Updated June 15, 2019
(See also a more complete list of definitions here. Added Dec. 4, 2016)
SET: The overall arrangement of couples for a given dance, such as a big circle, square formation, longways, etc.
LONGWAYS SET: Two lines, usually made up of partners facing each other in the opposite line. Used for contras and reels.
BIG CIRCLE: One large circle made up of couples facing the middle.
SICILLIAN CIRCLE (1): A formation consisting of one large circle made up of couples alternately facing clockwise and counter-clockwise around the circle to form pairs of couples. (2): A dance done in this formation.
UP: In a longways set, toward the music.
DOWN: In a longways set, away from the music.
TOP: End of a longways set closest to the music.
BOTTOM: End of a longways set farthest from the music.
MINOR SETS: Within the set, the groups of two or three couples that do all the figures of a dance together before separating in opposite directions to join new groups.
PARTNER: The person who agrees to be your prime collaborator through a given dance.
OPPOSITE or NEIGHBOR: Person next to you or across from you in the minor set who is not your partner.
TAKING HANDS FOUR: After lining up to form a set, joining hands in circles of four (two couples) to see which couples will be progressing away from the music (referred to as the #1 couples or the "active" couples) and which couples will be progressing toward the music (#2 or "inactive" couples).
PROPER: In sets with mostly mixed-gender couples, lining up before a contra dance so all the men are in the left-hand line and all the women are in the right-hand line from the dancer's point of view looking toward the top of the set. This is the way that experienced dancers first line up when they join a set.
IMPROPER: In sets with mostly mixed-gender couples, lining up for a contra dance so that in each couple the men are on the left and the women are on the right as they face the other couple. Since the #1 couples are looking toward the bottom of the set, the partners in those couples have to swap places after lining up in a proper formation (see above). Whenever a couple reaches the end, the partners must remember to swap places.
BECKET FORMATION: A variation of the basic contra formation. After forming an improper set, the groups of four rotate one place to the left (clockwise) so that the starting positions for the figures is partners side-by-side in the same line instead of across from each other in the opposite line. After doing the figures, each couple progresses sideways up or down their own line.
FORWARD & BACK: Two dancers or lines of dancers move toward each other, then away, using 8 beats of the music.
LEFT (RIGHT) HAND AROUND or ALLEMAND LEFT (RIGHT): Two dancers make a strong connection with left (right) hands (usually at shoulder height) and rotate counterclockwise around each other, using 8 beats of the music for a complete rotation.
TWO HANDS AROUND: two dancers join both hands with each other, either right-to-right and left-to-left or straight across. Rotate clockwise, using 8 beats of the music for a complete rotation.
DOSIDO: Passing right shoulders to start, two dancers or couples follow a clockwise path around each other without contact. Individual dancers may spin their bodies counterclockwise as they travel around each other, in any case using 8 beats of the music for a complete rotation.
SEE-SAW: Same as Dosido but passing left shoulders to start and going counterclockwise.
GYPSY: Same as Dosido but maintaining strong, usually flirtatious, eye contact.
RIGHT-HAND (Left-hand) STAR: 3 to 6 or more dancers walk clockwise (counterclockwise) around their joined or touching right (left) hands.
RIGHT (Left) HANDS ACROSS: Similar to right-hand (left-hand) star except that the dancers take the hand of the person directly across from them in a handshake grip.
BALANCE: A dancer takes one more or less forceful step forward or to the side, putting weight on it; lets the other foot swing through or across without shifting weight off the first foot (though the second foot may touch); swinging or stepping the second foot back to place, shifting the weight decisively onto it; and bringing the first foot back to place. Takes only 4 beats and often leads into a swing. A New England favorite, especially if you want to show off.
CAST OFF: From the center of the set, each active dancer dances forward 3/4 of a turn to a position one notch down the set. The active dancer usually attaches appropriately to the inactive dancer and they rotate as a pair, but in some contexts the inactive dancer must instead play follow the leader, or conceivably even reaming stationary.
HEY: A recently revived weaving figure for 3 or 4 people. Pass alternate shoulders until you run out of people. Loop in the direction of the last shoulder you passed and reenter passing that same shoulder with a new person. Make loops wide and distinct.
FIGURE EIGHT: The designated couple or person will dance a figure eight pattern around a dancer or dancers specified by the caller.
TURN CONTRA CORNERS: A dance action in which the active dancers touch right hands with partner in passing each other to turn their right opposite by the left hand, and again touch right hands with partners in passing each other to turn their left opposite by the left hand. Then returning to starting places directly without touching hands again. It takes sixteen beats of music.
SWING: Two dancers hold each other in any of a great variety of positions and spin clockwise as rapidly and smoothly as they please. The classic footwork is the buzz step: take a low, gliding step just past your partner's right heel with your right foot, pivoting on it at the same time, then bring your left foot up toward your right heel as you continue to pivot. Keep your left heel raised. Usually 8 to 16 beats of music.
RIGHT AND LEFT (over or back): A pair of dancers standing side-by-side exchange places with a pair facing them like this: Each dancer passes the opposite person by the right shoulder. Then both members of the pair, facing the same direction, turn counter-clockwise as a unit to face back across. One way to turn is for members of the pair to put their near arms around each other's back. As they wheel around, the dancer on the left backs up and the dancer on the right steps forward, both giving weight as in the swing. Also popular is for the person on the left to give the person on the right a modified courtesy turn. If this figure is done only once, it's sometimes called "half right and left". Takes 8 beats.
HALF PROMENADE: A dance action in which the designated dancers cross the set in promenade position, each couple passing to the right of the other (men passing left shoulders). After crossing, each couple wheels as a couple to face across the set again.
SLOW SQUARE THRU: A dance action in which the designated dancers give a right hand to the person they're facing and pull by, turning to face the next in their group with a left hand pull by, turning again with a right hand, and again with a left hand - each time turning 1/4 except after the last (left) hand. This takes 4 beats of music per hand; and is also known as "jigtime" square thru.
Contra Moves & Timing
Allemande - 8 beats
Balance - 4 beats
Balance & Swing from 4 to 12 beats; Use a tune with accents (or chords) at the point where a balance occurs, it's nice to have a quarter note figure in a jig or a heavy accent in a reel.
Circle right or left - 8 beats
Courtesy turn - 4 beats
Do-sa-do - 8 beats
Down the center - 16 beats to walk down, turn around, and come back up; use smooth music or march-type music
Forward and back - 8 beats
Full hey - 16 beats; use smooth music
Gypsy - smooth music; a minor key works well
Ladies chain across the set - 8 beats
Across and back - 16 beats
Pass through - 4 beats
Petronella turn - 4 beats; with a clap-clap on beats 3.5 - 4
Promenade - usually 16 beats (half - 8 beats)
Right and left through - 16 beats (half - 8 beats)
Roll away with a half sashay - 4 beats
Star right or left - 8 beats to go around once
Swing - 4 to 8 beats (or longer)
Wavy line balance - 4 beats; jigs work well