutely uncommon in Contra dances (yet they are similar to some moves done in Contra dances).

Setting.  Take three little steps (R,L,R) to your right & slightly in front of you, bringing your feet together on the last step.  And then take three little steps (L,R,L) to your left & slightly in front.  It is very similar to the "balance" part of "balance & swing" in Contras.  Also known as "Pas de bas" in Scottish dance or ballet.

Turn Single.  A four count turn over one's right shoulder, and right back to place.  Clue: stick out your hand to hitch-hike, follow the direction of your thumb, so to speak, and turn over your right shoulder.  Bigger clue for "Set and Turn Single":  First you go right, then you go left, then you go right (the only logical place to go next) & continue over your right shoulder & back to place.

Cast Down.  For a Contra Dancer, this is similar to "go down the outside of the set & below one couple," but there are slight stylistic differences.  In ECD, you & your partner, who is across from you, begin by looking at each other, possibly even leaning, and then turning up and out  -- like a hinged gate, and then you proceed outside the set to the next place down.  In essence, you almost complete a full circle.  There is often a lot of music for the cast.  One should try to use all of it.  If space permits, do a large, looping, cast off.  Quite often the "other couple" is involved in the cast, but their role is smaller, less elaborate.  They wait a couple of beats for the other couple to move out of the way.  They then execute a simple four beat move: they take one step toward each other, take near hands, move two steps up (towards the band), separate & fall back into lines, exactly where the other couple used to be.

Some ECD moves are very well known to Contra Dancers but the terminology (the call) is different, unfamiliar:

Hands Across.   Right Hand Star
Back to Back.   Dosido.  In ECD you do not twirl.
Reel.    Hey
Four Changes of a Circular Hey.  This is really a mini "Grand Chain" done in your group of four.  The words are a clue: Circular hey.  You are changing places with everyone in your square of four people.  You are walking the four corners of your square.  You will always be making the same turns (4 lefts or 4 rights).  It is sometimes done with hands, extending alternating hands to members of your square, your foursome: Right hand (turn 1/4), Left hand (turn 1/4), Right hand (turn 1/4), Left hand (turn 1/4): you are back home, back to square one.  It is often done without hands.

I have left the most unusual ECD moves for last.  The first few are easy, the last few are a little complicated:

Up a Double & Back.  A very easy move.  You take your partner's hand & take four steps up (towards the caller/band) & then fall back for four steps.  On the third step you rise slightly on your toes and on the fourth step you bring your feet together.  It is almost as if there is an accent on the third beat of the four count: 1, 2, 3, 4, and then 5, 6, 7, 8.

Lead Out a Double & Back.  Like the preceding move but you lead away from the opposite line of people, towards a wall (usually), then turn and lead back.

Fall back and come forward.  Like the preceding two, an accented eight count move.  Two people, with inside hands joined, move four steps backward, then four steps forward.  A nice touch: on the way back the linked arms sweep back a little, making the linked pair lean towards each other, look at each other.  On the way forward the linked arms move slightly forward and the gaze is shifted to the pair of people across the way.

Cecil Sharp Siding.  An eight count move - four counts over and back.   The best way to see the move is to  think of a banana: each person walks 4 steps into the other's place on a banana-shaped track, (passing left shoulders).  Always keep looking at them, facing them.  Never lose eye contact.   You then return to your original spot along the exact same track (passing right shoulders).  As in the case of the three previous moves, there is a slight lift on beats three & seven.  This move has a nice swirl to it and some even call it "Swirl Siding".

Pat Shaw Siding.  Again, an eight count move with a slight lift on beats 3 & 7.  Go forward a double, right shoulder to right shoulder, to form a single long line of dancers, all the while looking at your opposite.  Then you fall back to place.  Again forward, this time left shoulder to left shoulder, then fall back.

Half Poussette; Whole Poussette.  A push-pull move executed by two couples, one man pushing, one pulling.  The aim is to switch places with another couple (1/2 poussette), or to go all the way around another couple & end up back in place (whole poussette).  Most often the number one man will take two hands with his partner & push (think of number one as active, pushy), and the number two man (inactive) will take two hands with his partner and pull.

Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

Essays IndexHenry's Home Page