Contra dance (also contradance, contra-dance and other variant spellings) is a folk dance made up of long lines of couples. It has mixed origins from English country dance, Scottish country dance, and French dance styles in the 17th century. Sometimes described as New England folk dance or Appalachian folk dance, contra dances can be found around the world, but are most common in the United States (periodically held in nearly every state), Canada, and other Anglophone countries.
Contra dancing is a social dance that one can attend without a partner. The dancers form couples, and the couples form sets of two couples in long lines starting from the stage and going down the length of the dance hall. Throughout the course of a dance, couples progress up and down these lines, dancing with each other couple in the line. The dance is led by a caller who teaches the sequence of figures in the dance before the music starts. Callers describe the series of steps called "figures", and in a single dance, a caller may include anywhere from 6–12 figures which are repeated as couples progress up and down the lines. Each time through the dance takes 64 beats, after which the pattern is repeated.
Almost all contra dances are danced to live music. The music played includes, but is not limited to, Irish, Scottish, old-time and French-Canadian folk tunes. The fiddle is considered the core instrument, though other stringed instruments can be used, such as the guitar, banjo, bass and mandolin, as well as the piano, accordion, flute, clarinet and more. Some contra dances are even done to techno music. Music in a dance can consist of a single tune or a medley of tunes, and key changes during the course of a dance are common.
Many callers and bands perform for local contra dances, and some are hired to play for dances around the U.S. and Canada. Many dancers travel regionally (or even nationally) to contra dance weekends and week-long contra dance camps, where they can expect to find other dedicated dancers, great callers, and great bands.
At the end of the 17th century, English country dances were taken up by French dance masters. The French called these dances contra-dances or contredanses (which roughly translated "opposites dance"), as indicated in a 1710 dance book called Recuil de Contredance. As time progressed, these dances returned to England and were spread and reinterpreted in the United States, and eventually the French form of the name came to be associated with the American folk dances, where they were alternatively called "country dances" or in some parts of New England such as New Hampshire, "contradances".
Contra dances were fashionable in the United States and were considered one of the most popular social dances across class lines in the late 18th century, though these events were usually referred to as "country dances" until the 1780s, when the term contra dance became more common to describe these events. In the mid-19th century, group dances started to decline in popularity in favor of quadrilles, lancers, and couple dances such as the waltz and polka.
Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, had a role in preserving contra and American folk dancing generally, in part as a response in opposition to modern jazz influences in the United States. In the 1920s, he asked friend and dance coordinator in Massachusetts, Benjamin Lovett, to come to Michigan to begin a dance program. Initially, Lovett could not as he was under contract at a local inn; consequently, Ford bought the property rights to the inn. Lovett and Ford initiated a dance program in Dearborn, Michigan that included several folk dances, including contras. Ford also published a book titled Good Morning: After a Sleep of Twenty-Five Years, Old-Fashioned Dancing Is Being Revived in 1926 detailing steps for some contra dances.
In the 1930s and 1940s, contra dances appear to have been done only in small towns in widely scattered parts of northeastern North America, such as Ohio, the Maritime provinces of Canada, and particularly northern New England. Ralph Page almost single-handedly maintained the New England tradition until it was revitalized in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly by Ted Sannella and Dudley Laufman. The New England contra dance tradition was also maintained in Vermont by the Ed Larkin Old Time Contra Dancers, formed by Edwin Loyal Larkin in 1934. The group he founded is still performing, teaching the dances, and holding monthly open house dances in Tunbridge, VT.
By then, early dance camps, retreats, and weekends had emerged, such as Pinewoods Camp, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which became primarily a music and dance camp in 1933, and NEFFA, the New England Folk Festival, also in Massachusetts, which began in 1944. Pittsburgh Contra Dance celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015. These and others continue to be popular and some offer other dances and activities besides contra dancing.
In the 1970s, Sannella and other callers introduced movements from English Country Dance, such as heys and gypsies, to the contra dances. New dances, such as Shadrack's Delight by Tony Parkes, featured symmetrical dancing by all couples. (Previously, the actives and inactives —see Progression below— had significantly different roles). Double progression dances, popularized by Herbie Gaudreau, added to the aerobic nature of the dances, and one caller, Gene Hubert, wrote a quadruple progression dance, Contra Madness. Becket formation was introduced, with partners next to each other in the line instead of opposite. The Brattleboro Dawn Dance started in 1976, and continues to run semiannually.
In the early 1980s, Tod Whittemore started the first Saturday dance in the Peterborough Town House, which remains one of the more popular regional dances. The Peterborough dance influenced Bob McQuillen, who became a notable musician in New England. As musicians and callers moved to other locations, they founded contra dances in Michigan, Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, and elsewhere.
Gender-neutral Trends in Contra Dance Culture
Contra dance has historically been done with lady/gent couples combined into 4-person (or 6-person) sets, with the gent to the left of the lady in each of the couples. Changes from these traditional gendered roles have become more prevalent in recent decades (including some people at recent contra dances who wear buttons stating "I dance both roles"), and some contra dancers have experimented with repeated role swapping; that is, the two dancers in a couple swapping sides (and the associated role) repeatedly during a single dance.
In the 1970s, the Boston-area Lesbian and Gay Folk Dance became the first group to regularly contra dance without gender roles; its dances were referred to as "gender-free" or "gender-neutral" dances. In 1981, a group in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, called "Les be Gay and Dance" was started, in which callers deliberately eliminated references to gender by avoiding the terms "ladies" or "gents." In 1987, Chris Ricciotti started a gay dance group in Providence, RI, using the terms "ladies" and "gents," although dancers were not lining up according to gender. Other gender-free dance groups started in the area after that, and in 1989, at the gender-free dance group in Jamaica Plain, MA, a group of dancers led by Janet Dillon protested the use of these terms, and the armband system was devised: the traditionally male-role dancers would wear armbands and be called "armbands" or just "bands," and the traditionally female-role dancers would be called "bare arms" or just "bares." In the past few years, the terms "larks" (person on the left) and "ravens" (person on the right) have become the predominant gender-free role terms, and are being used at an increasing number of dances (especially in urban areas). This trend has been embraced by many dancers, but it has also sparked controversy among traditionalists.
Unless explicitly labeled otherwise, contra dance events are open to all, regardless of experience. They are family-friendly, and alcohol consumption is not part of the culture. Many events offer beginner-level instructions prior to the dance. A typical evening of contra dance is three hours long, including an intermission. The event consists of a number of individual contra dances, divided by a scattering of other partner dances, perhaps one or more waltzes, schottisches, polkas, or Swedish hambos. In some places, square dances are thrown into the mix. Music for the evening is typically performed by a live band, playing jigs and reels from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, or the USA. The tunes are either traditional, and more than a century old, or modern compositions which follow the same form as the traditional pieces. Rarely, a rock tune will be woven in, to the delight of the dancers.
Generally, a leader, known as a caller, will teach each individual dance just before the music for that dance begins. During this introductory walkthrough, participants learn the dance by walking through the steps and formations, following the caller's instructions. The caller gives the instructions orally, and sometimes augments them with demonstrations of steps by experienced dancers in the group. The walkthrough usually proceeds in the order of the moves as they will be done with the music; in some dances, the caller may vary the order of moves during the dance, a fact that is usually explained as part of the caller's instructions.
After the walkthrough, the music begins and the dancers repeat that sequence some number of times before that dance ends, often 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the length of the contra lines. Calls are normally given at least the first few times through, and often for the last. At the end of each dance, the dancers thank their partners. The contra dance tradition in North America is to change partners for every dance, while in the United Kingdom typically people dance with the same partner the entire evening. One who attends an evening of contra dances in North America does not need to bring his or her own partner. In the short break between individual dances, the dancers invite each other to dance. Booking ahead by asking partner or partners ahead of time for each individual dance is common at some venues, but has been discouraged by some.
Most contra dances do not have a strict dress code. No special outfits are worn, but comfortable and loose-fitting clothing that does not restrict movement is usually recommended. Lightweight skirts are often worn, at some dances by men as well as women, as these have a very pretty effect when swinging or twirling. However, low, broken-in, soft-soled, non-marking shoes, such as dance shoes, sneakers, or sandals, are recommended and, in some places, required. As dancing can be aerobic, dancers are sometimes encouraged to bring a change of clothes.
As in any social dance, cooperation is vital to contra dancing. Since over the course of any single dance, individuals interact with not just their partners but everyone else in the set, contra dancing might be considered a group activity. As will necessarily be the case when beginners are welcomed in by more practiced dancers, mistakes are made; most dancers are willing to help beginners in learning the steps. However, because the friendly, social nature of the dances can be misinterpreted or even abused, some groups have created anti-harassment policies.
Contra dances are arranged in long lines of couples. A pair of lines is called a set. Sets are generally arranged so they run the length of the hall, with the top of the set being the end closest to the band and caller. Correspondingly, the bottom of the set is the end farthest from the caller.
Couples consist of two people, traditionally but not necessarily one male and one female, typically referred to as the gent, gentleman or man, and lady or woman. Couples interact primarily with an adjacent couple for each round of the dance. Each sub-group of two interacting couples is known to choreographers as a minor set and to dancers as a foursome or hands four. Couples in the same minor set are neighbors. Minor sets originate at the head of the set, starting with the topmost dancers as the 1s (the active couple or actives); the other couple are 2s (or inactives). The 1s are said to be above their neighboring 2s; 2s are below. If there is an uneven number of couples dancing, the bottom-most couple will wait out the first time through the dance.
There are four common ways of arranging couples in the minor sets: proper, improper, Becket, and triple formations. There are many additional forms a contra dance may take. Five of them are: triplet, indecent, four-face-four, and whole-set. (For diagrams and full descriptions, see Contra Dance Form main article.)
A fundamental aspect of contra dancing is that, in a single dance, the same pattern is repeated over and over (one time through lasts roughly 30 seconds), but each time you dance with new neighbors. This change is effected by progressing the 1s down the set and progressing the 2s up (also up the hall and down the hall, so that you usually dance with everybody in the line. (See the article on contra dance form for full characterizations of the progression in the eight dance forms mentioned above.)
A single dance runs around ten minutes, long enough to progress 15-20 times. If the sets are short to medium length the caller will often try to run the dance until each couple has danced with every other couple both as a 1 and a 2 and returned to where they started. With longer sets (more than ≈40 people) this would require long enough sets that the caller will usually only run the dance all the way around on (rare) non equal-turn dances.
Contra dance choreography specifies the dance formation, the figures, and the sequence of those figures in a dance. Notably, contra dance figures (with a few exceptions) do not have defined footwork; within the limits of the music and the comfort of their fellow dancers, individuals move according to their own taste.
Most contra dances consist of a sequence of about 6 to 12 individual figures, prompted by the caller in time to the music as the figures are danced. As the sequence repeats, the caller may cut down his or her prompting, and eventually drop out, leaving the dancers to each other and the music.
A figure is a pattern of movement that typically takes eight counts, although figures with four or 16 counts are also common. Each dance is a collection of figures assembled to allow the dancers to progress along the set (see "Progression," above).
A count (as used above) is one half of a musical measure, such as one quarter note in 2
4 time or three eighth notes in 6
8 time. A count may also be called a step, as contra dance is a walking form, and each count of a dance typically matches a single physical step in a figure.
Typical contra dance choreography comprises four parts, each 16 counts (8 measures) long. The parts are called A1, A2, B1 and B2. This nomenclature stems from the music: Most contra dance tunes (as written) have two parts (A and B), each 8 measures long, and each fitting one part of the dance. The A and B parts are each played twice in a row, hence, A1, A2, B1, B2. While the same music is generally played in, for example, parts A1 and A2, distinct choreography is followed in those parts. Thus, a contra dance is typically 64 counts, and goes with a 32 measure tune. Tunes of this form are called "square"; tunes that deviate from this form are called "crooked".
Sample contra dances:
- Traditional - the actives do most of the movement
- Chorus Jig (Proper duple minor)
- A1 (16) Actives down the outside and back. [The inactives stand still or substitute a swing]
- A2 (16) Actives down the center, turn individually, come back, and cast off. [The inactives stand still for the first 3
4, take a step up the hall, and then participate in the cast]
- B1 (16) Actives turn contra corners. [The inactives participate in half the turns]
- B2 (16) Actives meet in the middle for a balance and swing, end swing facing up. [The inactives stand still]
- Note: inactives will often clog in place or otherwise participate in the dance, even though the figures do not call for them to move.
- Modern - the dance is symmetrical for actives and inactives
- Hay in the Barn by Chart Guthrie (Improper duple minor)
- A1 (16) Neighbors balance and swing.
- A2 (8) Ladies chain across, (8) Half hey, ladies pass right shoulders to start.
- B1 (16) Partners balance and swing.
- B2 (8) Ladies chain across, (8) Half hey, ladies pass right shoulders to start.
Many modern contra dances have these characteristics:
- longways for as many as will
- first couples improper, or Becket formation
- flowing choreography
- no-one stationary for more than 16 beats (e.g. First Couple Balance & Swing, finish facing down to make Lines of Four)
- containing at least one swing and normally both a partner swing and a neighbour swing
- the vast majority of the moves from a set of well-known moves that the dancers know already
- composed mostly of moves that keep you connected to the other dancers
- generally danced to 32 bar jigs or reels played at between 110 and 130 bpm
- danced with a smooth walk with lots of spins and twirls
An event which consists primarily (or solely) of dances in this style is sometimes referred to as a Modern Urban Contra Dance.
The most common contra dance repertoire is rooted in the Anglo-Celtic tradition as it developed in North America. Irish, Scottish, French Canadian, and Old-time tunes are common, and Klezmer tunes have also been used. The old-time repertoire includes very few of the jigs common in the others.
Tunes used for a contra dance are nearly always "square" 64-beat tunes, in which one time through the tune is each of two 16-beat parts played twice (this is notated AABB). However, any 64-beat tune will do; for instance, three 8-beat parts could be played AABB AACC, or two 8-beat parts and one 16-beat part could be played AABB CC. Tunes not 64 beats long are called "crooked" and are almost never used for contra dancing, although a few crooked dances have been written as novelties. Contra tunes are played at a narrow range of tempos, between 108 and 132 bpm.
In terms of instrumentation, fiddles are considered to be the primary melody instrument in contra dancing, though other stringed instruments can also be used, such as the mandolin or banjo, in addition to a few wind instruments, for example, the accordion. The piano, guitar, and double bass are frequently found in the rhythm section of a contra dance band. Occasionally, percussion instruments are also used in contra dancing, such as the Irish bodhran or less frequently, the dumbek or washboard. The last few years have seen some of the bands incorporate the Quebecois practice of tapping feet on a board while playing an instrument (often the fiddle).
Until the 1970s it was traditional to play a single tune for the duration of a contra dance (about 5 to 10 minutes). Since then, contra dance musicians have typically played tunes in sets of two or three related (and sometimes contrasting) tunes, though single-tune dances are again becoming popular with some northeastern bands. In the Celtic repertoires it is common to change keys with each tune. A set might start with a tune in G, switch to a tune in D, and end with a tune in Bm. Here, D is related to G as its dominant (5th), while D and Bm share a key signature of two sharps. In the old-time tradition the musicians will either play the same tune for the whole dance, or switch to tunes in the same key. This is because the tunings of the five-string banjo are key-specific. An old-time band might play a set of tunes in D, then use the time between dances to retune for a set of tunes in A. (Fiddlers also may take this opportunity to retune; tune- or key-specific fiddle tunings are uncommon in American Anglo-Celtic traditions other than old-time.)
In the Celtic repertoires it is most common for bands to play sets of reels and sets of jigs. However, since the underlying beat structure of jigs and reels is the same (two "counts" per bar) bands will occasionally mix jigs and reels in a set.
In recent years, younger contra dancers have begun establishing "crossover contra" or "techno contra" — contra dancing to techno, hip-hop, and other modern forms of music. While challenging for DJs and callers, the fusion of contra patterns with moves from hip-hop, tango, and other forms of dance has made this form of contra dance a rising trend since 2008. Techno differs from other contra dancing in that it is usually done to recorded music, although there are some bands that play live for techno dances. Techno has become especially prevalent in Asheville, NC, but regular techno contra dance series are spreading up the East Coast to locales such as Charlottesville, VA, Washington, D.C., Amherst, MA, Greenfield, MA, and various North Carolina dance communities, with one-time or annual events cropping up in locations farther west, including California, Portland, OR, and Washington state. They also sometimes appear as late night events during contra dance weekends. In response to the demand for tecno contra, a number of contra dance callers have developed repertoires of recorded songs to play that go well with particular contra dances; these callers are known as DJs A kind of techno/traditional contra fusion has arisen, with at least one band, Buddy System, playing live music melded with synth sounds for techno contra dances.
Some of the most popular contra dance bands in recent years are Great Bear, Perpetual E-Motion, Buddy System, Crowfoot, Elixir, the Mean Lids, Nor'easter, Nova, Pete's Posse, the Stringrays, the Syncopaths, and Wild Asparagus.
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- (as access to the OED online is not free, the relevant excerpt is provided) "Littré's theory, that there was already in 17th c. a French contre-danse with which the English word was confused and ran together, is not tenable; no trace of the name has been found in French before its appearance as an adaptation of the English. But new dances of this type were subsequently brought out in France, and introduced into England with the Frenchified form of the name, which led some Englishmen to the erroneous notion that the French was the original and correct form, and the English a corruption of it."
- Peterson 2000, pp. 199–200.
- Carlin 2005, p. 192.
- Lowry, Klint (2 February 2005). "Longtime contra dancing program comes to an end". The News-Herald. Heritage Newspapers. Archived from the original on 6 July 2008. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
- Spalding 2014, p. 147.
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- Lois S. Fahs, Swing Your Partner: Old Time Dances of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (Sackville, N.B.: The author, 1939).
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- how figures like heys and gypsies got into modern contradancing
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- Kaufman, Jeff. "Gender-Free Role Term Usage". Retrieved 16 September 2018.
- Sannella 1982, p. 12: Although the author speaks of "public square dances," he is referring to the type of event that has come to be known as "contra dances." See also Steve Zakon, quoted in Dart 1995, chapter on "The Contra Dance Event."
- Perpetual eMotion sing 'Eleanor Rigby' "5/6/11, 2 of 9: Perpetual e-Motion at the Concord Scout House". Retrieved 24 Oct 2014.
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- Holden, Rickey; Frank Kaltman; Olga Kulbitsky (1997). The Contra Dance Book. Lovendegem, Belgium: Anglo-American Dance Service. ISBN 90-802087-3-6. (Reprint: first published in 1956 by American Squares as a part of the American Squares Dance Series)
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- Jennings, Larry (1988). Zesty Contras: A Selection of 500 New England Style Dances with a Provocative Explanatory Text. Cambridge Massachusetts: New England Folk Festival Association.
- Jennings, Larry (2004). Give-and-Take: A sequel to Zesty Contras, featuring 628 dances in the New England style, provocative remarks, exhortative essays and arcane analysis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: New England Folk Festival Association.
- Jennings, Larry; Dan Pearl; Ted Sannella (2004). The Contra Connection & Basically for Callers: Reprints from the Country Dance and Song Society NEWS (2nd Edition). Northampton, Massachusetts: Country Dance and Song Society. ISBN 0-917024-14-1.
- Keller, Kate Van Winkle (2007). Dance and Its Music in America, 1528-1789. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press. ISBN 978-1-57647-127-2.
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- Laufman, Dudley Laufman, Jacqueline (2009). Traditional barn dances with calls & fiddling. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. ISBN 0736076123.
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- Linscott, Eloise Hubbard (1993). Folk Songs of Old New England. Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-27827-1. See chapter entitled "Country Dancing," Pages 57 – 120. (The first edition was published in 1939.)
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- Nevell, Richard (1977). A Time To Dance: American Country Dancing from Hornpipes to Hot Hash. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-80522-7.
- Parkes, Tony (1992). Contra Dance Calling, A Basic Text. Bedford, Massachusetts: Hands Four Productions. ISBN 978-0-9632880-1-1.
- Peterson, Davis R. (2000). Ray Broadus Browne & Pat Browne (ed.). Defining concise guide to United States popular culture. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. ISBN 0879728213.
- Sannella, Ted (1982). Balance and Swing: A collection of fifty-five squares, contras and triplets in the New England tradition with music for each dance. Northampton, Massachusetts: Country Dance and Song Society. ISBN 0-917024-05-2.
- Sannella, Ted (1996). Swing the Next: A second collection of squares, contras, triplets and circles in the New England tradition, with music for each dance. Northampton, Massachusetts: Country Dance and Song Society. ISBN 0-917024-05-2.
- Sannella, Ted (2005). Calling Traditional New England Squares. Northampton, Massachusetts: Country Dance and Song Society. ISBN 0-917024-16-8.
- Spalding, Susan Eike (2014). Appalachian Dance: Creativity and Continuity in Six Communities. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252096452.
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- Contra dance associations
- Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) preserves a variety of Anglo-American folk traditions in North America, including folk music, folk song, English country dance, contra dance and morris dance.
- Anglo-American Dance Service Based in Belgium, promoting contra dance and English dance in Western Europe.
- Descriptions & definitions
- Different traditions and cultures in contra dance
- Colin Hume's Advice to Americans in England
- Mary Dart's book Contra Dance Choreography, A Reflection of Social Change
- Research resources
- University of New Hampshire Special Collections: New Hampshire Library of Traditional Music and Dance
- Finding contra dances
- In United Kingdom
- In France
- Photography and Video
- A video of dancing in a barn in upstate New York.
- A video from the Concord Scout House in Massachusetts.
- Doug Plummer's Northwest contra dance photos and New England contra dance photos
- A video of the Montpelier Vermont Contradance, Will Mentor calling for Beeswax Sheepskin
- Two American country dance films on DVD: "Country Corners" (1976), and "Full of Life A-Dancin'" (1978).
- A 2009 video of Crowfoot playing a contra dance, Tacoma, WA