Squares - Circles - Sets - Contras: The Basics
by Marcia McKenzie, ©2009


The word "dance" conjures up different images for different folks. It's an activity that precedes history but continues today in many forms serving many functions - as celebration, pure art, prayer, exercise, and, of course, as a means of socializing with one special person or in groups. Animals even dance!

Here I want to focus on one type of dance but have always been at a bit of a loss as to what to call it. It tends to serve one purpose primarily - socializing in groups - but it can take a number of different forms - square dances, contra dances, circle and set dances. One could call it "group dance," but that term is fairly non-descript and could include so many other types of dance, from artistic dance performances, to sacred dance, to line dancing at the local night club. "Folk dance" might be a bit more helpful since this kind of dance is for all folks, and much of it is from the folk tradition. But the term can also conjure up images of men in lederhosen or women in flowing Greek gowns performing ancient dances native to different countries.

"Traditional dance" may be a bit more accurate because, even though many of the dances have been created quite recently, they do draw on a body of traditional dance moves and are danced as part of a long tradition of folks gathering together to socialize. These dances may be held for private groups - churches, conferences, weddings, parties, even square dance "clubs" - or they may take place in settings open to the public, but in either case they promote a sense of community where new dancers are encouraged to join in. So the term "community dance" also seems to be somewhat apropos.

For lack of a better phrase, I will say that what we are dealing with here are "traditional community dances" that include primarily square dances, contra dances, set dances and circle dances. My aim is to try to explain them to those who may not be very familiar with them, who may wonder what a "contra dance" is when they see one advertised in their community. As a dancer, dance caller and musician for dances, I have some insight into all three perspectives. Note, however, that I in no way claim to be an "authority" and would welcome input (corrections, clarifications, etc.) from others who may be more knowledgeable in these areas.



As community dances, whether square dances, contra dances, or a mixture, these are events which encourage participation by all, and newcomers are welcomed. There is certainly a range of experience level, and some long-standing community dances may have an abundance of very experienced dancers, making it a bit more challenging (but also fun and exciting!) for newbies. Other dances may have many more beginners or less-experienced dancers. In any case, experience is certainly not a requirement since each dance is taught by the caller, with a brief walk-through, before it is danced to music. Often there is an additional workshop for beginners held before the evening of dances so that these folks can become more familiar with some of the common dance figures.

The other important point to note is that you do not need to come to these dances with a partner. In fact, even if you do, chances are you may not dance with him or her for much of the evening. Tradition has it that, in a much more conservative world, these kinds of dances provided an acceptable way to have physical and social contact with members of the opposite sex. Though not mandatory, dancing with different partners is common, and some dances are even configured so that you constantly change partners within the same dance!



Even those not very familiar with traditional community dances probably have at least some vague notion of what a "square dance" is. Unfortunately, this notion may come from negative memories of having to hold hands with other students  in 4th grade gym class while the teacher barked out commands in time with a scratchy recording of very uncool music. Others may be familiar with western square dance clubs, which are still quite popular in some parts of the country but which involve membership, progressive sets of instruction, and often the wearing of specific attire (none of which is a requirement at community square dances).

As the name implies, these dances are danced in square figures. There are 4 couples (8 persons) per group, with each couple forming one side of the square. They all face the center of the square, with partners side-by side, and each couple has its back to one of the 4 walls of the room (or imaginary walls if the dance is held outdoors). Within each couple, the gent (G) is on the left, with his partner (the lady, or L) on his right. Note that while this is the tradition, and many callers still use the terms "gent" and "lady," these are now viewed more as positions or roles rather than genders.  Anyone can play either role, and there are actually many dances where the gent-lady roles are identical except for the position of the dancers. These work particularly well with groups that consist of mainly one gender or children.

Each couple has a "home" position, where they start, and usually end, the dance and which they often return to at various points in the dance. Some dances give each couple a number (1-4), with the 1st couple being the one with their backs to the caller/band, the 2nd to their right, the 3rd across from them, and the 4th to the left of the 1st couple. Many of the older dances, called "visiting couple" squares, involve each couple, in turn, performing a series of figures (given colorful names like "Birdie in the Cage" and "Duck for the Oyster") with the other three couples. After one couple has done this, there may be some group figure which involves the entire square before the next couple does its "visiting." Sometimes this group figure may even involve a change of partners. 

Couples 1 and 3 are also called "Head" couples.

Couples 2 and 4 are also called "Side" couples.

Another type of square dance involves the terms "head couple" (couples 1 and 3) and "side couples (2 and 4). Normally the heads will do a series of moves, followed by the sides doing the same moves. This may be repeated once again, and there will probably be some group figures at different points in the dance that may or may not involve a change in partners.

Because all the dancers are not dancing all the time, these two types of squares allow time for socializing with one's current partner or just doing some freestyle dancing. Over the years, in deference to dancers who want to be moving all the time, squares have been developed which involve all of the dancers all of the time. This is just another fun variant in a very rich tradition.

As with all the community dances I will be describing, these squares are taught before they are danced, and a caller prompts the dancers throughout the dance as needed. (Occasionally in rural communities with long-standing dances those attending have become so familiar with the dances that they require very little or no prompting, but these are not the kinds of events I am referring to.) Some squares are timed to the music, with the various moves requiring a specific number of beats and happening at regular intervals. Others fit more loosely so that, while the dancers move (walk, clog, shuffle, bob) in time with the music, it is less crucial that the figures take a specific number of beats, and the caller simply calls the next move when the dancers are ready.

Square dance music has traditionally been identified with old-time Southern Appalachian tunes, usually usually played on the fiddle, banjo, and, now, guitar and bass. There is, of course, no rule that requires this, and western square dance clubs often dance to more modern music, but the shuffley, high-energy old-time tunes lend themselves particularly well to this type of dance. If the dance is timed to the music, the band must usually play an even, AABB, 64-beat tune. Otherwise, a "crooked" tune, or a 3-or 4-part tune will work just fine.

For more information on old-time square dancing, visit:
Dare to Be Square website.

For an in-depth description of old-time square dance calls and recordings, see:
Phil Jamison's "Barn Dance with Calls" article.



Circle dances probably date back even earlier than square dances, and usually an evening of community dances will involve at least 1 or 2 circles. The most common type will be circle "mixers," in which everyone is continually changing partners throughout the dance, doing a series of the same dance moves with each one in turn, or with the entire circle. In "Kentucky Running Set" circle dances, dancers do not change partners but, instead, each couple executes a series of figures with different couples (i.e. in groups of 4) in turn. At contra dances (described later), these latter types of circle dances have become the more structured "progressive circle" dances, which are like contra dances where the two opposing lines have been curved into a circle so there are no ends.

Progressive circles are timed to the music and require even, 64-beat tunes from the band. Circle mixers and Kentucky running sets may or may not be timed to the music. Traditional tunes are common, either Southern Appalachian (the norm at square dances) or New England or Celtic tunes (heard at many contra dances). More on music later.



Sometimes referred to as "wholeset longways" dances, these are simpler precursors to today's contra dances. If you have ever danced the Virginia Reel, you have danced this kind of set. Dancers are arranged in 2 lines facing each other, with each person's partner in the opposite line, across the "set." Depending on the dance, there may be an exact number of couples specified, or it may not matter. The couple closest to the caller/band is the "head couple." A series of group moves (danced by the entire set) alternate with some figures performed or led by just the head couple. At the end of one time through the dance, the head couple has moved to the bottom (opposite end) of the set, and the couple that was second in line becomes the new head couple. The dance is then repeated. 

TradCommDance-Set Form

NOTE that I have used "ladies" and "gents" in the above diagram for convenience, but these terms are often not even used in set dances. This dance form is very good for children or beginning dancers because it is easily adaptable to eliminate the need for male and female roles. And, again, some set dances are timed with the music, and others are not. 



Having nothing to do with guerillas in South America, the term "contra dance" has been posited by some to come from the word "country dance" since the form is similar to many traditional English country dances. The more common belief is that it comes from the French "contre," meaning "opposed," since it is danced in two opposing lines as in the set dance.

While the arrangement of the dancers is similar to that for set dances, there are a few important differences. The number of couples in each set is limited only by the length of the dance hall. Instead of there being only one head couple, every other couple is, in effect, a head couple (although in contra dancing they are called "actives" or "ones"). At the beginning of each dance, dancers will line up in 2 lines, with the ladies' (L) line on the caller's left and the gents' (G) line on the caller's right. Note, as with squares described above, anyone can be a "lady" or a "gent." These terms, originating in historical tradition, are still often used, but they denote roles or positions rather than gender.

Once lined up, dancers "take hands 4 from the top," meaning they will form circles of 4 (2 couples) all the way down the set, starting at the head (the end closest to the band/caller). This defines the roles of the couples, with the "actives," or "ones," being the couple in each group of 4 that is closest to (has their backs to) the band, and the "inactives," or "twos" being the couple in each group that is farthest from (facing) the band. In "proper" contra dances, all the gents remain in one line, and all the ladies are in the other. For "improper" dances, the actives change places with their partners so that each line alternates, gents and ladies. In each group of 4 dancers, your partner is across the set from you, and your "neighbor" is the person next to you (from your same line) who is not your partner. The set-up for an improper contra dance is as follows: 

Contra dances are almost always danced to 64-beat tunes (there have been a few written for tunes of other lengths). Each group of 4 dancers executes a series of dance figures with each other that take 64 beats total. By the time the tune has been played through one time, the dancers have "progressed" to the other side of their neighbors. Thus, the active couples have moved one space "down" the set (away from the band/caller), and the inactives have moved one space "up" the set (toward the band/caller). They are now facing new neighbors, and the dance is repeated. And what happens when a couple gets to the top or bottom of the set and there are no more neighbors left? They must wait out the dance one time through the tune, at which time there will be another couple coming their way looking for neighbors. The couple that has been waiting will then reenter the dance, this time going in the opposite direction. This means if they were actives progressing down the set, they will now be inactives progressing up. If they were inactives progressing up the set, they will now be actives progressing down. And if this is an improper contra (as most contra dances are these days), couples must remember to change places with their partners before reentering the dance so that each line will still be alternating male-female. 

Whew! It sounds complicated, but once you've done it a few times it becomes second nature. The majority of contra dances are structured the same way (there are Becket dances and double-progression dances that work a little differently). It is mainly the series of figures that changes with each dance, and, as with other community dances, these are taught and practiced a few times before they are danced to music.

Southern Appalachian old-time music works just fine for contra dances as long as the tunes are even. However, other styles have become common as well. Besides the traditional old-time instrumentation mentioned above, one often hears piano, whistle, drums, mandolin, and even reed instruments. The more melodic New England-style, French-Canadian or Irish reels, jigs and marches are commonly heard, along with swing, ragtime, and other styles. The main requirement is that the tunes be 64 beats in length and inspiring to dance to! There are many ways in which the dance musicians can make their music fit the particular dance being called and thus drive the dance even more. 

For more information on contra dancing, check out:
Gary Shapiro’s “What is Contra Dance?”
Greg Rohde’s “Hand Four”

For locations of contra dances and/or bands in your area, go to:
Charles Seelig’s Contra Dance in the United States, Canada and the World
Ted Crane’s Dance Database

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