Saturday, December 1, 2012

One Night Stand Dances

When I was a fairly new contra dancer, I was at a festival of some sort where it was advertised that there would be a contra dance.  I was thrilled!  I went to the event expecting what I had experienced at our local contra dance. What a disappointment!  The caller called "lame" dances like the Virginia Reel and circle mixers.  I was so busy complaining that I didn't notice that everyone else was having a blast!

Here I am all these years later calling "one-night-stands" (where the majority of the dancers have never contra danced and may never do it again) and yep, the Virginia Reel.  The first ONS dance I called was in Sept 2011 for a wedding.  I had heard horror stories about weddings where everyone was drunk or no one would get up on the floor and dance.  This dance was being held at the home of the bride's family on their tennis court.  I was imagining all sorts of awful scenarios, but I knew the band and had worked with them before and I had asked caller friends for help and I was as prepared as I was ever going to be.

A great piece of advice I was given was to "get them dancing as quickly as possible" which was spot-on.  I chose to open with Glowworm Mixer which is a dance so simple that it can literally be taught in 30 seconds and anyone can jump in at any time.  I had about 10 folks willing to dance when we started, but people standing around were joining in when they saw how easy it was.  Because it was so simple, I asked the band to play a really lively fun tune so it wouldn't get monotonous too soon.

I soon had 40 to 50 people eagerly awaiting the next dance.  All ages were dancing. Grandmas were dancing with children and the young adults were having the best time of all.

Another piece of advice is to NOT call dances that progress like a contra dance.  The progression is the place where newcomers are going to get tripped up and it just takes too long to explain it.  Without the experienced dancer to take the newbie by the hand and lead her to the next couple, progressions are just too confusing.

I lined them up in a long ways set and did Galopede and then got them in squares to do Nine-Pin Reel.  I didn't worry about teaching them to swing, I let them do elbow-swings or two-hand turns or whatever they wanted.  I called a dance I wrote called A House Divided where I let the Gator fans and the Seminoles fans "compete" in the dance.  I concentrated on silly and fun and the dancers had a ball.  I have had two invitations to call other events from people who attended that first ONS dance. I consider that a success.

I had not been calling very long at all when I was invited to call a contra dance in another town.  I was told that they didn't hold an introductory workshop because the beginners never showed up until halfway through the night anyway, and that I'd have experienced dancers for the first few dances.  When I got on the stage to call the first dance, I asked "How many of you have never contra danced before?"  35 hands went up!  There were only about 10 experienced dancers.  So I ended up doing an introductory workshop anyway.  If I had that evening to do over, I would instead treat it like a ONS dance.  I would get them dancing quickly and not move into contra dances until more experienced dancers arrived.

I've been in other situations where a third or half of the dancers are experienced contra dancers and the rest are newbies.  This can be a bigger challenge to call than a ONS dance, because you want to please the experienced dancers, but make it accessible to non-dancers.  In this situation, I count on the good-will of my experienced dancers.  I hope they won't be like I was the first time I went to a ONS dance!  I actually called a dance like this last week.  I put in several super easy contras, but also several circle mixers, and of course, the Virginia Reel.  In my experience, you need 2 -3 experienced dancers for each newcomer in order to do a contra dance. My experienced dancers were extremely gracious, asking the newcomers to dance and smiling through the old chestnuts they hadn't danced since 3rd grade.

There is a reason why contra dance is learned in community.  There is a reason you can't go to Arthur Murray studio and take contra dance lessons.  I knew someone who tried to teach contra dance lessons for a community summer class but it didn't work well.  It is just not something that can be learned outside the parameters of the contra dance community.  It takes a village to hold a contra dance! 

Dances mentioned in this post:
Virginia Reel (Did you know this dance was Henry Ford's favorite?)
Proper Longways Set (shorter lines work best)
A1 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Partner Right Allemande
A2 - Partner Left Allemande, Partner 2-Hand Turn
B1 - Partner Do-si-do, Head Couple Sashay down the set and back
B2 - Virginia Reel (head couple R elbow turn with each other, L elbow turn with next person opposite gender, R elbow turn with each other, L elbow turn with NEXT person opposite gender, all the way to the bottom of the set.  Head couple sashay back up the set, separate from partner and everyone follows the head person of their gender to the bottom.  Head couple makes an arch and everyone else comes through.  New head couple at the top of the hall.

Note:  B2 is never finished in one phrase of the music.  Let them take as long as it takes and as they come back up the hall at the very end, the wait and clap and I start them on whatever phrase of the music starts next.  I don't try to make it start exactly at A1.

Glowworm Mixer
Circle Mixer
A1 - As a couple, Promenade four steps, face your partner and back away 4 steps, look at the person to the left of your partner, take four step to that new partner, right elbow turn (or right allemande) four steps, end in promenade position and the dance begins again here.  The dance is only 16 beats so four times through the dance is one time through the tune.

Proper Longways Set (shorter lines work best)
A1 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Long Lines Forward and pass your partner to swap sides of the set. (I demonstrate how to do a half-gypsy rather than just walking past.  They always hoot at that one!)
A2 - Long Lines Forward and Back, Long Lines Forward and pass your partner to swap sides of the set.
B1 - Partner Do-si-do, Partner Swing
B2 - All make a tunnel while the head couple goes through to the bottom.  New head couple.

Nine-Pin Reel
Square Dance + one extra person in the middle - the Nine-Pin
A1 - Head couples Circle Left around the Nine-Pin, Head couples Circle Right around the Nine-Pin
A2 - Side couples Circle Left around the Nine-Pin, Side couples Circle Right around the Nine-Pin
B1 - Nine-pin swings one person in any couple while his or her partner goes to the center.  Nine-pin swings one person in any other couple while his or her partner goes to the center.  Nine-pin does this with all four couples and then joins the four in the center where they circle Left until caller says "BREAK"
B2 - Five people in the center scramble to swing someone - the one left without a partner is the Nine-pin the next time through (but being the Nine-Pin is such fun that no one is disappointed to be the Nine-Pin!)

A House Divided You've seen those car tags that say "A House Divided" and has one side in the colors of a particular sports team and the other side another team, implying that one member of the couple is for one team and the other member is for a different team.
Proper Longways Set
A1 - In a huge oval, Circle Left then back by the Right
A2 - Partner Left Allemande, Partner Right Allemande
B1 - Top couple Sashay down the set and back to the top
B2 - Top couple "Peel the Banana" (couple separates and goes down the outside with the rest of their line following them, BUT the leader must make some action that those following must imitate.  For example, the leader of one side might be a Florida Gators fan and do the "Gator Chomp" while the leader of the other side might be a Florida State fan and do the "Tomahawk Chop."  Or if they are not sports fans, they can flap their arms like they're flying, or hop like a rabbit or whatever they want to do.) When the head couple reaches the bottom, they make an arch and everyone comes up through the arch, making a new head couple and the dance begins again here.



  1. Where could you get recorded music that is long enough for doing one of these dances? Around here they have 'barn dances' but the caller is expected to bring recorded fiddle music. I have lots of contra CD's, but the tracks aren't as long as if you were at a dance. How many minutes is a contradance, anyway?

  2. Wild Asparagus - Live at the Guiding Star Grange is a double-CD set with full-length tunes. At a regular contra dance, I run my dances about 7-8.5 minutes, depending on how its going, but at a ONS dance, you want to keep the dances on the shorter side as the dances are usually pretty simple and can get monotonous if they go on and on, AND the people in attendance may not be used to dancing and may tire more easily than regular dancers.