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Contra dances are a certain length, sixty four beats. During the first half of the dance, the band will be playing  the "A" part which will sound different from the music in the second half called the "B" part. Typically, each part of the music is sixteen beats long and each isplayed  twice, forming the A1, A2, B1, B2 pattern.

Pine Wood Reel   duple improper contra dance
A1  Long lines go forward and back (8 counts); neighbor swing on the side (8 counts)
A2  (1/2)Promenade across (8 counts); (1/2) ladies chain (8 counts).
B1  Ladies allemande right one time (6 counts),  partner swing (10  counts).
B2  Circle left 3/4 (6 counts), on the side, men roll away neighbor(2 counts);
       (1/2) right left thru across (8counts).
Notice that each section adds up to 16 counts and the whole dance is64 beats.

In other dances a  few figures, such as a complete hey, will fill one sixteen count section of music,  but most figures are eight counts, and two of them will fit into a section of music. For example, long lines go forward and back (8) might be coupled with ladies chain across the set(8).  The sixteen beat section doesn't always have to be divided equally. Balance and swing combines a four beat introduction with a twelve count swing. Likewise, circle left three places and swing your partner is most smoothly done with a six count circle, two beats per place in the circle, and a ten count swing. Some figures such as pulling by the person you face are as short as two beats. Since the majority of figures areeight counts, listen closely to the music for the division half way thru either an "A" or  "B" part dividing it into shorter eight count phrases.
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"Contra dance, like many art forms, evolves over time.  Historically, each of these moves was originally done as "over and back", and took 16beats to complete. e.g., a chain by definition was "chain over and chain back."  If a crazy newfangled dance contained a chain across but no return, it was specified as "half a chain," or" ladies chain halfway." Today, many  callers and dancers apparently prefer doing the half chain,  half promenade, and half R&L thru because they are very common in modern contra dance choreography. Even though we normally only dance half of the original figures, most callers don't say a "half of this" and a "half of that" because relying on fractions causes confusion.  As a result of this evolution,  the termshave come to mean half of what they originally meant, and now if a dance includes a chain over and chain back, the caller must call it like that, or specify a FULL chain." D.S.

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Some figures are compound in nature e.g. ladies chain is made of ladies pull by the right hand combined with a courtesy turn and right left thru is made by a pass thru combined with a courtesy turn. A combination like circle left three places and pass thru up and down in 8 counts is more of a problem. Many dances allow you an eight count phrase to circle left three places. If you take 8 counts for the circle when it is part of a two part move, you won't  be where you need to be at the end of the phrase of music. Just be aware of how much needs to be done in each section of music.
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I am very pragmatic in my approach to contra. Stop swinging in time for the next move. The music will tell you when. Even without extra twirls at the end, the men have a hard time finishing a swing in time with the music. During the swing you are facing the opposite direction from your partner. As the swing ends, the man stops and the lady continues to rotate to face  the same direction. To be on time the man has the difficult job of stopping before the end of the phrase of the music at a time he is enjoying the lady’s company and wants the swing to continue. Let her go. If the dance holds together, there will be many more ladies to swing. Sometimes you can get away with ending a swing late and even do extra twirls during the next move’s time slot, but when you follow the timing of the swing more closely,the caller can move on to a more exciting variety of dances.

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 'When do you have time to add flourishes [to the end of a swing].-- the general idea is:  if you're going to twirl out of a swing, you have to stop swinging extra early so that you're done with the twirl on time. If you're going to go for23 twirls in a courtesy turn, don't be late!  (freedom and responsibility!)Conversely, if the music is slow and the dance is easy and you get there early, don't just stand around (and break the flow of movement), and don't start the next move  early; instead, go ahead and do something creative with the extra time." D.S.

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A balance is like a stop sign at an intersection of the music. It breaks the monotony of the smooth flow, and it brings the whole group together at one point in time. Especially if it is done with a loud stomp, the band, the caller and the dancers all get the feel of grooving on the same beat, and we feed on each  other's energy. When I balance at a place in the music where it doesn't belong, I feel  like I would if I were driving my car and the stop signs were in the middle of the block instead of at the intersections. I would prefer that if you are late for a balance, skip it, and if you are early for a balance, wait for it.

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Some dances are safer while other ones are more daring. Loose timing makes a forgiving dance.  If you start the "long lines forward and back" six beats after you should have, you can take one step forward and one step back and you will be back in time with the phrase of the music. Or you might have a full eight counts to circle left three places when moving each place around the circle only takes two counts. As you become used to following the timing, dances that fill the time more completely often feel more custom tailored to the music.

Also, many of the dances that are the most fun have multiple progressions. You will have the thrill of flowing from one set of four to another set like connecting in a circus act with the next person on a flying trapeze. If that person is a second or two late,  you won't fall fifty feet to your death, but you will feel very lost.

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 Some callers call it walking with a purpose. I say, "Walk like you are going somewhere."  You don't have time to hesitate, and many of the dance tunes are quite lively. To know where you are going, I suggest that you remain unencumbered by the analytic thought process(too time consuming), and passively be aware of where you are, starting when you are doing the walk-thru. You might notice that you start on one side of the set, you go to the other side for a swing, then you cross back to the original side. With a general idea of where you are going, you can fulfill your responsibility to get you where you need to be on time.