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Playing for Contra Dances

Posted by Fiddler on Monday, June 26, 2017

I posted this in response to a member's post. To keep it from getting buried, I'm posting it here to my blog with a few edits.


Congratulations! Contra dance groups are ALWAYS looking for live music who know how to play for contra dances . You won't get rich, but you will have fun and meet new people. I know folks who will drive 4-5 hours to play for a dance. And, you have figured out that during an evening, the program will usually have only about 12 dances (6 dances - break - 6 dances - last waltz). So, you don't need a bunch of tunes.

I've been playing for contra/square dances ever since I started playing in 1977. Here's my perspective about the tunes and the dances.

1. Many OT tunes will work for contras IF they are 32 measures in an AABB format.

2. Use tunes that have good phrasing because it is the phrasing that drives the dance.

3. Classify your tunes as "smooth" or "bouncy." Sometimes the A part might be bouncy with a smooth B part. For example, Hop High Ladies is "bouncy". St. Anne's Reel is smooth Red Hills Polka is bouncy A and smooth B. The bouncy tunes or parts work great for the balance-and-swing figures. Smooth tunes or parts work great for walking figures.

4. You can plan sets of several tunes, but don't be afraid to stay on one tune! I frequently plan on several tunes for a dance, but sometimes I can't figure how to get to the next tune, especially if they are similar. So, we stay on the tune. Also, there are times when the tune is so incredibly perfect for the dance. Changing the tune would ruin the feel. So, I'll call off the change and stay with the tune. As you get to know your bandmates better, they will understand your various signals and panicked stares.

5. Watch the dancers. They will "tell" you if a tune is working. The music should not be a hindrance.

6. Practice speeding up and slowing down as you are playing. Speeding up is easy. Slowing down is tough. Sometimes a caller will see a problem on the floor and ask you to slow the tempo a bit. Also, it is better to start slow which allows the dancers to get into the dance figures. After several time through the dance, gradually speed up. Or, if you are brave, dramatically change tempo with the change in tune or key or.... Only do this if the dancers are comfortable with the figures and only do it once during the evening.

7. Dance. (If you don't already.) This will help you get a feel for the tempo and the types of tunes that are appropriate. I have found that saying "BALance and SWING the ONE beLOW" comfortably sets a good tempo (~115 bpm or so)+

8. Be prepared to play "special" tunes that are in the contra dance repertoire. Petronella, Levi Jackson Rag, Walpole Cottage, Chorus Jig, Money Musk, HUll's Victory, etc. There are dances that have special tunes. At least start with these in your set. Also, some groups will want a hambo, polska, schottishe, or other couple dance in addtion to the last waltz. These are frequently done during the break. (Get one of the many contra dance music reference books - New England Fiddler's Repertoire, The Portland Collection - for tune ideas. Also, the Country Song and Dance Society ( has some great resources for musicians.

9. Don't be afraid to stop and restart a tune - but do this rarely! This ONLY works during the first time through the A part and ONLY once during the entire dance. I have done this if the tune I selected what really, really bad for the dance or we started too fast or something happened in the band. Better to stop and restart than it is to struggle for the entire dance.

10. Techno --- bleh!! I do not like it. I think it is musically interesting, but I don't like dancing to it and I don't like playing it. But, some people do. It is not me and what I am interested in.

My final advice is to be mindful that a successful dance depends on three things: Music, caller and dancers. There must be good communication among these three components. If any one of those is weak, then the dance is not successful.

A. Good teaching and calling/prompting  I have seen many dances fail because of poor calling and poor instruction and poor communication with the band. The caller selected dances that were not appropriate for the skill level of the dancers or the teaching was poor or the caller allowed a tempo that was too slow or too fast. This is frustrating for everyone.

B. Good (appropriate) music I have seen dances fail because of the music. The band's tune selection was inappropriate, the tempo was wrong, the phrasing was not good or the musicians were not playing together. Also, excessive noodling by the band while the caller is teaching the dance and not being ready to start when the teaching in finished.

C. Dancers  I have seen dances fail because of the dancers themselves. Experienced dancers pushing novices or "lost" dancers around (aka Dance Nazis). Experience dancers doing extra movements (twirls, etc.) while in a figure and getting to the next figure late. Experienced dancers not paying attention to the teaching. All of these are irritating.

So, watch the caller. Ask for signals to speed up, slow down, end. Specify who the "point" person is in the band that the caller should be communicating with.
Watch the dancers. (Ditch the sheet music!) Are they always late into a figure? Are they panting? Are they giving the band death stares? Maybe the music is too fast.
Listen to your band mates. You can make even the most overplayed warhorses fun and danceable. For example, at one dance the caller had a dance with a "Petronella figure" that included the clapping on the three notes. Miss McLeod's Reel (Hop High Ladies) was THE perfect tune. Well, we played with the dancers at the clapping. After a few times through, rather than play the notes, we dropped out or thumped or did something. It was an easy dance and the dancers got into being part of interaction with the music and the caller joined in, too!

If you have an opportunity to get with the caller before the dance, you can talk about tunes, logistics, etc. Many callers will provide the band with a copy of their program. Find out which part has a balance-and-swing figure, if any. These are always bouncy. Some callers will even suggest tunes that have worked particularly well in previous dances. The caller and band is a team.

The ultimate compliment is when the caller/prompter backs out after the dancers have the figures down and then let the music do its job. That is the most satisfying experience. And, the icing is when the dancers erupt into applause at the end of the dance. I cannot think of a better experience!

I hope you have as much fun playing for dances as I have had and still have!

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