What makes a good contra dance band?
from rec.folk-dancing, Fiddle-L, and Mandolin Cafe

See also Playing Together with Style

These are comments culled from Fiddle-L and responses to the question "What makes a good contra dance band?" on the newsgroup rec.folk-dancing, from the article Contra and Square Dance Playing by Phil and Vivian Williams (their remarks used with permission), and Tune Talk for Contra Dances, a forum on Mandolin Cafe, as well as from various contra dance musicians and callers, and from contra dancers. Some comments were very useful, some were obvious, and some were obviously in response to bad experiences. I have arranged them according to topic.

To find the complete thread on rec.folk-dancing, search Google Groups using this search key: +what +band +great +contra group:rec.folk-dancing. To search the archives of Fiddle-L, go to http://listserv.brown.edu/archives/fiddle-l.html

Donna Hébert quoted with permission

Back to Contra Dance Music: A Working Musician's Guide

|| Choice of music || Instrumentation || Musicianship || improvising || Backing up the melody || Novelty ||
|| Interaction between the band members | with the caller | with the dancers || Miscellaneous||

Choice of music

The band is playful with the choice of music: "Choosing the occasional rag or even a march. Even a folk rock song played so it is "square" can be a lot of fun."

Some like it when a band focuses on a particular tradition, such as New England, Québécois or Appalachian. One person wrote of the importance for a band to know and use the classic tunes of their tradition. They don't need to play the classics all the time, but once in a while is good. And, the band should try to maintain the nature of the tradition that the music comes from, even when deviating from it to a great degree.

Have a wide repertoire. Some callers like a band to be able to play anything they request, but we all know that's not always possible.

For a discussion of tune medleys, see Choosing Tunes for Contra Dance Medleys.


Love the accordionists.

Percussion adds to the sound, but avoid rock & roll type drumming because it can obliterate the underlying triplet (swing) rhythm of traditional music.

"No didgeridoos."


Being a dancer as well as a musician is very helpful. Many people wrote that it is essential that band members all dance (and dance because they want to and not out a feeling of obligation), at least some of the time. This gives the band insight into what dancers need. One person quoted Duke Ellington:

"Dancing is very important to people who play music with a beat. I think that people who don't dance, or who never did dance, don't really understand the beat. ... I know musicians who don't and never did dance, and they have difficulty communicating."

"Musicianship can be acquired in a number of ways, whether by formal lessons or lots of exposure (usually by both), but it all boils down to one thing: PRACTICE. That would refer to both individual practice and band practice. ... The bands that can do the complex arrangements can do so because of their understanding of and complete appreciation of the fundamentals. Just like dancers-- those twirls only work if you know where and when they belong, and when they do not belong."

Don't play exactly what's written in tune books.

The things most frequently mentioned as necessary were a steady tempo, a strong beat, solid rhythm, and good, clear phrasing.


Not only should the tempo be steady, but the band members should agree on the tempo.

If you have trouble with tempos, learn to dance. If YOU can't dance to it, can anyone else? You don't have to be an expert dancer, but if you can dance pretty well, you'll know what tempos to play.

Mary McNab Dart writes this about tempo:
"A good dance tempo is one that is slow enough to allow the dancers to dance comfortably to the music, but that provides enough energy to give lift to their feet and support to their natural momentum. ... Rushing to keep up with the music is not fun. A tempo that is too slow, on the other hand, makes it hard to accomplish figures that require a degree of momentum, such as the "swing." ... A very involved dance with a number of precisely timed sequences needs music that is not too fast."

From Donna Hébert: Tempos vary for dances and tune meters. Jig time 6/8 can move a lot faster than reel time 2/4.

Suggested tempos are:
Contras: 114-116 bpm; also 112-118 bpm. At tempos higher than 120 bpm, the dance becomes merely an aerobic workout, and the figures can't be done in an enjoyable fashion.
Squares: 120-130 bpm
Waltzes: 132 bpm; also: 115-165, average: 140 bpm
A chart on waltz tempos from Dance styles:
Hambos: 138 bpm; also: 120-144, average: 132 bpm

Donna Hébert noted that some callers now want tempos around 128-132, while 120-124 is better for most contras. Slower tempos are more forgiving of beginning contra dancers and also allows the band to "groove more and worry less about which notes to leave out of some fingerbustin' tune." Donna also may speed up a little on the last tune of a medley when the dancers really have the figure and the caller has stopped calling.

Jim Nollman, in a forum on Mandolin Cafe says that "I agree that 120 is a normal "fast tempo" and though my bands generally play reels there it gets wearing for us and the dancers and so we like to vary things. 110 is a normal "relaxed tempo" and 115 is a good medium tempo. We might get up to 126 and at 130 it's really too frantic, though I think we have probably gotten that fast on occasion but probably only the last time through the last dance of the evening."


A good strong down beat is necessary. So is a good backbeat.

From Phil and Vivian Williams: The music has a lot to do with the dancers' perception of energy and fatigue. Spirited playing with a well defined, punchy down beat and a "chopped" chord up beat right in time will give dancers a lift. So will playing the tune simple with lots of drive, as will straight ahead unison playing by the lead musicians. Sloppier timing, syncopations in the backup, letting backup chords ring, getting away from the melody into less distinguishable variations, playing softer and with less drive, all will give the dancers somewhat of a "let down" feeling and permit them to dance more relaxed with less push. The change from one style to the other can be an effective tool to shape the dancers' perception and give them a chance to relax when they might be getting tired, but bring them back to full energy by the end of the dance. Start the dance with spirited, straight ahead playing, right on the beat, right on the tune, and uncluttered. In the middle of the dance, disintegrate the playing slightly with the lead playing variations, longer sustained chords in the backup, a few syncopations, and more relaxed playing. Done right, you can see the dancers relax, start smiling, and realize that they don't have to exert themselves quite so hard. After letting them cruise for awhile, tighten up the playing, get back to the basics of good, simple, on-the-beat backup and straight ahead lead. Done right, you will see the energy come back to the dance for a wind-up that leaves the dancers breathless and excited. When the dancers start whooping and hollering, you know you have pulled off this trick just right.

From Donna Hébert: Contra music is not accented on the 1 and 3 beat, but exactly the opposite, the 2 and 4 beat. It's not the BOOM, but the CHUCK that gets accented, creating a natural syncopation that drives the music. Oldtimers in New England from the thirties to the sixties played "straighter," with downbeat accenting.

Donna often refers to the "groove," which she defines as "the agreed upon (often silently) common rhythm the group plays in - where they put the beat, swung (anticipating the downbeat) or unswung. If all are accenting the beat in the same manner and on the same spot, groove happens and the music and dancing occurs with much less physical effort." "Groove is a non-verbal group agreement to sit in the same place on the beat, all giving it the same slant."


The rhythm should be consistent and danceable.


Good phrasing communicates to the dancers where figures in the dance begin and end, and the band should maintain phrasing even when "getting wild" or changing tunes. One person said, "I don't want to wonder there the ladies' chain starts; the music should tell me, every time through."

Another person wrote that the dancers don't have to understand what phrasing is in order to benefit from it, but the less they understand it, the more they need it from the music. "Good phrasing means never having to wonder 'are we there yet?'."

Some members of Fiddle-L (both fiddlers and callers) believe many Irish tunes, although good music, often don't have the phrasing or stylistic characteristics necessary for good dance music. Examples are tunes with ambiguous endings or in which "beginning of the tune was phrased in such a way that the first measure or two felt like lead-ins rather than like an emphatic beginning of a tune."

Sten Swanson writes that a strong and obvious beat are necessary. It is possible to dance just following the tempo, but occasionally dancers need to "resynchronize" with the phrase. His suggestions are to
1. use strong or obvious phrasing at the end of an 8- or 16-beat figure;
2. emphasize phrase endings with small pauses, longer notes, obvious harmonic cadences, or instrumental changes going into the next phrase;
3. choose tunes that emphasize dance figures (See also What types of tunes work and what type don't work).
4. keep the beat obvious when improvising.

Innovation should be used, but not to the detriment of maintaining the beat or phrasing.

One person likes a "pulsing, throbbing, surging, energizing flow" from the band.

Improvising: Remarks made by Donna Hébert

In jazz, you make up a whole new melody over the chords. In fiddling, you drum a new rhythm over the melody. The bow becomes a drumstick. Because contra dancers dance to the musical phrases and need some recognizable melody to tell where they are in the dance, you don't completely rewrite the melody as in jazz, just restate it with a little different rhythmic accent each time. Some improvise licks in a tune get used almost every time I play the tune, just not in the same place in the tune every time through. And ALL improvisation is subordinate to the groove and serves it.

To improvise, take the tune down to its bare bones (usually quarter or eighth notes instead of sixteenths for a reel) and rebuild it with a slightly different rhythm each time.

While one member of the band is improvising, the others can be doing rhythmic backup, counter melodies, and altered harmonies, depending on the sort of tune being played and the skills and conventions are among the musicians playing.

Ornaments (rhythmic and melodic) are largely dictated by regional styles and can be used. Ornaments for a style are fairly congruent within that style but these ornaments are used at the fiddler's inclination on any given tune. I use the same ornaments in many of the French tunes I play, but not all in the same tune, as different ornaments lend themselves to different types of melodic phrases. Ornaments are often used to establish rhythm as well, and their placement can change between one repetition of the tune to another to keep the tune interesting to dance to.

Backing up the melody: Remarks made by Phil and Vivian Williams

The backup has a major role in shaping the spirit of the dance. Dancers need good rhythm. The first duty of backup players is to provide solid rhythm, rather than demonstrating their range of pyrotechnic skills. The most effective guitar backup for a straight time tune is simply a flatpicked bass note on the down beat followed by a dynamic brush across the chord on the off beat. A solid, dynamic off beat actually will give the dancers a greater "lift" in most cases than a heavy accent on the down beat. Being conscious of bass lines and developing moving bass lines appropriate for the tune is a major role for guitar and piano players. Piano backup is best with just a bass note or octave on the down beat, and the treble chord on the up beat. Piano players sometimes like to syncopate their playing or use other ornaments. These should be used with a high degree of discretion. Not only can this throw off the lead player, it can stall out the forward momentum of the music and thus of the dance.

Backup players also need to be aware of the chord and inversion or position that best complements the lead. The music sounds best and supports the lead best when all the backup players agree on the chords to use. Generally, using straight ahead major chords in a major key tune and minor chords in a minor tune will provide the greatest sense of forward motion. The substitution of "modern" chords for basic chords often is detrimental to the mood and movement of the music and must be done with caution.

Lead players sharing the lead duties with other lead players need to learn how to provide effective backup when they are not playing lead. For a fiddler, this usually means playing drone notes, offbeat "chunks," harmony, or nothing. It is better to have nothing than a counter-melody which adds to the clutter. For an accordion player, backup means playing bass notes and chords. Flute players can play harmonies and obbligatos, but really need to watch it as the high pitches can clutter the sound fast. Mandolinists should play off beat chords. Above all, the lead player who is not currently playing lead needs to be aware of when they might be cluttering up the sound and interfere with the lead player's ability to play effectively or to be heard. Unison playing can be quite effective. It helps if the band uses musical arrangements that minimize the clutter and maximize the ability to hear the lead clearly and provide strong rhythm. If you do your arranging on the spot, keep your eyes and ears open and be prepared to jump in and play lead or jump out and play backup on verbal and non-verbal cues from the other band members


Keep the integrity of the tunes even when doing novel things, like using unusual instruments, unusual rhythms, pauses, stops, harmonies, counter melodies, sung verses, etc.

When it works it's great; when it doesn't work, it breaks the connection between the band and the dancers.

Overuse of novelty can contributes to sloppy dancing. "An effect is not "creative" anymore when it's used too often. And, like superfluous twirling on the part of dancers, it can interfere with teaching people to value what *really* matters - (tightness, working together, connection, etc.)

Interaction between the band members

One person suggested that bad vibes between musicians, even when they're trying to ignore them in the band, are communicated to the dancers. The writer continued that the dance music is the best when the band has fun playing together.

The band members should listen to each other and communicate with each other while playing.

Interaction with the caller

Set up communication signals early in the evening between caller and band.

The band should work with the caller to set the right tempo. It's OK to ask the caller what tempo s/he wants.

Pay attention to the caller and what s/he is trying to achieve with a particular dance. Ask whether s/he prefers reels or jigs for the dance. Some figures in the dance might work better with a reel than with a jig. (See What types of tunes work and what type don't work.)

From Donna Hébert: ask the caller where the "hook" is in the dance - it could be a balance at the start of either A or B parts, or another, smoother figure.

From Phil and Vivian Williams:

Getting Along With the Caller. It is essential for a good dance that the musicians get along with the caller. Personal preferences or feelings can get in the way of delivering the music that the caller desires and needs to be most effective. In a sense, the musicians are the backup band for the caller. Arguing with the caller at the dance, or working to undermine the caller's efforts with inappropriate playing just because you may not like something the caller is doing, detracts from the dance. A caller has a hard enough job without static from the band. Let the caller know that you are prepared to work with them closely to give the dancers a good time. Let the caller know that if they don't think a tune is working for the dance, it is all right with you if they stop the dance and ask you to play another tune. If you can, get together with the caller before the dance and find out what kind of tunes the caller likes and whether there are any problems with different keys. It is most effective when the caller and band have time to plan the entire dance and really match the music to the dances.

From Carol Ormand, a caller and contra dance musician:

Dance calling: Communicating with the band: covers information a band might request from a caller and information a caller might want from the band; also offers advice about matching tunes a band plays with the dances the caller plans to call.

From Eric J. Anderson:

More notes for callers

Interaction with the dancers

From Donna Hébert: The caller's job is to pay constant attention to the dancers, while the musicians do so peripherally while they focus more on the music.

"Some bands just make the music fit the dance and the dancers like a glove, while some play wonderfully but would be better in a concert setting."

When the band watches the dance floor, they can adjust phrasing and tempo to supply stronger musical support when needed, possibly even before the caller requests it!

This same person wrote that it is important for her, when booking bands, to keep in mind the bands that the dancers like to dance to.

One person said, "... bands that watch the dancers are more to my liking than those who do not."


Good energy and a sense of fun.

Quiet during the walkthrough.

From Phil and Vivian Williams: Socializing, running through tunes, and obtrusive tuning while the caller is trying to conduct instruction or a walk-through can be very distracting, both for the caller and the dancers. Try to be as unobtrusive as possible until it is time to play. Talk only as much as necessary to get set up for the next dance set.

Related to the first point under communication with the dancers is the feeling that the band that wants to be a functional dance band is more effective than one seeking to be an artistic show band.

Be a contra dance musician for love. Well, from experience I can add: don't do it for the money!

"Never play for dances, it will ruin the way you play the fiddle"--an old-time fiddler quoted on Fiddle-L.

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