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Dance Compositions

Contra Compositions


Some of my dances are “compositions” only in the loosest sense of the word; they fall into the category of “glossary” contras which basically amount to minimally imaginative resequencing of ordinary contra dance elements. 

Do such dances…especially if conceived spontaneously in a teaching/calling situation… qualify as “compositions?” Maybe. Maybe not. Tell me what you think. 

Note: Shorthand elements, with explanations: 

Improper = first, third, and all odd-numbered couples (w/backs to band) cross over

L, R, LH, RH = Left, Right, Left Hand, Right Hand

W/Hands = With Hands, as in Right and Left with Hands or hands-across star 

W/P, W/N = With Partner, With Neighbor

DC, UC = Down Center, Up Center 

TS, Wh/Cple = Turn Singly, Wheel as Couple

Gs, Ls = Gents, Ladies

LL = Long Lines

F & B = Forward and Back

LC, 1/2 LC = Ladies chain, half ladies chain

R&L,1/2 R&L = Right and Left, Right and Left with Hands, half Right and Left.

W/RSh, W/LSh = With Right Shoulder, With Left Shoulder

PT = Pass Through

Cherokee Shuffle


 A1: A2: B1: B2: (facing up and down set) w/Ns, F & B; w/N, dos-a-dos; form circleBal. Circle; W/N, swing, end progressed Gs LH turn 1/2; W/P, bal. & swing (12 beats) Circle L 3/4; Circle Bal. 2x; W/P, California Twirl to swap places, face new Ns

As written, this dance fits the “Cherokee Shuffle” tune whose B parts contain two extra measures (i.e. four extra beats). Shorten the B1 swing and eliminate one B2 circle balance to compress the dance to a standard 32-measure jig or reel.

Shutesbury Reel

Improper 48-bar (AABBCC) double progression

 A1:A2:B1:B2:C1:C2: W/Ns, circle L; W/N, swing; end progressed DC4; wh/cple; UC4; bend line to progressed placeHay (Ls start w/Rsh)W/new N, dos-a dos; W/this N, RH turn 1 3/4 to wavy 4-person line (Gs in center) All bal.; Gs LH turn 1/2; W/P, swingCircle Left 3/4; circle bal.; w/P, California Twirl to swap, face new Ns

Prior to Sue Sternberg’s trip to Ireland, 48-bar tunes were routinely shortened to fit 32-bar dances. Upon her return from Ireland, Sue broke hearts with her version of “Kilty Town” which I felt was simply too beautiful to shorten. Sue lived and served as the town dog officer in Shutesbury, Massachusetts at the time.

The Dog’s Breakfast

Becket formation

A1:A2:B1:B2:Circle L; circle bal.; W/assist from Gs, Ls pass LSh to swap placesCircle R; circle bal.; W/assist from Ls, Gs pass LSh to swap places W/P, gypsy & swLL F & B; W/P, 1/2 Sashay to swap; PT; TS 1/4 to R; walk along set to progress


I advise all to “Hang onto Neighbors” after the circle balances which seems to reinforce the concept of assisting them in passing left shoulders to swap. 

B1 is sometimes “with partner, balance and swing” depending on my mood.

In B2, the 1/2 Sashay can happen during the conclusion of the Forward and Back in order to soften the timing requirement of the end of the sequence. 

Back when I was calling once a month in Pittsfield, Massachusetts with Spare Parts, the evening was Bill Matthiesen’s birthday and the composition was brand new. Over the microphone, I announced that it was his birthday and that he should have the opportunity to name the new dance. 

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “How about ‘The Dog’s Breakfast?”

 Later, an English woman speculated that “it’s the dog’s breakfast” might idiomatically signify either a total mess with stuff scattered all over the place or, alternatively, something really cool.

Paul’s Line


A1 W/Ns, circle L 3/4 to face up & down; Circle balance; PT up and down to new
A2W/Strangers, star left w/hands; Neighbor gents meet and form long wavy line of Gents in center. SIMULTANEOUSLY:Ladies all slide right until nose-to-nose w/Shadow WHILE the gents all balance; Gents RH turn 3/4 to wavy 4-person
B1Balance waves of 4; Gents RH turn 1/2 to shadow; W/LSh, Shadows start 1/2 Hay across;
B2W/Shadow, LH turn; W/Partner, swing

Before the actual walk-through begins, Shadows can be introduced thus: (1) In Becket line-up, all face partners; (2) w/Partners, pass RSh along set to meet Shadows. At the set’s top and, if a full 4-person neighborhood exists, at the bottom, Shadows will be across

The timing between B1 and B2 is a little “slushy” and dancers inevitably do the 1/2 Hay and the left hand turn at varying speeds. 

Even after the sequence has begun to direct itself, many men seem to need extra reminders to do both right hand turns and to hay first and allemande later. Many whole-set crashes and burns result from men’s lapses at these points. 

This is regrettable but, regrettably, not coincidental. Around the time this dance evolved, I was very concerned about the behavior of a seemingly large percentage of the men on contra dance floors. Among them, I perceived these working assumptions: (a) They would only rarely (and briefly) hold other men’s hands, (b) they were not expected to remember sequences which were even minimally unfamiliar; (c) graceless, even ungracious dancing were the totally acceptable norm (and women would put up with it), (d) connections and actions of any import whatsoever would always be with women, and (e) there was little promise or point in trying to address any of the above. When I wrote this dance, I wanted to test my own assumptions about these assumptions and possibly open the whole matter up to more widespread thought and action.

I felt that both dancing and the social climate at dances would improve markedly if more men would loosen up in some respects and tight up in others. Paul Rosenberg seemed to be saying this both in his dancing and in his then new roles as a caller, organizer, and general promoter of contra dancing around the Albany, New York area in the mid 1980s when I wrote this dance.

Paul was the new kid on the block then, and his welcome among the established organizers, musicians, and hotshot dancers could charitably be described as rough. Terms like derisive, disrespectful, and dismissive spring to mind. I even recall some sneeringly condescending remarks quoted in a newspaper article. In person, I listened to a memorably nasty conversation I suspect was only one of many. My relationships with some of those people were really hurt by all this and never fully recovered; I have felt uncomfortable around some of them ever since. I ought to note that Paul seems to have a lot more ability than I do to forgive such things and get past them.

 Early in our developments as callers and organizers, both Paul and I ran into non-acceptance among experienced dancers who never gave our dances a second chance. We both successfully used previously untried methods of going outside the existing dance scene to recruit new dancers and encountered the challenge of keeping them once they had experienced our areas’ hotter established dances. 

I sift through all this old dirt both to let off some long-contained steam, and to emphasize my concern that new energy, new ideas and ideals, new approaches, and most importantly, new people often get treated pretty very harshly by whatever establishment they are trying to join. And we all lose. Who knows how many more happy people would be on our dance floors and in our communities if we loosened up and lightened up and gave them half a chance? Who knows how many musicians would be eating better?

At any rate, I composed “Paul’s Line” partly as a toast to Paul, partly as a public acknowledgment of undervalued promise, unwelcomed efforts, and unappreciated ideals, and partly as a private attempt to find my way through some really bad feelings.

“Paul’s Line” is not an auspicious choice for dance situations in which the caller and dancers are not cheerfully inclined toward teaching and learning. Its sequence is somewhat odd, it contains one of those dreaded “while” operations, and it asks much of many men. But consider: Physically, it is undemanding, even leisurely. Choreographically, it contains nothing new or extraordinary; only the sequence and the “while” operation are unusual. Why, then, do so many dance crowds have trouble with it? 

Open Doors

Duple Improper

A1 Circle Left 3/4; Swing Partner
A2Down Hall 4 – in – line; Wheel around as couples; return; bend line into long line
B1Long lines forward; Ladies pull neighbors out; swing neighbors; end progressed
B2 Long Lines forward & back; Circle Right; turn alone to face new neighbors

I named this for the opening of the doors to the new addition to the Guiding Star Grange Hall on Sunday, November 9, 2003. We in the Guiding Star Grange and Friends of the Guiding Star Grange organizations had worked long and hard for this moment and I feel very lucky that I have been a part of these groups and their undertakings.

Molly’s Hope

A1 Long Lines forward & back;star right (hands across)
A2 w/Corner, left hand turn 1 1/4 into wavy line of 4 (new Gents joining right hands) (current opposite-gender role Neighbor is in this wave);Balance 4 in the wave; Gents right hand turn 1/2 to face current opposite-gender-role Neighbor
B1Neighbors, with left shoulders, start 1/2 hay for 4; until ladies are facing again;Ladies right hand turn @ 3/4 to momentary long line of ladies in center; new Ladies left hand turn @ 2/3 to partner. 
B2with Partner, balance & swing

At Northern Week 2004, I wanted to give this composition a title which would acknowledge our deep relief, gratitude, and love following Molly Mason’s successful second surgery…and our hope she’s free of it from now on. 


Duple Proper

A1 #1s right hand turn 2/3; join left lands with 1st Contra Corners to make 4-person wavy line on 1st diagonal; Balance the wave;with 1st Corners, left hand turn; #1s right hand turn @2/3; join left hands with 2nd Corners to make 4-person wavy line on 2nd diagonal.
A2Balance the wave; with 2nd Corners, left hand turn; #1s swing; end facing down; 
B1Down the hall 4-in-line; turn singly; return; bend line to face across
B2Long Lines forward & back; #1s 1/2 figure 8 up around #2s..

 Maybe this will help promote more widespread understanding of the contra corners concept.