Choreography: An Evening's First Dance

Although the first dance of an evening is typically a glossary dance, not every glossary dance is a good candidate for the first dance.  What are some desirable first dance characteristics?
  • It needs to work for dancers who have never contra danced before.
  • Ignoring the beginner's lesson debates (hold them?, teach what?), the fact is that some new dancers will not have attended one.  The dance needs to work for them, with just a little help from experienced dancers.

  • Thus, its choreography should use basic moves, self-descriptive moves, and keep everything very simple.
  • Basic moves include: allemande, balance, do-si-do, circle, ladies chain, right and left thru, star, and swing, plus a few "glossary items", like "turn alone" and "go down the hall".

    Examples of self-descriptive moves are "circle left" and "long lines forward and back".  They mean what they say.  Some moves, such as "go down the hall" are nearly self-descriptive (as long as dancers know what direction "down" is).

    Some basic moves are non-descriptive, such as "ladies chain" or "box the gnat" (huh?).  These names don't mean anything at all to new dancers.  A first dance should use no more than one of these moves.

    A simple dance is easy to teach.  You want to get people dancing as soon as possible.

  • It should flow well and not be too clockwise.
  • A dance flows well if each move goes smoothly into the next move, without abrupt changes in direction.  This is desirable for all dances, but especially important for the first dance.  If new dancers feel that they are led naturally from one move to the next, contra dancing will feel comfortable, allowing them to relax and enjoy themselves.

    A dance is too clockwise if there are too many swings, circle lefts, and right-handed moves without any breaks, reversals of direction (within, not between, moves), or balances to even things up.  A bit of this can be fun later on, but avoid this in the first dance since some newer dancers may be struggling with dizziness (from swinging).

    Good flow also helps dizzy dancers, by keeping them from losing their orientation.

  • Its features should help dancers recover from minor mistakes.
  • Mistakes happen.  Newer dancers make some and experienced dancers may not be fully "awake" and concentrating yet.  To help recover, the overall timing shouldn't be rushed and some moves with either "spare", "recovery", or "relax" time should be used.  Moves without strong connection should be avoided.

    Ladies chain (halfway) is an example of a move with "spare" time.  It has a nominal length of 8 counts (one music phrase), but generally takes only about 6 counts at "normal" speed (which is why people can fit multiple twirls or a leisurely courtesy turn into one so easily).

    Some moves, such as star right followed by star left, have built-in recovery time.  Dancers late entering the first star simply won't turn it as far before reversing direction, thus automatically ending in the right place.  Long lines forward and back is another move with built-in recovery time.

    Having a 16 count move that dancers can relax in, such as a long balance and swing, will give dancers a chance to mentally regroup, following a recovery from a mistake.

    Moves with strong connections, where dancers use hands (such as right and left through), are easier for experienced dancers to guide inexperienced dancers through (since they can gently guide them), than no connection moves (such as a 1/2 hey).

  • A first dance can use a balance as punctuation and to help synchronize the dancers.
  • Dancers will automatically strive to be on-time, if possible, for balances. The music, the dancers around them all balancing on the same beat, "tell" them to do this.  As long as the music isn't too fast and the moves aren't too rushed, having a balance in a dance will help dancers recover and be on time.

  • The dance needs to work for late dancers joining onto the set in the middle of it.
  • Avoid unusual end effects; the dance should stay in its minor set.  It shouldn't involve "shadows" or "trail buddies", as these change when newly arrived dancers join in.

    The dance should progress normally, with women entering the dance on the right.  Avoid Becket dances.

    Even "barely Becket" dances are inappropriate, since having the progression occur just as the tune begins (as it does in most improper dances), means the music will cue newly arrived dancers that they should join in.

  • Ideally, the dance should include a long neighbor swing and either a right and left thru with a neighbor or a ladies chain to a neighbor.
  • Typically, swings and courtesy turns are the most difficult basic moves for new dancers.  Despite suggesting otherwise in the beginner's lesson, inexperienced dancers often line up together as partners.  This can hamper their ability to practice these moves, if they are both struggling with them.

    By including a long neighbor swing, a new dancer gets to swing with lots of different partners, which will hopefully improve their swing.  Similarly, doing a right and left thru with a neighbor or doing a ladies chain to a neighbor can help new dancers learn the courtesy turn.

  • Finally, the first dance should be fun.  First impressions count.
  • If the first dance has lots of inactivity or no partner swing, new dancers may be disappointed.  Or, if the experienced dancers are bored or unhappy, this will show and the excitement and eagerness that often helps motivate new dancers, while they are learning, may be lost.

Whew! That's a lot to consider.

Not every caller or choreographer will agree that these are all desirable properties.  Just as there are differences over what "should" be taught in a beginner's class, some callers believe the first dance should focus primarily on teaching roles and orientation, such as: "active" and "inactive", "outside" and "center", and "up" and "down".

This leads them to avoid partner swings in the first dance (or to have only the actives swing), so as to not have inexperienced partners possibly teaching each other bad habits.  I personally disagree with this, as I think it sacrifices too much "fun" for teaching purposes, but I acknowledge that this point of view exists.

A popular first dance is The Nice Combination by Gene Hubert.

Improper
A1 (16) Neighbor balance and swing; end facing down
A2  (4) Go down the hall
    (4) Turn as couples
    (4) Come on back
    (4) Ends fold to a circle
B1  (8) Circle left 3/4
    (8) Partner swing
B2  (8) Ladies chain
    (8) Star left

Let's look at it using the above "first dance" criteria:

  • It uses only basic moves and several self-descriptive ones (circle left, go down the hall, come on back).

  • It has nice flow, especially circle left to a swing and ladies chain to a left-handed star.  The clockwise motion of the swings and circles is broken up by the down-the-hall sequence.

  • Go down the hall has some built-in recovery time and ladies chain has a bit of spare time to help if getting into the star is slow.  Both A1 and A2 are effectively 16 count moves that dancers can mentally relax in.  All the moves involve handholds, so that newer dancers can be easily directed.

  • The dance has a balance at the very beginning serving as strong punctuation.

  • This dance stays within its minor set, is improper, and has lady on the right reentry, so it's trivial to join on.  The only problem is that it can get crowded at the bottom for "down the hall" if too many dancers join on.

  • It has both a neighbor long swing and a ladies chain to neighbor to help new dancers learn those moves.

  • This dance is fun; everyone is constantly active, there's a partner swing, and there's plenty of room for experienced dancers to embellish with twirls on the return up the hall or during the courtesy turn.

The Nice Combination is probably the most called contra dance of all time.  It is often used as a first dance of an evening.  It's clear why.  (Though callers who just don't like swing/ladies chain as a transition avoid calling both it and the next dance.)

Another dance frequently called as the first one of an evening is the Baby Rose by David Kaynor:

Improper
A1 (16) Neighbor balance and swing
A2  (8) Circle left 3/4
    (8) Partner do-si-do
B1 (16) Partner balance and swing
B2  (8) Ladies chain
    (8) Star left

Again, dead simple; fun; nice flow; neighbor long swing; ladies chain to neighbor; good punctuation from the balances; and the partner balance helps keep the dance from getting too clockwise (especially for new dancers not doing the do-si-do ccw spin flourish).  Another fine and popular first dance choice.

But, I don't always want to call one of these two dances as the first dance.  So, I wrote two first dances:

Back to Basics
by Tom Lehmann (11/05)

Improper
A1 (16) Neighbor balance and swing
A2  (8) Circle left 3/4
    (8) Partner swing
B1  (8) Long lines forward and back
    (8) Ladies chain
B2  (8) Star left
    (8) Star right
        With the next...

This is fairly good.  A1 and A2 are pushing it in terms of clockwise motion, but are immediately followed by "long lines forward and back", which is both a good "recovery" move and includes a reversal of direction.

This dance has a long neighbor swing and a ladies chain to neighbor, as well as a short partner swing.

Traditionally, star right/star left is preferred over star left/star right, but I've reversed the order since ladies chain flows into star left so nicely.

And, for those who dislike the swing/ladies chain transition, this dance doesn't have one.

One and Twos
by Tom Lehmann (11/05)

Improper
A1 (16) Neighbor balance and swing; end facing down
A2  (4) Go down the hall
    (4) Turn as couples
    (4) Come on back
    (4) Ends fold to a circle
B1  (8) Circle left 3/4
    (8) Partner swing
B2  (8) Circle left 3/4
    (4) Balance the ring
    (4) 2s arch and step forward; 1s duck thru

The first three parts are The Nice Combination, differing only in B2.  The final dive thru move (though I don't call it as such, but cue it) definitely gives this dance a different, and slightly older, feel.

I normally dislike having two circle lefts in the same dance (except for the running circle progression: ...circle left, slide left to face the next couple, circle left 3/4, neighbor swing), as I find it makes the dance too clockwise and, if the circles are of different lengths (say, 3/4 and once around), or if they both fall after the swings, potentially confusing.  Here, however, the circles are the same length and down-the-hall and balance-the-ring break up the clockwise motion, so everything works.

I think this is a good dance to teach "1s" and "2s" if I'm going to call either an alternating dance or an older dance later in the evening.  If I do call it, though, I make sure that my second dance has either a neighbor right and left thru or a ladies chain to neighbor move in it (so newer dancers can get comfortable with courtesy turns).

I've added these two dances to The Nice Combination and Baby Rose as good first dances for an evening, particularly if I expect a lot of new dancers.

Experiment with writing some first dances yourself.  Enjoy!