10 Tips for Contra Dancing With Kids

(I wrote this last year with the help and input of my two kids, but managed to not follow up with the places I submitted it for publication. I just thought of it again as my older daughter was describing to me all the defensive dancing tactics she has developed and decided I should put it out into the world myself.) 

We just got back from another lovely weekend at the Dance Flurry Festival in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Nadia, 9, has been dancing for several years and is an accomplished contra dancer who can dance both roles and hold her own through most complex figures. Her younger sister Molly, 5, has just started dancing full contras this year and is still a beginner.

For the most part, the contra dance community is wonderfully warm and welcoming to its youngest members, appreciating their delight and cheerfully helping them out when needed. However, we have noticed a few counter-productive tendencies that many dancers have when they encounter kid dancers, and so we wanted to offer you this set of tips to help us all bring up the next generation:

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Miriam and Nadia at the Buhrmaster Barn dance in Latham, NY, in 2013. Photo by Phil Syphrit.
  1. Don’t assume you know their skill level. Yes, they might be a beginner. But so might any adult you don’t know. And they just might be a complete pro. Molly notes that even beginners can really resent being constantly told the next steps once they’ve figured them out or having their hands held in figures that don’t call for it.
  2. Don’t forget to be responsible for you first. We cannot tell you the number of times we’ve seen adult dancers screw up the dance because they got fixated on “helping” the kid, and either told them something wrong or failed to do their own part right because they were distracted.
  3. Do be there for them, cheerfully, if they need it. Having said the previous two things, there are times when a kid dancer (or really any dancer) gets turned around or confused. For a kid dancer who is still getting their bearings, being right where you are supposed to be, giving them a nudge in the right direction, or giving them a few quick words like “now head back to your partner” can help the dance move along and them feel successful. Just do it at the same level as you would with an adult beginner.
  4. Don’t pick them up without their consent. I sympathize, especially with you tall
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    A shirt we made for Nadia for one Flurry Festival.

    folks. It can be awkward to bend down and do a swing with a very short person. But it is possible. (A two-handed turn is a good alternative option for big height differences or people with back issues.) In any case, just as you would not (I hope) pick up an adult dancer you don’t know without asking, don’t do it to a kid. Nadia reports numerous times giving clear physical cues that she was trying keep her feet on the floor and being ignored. Kids are people, not teddy bears. Not to mention it can also be a hazard, especially on a crowded floor: Nadia says that when people pick her up and swing her around she often ends up accidentally kicking other dancers. (Molly adds that some kids do like being picked up, in some circumstances. But the only way to know is to ask first. Don’t assume that because you saw someone else pick them up that they want you to—that might have been someone they know well. Also see comments for an argument against doing it at all.)

  5. Do go easy on the extra twirls. Kids can be small and light and eager and bouncy. However, being short and little and not at eye level makes it a lot harder for them to give the non-verbal physical cues—firmly lowered arms, not changing grip, and resistance to added torque—that most dancers use to indicate that they’re not up for flourishes, while the same amount of force really sends them spinning. Be cautious.
  6. Do advocate for them to others. If you see someone picking up a kid who looks uncomfortable about it or who you know doesn’t like that, or someone otherwise behaving inappropriately, say something. You can say something short even in passing in a line (“You should ask first,” “She doesn’t like that,” or “Regular swing please”) or step in to prevent a bad pairing up. (Our gratitude here to the other dancers from our home dance who took it upon themselves to help put the kibosh on anyone picking Nadia up once they knew her preference.)
  7. Do ask them to dance, or notice that they might be trying to ask you. Especially at a dance festival, it can be hard to be a short person standing in a sea of strangers, ready to dance with people other than your parents, but overlooked by a crowd of people above your eye level. I know adults who were contra kids who recall that time with frustration. (Nadia has a special fondness for the first non-family dancer at our local dance who invited her to dance.) [Edited to add, at the suggestion of that very dancer: If the child is standing with an adult who seems to be with them, make eye contact with the adult to get a sense of it’s ok to ask.]
  8. Don’t be offended, or persist in asking, if they turn you down. A kid might not actually yet be ready to dance with a stranger. They might be looking for someone else. They might be overwhelmed at the moment and not able to explain their reasons. Or they might, for some reason, not feel comfortable with you. Don’t take it personally. Learning to be able to say no, and feel in control of their own boundaries, is a really important lesson, and the contra dance floor should be a great place for kids to learn it gently.
  9. Don’t talk down to them. Sure, pay them an appropriate compliment about their dancing, but overweening gushing or baby talk is discomfiting. And don’t assume you are their best friend because you had one dance with them.
  10. Don’t comment on what role/position they are dancing. First, people of any gender can dance any or both roles, and that goes for kids too. But also, sometimes girls start off dancing in the gent position because the odds are higher they will mostly encounter women as neighbors and they are more comfortable with that. Sometimes boys start off dancing in the lady position because it feels like less pressure. Whatever you feel about these reasons or choices, the important part is, don’t comment on it and make them feel self-conscious. It’s not your business. Dance with who’s coming at you.

Basically, remember kids are people. If you can’t remember everything up above, the good news is that it pretty much all boils down to “treat kids with the respect you should accord a grown up.”

And have fun! These tips are not meant to make you anxious and tense. Kids are generally forgiving if you show them respect and admit it if you mess up. They are there to have fun, just like you are.

***

Notes for parents: It will help the general atmosphere for kid dancers if we exercise some general good judgment about easing our young dancers into full-fledged dancing. For example:

  • Have good sense. Don’t, for example, put your tiny two- or three-year-old who has never danced before and is up past her bedtime on her own two feet in a dark techno contra—for her safety and everyone else’s. (Yes, Miriam saw this happen.) Similarly, don’t throw your basically competent but new dancer into an explicitly advanced session.
  • If you want to dance carrying a young child, try a sling, wrap, or a carrier like an Ergo or a Kinderpack. Please don’t use a frame backpack as they take up way too much space, shift your center of gravity, and have hard parts that could be dangerous to others.
  • Seek out family dances, community dances, or other beginner venues if available, to give your kids some introduction to the moves and patterns.
  • Discourage kids who are both beginners from dancing with each other. It can feel safer to them to dance with other kids, but especially in a venue with a lot of kids, this can make it slower for them to learn and can get chaotic for other dancers.

Thanks and happy dancing!!

(This is published using a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike license. As long as you keep my name on it, feel free to republish in dance newsletters and similar spaces.)

5 thoughts on “10 Tips for Contra Dancing With Kids

  1. Great article! Our family’s experience is similar (four now-teens who started contradancing at age 4, 6, 8, and 9.) Our 14yo would add that some kids don’t like it when adults are overly playful, like making silly faces with kids (when they wouldn’t with adults). She felt it was creepy, unless she knew the person well. Our 12yo says she always really appreciates it when people ask her beforehand whether she wants to twirl (although we recognize that this is essential etiquette for all ages). It’s a good idea to ask kids how they prefer to swing (standard? two-hand? cross-hand? linked arms?…) because for extra-short people, the standard swing can mean craning their neck uncomfortably as they look up at their partner and/or lean back to counterbalance the swing. And we’d remind adults to refrain from commenting on kids’ appearance or clothing or anything else that might make them feel more self-conscious than they already do.

    Thanks so much for sharing your family’s experiences and bringing up some really important and helpful points. Kids who dance at a mostly-adult contradance deserve great respect for their courage and confidence!

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  2. When contra dancing, don’t pick up a dancing child even with their consent. Contra dancing isn’t couple dancing, it’s set dancing. Your partner isn’t just dancing with you, they are dancing with many people around them, and you can’t get consent from all of them.

    Children with their feet off the floor aren’t dancing autonomously – they aren’t controlling their own motion. Picking up your partner (and returning them safely to the floor) disrupts the natural flow of the contra dance for everyone involved. Yes, I know kids like to get picked up (sometimes). It just doesn’t work well in a contra dance. But if you’re swing dancing with a child and they’re game, go for it.

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  3. When I come to a child, I usually do a two-hand turn instead of a swing. While I appreciate the suggestion to “ask the child what he/she wants,” that is often difficult to accomplish in the few seconds one has to swing in a noisy environment.

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    1. Certainly as a neighbor one doesn’t have time to verbally ask. A child might put their arms up clearly in a traditional swing position, which would be pretty clear, but otherwise, as long you are very clear with what you are doing, and it’s simple, that makes sense. I would caution against trying to do the crossed-arm two-hand swing though because it can be very confusing to people who aren’t familiar with it.

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