Bear Hug Contra Dance Piano Workshop

Notes on playing for contras

The goal: Having fun

Why are contras so much fun to dance? Momentum. The circle that draws your partner into a swing, the allemande (or contra corners) with an extra twirl, the star into a neighbor balance -- the "flow" in contra dancing is the way one move propels you into the next. When your foursome circles with weight and your partner turns and smiles and the music builds and builds and you whirl around and suddenly there you are with a new neighbor to balance, wham! -- that's when you whoop.

As dance musicians, we live and die for the whoops.

This piece is about how to play the piano to feed those whoops. There's plenty of literature about playing piano to accompany fiddle tunes, about fiddling styles and harmonic interaction and regional variations and many other topics. This piece is about contra dancing, and what you do to get those whoops.

Below there's a paragraph or two on how contra dances work. The mechanics are simple enough. But the only way to get a real sense of the emotional draw -- to feel those whoops in your gut -- is to get up and dance. The most fun homework assignment imaginable.

The basics: Tempo and rhythm

Contra dance is a walking dance, with eye contact and momentum. Too fast and you lose eye contact, the dancing becomes a challenge just to complete the moves; too slow and you lose the sense of propelling momentum, too much time for thought, no whoops. Downbeats at 112-120 per minute feel about right to me.

Rhythm is the key to making any music "danceable", that foot-tapping feeling. Play the first exercise (simple boom-chucks) by yourself, aiming to make your rhythm alone so compelling that you feel like dancing. (Not an artificial exercise: your four potatoes must establish this danceable feeling every time you launch a tune.) Lightness and punch, especially with the right hand.

Two common technical issues can detract from your rhythm: hesitations when you try something complex; and speeding up when you get excited. The cure for both is simply to be aware that it happens. Of course, you must get excited to make this music fun. Your musical challenge is to keep up the emotional enthusiasm without stretching the tempo. Holding back with intensity can be even more dramatic than speeding up.

Some technique

Forget about playing the melody, that's the fiddler's job. Form your right-hand chords around middle C; play whatever "voicing" makes you comfortable, and don't move your right hand too much. Staccato and light. With the left hand, play an octave if you can. Keep your wrist loose and apply the force mostly with your arm. The bass notes are much more important melodically than the choice of chords. Don't repeat bass notes; instead, try to describe a little melody.

The key to contra dance playing is phrasing; and the first key to phrasing is varying the emphasis (attack and length) on individual downbeats. Traditionally, the first beat of any phrase is the strongest, and the midpoint the second-strongest. Don't let Southern old-time fiddlers talk you into playing evenly and lightly -- the dancers need that phrasing. You have to play loud. Get used to it!

The other half of phrasing is anticipation, the sense of buildup and drama. The simplest buildup is the upbeat right before the major downbeat. Think "and....Now!" We talk about some longer buildups under "Turnarounds".

Playing for the dance (I) -- pound on the balances

It may sound mechanical, but I think the single most danceable thing you can do with your playing is to pound on the balances. The basic technical idea is to play block chords -- left and right hands together, with emphasis -- on the four downbeats that make up the balance. Thump, Thwam!; thump, THWAM! Then you immediately go back to the basic boom-chuck accompaniment.

It's harder than it seems, especially at dance tempo. You have to plan ahead to see the balance coming, then you have to hit these counts in good rhythm, then you have to "play it with feeling". The dancers will get a huge thrill if they think you're playing with them; and the best, simplest, most dramatic way to say that is to pound on those balances. Thump, Thwam! thump, THWAM!

And where are those balances? Try this the next time you play: instead of a chord chart, try putting the caller's dance card on your music stand. That way you'll follow along with the dance, and you'll never ever get lost -- you can always look out and see where the dancers are!

You don't really have to make the big bold statement all the time. Later on in a dance, the dancers will feel the balance coming; and it can be very satisfying if you play right through the balance, making the feet provide your downbeat. By then, the dancers know you're with them and that makes all the difference.

Playing for the dance (II) -- drive to the top

Contra dance is all about momentum. You don't circle left for eight counts, then stop; instead, you fall smoothly into the next move -- whether a balance or a swing or a roll-away or whatever it is. The caller's timing anticipates the next move by announcing it -- usually with a growing sense of urgency -- in the beats leading up to the crucial moment. You can do that too, with your piano.

Contra dance moves come in eight-bar phrases. The moves don't begin on "one" and end on "eight" -- they don't end until they blend into the next move, at "one" of the next phrase. Don't stop until you get to the top! One easy way to "not stop" is to hang on the five chord (an A in the key of D, for example, or a Bm or B7 in the key of Em) all thr way through counts seven and eight, going back to the one chord (a D in the key of D, etc.).only at the top of the phrase. Done consistently, this simple trick will do as much to propel the dancers forward as anything else you do.

This may drive your fiddlers crazy at first. Fiddle tunes often end a phrase with a full stop, a "dum-dum-dum." You're not going to stop, though, you're going to keep playing through it, with chords that may even clash with the tune. Get used to it! Pretty soon your fiddler will join you; and when the dancers whoop, you'll both be happy.


A useful technique for "driving to the top" is the turnaround, a specific bass line and matching chord progression that leads strongly toward the "one" chord and matching bass note (home). Played as the last four beats of the phrase (5-6-7-8), a turnaround can build a strong sense of anticipation toward the next move. Starting from the "five" (chord and bass note), a turnaround can go in either direction, ascending or descending. An ascending turnaround requires a chromatic note; a descending turnaround can stay on the scale. These turnarounds are effective in either minor or major keys.

A particularly effective turnaround in a minor key uses eight chords, starting on the "one", descending to the four chord, and turning around to climb back up. This turnaround is so strong that you can slow it down, taking four counts on each chord change, without losing momentum. In this case the whole turnaround takes up B1 and B2. The Strawstack example uses this device repeatedly.

How contra dances are organized

Each tune you'll play lasts thirty-two bars of two beats each. So does the dance, typically eight different eight-count figures. Once through the tune is once through the dance, each time with a new pair of neighbors. The high point of most dances is meeting your new neighbor, which normally happens at the top of the tune. The dance repeats for perhaps twenty times through. Switch tunes as the couple at the top is coming back in, and end with everybody dancing!

Twenty times through means you'll play the same tune perhaps ten times before switching. The dancers learn to associate individual dance figures with particular parts of your tune. For the dancers, the excitement of meeting new people each time compensates in some measure for the repetition of the tune. At the outset, the dancers are focused on learning the moves; by the end of the dance, the caller has dropped out and the music alone provides the phrasing.

The basic moves are mostly flowing -- circle, star, do-si-do, allemande, hey. Punctuating these flowing moves are four-beat balances, with a characteristic thump-Thwam-thump-THWAM rhythm.

You have to realize above all that the dancers are busy. They'll only hear big bold ideas. When you have an idea -- a particular phrasing, or chord, or mood -- stretch it out throughout the entire tune, repeat it consistently all the way through, then go on to something else. Played once, it seems busy; played consistently, it gets through. (If you revisit an idea, though, it can seem trite.) Once through the tune is the natural unit of ideas.

Five points to live by

And above all, have fun!
Send mail to Eric at, and tell him what you're up to.
Last updated:
04 September 2003