Erik Hoffman     

Old Time Music and Dance

From my book, Contra Comments.   If you are interested in purchasing this book, go to Ordering Information

Copyright 1993, Erik Hoffman

Chapter 8       List of Dances

Chapter 3

Music and Dance

Music and dance, movement and sound. Dance is movement set to music. Music is vibrations carried through the air and received by the ear, stimulating the brain. Dance is vibrations of the body, harmonic motion: hearts beating, lungs breathing, heads bobbing, arms flowing, legs swinging, and feet stomping. What does it mean to move to music?

Music has a pulse, a rhythm. This pulse varies, in eastern music (India and the Orient) the pulse is often tied with breath rate, a swelling and collapsing "breathing" rhythm. The pulse in western music is much more related to the heartbeat: thump-thump-thump-thump. However, it's all related to experiences in our body. When the musical pulse resonates with our heart and feet (or inspiration and exhalation) it drives a dance. They are interminably intertwined.

All are connected: the lungs expand and contract rhythmically, making a musical sound. The heart beats in a life sustaining dance. The feet propel the body, making a percussive sound on the floor. The fiddler's fingers do a jig on the fingerboard while the bow dances on the strings. Movement and sound. But I digress from these metaphysical considerations.

What makes old-time music and dance unique is its structure. Contras and squares are built on a structure of fitting music and dance together. It is a structure that creates a strong interaction between the music and dance, between the musicians and dancers, and between the dancers themselves. There are similarities and differences in rules for contras, New England quadrilles (well phrased squares), singing squares, and old-time/western squares. Let's take a look at how this works.

The most basic rule that applies to all these dances is this: each beat of the music gets one step with the foot; each step of the foot takes one beat of the music. This requires being able to feel the pulse of the music. Luckily, this isn't hard. Stepping in time with the music is the primary key.

Contras and Music

The rules for contras (and Sicilian circles, and most circle mixers) are quite well defined. The tune and the dance fit together like a glove. The length of the dance is the same as the length of the tune. The figures of the dance are timed to the phrases of the tunes used for the dance. The musical structure goes like this: A tune suitable for contradance lasts sixty four beats. One time through the dance is one time through the tune and vise-versa. That means one time through the dance takes sixty four steps.

This sixty four count is further broken down into four sixteen beat phrases. In the music, the normal pattern is a sixteen count phrase, called A1, which is repeated, A2. Then a new sixteen count phrase is played, B1, and repeated, B2. So tunes go: A1, A2, B1, B2. It's worth it to listen to the music, and learn to recognize these phrases, and how they fit together. Music for New England contra dances break down into even shorter phrases. Most New England tunes have musical statements that give a strong indication at the end of eight beat phrases. This is good for the dance because most of the figures take eight or sixteen beats. A half woman's chain, the do si do, a short swing, circles and stars, a half right and left through, all take eight beats (or eight steps). Some take the full sixteen beat part such as the hey for four, women chain over and back, and balance and swing.

With or without knowing it, dancers respond to these phrases. The musical phrases drive the dance, they tell when to do the next figure. In contras, where the figures are repeated with the tune many times, callers like to let the music lead the dance. Dancers start anticipating doing the next figure when the music commands. The feet keep the beat, and the figures flow with the phrase. Taking the first step of a figure on the first beat of a musical phrase is what people mean when they talk about, "being on time".

There are exceptions to these rules. Many tunes don't fit this sixty-four beat structure. Dances have been choreographed to fit these variations. The tunes, "Reel de Beatrice," and "Banish Misfortune, " are ninety-six beats long with a sixteen beat phrase structure that goes AA BB CC. Both have inspired people to make up contras with two extra sixteen beat parts. Then there are tunes like Cherokee Shuffle, that have a twenty beat B part. David Kaynor put figures in the B part that use these extra beats. Though there are more examples like these, the vast majority of dances fit the sixty four beat rule.

Being On Time

The rigidity of this structure leads to the concept of "being on time." In this contra structure, the caller plays the role of prompter, often trying to be transparent. Thus, as the dancers catch on to the flow of the dance, the caller will stop calling. At that point the phrasing of the music drives the dance, meshing music and movement together in a most satisfying manner. "Being on time" means fitting the dance to the tune, moving through the figures in sync with the phrases of the music. It means being ready to step into the next figure with the next musical phrase. Most dancers find it extremely satisfying to enter each figure as the music dictates, and complete that figure as the musical phrase is ending. This leads to many discussions on this topic, especially about people who, "are never on time," or "are such great dancers because they're always on time." Thus it's good to understand and develop "being on time" habits.

Squares and Music

There are (at least) three kinds of squares, New England style quadrilles, singing squares, and old-time/southern/western squares. Each operates a bit differently with the music. All, however, permit more flexibility for the caller than contras. Callers will improvise sequences of figures, and dancers should be on their toes!


"Quadrilles," or, "well phrased squares," are much like a contra done in a square. The figures are phrased with the music, and the same figures are repeated. Thus just about everything that's said about contras applies here. The sequence of figures last those sixty four beats in the AA BB form with some important differences.

Contras repeat the set of figures over and over, from beginning to end. Quadrilles, however, have several "major phrases" that last at least one time through the sixty four beat tune, "intros," "main figures," "breaks," and "endings."

The usual form is: intro sequence or "figure," main figure, main figure, break figure, main figure, main figure, end figure. Each of these "major phrases" of the dance is exactly one time through the (sixty four beat) tune. Thus, a quadrille will, in general, go seven times through a tune.

The figures in a quadrille are set to the phrase of the music. Thus, by listening to the music, your feet will know when to do the next figure. A woman's chain will begin and end with the phrase. When the tune reaches the end, it signals the next phrase of the dance. But don't let your feet try to predict the caller's intention, she just might change a call!

For, especially in the intros, breaks, and endings, there's lots of room for improvisation. Callers learn how long it takes to complete a figure, and will try to surprise the dancers with impromptu calls that fill out the tune.

Singing Squares

There is a tradition of fitting dance figures to the popular music of the day. Callers will then make up songs, so they can sing the calls. This is the tradition of "singing squares". Singing squares, are as a rule, strictly choreographed. The figures are timed to the music and the calls are set to the melody of the song. This can prove interesting, as the calls come out with the tune, while the figure may start at a slightly different time. However, with your internal clock going, the figures will move along just right.

Singing squares are often good for new callers who are already musicians, and not so good for new dancers. For musical callers this is because learning a singing call is the same as learning a song. For new dancers though, these dances truck along, and if you don't keep up, the caller can't cut too much slack. Also, that some of the timing may be off makes these dances a challenge.

The figures in singing squares are usually a set pattern, so a dancer can learn to anticipate the next move by memorization. However, some callers are adept at improvising sequences of figures to the tune of a song, so beware!

Old-time / Western / Southern squares

These dances are put to the beat instead of the phrase of the music. Figures can cross phrases, and callers might pay little attention to the part of the tune they are in. This is great for bands, since there are many tunes that don't fit the New England structure or style. It is here they can be put together with fun dances. The cardinal rule here is: one beat, one step.

Here also, is the most room for improvisation. Callers can string figures together with no worry about where in the music they are. Dancers need to perk up their ears and listen to the caller for the next figure. Quick minded callers will watch dancers, and if some dancers start a move in anticipation what they think comes next, the caller may change the call!

This concept is explored fully in the Western, or "club square" dance movement. There, the duty of the dancers is to respond as the caller calls. The caller can lead the dancers wherever he or she wants! In order to do this, the dancers must take classes. That way when they show up to a dance, no walk throughs are required. The Western Square Dance movement has sadly lost much of the connection with the music, though. They habitually use records and tapes, and the quality and adherence to traditional music has for the most part been lost.

Music and Dance, the Wonderful Connection

The fact that live music is the primary source of music for our dances preserves the strength of connection between the music and dance. We are so lucky that our musicians are in love with the beauty of these traditional and traditionally styled tunes.

As a dancer, spending time listening to the music improves your connection to the dance. Also, it will give you a greater appreciation for the wonderful musicians carrying out the tradition of playing for dances.

There are many wonderful tapes, records, and CD's, both of present and past musicians. Support your musical friends, buy these and enjoy them. Just like rock and roll, (or classical music, or whatever) you will learn to recognize your favorite tunes. And then you might whoop and holler when bands play them at a dance.

And as you get more familiar with the music, you ears will perk up and your feet will know when to move as you move from figure to figure. Finally, as the caller says, "Thank the band, they're the best in the land!"

Chapter 8

Dance Caller
Old Time Music
Officiate Weddings