Basic Challenge Dancing Skills

Challenge square dancing spans a range of programs, starting with C-1 and running up to C-4. Each program builds on the previous ones, and in turn on the foundation of Basic, Mainstream, Plus, and Advanced. To be successful in learning a new Challenge level, it is important that a dancer be comfortable with the basics. This page provides an outline of skills that are common to all Challenge programs.

Of course not everybody will find it easy to become expert in all of the skills involved in any given program. Many dancers have weaknesses in specific skills. Nobody is perfect. Everyone, even the most experienced, sometimes make mistakes. However, it is our expectation that anyone who is attempting to go beyond C-1 will already be comfortable with most of what is described here, and in addition will be striving to improve in whatever area(s) he or she may not yet feel comfortable. You may want to use this outline as a tool for self-evaluation, both with respect to your current abilities and for identifying areas on which you should be working to improve. There is no magic "passing grade" here, but of course the higher your comfort level with as many things as possible, the better.

Spatial Awareness

Formation Awareness

You should be familiar with all of the formations commonly used at C-1 and below, including their names. While you don't actually need to know the names of formations to dance most calls, it greatly facilitates communication between the caller and dancers both in teaching situations and in dancing situations where a square needs to be corrected.

Study recommendation: Review CALLERLAB's chart of formation names. A few of these names (e.g., #33-36, #67, #69-72) are overly-specific or not commonly used -- although you should understand the general idea you don't need to worry about the exact names. A couple of the diagrams are kind of misleading -- specifically #46-47 don't make clear which dancers make up each "Z". But you should be familiar with the rest of them.

You should be able to recognize that you are in one of these formations, without being told explicitly by the caller or other dancers. When you recognize that you are in one of these formations you should adjust your actual position -- the spacing between yourself and other dancers -- to whatever is conventional for that formation. Specifically, whenever you realize that you are in a 2x4 formations, you should adjust so that everybody is lined up neatly in a rectangle.

Position Awareness

In most formations there are categories of positions that are relevant either because definitions depend on them or because the caller will use them to address particular dancers. You must be able to recognize, whenever relevant, that you are a center or an end, a leader or a trailer, a beau or a belle.

Study recommendation: review this Dancer Identification Tutorial

Sub-Formation Awareness

Most eight-person formations can be seen as being made up of two four-person formations, and four-person calls are frequently applied to those sub-formations. You need to be able to recognize these quickly, in order to be able to do the call with the correct set of people -- or, in some cases, to realize that you are not in the group that should be doing the call.

Note that in some cases the same eight-person formation could be divided up into groups of four in more than one way. For example, normal twin diamonds can be seen either as two diamonds or as a wave surrounded by a box. You should always be ready to act on these groupings either way, depending on what the caller says next.

Disconnected Formation Awareness

You need to be able to recognize, and do certain kinds of actions in, formations that are split apart by space or other dancers. The primary application of this skill at C-1 is the Concentric concept -- the outside four dancers need to be able to see if they are in a wave, a box, etc. -- but the same skill is needed for doing many other calls and concepts in the various Challenge programs.

In addition, there are certain kinds of calls in which, although they are normally described as being done from a group of four, the action really only involves two people at a time. The four-person group only serves to define a center point. Examples of calls like this are Peel Off, Zoom (including 1/2 Zoom), Zing, Cast Off 3/4, and Step and Fold. Callers will frequently ask pairs of dancers to do these calls without making explicit mention of any concept, even where there is no actual box or line -- you should be ready to do them in such cases, as long as there is some obvious "center" direction.

Turning Awareness

The proper execution of many calls depends on knowing both which way to turn and how far. You need to know right from left. You need to be able to accurately turn 1/4, 1/2, or 3/4 -- both in cases where you are turning individually and when you are turning with another dancer (arm turn or cast). You must be able to add "Roll", and end facing the correct wall.

Matrix Awareness

Many Challenge calls and concepts depend on the idea of a "matrix", an idealized array of possible spots on the dance floor. This is made explicit at C-1 with the introduction of the call Press. You should be familiar with how the formations commonly used at C-1 and below relate to these "matrix spots".

Study recommendation: review these diagrams

Mastery of Building Block Calls

Most Challenge calls are composed of simpler calls, which you learned starting with your first beginnner class. By the time you get to C-1 you should be able to dance every call "all position", without regard to what might be considered typically the "boy's part" or the "girl's part" at lower levels. You also should be able to dance "left" or "reverse" versions of all the calls from lower levels, without special help from the caller.

While being able to do all calls from C-1 and below is important, and being able to do as many as possible reliably will make a big difference in your overall dancing success, there are certain calls that are especially critical. You should be able to execute these calls both reliably and rapidly, without any hesitation, from any applicable formation, and from any position within that formation.


Yes, Circulate, the basic kind you learned in beginner class from waves and columns -- along with Split Circulate and Cross Over Circulate. If you couldn't do a basic Circulate from actual waves or columns you probably would never have even tried to learn Advanced. But for Challenge dancing you need a deeper understanding of how these actions work, in particular the idea of a "circulate path" and how that determines where you go and how much you turn. You need this deeper understanding for two reasons: (1) In "t-boned" formations, where some dancers are facing head walls and some facing side walls, you won't be able to rely on an adjacent dancer as a model to imitate. (2) Many calls involve doing 1/2 of a circulate, and you can't do that correctly unless you have a good mental model of the path.

If you have any uncertainty about any of this, go back and review the definitions, and especially illustrations, of the paths involved in these kinds of circulate actions.

Study recommendations for: 1/2 Circulate

Counter Rotate

Study recommendations:

Step and Fold

Starting with C-1, Step and Fold is used as a building block for many calls. To be a successful Challenge dancer, you must be able to do this call reliably, almost automatically. Precisely because it is a "building block", which you must do as part of another call, you won't have time to "figure it out".

You should be able to do Step and Fold from a diamond as well as from a wave, and you should be able to do it As Couples or in Tandem.

Understanding of Parts and Fractionalization

Study recommendations:

Dancing With Phantoms

Starting with C-1, phantoms become an explicit part of the dancing experience. You are expected to know how to work with phantoms when applying the "Phantom" (column/line/wave) concept and the Triple Box/Column/Line/Wave concept. At the higher Challenge levels, you will encounter many other concepts that depend on this ability. But the foundation of this skill starts with the "do your part" idea introduced at Advanced.

The key to dancing with phantoms is to understand your part the call, sufficiently well that you don't actually need the help of anybody else to do the entire action.

Study recommendations:

Putting it All Together -- calls with which to test yourself

Complex calls that involve more than one of the skills mentioned above are a good test of your progress in Challenge dancing. Because they can be done from many different positions, and because callers often make modifications (e.g., turning a star a different amount, leaving out or replacing a part), you must actually know the definition and be able to apply it "on the fly". And because of the way that the parts of the calls follow each other immediately, you don't have time to "figure out" how to do each part. If you find yourself unable to keep up with what other dancers expect, that's a strong clue that you need more work on one or more of the component skills. Try following these study recommendations in alternation with actual dancing practice. (I.e., study one or more of these calls, dance, study again the next week, go back and dance the next week, etc.) If this doesn't seem to be helping, you are probably having a problem with one or more of the underlying skills. Try to figure out what. If you can't figure out what it is yourself, ask for help from your caller or other dancers who seem to be more successful. Then go back and work on those specific skills.