Contra dance form describes the arrangement of dancers into contra dance sets and minor sets. There are various forms, and each dance's choreography specifies its formation. A caller's first instructions for each dance are usually to move the dancers into their starting positions according to the choreography for that dance.
Contra dances are arranged in long paired lines of couples. A pair of lines is called a set. Sets are generally arranged so they run the length of the hall, with the top or head of the set being the end closest to the band and caller. Correspondingly, the bottom or foot of the set is the end furthest from the caller.
Couples consist of two people, traditionally but not necessarily one male and one female, referred to as the gent or gentleman and lady.
Couples interact primarily with an adjacent couple for each round of the dance. Each sub-group of two interacting couples is known to choreographers as a minor set and to dancers as a foursome. (Not all dances are done in two-couple minor sets - see "Formations, Less common," below.) Couples in the same minor set are neighbors. Minor sets originate at the head of the set, starting with the topmost dancers as the 1's (the active couple or actives); the other couple are 2's (or inactives). The 1's are said to be above their neighboring 2's; 2's are below. If there is an uneven number of couples dancing, the bottom-most couple will wait out the first time through the dance (see "Progression," below).
There are three common ways of arranging dancers in the minor sets: proper formation, improper formation, and Becket formation (see illustrations below). All three are duple minor — based on two-couple minor sets (see triple minor formation below).
Common set layouts (all are duple minor)
- ProperL1 L2 L1 L2 L1 L2 L1 L2... G1 G2 G1 G2 G1 G2 G1 G2...
- ImproperG1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2... L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2...
- BecketL1 G1 L1 G1 L1 G1 L1 G1... G2 L2 G2 L2 G2 L2 G2 L2...
Key: band is to the left; L=lady, G=gent, 1s=1's, 2s=2's
Note: As there is no limit on set length for these dances (other than the number of people the venue will accommodate), the "..." can represent any number of couples.
Traditional dance choreography left the actives doing much more than the inactives. Modern choreographers typically want everyone to be active, so the roles have been renamed "1" and "2". At the same time, improper and Becket dances have become more common than proper ones as choreographers and dancers have come to desire greater neighbor interaction.
Less common set layouts
- Proper Triple MinorL1 L2 L3 L1 L2 L3 L1 L2 L3... G1 G2 G3 G1 G2 G3 G1 G2 G3...
- Improper Triple MinorG1 L2 L3 G1 L2 L3 G1 L2 L3... L1 G2 G3 L1 G2 G3 L1 G2 G3...
- Proper TripletL1 L2 L3. G1 G2 G3.
- Improper TripletG1 L2 L3. L1 G2 G3.
- Indecent (duple minor)L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2... G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2...
- Four-face-fourG1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2... L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2... G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2 G1 L2... L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2 L1 G2...
Key: band is to the left; L=lady, G=gent, 1s=1's, 2s=2's, 3s=3's.
Note: As there is no limit on set length for triples or indecent dances (other than the number of people the venue will accommodate), the "..." can represent any number of couples.
A fundamental aspect of contra dancing is that the same dance, one time through which lasts roughly 30 seconds, is repeated over and over - but each time you dance with new neighbors. This change is effected by progressing the 1's down the set and the progressing 2's up (also up the hall and down the hall; see illustrations, below). In non-Becket dances this is done by moving the 1's to the bottom of their minor set and moving the 2's to the top of it: the 1's now have a different pair of 2's below them. In Becket dances, 1's progress by moving to the place formerly occupied by the 1's below them; similarly, 2's move to the place formerly occupied by the 2's above. (see "Formations", above, for definitions of terminology)
A dance will typically run at least long enough for every couple to dance with every other couple both as a 1 and a 2 (though extremely long sets may require shorter dances).
Progression in common set layouts
- Proper progressionL1L2 L3L4... --> L2 L1L4 L3L6... --> etc G1G2 G3G4... --> G2 G1G4 G3G6... --> etc
- Improper progressionG1L2 G3L4... --> L2 G1L4 G3L6... --> etc L1G2 L3G4... --> G2 L1G4 L3G6... --> etc
- Becket progressionL1G1 L3G3... --> L1G1 L3G3... --> etc G2L2 G4L4... --> G2L2 G4L4 G6L6... --> etc
Key: musicians and caller are to the left; the first time through the dance is depicted on the left, and each successive time through is to the right preceded by an arrow; odd-numbered couples are 1's, even-numbered couples are 2's; couples in the same minor set are not separated by spaces.
- In practice, all couples are evenly spaced; the groupings are just to clarify relations.
- As there is no limit on set length for these dances (other than the number of people the venue will accommodate), the "..." can represent any number of couples.
- A clockwise Becket progression is illustrated. The entire set can be conceived of as a squashed circle. Many Becket dances progress counterclockwise.
Progression leaves a pair of 2's out at the head with no 1's above them to dance with; if there is an even number of couples in the set, a pair of 1's is also left out at the foot. This is not a problem: the couple waits out one time through the dance and then comes back in, now heading in the opposite direction. A couple re-entering at the head of the set (formerly 2's) re-enter as 1's, and vice versa.
Triple minors look complicated on paper. Features of the progression in a triple minor dance:
Triplets, on the other hand, are very simple: The roles of 1's, 2's, and 3's are reassigned each time through the dance, so that at the start of each time through the dance the head couple is the 1's. Progression may move the 1's to the foot of the set or the 3's to the head of the set, or may differ for the ladies and gents.
Four-face-fours progress as standard duple improper contra lines, with two exceptions:
Progression in less common set layouts
- Proper Triple Minor progressionL1L2L3 L4L5L6..........LXLYLZ --> G1G2G3 G4G5G6..........GXGYGZ -->
L2 L1L3L5 L4L6L8...LULWLY LXLZ --> G2 G1G3G5 G4G6G8...GUGWGY GXGZ -->
L2 L3 L1L5L6..........LULZLZ LX --> G2 G3 G1G5G6..........GUGZGZ GX -->
L2L3L5...................LULZLX --> etc G2G3G5...................GUGZGX --> etc
- Proper Triplet progressionL1L2L3. --> L2L3L1. --> L3L1L2. --> etc. G1G2G3. --> G2G3G1. --> G3G1G2. --> etc.
L1L2L3. --> L3L1L2. --> L2L3L1. --> etc. G1G2G3. --> G3G1G2. --> G2G3G1. --> etc.
L1L2L3. --> L3L1L2. --> L2L3L1. --> etc. G1G2G3. --> G2G3G1. --> G3G1G2. --> etc.
- Four-face-four progressionG1 L3 G5 L7 G9 L11 ... --> L1 G3 L5 G7 L9 G11 ... --> G2 L4 G6 L8 G10L12 ... --> L2 G4 L6 G8 L10G12 ... -->
L4 G2 L8 G6 L12 G10 ... --> G4 L2 G8 L6 G12 L10 ... --> L3 G1 L7 G5 L11 G9 ... --> G3 L1 G7 L5 G11 L9 ... -->
G4 L7 G1 L11 G5 L10 ... etc. L4 G7 L1 G11 L5 G10 ... etc. G3 L8 G2 L12 G6 L9 ... etc. L3 G8 L2 G12 L6 G9 ... etc.
Key: band is to the left; for the triple and four-face-four, the first time through the dance is depicted at the top and the second time through is below it (and the third below that, etc), while for the triplet the first time in depicted on the left, the second to the right of that, etc; couples 1 and 4 are 1's, 2 and 5 are 2's, 3 and 6 are 3's. Notes:
- Improper triple minor and improper triplet progression, differing from their proper counterparts only in the 1's being crossed over, are not depicted.
- As there is no limit on set length for triples (other than the number of people the venue will accommodate), the "..." can represent any number of couples.
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