Choreography: Different Techniques

Last Update: 5/31/07

Two common starting points are either a new "hook" that you want to use or a specific dance you want to vary. A third, and very different, approach is to work from a storyline.

Starting from a "Hook"

A hook can be a transition, a new move, or a desired progression (such as ladies double progress, then gents progress and ladies deprogress to find each other and swing).

I woke up one morning thinking about the swing to swing transition.  I had recently danced, and enjoyed, a dance that had a trail buddy short swing to a partner swing (10 Strings Attached, by Charlie Fenton and Jim Saxe).

However, I had a good partner and trail buddy.  If my trail buddy (whom I don't get to choose) had not been so good, this dance would have been a lot less fun.

Hmm... what about a dance with a neighbor short swing to a new neighbor swing?

On one hand, you won't be able to gradually synchronize into good timing, as when working with a good trail buddy and her partner, but you won't be at the mercy of a bad trail buddy either and will likely experience some very good swing to swings over the course of the dance.  Let's see...

A1 (8) Neighbor short swing to a
   (8) New neighbor swing

What now?  Well, I haven't yet danced with my partner and I've sort of just dumped my neighbor off, so let's get back to them quickly (see note 1 below):

A2 (8) Ladies lead 1/2 a hey
   (8) First neighbor...?

I don't want to swing with them.  How about Allemande Right 1 1/2?  Then,

B1  (4) Gents cross (passing right shoulders)
   (12) Partner swing

Hmm... that's a lot of swinging and a fair amount of clockwise motion.

B1 (8) Gents allemande left 1 1/2
   (8) Partner swing

Now, I need to swap the ladies and head on to my new neighbor.  How about:

B2 (8) Ladies chain
   (8) Star left

No.  Star Left to New Neighbor Balance and Swing works fine, but to just a Neighbor Swing is a bit awkward.  Transitions (with hands) that allow the man to take the lady's right hand in his left hand, such as Circle Left 3/4 after a swing, work best for entering a swing (see note 2).  Here, the man's left hand is tied up in the star.  How about:

B2 (8) Long lines forward and back
   (8) Ladies chain

This is a fairly common and ok transition, but not the best for moving to a short swing, since the man's left hand is often busy and he has to turn quickly to face a new neighbor.  So, despite the general rule of thumb of keeping your partner with you after a swing as long as possible (which is why one typically does Right and Left Thru followed by Ladies Chain, not the reverse), let's reorder these moves to make the transition into the new neighbor short swing cleaner:

B2 (8) Ladies chain
   (8) Long lines forward and back

Here's the result:

A1 (8) Neighbor short swing to a
   (8) New neighbor swing
A2 (8) Ladies lead 1/2 a hey
   (8) First neighbor allemande right 1 1/2
B1 (8) Gents allemande left 1 1/2
   (8) Partner swing
B2 (8) Ladies chain
   (8) Long lines forward and back

Hmm... that's (on paper) a serviceable dance.  However, there's not much partner interaction and it feels like some of the moves (the Gents Allemande and the Ladies Chain) are just there to move the dancers about, not because they "belong".  Let's try to increase the partner interaction.

How about adding the Sutton Hey "move" (the popular usage, as opposed to Ken Bonner's actual written version) to provide a partner "lost and found" interaction?

A2 (8) Ladies lead 1/2 a hey
   (3) First neighbor allemande right 3/4
   (2) Gents left pull by
   (3) Partner box the gnat
B1 (8) Pass partner right for 1/2 a hey
   (8) Partner swing

Now that the partner swing is on the gent's side, we need a new progression.  Let's try:

B2 (8) Circle left 3/4
   (4) Balance the ring
   (4) Partner California twirl

I like this dance a lot more.  I think the California Twirl to a short Neighbor Swing transition works nicely.  I like the increased partner interaction and the repetition of the hey, first with a neighbor, then with your partner.  The Box the Gnat move provides a strong emphasis, as does the Balance the Ring.  And, finally, I think B2 provides a nice way to say "goodbye" to the neighbor you've briefly swung, allemanded, and then passed in the final hey, while still keeping you with your partner before you two move on to a set of new neighbors.

Are there any end effects?  If people who are out immediately cross over (or swing and face in), does everything work?  Hmm... yes.

Now, this dance is still only on paper; it's real test will come when it's danced and there are still issues to think about in terms of music and mood, but I name it (checking to make sure the name hasn't already been used) and write it up, filing it as an untested dance:

Sutton on my Mind
by Tom Lehmann (9/03)

Improper

A1 (8) Neighbor short swing to a
   (8) New neighbor swing
A2 (8) Ladies lead 1/2 a hey
   (3) First neighbor allemande right 3/4
   (2) Gents left pull by
   (3) Partner box the gnat
B1 (8) Pass partner right for 1/2 a hey
   (8) Partner swing
B2 (8) Circle left 3/4
   (4) Balance the ring
   (4) Partner California twirl

Looking at it some more, this is not a dance for beginners.  It has both a Box the Gnat and a California Twirl, as well the Swing to Swing transition.  It also has a piece count of 11.  All in all, it's an Intermediate/Advanced dance.

How about keeping A1 and B2 and simplifying A2/B1?  Let's see...

Swing the Next One, Too
by Tom Lehmann (9/03)

Improper

A1  (8) Neighbor short swing to a
    (8) New neighbor swing
A2  (8) Ladies lead 1/2 a hey
    (6) First neighbor allemande right once around
    (2) Ladies left pull by
B1 (16) Partner Balance and Swing
B2  (8) Circle left 3/4
    (4) Balance the ring
    (4) Partner California twirl

This works (again, on paper).  The dance now has a piece count of 9 and a 16 count figure for dancers to mentally relax in.  It still isn't a simple dance; at a beginning to intermediate level dance, I would tend to place it next to last in the first half (or second in the second half) and I would teach California Twirl in another dance first, so dancers can concentrate on just the Swing to Swing transition.

Comparing this dance to my very first (unnamed) attempt above, I think it's an improvement.  The first attempt, to my eyes, feels too much like a glossary dance.  It flows reasonably well, but has too little partner interaction and not enough other interesting features to be both fun and distinctive.

The "hook", in all three dances, is the first half of the dance which fools you into thinking you're in a double progression dance before reuniting you with your first neighbor.  The second dance continues the interest by repeating the 1/2 hey; the third by breaking up the even pace of the dance from just a series of 8 count moves to some shorter and some longer moves and by providing a partner balance and swing.

So, I consign my first attempt to my bad dance file.

This is a fairly typical example of composing dances around a transition.  Often, I'll compose five to ten dances and keep only the two or three best ones.  I might end up with several sets of dances -- for example, this same transition might also produce several double progression dances.  Some of the bad dances may end up being possibly reworked later.

Starting from an Existing Dance

Another composition situation is when you're thinking about a specific dance; either one you admire and are considering variations on or one that you like a specific section of but don't like the rest of it.

Some common variations are to swap neighbor/partner, man/women, or left/right moves.  Others are to convert a one swing dance to a two swing dance; or to convert an 8 count swing to a 16 count balance and swing or gypsy and swing, possibly changing a two swing dance into a single long partner swing dance.

For example, I once considered variations to Al's Safeway Produce by Robert Cromartie.  I like this dance a lot and have had good results when calling it.  However, it's an evenly paced dance (all 8 count moves, including both a partner and a neighbor 8 count swing).  Could it benefit from a 16 count Balance and Swing?  Or, is there an interesting one swing variation?

This dance's strong points are its overall smooth flow and three successive nice transitions within its central figure:

  • Long Lines Forward and Back to Star Right
  • Star Right to Star Left with new neighbors (star to star progression).
  • Star Left to Neighbor Allemande Left (the analog of Circle Left to Neighbor Allemande Right).

If it has a weakness, it lies in its limited direct partner interaction, though the interaction present in the stars, lines, and circle compensates for this.

If all that is desired is a longer partner swing, the simplest solution is a slight variation of A2:

A2  (4) Ladies cross (passing right shoulders)
   (12) Partner swing

If a partner balance and swing is desired, then try:

A1  (8) Star left
    (6) Neighbor allemande left once around
    (2) Gents right pull by
A2 (16) Partner Balance and Swing

I'm not sure about this Allemande Left/Gents Right Pull By move, since the Star Left to Allemande Left 1 1/2 transition works by transfering the centrifugal counter-clockwise force from the Star Left into the smaller radius but faster Allemande Left.  Does limiting the Allemande to only once around cut short the good feel of this transition too much?

Even if this new transition is ok, the rest of the dance poses a problem:

B1 (8) ???
   (8) Neighbor Swing
B2 (8) ???
   (8) Star Right

If B2 begins with Long Lines Forward and Back, then B1 has to be Gents Allemande Left 1 1/2.  This is repetitious (see note 3) given our current A1.

If B1 begins with the more interesting Circle Left 3/4, the B2 has to move the dancers across the set while transtioning nicely into Star Right.  Neither Right and Left Thru nor Pass Thru, California Twirl flows well to Star Right.

An unusual transition that does flow well is:

B2 (8) Gents lead left 1/2 a hey
   (8) Star Right (to someone new)

This yields:

A1  (8) Star left
    (6) Neighbor allemande left once around
    (2) Gents right pull by
A2 (16) Partner Balance and Swing
B1  (8) Circle left 3/4
    (8) Neighbor Swing
B2  (8) Gents lead left 1/2 a hey
    (8) Star Right (to someone new)

This is ok, but I'm not convinced it is an improvement over the original.

If we keep its A1:

A1 (8) Star Left
   (8) Neighbor allemande left 1 1/2

We could try to obtain a one swing dance with either:

A2  (8) Ladies allemande right 1 1/2 (or ladies chain)
    (8) Ladies pass partner left (or lead right) for 1/2 a hey
B1 (16) Partner Balance and Swing

B2 then becomes troublesome as we have swap the gents before the Star Right:

B2 (8) Gents allemande right 1 1/2
      (ladies fall in behind neighbor)
   (8) Star Right (to someone new)

But, Gents Allemande Right is awkward immediately following a swing.

Would swapping the dance's handedness be helpful in any of these cases?  First, let's look at the original dance with swapped lefts and rights:

A1 (8) Star right
   (8) Neighbor allemande right 1 1/2
A2 (8) Gents allemande left 1 1/2
   (8) Partner swing
B1 (8) Circle left 3/4
   (8) Neighbor swing
B2 (8) Right and left thru
   (8) Star left (to someone new)

(B2 could begin with Long Lines Forward and Back if B1 were Gents Allemande Left 1 1/2; Neighbor Swing; but that's repetitious in a boring way.)

Hmm... there's a lot of clockwise motion for the ladies who only get a short break while the gents get to unwind with the Allemande Left.  Further, there's no Long Lines Forward and Back to provide a reversal of direction (which can be interesting, but not in a strongly clockwise dance).

(The original dance has 32 counts of strongly clockwise motion in A2/B1, but surrounds this with Star Left, Neighbor Allemande Left 1 1/2 in A1 and Long Lines Forward and Back to begin B2.)

So, a simple right/left swapping doesn't pan out by itself.  How does it work for a two swing dance with a 16 count Partner Balance and Swing?

A1  (8) Star right
    (6) Neighbor allemande right once around
    (2) Ladies left pull by
A2 (16) Partner balance and swing
B1  (8) Circle left 3/4
    (8) Neighbor swing
B2  (8) Long Lines forward and back
    (8) Star left (to someone new)

That's a reasonable variation and better than I got using the same handedness, but I'm still not convinced this is as good as the original dance.

Taking advantage of the fact that Swing transitions nicely to Star Left, will "Becketizing" this dance eliminate the Long Lines Forward and Back (since we have a balance to break up the clockwise motion), so we can avoid the Pull By?

A1  (8) ???
    (8) Neighbor Swing
A2  (8) Star Left (to someone new)
    (8) Star Right
B1  (8) Neighbor allemande right 1 1/2
    (8) Gents allemande left 1 1/2
B2 (16) Partner Balance and Swing

Unfortunately, A1 has to start with Gents Allemande Left 1 1/2 (or something similiar), so this attempt has a boring repetition and fails.

But all is not lost. Changing the handedness does lead to an interesting one swing dance, namely:

A1  (8) Star right
    (8) Neighbor allemande right 1 1/2
A2  (8) Gents allemande left 1 1/2
    (8) Pass partner right to start 1/2 a hey
B1 (16) Partner balance and swing
B2  (8) Ladies chain
    (8) Star left (to someone new)

The 1/2 hey increases the partner interaction (at the expense of a circle figure) and provides something distinctly different from the original dance.

B1 can be Partner Gypsy and Swing (since the hey is left handed in the middle) if a no balance/reversal of direction dance is desired.

This dance took me a long time to find, but it's simple enough that it might already exist.  This is often the case with variations on existing dances.

For example, I once devised the "obvious" two swing variation for Tanya Rotenberg's Delphiniums and Daisies.  I then discovered (before calling it) that I had written the identical dance as Cary Ravitz's Streetsboro Daisies.

An issue with variations is whether to bill the resulting dance as "new".  If it directly quotes a large portion of the original dance, then I usually bill it as a variation.  If it has been recast substantially (such as this dance), then I try to come up with a name that acknowledges its heritage.

For now, I name this dance as tentatively mine:

Left in the Produce Section
by Tom Lehmann (9/03) [already exists?]

I then file it away as an untested dance, noting both the Gypsy and Balance variations.  I'll call it both ways and see which works best.  I'll still keep calling Al's Safeway Produce, though.  This dance is an alternative, depending on the rest of the program, not an improved substitute.

I file some of my failed attempts in my ideas file, since I may come up with better solutions for them some day.  (And, in fact, I revisted Al's Safeway Produce a year later and came up with A Gypsy for Jessica.)

In Al's Safeway Produce, the central figure (and progression) occupied 40 of 64 counts, not counting both swings and the intervening setup.  Since I was mostly happy with the central figure, that didn't leave a lot of room for variations.  In other cases, you may be keeping much less of the central figure and the process will feel more like starting from a transition.  (Al Olson would often do this, working from a Larry Jennings' challenge, or a "buried gem" suggested by some other dance, and then clothing it in new garb.)

An intermediate case is when you wish to rework just a section of a dance.  For example, I really like the A1 and B2 of Paul Balliet's Summer Sunshine:

Improper: short wavy line, ladies center with left hands (identify your wave)

A1  (4) Balance the wave
   (12) Neighbor Swing
...
B2  (8) Circle 3/4 to the *same* wave
    (4) Balance this wave
    (4) Pass through (to form a new wave)

However, his A2/B1 (ladies chain over and back; circle left 3/4; partner swing) is not to my taste.  Two successive (and different) circle lefts is potentially confusing to dancers and I personally find ladies chain over and back a bit staid.

Here are three variations I came up with:

Summer Fun (2/02)

A2 (8) Right and left thru
   (8) Ladies chain
B1 (8) Ladies lead 1/2 a hey
   (8) Partner swing

This variation has gone over very well whenever I have called it, though I no longer like its 1/2 hey to swing transition.

Spring Sunshine (5/02)

A2 (8) Long lines forward and back
   (8) Ladies chain
B1 (8) Ladies allemande right once around
   (8) Partner swing

A more relaxed version, better suited for beginners.

Spring Break (5/02)

A2 (4) Go down the hall, four in line
   (4) Turn as couples
   (4) Come back up
   (4) Ends fold
B1 (8) Circle left 3/4
   (8) Partner swing

This suffers from the two Circle Lefts problem, but I sometimes use it if my program demands both a bouncy, wave to wave dance and a down the hall dance.

Several years later, I came up with a fourth variation which I like the best:

Indian Summer (8/05)

A2  (8) Gents allemande left 1 1/2
    (8) Pass partner right for 1/2 a hey
B1 (16) Partner gypsy and swing

Like the first variation, this provides better partner interaction and uses the hey as a "lost and found" device.  However, the allemande gives the gents a chance to interact (the ladies interact in the wave balances) and now partners get a full 16 count gypsy and swing.  By having the central section be so strongly partner oriented, A1 now becomes a neighbor "greeting" to begin each time through the dance and B2 becomes a neighbor "farewell", before transitioning on to the next neighbor.  A nice symmetry and a bit of "storyline" (see the next section).

These felt like miniature composition problems.  I bill them all as explicit variations on Summer Sunshine by Paul Balliet.

Starting from a Storyline

For some contra composers, a dance with a strong "storyline" simply means that it has good flow.  For others, it means that the dance really "tells a story."

The best example of this is in older contras, where a proper dance might have the actives cross and then go down the outside past two and return (often waving at each other from behind the second pair of inactive dancers), before going down the center, wheeling around, and returning as a couple.  The symbolism is straight forward: the actives are first single dancers flirting with each other, and then become a couple, walking "down the aisle" (in full view of the community).

In this section, I'm using "storyline" in this second, narrative sense.

I rarely begin writing a dance this way, though I'll often consider my efforts, particularly if a dance is giving me trouble, from a story perspective midway to see if it helps clarify matters.

One dance where story considerations played a large role was The Welcome Home.

I was thinking about Larry Jennings' move Give and Take.  I had recently danced several Give and Take dances and had observed that the ones where the ladies take the gents home (after they resist a bit) seemed to be more fun for many dancers, in part due to the "role reversal" of the ladies taking charge.

I tend to avoid Neighbor Gypsy and Swing in my dances as I think it downplays the "specialness" of being partners.  It struck me that going from a Neighbor Gypsy and Swing to a Partner Gents Give, Ladies Take them home and Swing could be fun, both from a pure dance standpoint (since it provides strong interaction for both neighbors and partners) and from a story perspective ("Hey!  Stop making eyes at her.  Come on home, you!").  This gave me:

A2 (16) Neighbor gypsy and swing
B1  (4) Long lines forward (take partner's hands across the set)
    (4) Gents give, ladies take your partner home (gents resist a bit!)
    (8) And swing

Since Give and Take is a linear move, I wanted some circular motion in the dance as well as a "formal" way for the reunited couples to take leave of each other.  This led me to:

B2 (8) Circle left 3/4
   (4) Balance the ring
   (4) Partner California twirl

To begin the dance, I wanted a formal greeting of neighbors:

A1 (4) Neighbor balance by the right...

The storyline then suggested that partners should go off and do something before returning for the intense neighbor gypsy.  What if this included some sort of "sneak preview" of future neighbors?  Maybe not one on one, as they haven't been formally introduced yet.  Hmm...

A1 (4) Neighbor balance by the right
   (4) Pass through
   (8) New neighbors star left along the set

This "sneak preview" flows nicely into a right shoulder gypsy with the current neighbor.  It also gives the dance action both along the set and across the set (the Give and Take) as well as a nice variety of formations (star, lines, and circle).  The resulting dance has a good balance between neighbor and partner interaction, something "special" for both (the Gypsy and the Give and Take); and a solid "narrative" storyline:

  • Two people notice each other while otherwise engaged (the star, first time).
  • They are later formally introduced (the balance, next time through).
  • They go off with their partners but return (the star).
  • They flirt and fall into each other's arms (neighbor gypsy and swing).
  • The ladies come to and restore order (give and take; partner swing).
  • The reunited couples say goodbye graciously (circle left; balance the ring).
  • And turn their backs on each other (California twirl).

The Welcome Home is one of my earliest and most successful dances.  Two minor points I've noted when calling it are:

  • Identifying neighbors at the start so people know whom to return to after the Star Left (since Star Left along the set is uncommon).
  • Since the Gent's right hand is occupied in the California Twirl, it is a bit awkward to go to a Balance by the Right.  However, if the Gents simply drops his hand down from the arch into the Balance as he steps forward, this transition works.

Here's the final dance:

Welcome Home
by Tom Lehmann (3/02)

Improper (identify your current neighbor; you'll come back to them)

A1  (4) Neighbor balance by the right
    (4) Pass through
    (8) New neighbors star left along the set
A2 (16) Current neighbor gypsy and swing
B1  (4) Long lines forward; across the set
    (4) Gents give, ladies take your partner home (gents resist a bit!)
    (8) And swing
B2  (8) Circle left 3/4
    (4) Balance the ring
    (4) Partner California twirl

Last time through: B2 (8) Circle left all the way; (8) Partner Swing.

(It helps if the men smoothly drop their right hand from the arch in the California Twirl to the neighbor balance by the right as they step forward.)

Good luck with your composing!

Article Notes

(1) Another approach would be to interact more with the next neighbor, then meet your partner in some sort of surprise move before progressing on to a new neighbor.  Or, perhaps, a double progression dance?

(2) If this is true, why does Gents Allemande Left 1 1/2 to a Swing work, since the man's left hand is tied up?  This works because the woman isn't doing anything else and can step into the swing as the man appears so that the man's right hand can easily take her up while his left hand is still getting free.  Try this move when the woman doesn't step into the swing but takes up a position as if waiting for a short wavy line to form (similar to moving into a swing with a new neighbor from left hand stars).  It's awkward.

(3) Why are some repetitions boring while other repetitions, such as the 1/2 hey in Sutton on my Mind, are interesting?  I think one answer is whether the same people are repeating the same move.  A sequence that repeats with neighbor then partner, or ladies then gents, or by the right and then the left keeps its interest, while simply repeating a figure does not. However, if the repeat is done immediately, such as ladies chain over and back, it can create some interest due to its immediately apparent symmetry.