We will be updating this post as we add new dances with new terms. Dance terms are listed alphabetically.
We think it is very important to learn all the terms as you learn dances. Then, when you learn a new dance, the person teaching to you can just tell you to do a right-and-left through instead of having to say "Now, cross right shoulders with your partner, then you kind of turn a little bit, and...". Sometimes people just tell you how to do the moves without telling the names, and then you must relearn them within every dance. That's no fun, and slows everyone down. Also, the moves can be used to help explain other moves. Instead of trying to teach a right and left through on its own, you can teach a circle hey and then add hands. It may be hard to remember the moves at first, but it is worth it in the end.
Each term will be followed by these things if it is a move-- the kind of move it is, the typical number of counts it takes when done fully, and how to perform it. If there are different ways to do it, we'll try to cover those. If there's another name for it, we will list it there, and also in its own alphabetical spot, and if we use another term in the definition, we will list it alphabetically also. Let us know if you notice any mistakes or things that need to be clarified.
At the bottom of this post, there is a list of dances you can dance if you know all these terms.
Actives--term--the couple that begins at the top of the minor set. The head couple or the ones.
*#^Allemande-- a turn--8 counts-- In traditional contra dancing, a right allemande would be performed by two people joining right hands and walking around each other in eight counts (a left allemandewould be to join left hands, obviously). Hence, a half-allemande takes 4 counts. If the allemande is a move performed by a lady and a gent, a shake-hand hold may be used. If the allemande is between two ladies or two gents, a pigeon grip is often used. --Other ways to do it are to hold each other at the elbow (we like to call this the "buffalo wing grip", but we are crazy) or just above the elbow.
%Arch-- partner/friend move-- Unspecified count structure-- Simply join hands with your partner or friend to form an arch that other couples can pass under.
Back-to-Back-- see Do-si-do
#^%Balance (your partner or friend) -- partner/friend move--4 counts-- The couple faces each other with both hands joined (less commonly with one hand joined) and takes two steps toward each other, and then two steps apart. Balances may also be done in lines or circles.
Balance the Ring--a minor set move--four counts--The minor set joins hands in a circle, facing inward. Everyone takes two steps toward the center of the circle and two steps back.
%Box the Gnat--a turn--4 counts--A couple meet offering right hands, they change places with the woman going under their joint raised arms, and turn to face each other still holding right hands. This means that they swap positions, and end up facing back the way they came.
Swat the Flea is a less common variant, where you use left hands instead of right.
*#California Twirl --a turn-- 4 counts-- Starting with a couple facing in the same direction (or each other) holding inside hands (man's right, woman's left) she turns left and moves into his place under their raised hands while he moves a step forward and then turns right and moves into her place. The lady does most of the "work" in this move. --Also referred to as a California Turn.
%Cast -- floor movement-- Generally 4 counts-- Turning away from the center of dance, walk around the people you are instructed to cast around. A called "cast off" usually means to turn out and go to whichever end of the line you are closest to, unless it is a following cast, in which case it will be quite obvious. If you are the person being cast around, you generally slide over to fill the space that has been vacated, to prevent the line from shifting up or down the hall.
Cavelier's Promenade--Floor movement--8 counts-- One gent joins his right hand to his partner's left, and his left to his friend's right. They go down the set for four counts, facing the other gent in the set and walk back up for four counts in the same manner.
%Chasse-- floor movement-- Unspecified count structure-- A fancy French word for what is essentially a form of skipping. Join hands with your partner and in a galloping fashion go where directed during that particular count structure.
*Circle (minor set) --a minor set move--8 counts-- All dancers in the minor set join hands and circle in the direction given in the call. Left is more common than right, and if both are done, left will occur first.
#Circle Hey-- a minor set move-- 16 counts-- In the minor set, face across center of hall, and pass right shoulders with your partner/friend/neighbor (the person across from you), then turn 90 degrees back into the set, and pass left shoulders with the other person, turn 90 degrees again, pass right shoulders with the first person you pass right shoulders with, then turn 90 degrees again and pass left shoulders with the first person you passed left shoulders with before. This is just like the right-and-left-through, without using hands.
^Corner-- a term-- Usually used in a proper contra. In your minor set, the 1 gent and the 2 lady make up the 1st corner, and the 2 gent and the 1 lady make up the 2nd corner. So if you allemande your corner, you are allemanding the person next to your partner.
Dixie Twirl --minor set move--(we use it in 8 counts)--In a line of four dancers, the center pair arches. The extreme right person leads through the arch (taking the one on their left along for the ride) while the left person walks to the right. This results in an inverted line now facing the other way.
Dos-a-do-- see Do-si-do
#%Do-si-do (also Back to Back or Dos-a-do)--two person move--8 counts--(this figure returns you to your starting position)Commonly performed with your partner. Face the other person and pass right shoulders, pause and fall back to where you started, passing left shoulders. It should be noted that you continue to face the same direction the entire time. Some gents like to set their arms perpendicular to the ground on top of each other in front of them... (Indian style). Ladies often hold their skirts.
Dunstable Round-- circle--8 counts-- A circle with 3 people, one gentleman and both ladies in a duple minor set. To the left unless otherwise specified.
*#^%Friend-- term-- A friend is a person of the opposite sex in your minor set who is not your partner. Often you will perform a move with your friend, and then turn and perform it with your partner.
*#^%Head of the room--term--A reference point for dancers, also called "up the hall" (as opposed to down). Usually the end of the room from which the music is supplied.
*^Honour--a still-standing move-- 4 counts (during a dance)-- You don't actually move on this one! Facing your partner or friend, the ladies curtsey and the gents bow. You've seen this done before many different ways-- pick a way you like. This is also commonly done at the beginning and ends of dances, often to no particular count structure. It would be appropriate during the musical introduction to the dance.
*#%Improper contra--term--Half of the gents and ladies are on one side, half on the other. Line up for a proper contra, then the 1s switch places with their partners (showoffs may do a California or a half allemande). When waiting out one progression on the end of an improper contra, it is necessary for the gent and lady to switch places before returning as the opposite of what they were before.
Inactives--term--The second couple in a duple minor set or any couple that is not the head in a triple minor, or major set contra. Also referred to as posts, bottom couple, or twos
Kick Balance--Partner/friend--4 counts--Join right hands with your partner, step forward on your right foot, kick your left foot across your right, step back on your left foot and kick your right across your left.
#Ladies Chain--A minor set move--full: 16 counts; half: 8 counts--Involves two facing couples, each with the lady on the right. The women cross over giving each other right hands, and do a left hand turn about three quarters with the opposite man to end up beside him where the other woman started from. The men can help, first by moving to their right so the women coming to them don't have so far to go, and then by swinging them round firmly in the left hand turn. The turn we use is a courtesy turn. The gent holds the lady's left hand in his and the lady puts her right hand on her waist allowing the gent to take her right in his and help her around as they turn as couple. What has just been described is a half ladies chain, to do a full the figure is repeated again and everyone ends in the same spot as when they began the figure.
Major set--term--the entire line of dancers. Some dances are written to be danced with the major set, with one active couple and all couples beneath them being inactive.
*#^%Minor set--term--Referring to the group of dancers within the major set (the whole group) other than partners (the couple, fool!) who are dancing together. They perform certain moves together such as a right and left thru, a circle, or a ladies chain. A duple minor set (hence, the term for a dance, a duple minor contra) consists of two couples. A minor set may be made up of other numbers of couples, three being the next commonest. In contra dances, people join many minor sets throughout the dance as they move up and down the line.
Ones--term--The couple that begins at the top of the minor set. The head couple or actives.
*#^%Partner-- term-- The person you are dancing with. Generally the gent asks the lady to dance. If the dance is a mixer, you will not have the same partner all the way through. When the dance is over, it is polite for both the lady and the gent thank each other for the dance-- but the ladies like it when the gent says thank you first! Try to show honor and respect to your partner-- it will make the dance much more enjoyable. Don't flirt with your corner, as it will drive your partner crazy (and other reasons, duh). And don't be afraid to talk to your partner!
#^Petronella Turn (also called just a "Petronella")--a minor set move--4 counts--Four dancers, equally spaced around a small ring (or square), move into the position of the dancer on their right in four steps while rotating (spinning) individually clockwise 3/4. This movement is adapted from the eponymous dance "Petronella," a traditional contra dance derived from a Scottish country dance of the same name. As an embellishment, you may add a "clap-clap" of hands on beats 3.5 and 4 of the 4-beat movement. It is Han's favorite move.
*#^%Progression--term--the means by which a couple leaves one minor set and moves on to the next. 1s (If there is a distinction in the dance between couples. Usually there is in a duple minor contra) will generally progress down, and 2s up. If you dance in time and the music fits the dance, a new section of music will begin when one progession has been completed. --Sometimes progession refers to the entire dance before it repeats itself, and sometimes it refers to the way you progess. In an improper contra, the gent and lady standing out must switch places before re-entering the dance.
#Promenade--partner/friend move--Count structure specific to the dance--As a couple, with the lady on the right (at least properly, although we may ask you to do it wrong, in which case you can simply hold hands), the couple walks where the caller directs. There are several different handholds. In one method right hands are joined, and left hands are joined, and both are kept in front of the dancer's body, with the right hands on top. This is called the skaters promenade.
-Inverted Skaters (a term coined only for the purposes of this text) - this uncommon form of the promenade position is the same as the skaters' promenade with one exception: the couple join right hands below their left hands. The gent may choose to spin the lady under his arm at the end as a flourish. Promenades are frequently used to bring dancers back to place .
*#^Proper contra--term--All of the gents are in one line and the ladies in the other. Facing across the hall, the gents' left shoulders should be to the head of the room (and the ladies' right shoulders similarly).
*Right and Left Through-- a minor set move-- 16 counts-- This figure starts with two dancers facing another pair, frequently facing across the set to your partner, but sometimes facing up and down the set. Facing as directed you change places with the one you are facing giving right hands as you pass, then turn to your neighbour (90 degrees) and change places with them giving left hands, ending up holding left hands and both facing back in to the set (someone will have to turn; avoid twisting anyone's arm). A right and left is so frequently followed by a second that it is dangerous to describe it as such: usually what has been described is called `a half right and left through', and two in succession `a full right and left through'.
%See Saw (left shoulder do-si-do) --two person--8 counts--Instead of starting the do-si-do with the right shoulder, the dancer starts with the left shoulder. (Two dancers begin facing each other, move so as to pass left shoulders, then back-to-back, then right shoulders, ending where they began. As an embellishment, experienced dancers will often add a spin to this move, as in a do-si-do.)
^Stars--A minor set move-- 8 counts-- Stars are turns for (usually) four people. In your minor set, you reach into the center with one arm (a right arm for a right star, a left arm for a left star) and hold hands, then walk in a complete circle once. A right star genereally goes first, and is usually followed by a left star. There are many ways to hold hands in the center. Our favorite way is to have each person hold the wrist of the person ahead of them-- this is often called a Wagon Wheel hold. Another way is simply to "stack" all the hands in the center. A third way is to have the gents hold hands, and ladies hold hands on top of them. A fun move!
%Swat the Flea--a turn--4 counts--A couple meet offering left hands, they change places with the woman going under their joint raised arms, and turn to face each other still holding left hands. This means that they swap positions, and end up facing back the way they came.
*^%Swing-- A turn-- 4 counts (often twice in 8 counts)-- Two dancers stand side by side facing in opposite directions, they then hold each other while moving forwards; the result is that they move together in a tight circle, and if they know what they are doing they can move rapidly and smoothly.
The simplest instruction is to stand beside your partner right shoulder to right shoulder, take half a step back, and then put your right feet in so the feet are adjacent. To swing you simply walk round keeping each foot on its circle, taking your weight on the inner foot, and using the outer foot to push you round like working a scooter. Remember to pick the inside foot up to move it round the circle - some people tend to keep their inner foot nailed to the ground.
The standard hold is a Ballroom hold: the man puts his right hand in the middle of her back (and this arm does all the work; she rests her left hand on his right shoulder, and they hold the other hands loosely out to the side. --Other holds are: a cross-hands hold: you hold right hand in right, and left in left (conventionally right hands on top), and skip round in a much wider circle, or holding left hands as before, but putting your right hand on your partner's right shoulder with my right arm held straight (This arms-length hold means they can swing more as one unit). -- This is a lot of information for a simple move; it's not really that hard.
#Turn Alone--individual move-- 4 counts (generally)-- Dropping any hands you are holding, turn around in place. When in a line of four, as a center person it is polite to turn to the outside, the outside persons turning to the inside.
#Turn In Your Place--individual move-- 4 counts (generally)-- Not specifically a recognized contra dancing term, but useful. Turn around in 4 counts to end up approximately where you started from. Good for getting out of a promenade or line and back into your spot in the contra.
Twos--term--The second couple in a duple minor set or any couple that is not the head in a triple minor, or major set contra. Also referred to as posts, bottom couple, or inactives.
Up the hall-- see Head of the room
Dances you can dance knowing only these terms:
Kristoff's 15th (can be danced using only starred [*] terms)
Ten Minutes in Springfield (can be danced using only terms marked with pound sign [#])
The Bob and Wheel (can be danced knowing only the terms with an arrow [^])
Gnatty's Tarantism (can be danced knowing only the terms marked with the percent sign [%])