Three Couples in an Offset Line (the middle couple in front of the others)
Four Couples Longways
Longways for 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9 Couples
Longways for as Many as Will
Square (Circle of Four Couples)
Circle for as Many as Will
Single Line of Four Couples
Many more have been added since.
Some groups choose to dance a subset of the available dances, but, even so, why do so many evenings consist entirely, or almost entirely, of just "Longways for as Many as Will" dances?
Yes, the longways formation has a number of significant benefits:
It is an excellent use of the available space.
It can handle any number of couples.
Tired couples, on reaching the top or bottom of the set, can drop out without affecting anyone else.
If longways is all you do then the dancers become familiar with the idiosyncrasies and concepts of that formation and you may be able to teach the next dance more quickly and with more chance of success.
But is that enough reason to ignore so many other wonderful dances?
Choreographers, next time you are writing a new dance why not try a different formation? Can you come up with a new formation?
Callers, why not explore the full breadth of country/contra dancing and produce a more varied programme?
Yes, I know it is not easy. Many dancers (who may never have experienced such variety) may be reluctant to try something new. For example, once, when I was calling at an English Country Dance session in America, I said, "The next dance is a square dance." Immediately a number of the dancers sat down and refused to join a set. We were limited in numbers so I had to cajole them to get up and join in so that we could do the dance. The dance was Don & Diane Bell's beautiful waltz-time dance, My Cape Breton Home. It just happens to be in a square formation. The dancers all loved it! I went on to explain that squares were part of English country dancing and had been since at least the early 17th century, including old favourites such as Newcastle. Playford even called some of them "Square Dances"!
So, dancers, keep an open mind; don't be afraid to try something new! You might like it!
Here are all the formations that I know. Please let me know if you know any others.
I have included sample dances in all the formations. Where I can't find the notation on the Web I have included it below. I have not been able to contact all the choreographers. My apologies if you would rather your choreography were not listed here; please contact John Sweeney if you would like it removed or updated. Thank you.
Please let John Sweeney know of any other formations, or dances in unusual formations that you feel should be added below.
This is a common "formation" in Morris Dancing which is very closely related to country dancing (same figures, same stepping, but performance dance rather than social dance). There are countless examples of the Solo Morris Jig.
In country dancing this formation makes little sense since country dancing is social dancing and you need at least one more person with whom you can be sociable!
The closest example I can give is the Accretion Reel by Chris Page in which, for 12 of the 64 steps, you get to dance solo.
This includes couple dances such as the waltz, the polka and the hambo, which are often performed at country dances.
There are also specifically choreographed dances such as the Salty Dog Rag. Though this originated as a variation on a ballroom dance, it became popular at country dances and ceilidhs on both sides of the Atlantic in the middle to late 20th century. You can see it being danced in two very different styles, and with lots of improvisations, here and here.
One Couple Improper
Two Couples Improper
This is a very popular formation. There were dances in this formation in the first edition of Playford and countless others devised since. Many of them are derived from 18th and 19th century Triple Minor dances by re-choreographing the ending to make them suitable for three couples.
The Black Nag published by John Playford.
Fandango (adapted from a Triple Minor).
Ted's Triplets #1 - #41! By Ted Sannella (I like #3) in Zesty Contras and other publications.
This is the most common formation for four couples and goes back to at least the 17th century. An early example is Hyde Park (Hide Parke). This is described in Playford as "A square Dance for eight thus"
"Faine I would", in the same edition of Playford, has the ladies on the left of the men. Was this an early formation before the positioning was standardised, or just a printing error?
Four Couples in Two Lines
Any combination of Improper Couples (but usually two of the couples)
Nonesuch is an early example There are many variants as the original wording is somewhat obscure!
Dargason is described as "For as many as will" but usually danced today with four couples. This is an extremely unusual formation as most dancers are nowhere near their partner, being arranged:
Man 4, Man 3, Man 2, Man 1, Lady 1, Lady 2, Lady 3, Lady 4.
Dargason 21 is a modern version with everyone starting at the same time.
Four Couples in a Horseshoe-Shaped Line
The Horse's Branle. This is a modern version of the 16th century Branle de la Montarde, set to the tune of the Branle des Chevaulx (Horse's Branle). The original was for an even number of men and women. But the modern version is choreographed for eight dancers.
Nine-Pins. This is the English Ceilidh version; the dance goes back to at least 1869 and the caller can add virtually anything they like to the dance; the ninepin can innovate to make it even more fun. Ralph Page: "Don't be polite, be quick!".
Four Couples in Two Lines with One Dancer at the Bottom
Squares and "Longways For As Many As Will" are the two most popular formations. Squares had prominence in the 19th century as Quadrilles, and there were probably more people dancing Modern Western Squares (Club Squares) in the 1950 - 1970 period than any other formation. But Longways has been the most popular many times over the last 500 years, and is probably the most common today.
Common variations include:
Duple Minor Proper
Duple Minor First Couples Improper
Duple Minor Second Couples Improper (AKA Indecent!)
Duple Minor Becket
Triple Minor Proper
These formations are so common that I don't intend to provide examples of all of them here. You can find lots of them at The Caller's Box, Antony's Dance Database and Hugh Stewart's Index.
Duple Minor First Couples Improper
Contrary to popular belief this is not a modern concept. The first one I know of is Old Simon the King from 1679! "First man being on his wo. side".
Duple Minor Becket
The Rifleman and other dances like it were in this Couple-Facing-Couple formation long before Herbie Gaudreau wrote the Becket Reel (Criss Cross Reel) around 1958; I am told that this formation was known as Rifleman Formation in England in the early part of the 20th century.
The Dorset Ring Dance is an example where you keep your partner, but Circles are much more common as mixers so that you get to dance with everyone. Examples are:
More of a Mixer by Al Olsen is an example where you start in an Alamo Wave (men facing out, ladies facing in).
Dances where one gender is in an inner ring facing their partner in an outer ring and the action is mainly between the two rings:
Big Set - Allemande (Community Dances Manual).
Virginia Reel Circle Mixer #24 by John Sweeney.
Multiple circles are often used when there are too many dancers to fit into a single circle, but the dancers are all still doing the same dance at the same time. This one is actually choreographed for
multiple circles and is a canon, so each circle is doing something different at any one time: Round for Lyttelton / Christchurch from
Bill Baritompa, who's not sure where he got the dance. The words are adaptable for any occasion.
Becket Circle by Al Olsen (in Zesty Contras) is an example of a dance specifically choreographed in this formation. This is also one of the standard setups in Appalachian Big Set/Kentucky Running Set; from a single circle the caller says something like, "Odds to the Centre" and every second couple goes forward, turns to the right, and faces the next couple. An easy progression, after performing a set of figures with this couple, is that all couples slide left to meet a new couple.
A grid of squares where the dancers, either as couples or individuals move to different squares and may or may not get back to their starting position at the end of the dance.
Can of Worms by Bob Isaacs.
More examples here.
Multiple parallel contra lines where the dancers move between lines. Here are some examples.
A square with contra lines radiating from the sides, with dances cleverly devised so that the same call can mean something specific to all dancers whether they are in the square or the lines. The dancers usually move up the line into the square, around the square, then down a different line. There can be multiple squares with contra lines between them as well as out from them.
Nooks and Crannies by Bob Isaacs.
Here are some more examples.
The Intersection Reel, by Warren Doyle, is another dance in this formation, though in this case they are just four longways sets.
Couples promenade randomly to find another couple to dance with as a foursome. Appalachian Big Set/Kentucky Running Set is great for this. There are lots of examples if you use this search and scroll down to find anything marked Big Set or Appalachian.
While finding one other couple to make a circle of four is the most common, there are also dances where you find two or more couples to make bigger circles. The Borrowdale Exchange by Derek Haynes is an example with three couple circles.
Some dances defy categorisation as they switch between formations. Four Couple Longways into Square is a common one. This one switches between one big circle and a Sicilian Circle: Hayden's Wheel by Ernest R. Jessup.
This is when you and your partner put your arms around each other and become a single dancer. You can see it being used as a break in this video.
Barrie Bullimore called one he called Double Trouble. I understand that Eric Hoffman got it from Sets In Order.
Wow! That's a lot more formations than when I started this project. Over 100 different formations, and that is not including all the ways that you can set up the genders and partners within the set!
If you have any more formations, or dances that you really think should be listed here because of something unique then please let
John Sweeney know. But this is a page of examples, not a database of all dances!
Comments, suggestions, corrections are all very welcome.