Contra Dance 101

What Is Contra Dancing?

Contra dancing is a form of American traditional dance. Contra dancing has been around since at least the 1600s, originating in England and France. The dance is performed in a set of two parallel lines of dancers running the length of the hall, as in the Virginia Reel. Each dancer has a partner, and each couple has another couple to dance with.

To get a feel for the essence and energy of contra dancing, read this article by Aarik Danielsen from the Columbia Daily Tribune or watch this multimedia presentation by Erin Schwartz (a graduate student at the University of Missouri).

Dancing the Night Away: Contra Dancing in Mid-Missouri from Erin Schwartz on Vimeo.

A dance consists of a series of movements that two couples perform together. At the end of the sequence of movements, each couple moves on to the next couple in the line, and the sequence of dance moves is repeated with that couple. The length of each sequence of moves is also the same length as the tunes that are played. The dances consist of two parts (an A part and a B part), and so do the tunes that accompany them. As the movements are repeated, a couple will eventually dance with every other couple in the long set

The moves in contra dancing are similar to the moves in square dancing. A caller will lead the dancers through moves such as circle left, swing your partner, do-si-do, allemande, promenade, and other calls you may remember from grade-school PE classes. The main difference is that a square dance is done with four couples dancing together, facing in toward the middle. A contra dance is done in long lines, with as many couples as will fit in the length of the hall.

Contra dancing is easy for beginners to learn. No special lessons or fancy footwork are needed. Dancers perform the moves by walking in time to the music. The caller teaches each dance in a walk-through before the music and actual dancing start. The caller then cues the dancers through the moves as the music plays. The pattern of a dance is repeated often so the dancers have an opportunity to learn the dance. Experienced dancers frequently help beginners through the moves until they become comfortable with the patterns.

Contra dancing is a relaxed, family-oriented activity. The emphasis is on dancing and social interaction between partners, other couples, families. It is intergenerational community dancing. Parents often bring their children, who watch the grown-ups dance, or sometimes join in the sets if they want to. Although the dancing is done in couples, many people come alone and dance with several partners during the evening.

Contra dancing can be a vigorous form of exercise. Dancers generally dress in comfortable loose-fitting clothes to allow freedom of movement. Women prefer loose, light dresses or skirts and men wear slacks, jeans, or shorts. Comfortable soft-soled shoes are a must.

Contra dancers usually dance to live music. The music can range from traditional American fiddle tunes to Irish jigs and reels, from Cape Breton to Cajun fiddle tunes. Typical instruments in a contra dance band include the fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, hammered dulcimer, accordion, piano, bass fiddle, and occasionally a flute or saxophone, although it would be rare to have all these instruments playing together at once.