A History of Contra Dance

Descended from 17 century English country dance and brought to North America during colonial times, contra dances have become a cherished North American tradition. The emphasis is on the fun of dancing to live music in a friendly community atmosphere. Dancers face their partner and form two sets of parallel lines that run the length of the dance hall. Each dance consists of a sequence of figures done using a smooth, easy walking step to the rhythm of the music. Some of the moves are similar to those in old-time square dancing. As the dance progresses, a couple will eventually dance with every other couple in the set.

A caller teaches each dance before it is actually done to the music. This gives everyone an idea of what to expect when the music starts. Because the pattern of figures in each contra dance is repeated often, they are easy to learn. When the band begins to play, the caller will remind the dancers what comes next until everyone has picked up the flow of the dance; then he will stop calling and let them to enjoy moving with the music alone. Contra dancers today are “time travelers” in the sense that they can enjoy the same dances to the same music as did people like George and Martha Washington. 

During the reign of Elizabeth I dancing at the Queen's court was very formalized and exclusive. Only those wealthy enough to have the time to practice the complex steps and to afford the elaborate dress could participate. In the English countryside, people both rich and poor were enjoying a different sort of dancing. Incorporating the music and steps of working people, these "contra dances" differed from the stylized court dancing: they were easy, they were fun, and everyone was allowed to do them. With the Queen's encouragement, this sort of dancing became popular at her court in London and it spread throughout Western Europe, becoming known in France as "contredanse," a corruption of "country dance." Crossing the Atlantic during colonial times, contra dances added some elements of Irish and Scottish folk dance and were very popular throughout the American colonies. Contra dances reflected the emotions of our young country. After the American Revolution, for example, some of the names of popular dances and the tunes they were danced to were changed to express the sentiments of the day, and we have dances named "British Sorrow," and "Jefferson and Liberty." Early in the War of 1812, our Navy won a spectacular victory when the American frigate Constitution decisively defeated a British frigate in single ship combat. The nation went wild with joy and celebrated the battle by dancing to a new tune named in honor of Isaac Hull, the ship's captain. "Hull's Victory," the tune and dance, is still being enjoyed today.

Contra dances are informal and no special clothes are required. Most dancers dress for comfort and in anticipation of vigorous exercise. Women often prefer loose, light dresses or skirts, and men wear lightweight slacks, and many people wear jeans or shorts. Be sure to wear soft-soled shoes.

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Fifth Reel 2012