- Era: 1850s-1890s, America (New England)
Here’s an easy American contra dance of the Civil War era found in three Boston sources. Two are manuals by Elias Howe: Howe's Complete Ballroom Handbook (Boston, 1858), and American Dancing Master and Ball-Room Prompter (Boston, 1862); the third is Professor L.H. Elmwell’s Prompter’s Pocket Instruction Book (Boston, 1892).
The figures for the dance, as given by Elmwell:
First couple cross over inside below second couple (4); Up on the outside and turn partners to places (4); First couple down the centre, back and cast off (8); First lady swing second gent (4); First gent swing second lady (4); Right and left (8).
The earlier instructions from the two manuals by Howe are virtually identical except that he describes the second move as “up on the outside swing partner to place”, a distinction I will address below, and the swings of the first lady/second gentleman and first gentleman/second lady as “quite round”.
4b First couple crosses over, passing right shoulders, ending between the second and third couples
4b First couple comes up the other side of set, on the outside, and turns halfway to original places
4b First couple promenades down the center of the set and turns individually
4b First couple comes back up the set and casts off one place, second couple moving up
(the first couple has now progressed one place down the set)
4b First lady turns second gentleman (above her)
4b First gentleman turns second lady (above her)
8b Top two couples right and left
A detailed explanation of traditional nineteenth-century country dance progression may be found here. In brief, it would have called for the dance to be started only by the very top couple in the set, with each couple becoming active when they reach the top of the set and the dance continuing until all dancers have returned to original places. Elias Howe notes, but does not approve of, this custom:
It is usual for those at the foot of the set to wait until the first couple has passed down, and they have arrived at the head of the set; but there is no good reason why they should so wait, as every fourth couple commence at the same time as the first couple.
He specifies every fourth couple because, despite the fact that it involves only two couples, the dance would still have been considered a three-couple (“triple minor”) dance. The third couple in each minor set would simply be inactive. Modern contra or English country dancers would eliminate the third couple entirely and make this into a duple minor dance, but having a third couple marking out he end of the minor set (within the long overall line of couples) does have its uses: the “down the center” move would have gone no further than this third couple, and this is easiest to track when there's an actual third couple as a marker.
I describe the initial cross as “passing right shoulders” as a simpler way of expressing that the lady has the right of way when crossing the set and the gentleman must allow her to pass first. This means that in this move it is a right-shoulder cross. In practice, of course, it is of primary importance that the two dancers not collide, however they end up passing!
The move described by Howe as “swing partner to place” and by Elmwell as “turn partners to places” after coming up the outside of the set is ambiguous as to whether it is done by one hand or by two. The distinction in the early nineteenth century was that “turn” meant two hands and “swing” meant one, but that degree of precision has faded from dance manuals by this time (so the difference in terminology is not necessarily significant), and “swing” is used in different contexts to mean various types of turns and circles. That leaves it an aesthetic choice and, happily, it doesn’t actually matter much in practice.
If the dancers turn by two hands, they can open up facing down the set and holding nearer hands (his left, her right) and move down the set, then turn toward each other and then to face up the set, switching hands, to promenade back to the top.
If the dancers turn instead by one hand, the right would generally be the choice, in which case they may complete the half-turn, keep right hands, and also give left hands and end in a promenade hold, go down the center, turn individually to face up without dropping hands, and come back up to cast off. Either way works, but I find this second method more elegant. Two-hand turns are mildly awkward when wearing a hoop -- the lady has to twist her body to travel in the correct direction, which is especially awkward in the crowded confines of a country dance set where there are ladies in hoops on either side of her, and the wind-resistance of the skirt means she simply can’t move as fast as the gentleman. Single-hand turns are easier, since both dancers simply walk forward around each other. I also like not having to switch hands when going back up the set. But in practice, each pair can do as they prefer without affecting the flow of the dance or the other couples.
The turns of the first lady/gent with the second gent/lady present the same problem. Either two-hand turns or right-hand turns would work. Earlier in the nineteenth century, these would definitely have been two-hand turns, but earlier in the nineteenth century they were wearing slim, Empire-waisted dresses and dancing with fancy steps! But in this case I actually prefer a slightly different (and less historically documentable) solution using single-hand turns. Having the first lady/second gent turn by the right hand works nicely, but having the first gent and second lady do the same presents a problem when starting the next figure: they have to drop right hands with each other, turn abruptly, and shift again take right hands (now with their partners) for the right and left (described below). If, instead, the first gent/second lady turn by the left hand, the flow of the figures is much better. They finish their left hand turn and can move directly into the right and left offering their free right hands to their partners. This lets the turn be slower and gentler -- always a bonus when wearing hoops -- since it leaves the dancers positioned correctly for the next figure, though they then must be careful not to rush and not to start the right and left early.
I’ve never seen these alternating right-hand turns and left-hand turns specified for this figure in a contra dance of this era, so this is purely an aesthetic choice, taking advantage of the ambiguity of the description.
The right and left is performed not in the style of a quadrille right and left but by first taking right hands with and passing by partners, then left to neighbors, right to partners, next to neighbors in a four-part chain around the set. The greatest difficulty in performing right and left correctly is that dancers tend to rush through the figure. There are four steps for each change of place. Think “right hands, three, four, left hands, three, four” to get the timing right.
The tune “Bricklayer’s Hornpipe” appears in Elias Howe’s School for the Clarionet (Boston, 1843) and with the dance figures in Elias Howe’s Improved Edition of the Musician’s Omnibus (Boston, 1861) as a standard two-part dance tune in F major with eight bar strains repeated AABB for a thirty-two bar dance. Basic sheet music may be found at The Traditional Tune Archive, an online tune database.
Recordings of the tune are available, but in the absence of either a recording or musicians, any contra dance tune of the right length will work for the dance.