Contra Dance Difficulty Estimator

Rob Mahony has devised a formula for estimating the difficulty of a contra dance. The formula uses the formation, the moves, and some things such as whether there is any interaction outside the minor set.

How to Use the Difficulty Estimator

Count points for each of the first three categories 1-3. Then re-evaluate each move against the extra points in categories 4 and 5. The Dance Difficulty Level (DDL) is the score divide by 10.

1. Formation

Duple improper +1
Duple proper +2
Triple minor +3
Becket +4

2. Figures

Basic figures (connected): Any of the standard figures where dancers are directly interacting and there is no need for independent movement.

Balance, Swing/Balance and swing, Allemande, Turn (Right/left hand, 1/2, full), Do-si-do, Gypsy, California twirl, Balance the ring, Circle, Star, Promenade, Ladies chain, Right and left through, Down the hall +1

Basic figures that are less common:

Box the gnat, Poussette, roll away with a half sashay


Basic figures (independent): Standard figures where dancers must move independently within the set (there is no opportunity for an experienced dancer to guide a beginner).

Full hey (back to place), Cast (unassisted), Figure of 8, half figure of 8 +2

Difficult but generally known figures:

Contra corners. (note that Contra corners also normally requires dancing outside the minor set and will cost extra for that) +4
Half hey +3

Compound figures and new figures.

Split them into parts and count the cost.

For example contra corners should cost 5 according to this rule: Turn partner +1, Turn corner +1, Turn partner +1, Turn corner +1, Turn partner to place +1. In practice, since people know the move it costs slightly less


3. Progressions and end effects

Normal progression +1
Unusual progression +2
Standard end cross over 0
Non-standard end cross over +1
Required to dance significantly during stand out at end +4
Required to dance in once during stand out at end +1
Second (and subsequent) progression +2

4. Activity Level for moves.

Either couple standing still for 8-16 beats. (You can count multiples of this event. i.e. if the 1s swing while 2s watch it counts a total of 0; +1 for the balance and swing of the 1s and -1 for the 2s doing nothing. Four people standing and looking at each for 32 bars counts a total of -8, that is 2 couples standing still, each for 4 lots of 16 beats).

Note that this only counts if it is a couple standing out - it does not count if it is M1 and L2 standing out.

Faster than normal move (a normal circle 3/4 takes 8 beats, it can be done in 6 but costs extra). +1

5. Dancing outside the minor set or over phrases

Dances where you leave the minor set but don't dance with anyone. For example, men down the hall and ladies up the hall then return. +3
Any dance where you dance outside the minor set with someone from another minor set. +5
Uses unusual phrasing across normal structure of tune +5

6. Contra Dance Difficulty Level

The score for a dance is obtained by summing points in categories 1-3 and then adding points for categories 4 and 5. The dance difficulty level is simply:

Dance Difficulty Level (DDL) = Score/10


A bog standard simple dance will have DDL of around 1. For example, a dance that is almost as simple as possible may be: duple improper, do-si-do P, dos-si-do N, Bal Swing N, circle left, circle right, star right, star left; would count a score of 8 and DDL of 0.8.

A medium dance will typically have some tricky moves that boost the score up to 1.5 or so.

Difficult dances have several difficult aspects, almost always dancing outside the minor set, or awkward phrasing of music, or very fast new moves and score upwards of 2.0 in DDL.

A rough division of dance difficulties in terms of DDL

Very Easy < 1.0
Easy 1.0 -1.3
Medium/Easy 1.3 - 1.5
Medium 1.5-1.8
Medium/Hard 1.8-2.0
Hard > 2.0


A Happy Face By Robert Mahony, Duple improper

Part Beats Move
A1 (8) Circle left 3/4
(8) Swing partner (on sides)
A2 (8) Circle left 3/4
(8) Swing neighbour (on sides)
B1 (8) Ladies chain across
(8) Ladies chain back. (face neighbour along side lines)
B2 (4) Pass R Sh (3/4) with neighbour ending W facing each other and M facing out in line across set

Hey for 4 across the set (W start L Sh, M turn at end of line)

Progress by passing through the line of the hey directly into the new minor set

Score: +1 duple improper

A1: +1 circle, +1 swing,

A2: +1 circle, +1 swing,

B1: +1 ladies chain, +1 to get back.

B2: +1 for R Sh pass

B2: +3 for Hey for 4 (1/2 way) , +2 for unusual progression.

total score = 13. DDL 1.3 (Medium/Easy)

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes By Bill Sudkamp. Duple Improper

Part Beats Move
A1 (8) Circle left 3/4
(8) Top two swing (first man and second lady)
A2 (4) Circle left half
(12) Top two swing (other two -- first lady and second man)
B1 (8) Circle left three quarters
(8) First couple swing at the bottom, end facing down
B2 (8) Circle left half with the next, pass thru up or down

Circle left half with originals, pass thru up or down


+1 duple improper

A1: +1 circle, +1 swing.

A2: +1 circle, +1 swing.

B1: +1 circle, +1 swing, -1 (inactives stand out).

B2: +5 dance outside the minor set, +1 circle left 1/2, +1 pass thru,

+1 circle, +1 pass thru, +1 progression, +1 for ends dancing into the B2 circle.

Total Score = 17, DDL = 1.7 (Medium)

Comments to Rob Mahony at

Canberra Contra Club home