Contra dance

Contra dance

Contra dance (also contradance, contra-dance and other variant spellings) refers to several partnered folk dance styles in which couples dance in two facing lines. Sometimes described as New England folk dance, contra dances can be found around the world, though they are especially popular in North America.

Contra dancers in Peterborough, New Hampshire
Contra dance



At the end of the 17th century, English country dances were taken up by French dancers; hybrid choreographies exist from this period using the steps from French court dance in English dances. The French called these dances contra-dance or contredanse. As time progressed, English country dances were spread and reinterpreted throughout the Western world, and eventually the French form of the name came to be associated with the American folk dances, especially in New England (this Gallicized name change may have followed a contemporary misbelief that the form was originally French).[1][2]

Contra dances were fashionable in the United States until the early to mid-19th century, when they were supplanted in popularity by square dances (such as the quadrille and lancers) and couple dances (such as the waltz and polka). By the late 19th century, square dances too had fallen out of favor, except in rural areas. When squares were revived (around 1925 to 1940, depending on the region), contra dances were generally not included. 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.

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,[3] and NEFFA, the New England Folk Festival, also in Massachusetts, which began in 1944.[4] These and others continue to be popular and some offer other dancing and activities besides contra dancing.

In the 1970s, Sannella introduced heys and gypsies from English Country Dance to the contra dances.[5] 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,[6] 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.[7][8]

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.[9] As musicians and callers moved to other locations, they founded contra dances in Michigan, Washington, California, Texas, and elsewhere.

Gender-free contra dancing started in the 1970s, with the Boston Lesbian and Gay Folk Dance as perhaps the first group regularly contra dancing without gender roles. In 1981, a group in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, called "Les be Gay and Dance" was started, in which contra dance was done without any reference to gender, avoiding calling moves with any reference to "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 up 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."[10] The Lavender Country and Folk Dancers organization now serves as an umbrella organization for dances in Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, and California. Gender-free philosophy can be used almost anywhere conventional traditional dances are currently being held. It is useful for community dances where “keeping on the correct side” is difficult because of a large gender imbalance, for children’s dances and for groups who want to add a little variety and a creative learning experience to their traditional dance venue.


A Thursday night contra dance at the Fresh Pond Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Contra dance events are open to all, regardless of experience. They are family-friendly, and alcohol consumption is not part of the culture.[citation needed] Many events offer beginner-level instructions for up to half an hour before 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 traditional and more than a century old, or modern compositions which follow the same form as the traditional pieces. (See "Music", below.)

Generally, a leader, known as a caller, will teach each individual dance just before the music for that dance begins. During this introductory "walk-through" period, 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 walk-through 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 walk-through, 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, women and men invite each other to dance. Booking ahead (lining up a partner or partners ahead of time for each individual dance), while common at some venues, is often discouraged.[11][12][13][14]

At most dances, no special outfits are worn, but "peasant skirts" or other full, lightweight skirts are popular, as these have a very pretty effect when swinging or twirling and some dancers find them more comfortable to dance in than pants. Low, broken-in, soft-soled, non-marking shoes, such as dance shoes, sneakers, or sandals, are recommended and, in some places, required. However, dancing barefoot is also common.

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 very willing to help beginners, and will often go out of their way to give extra instructions to help them learn the steps.



Contra dance sets, seen from the balcony of the town house of Peterborough, New Hampshire.[15]

Contra dances are arranged in long paired 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 or head of the set being the end closest to the band and caller. Correspondingly, the bottom or foot of the set is the end farthest from the caller.

Couples consist of two people, traditionally but not necessarily one male and one female, 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 1's (the active couple or actives); the other couple are 2's (or inactives). The 1's are said to be above their neighboring 2's; 2's 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 three common ways of arranging dancers in the minor sets: proper formation, improper formation, and Becket formation. There are many additional forms a contra dance may take. Five of them are: triple minor, 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 the same dance, one time through which lasts roughly 30 seconds, is repeated over and over - but each time you dance with new neighbors. This change is effected by progressing the 1's down the set and progressing the 2's up (also up the hall and down the hall; see Contra Dance Form main article 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 six 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:[16]

  • 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.


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.

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 (dorian) 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 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; it 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 and Washington, DC.

See also


  1. ^ "Contra dance". Merriam-Webster OnLine. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. 2006. Retrieved 2006-11-01. 
  2. ^ "Contre-dance, -danse, contra-dance". Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press. 1989. Retrieved 2006-11-01. 
    (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."
  3. ^ Pinewoods Camp History
  4. ^ NEFFA History
  5. ^ how figures like heys and gypsies got into modern contradancing
  6. ^ Gaudreau, Herbie Modern Contra Dancing Sandusky, OH: Square Dance Magazine, 1971
  7. ^ Michael McKernan (1995). "A look at late-night dancing in the Brattleboro, VT area from the 1920s to the 1960s". Brattleboro Dawn Dances History. Retrieved 2007-01-15. 
  8. ^ Brattleboro Dawn Dances
  9. ^ Peterborough Contra Dance
  10. ^ Chris Ricciotti (2006). "Welcome to Gender-Free Dancing!". Retrieved 2009-02-24. 
  11. ^ English / American dancing - a comparison
  12. ^ Susan Kevra's Letter to the Greenfield Contra Dancers
  13. ^ Dance Community Hospitality
  14. ^ Notes on Calling Contra Dances
  15. ^ Although most people think a municipal hall is always called "town hall," there is a long tradition of calling the building with town offices the "town house" as Peterborough calls their municipal building. Peterborough NH: Town House Rentals, Park Rentals & Tent Rentals
  16. ^ Michael Dyck's Country Dance Index

Further reading

  1. Daniels, Bruce Colin (1995). Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1403972125.  See chapter VI, "Frolics for Fun: Dances, Weddings and Dinner Parties, pages 109 - 124.
  2. Dart, Mary McNab (1995). Contra Dance Choreography: A Reflection of Social Change. New York & London: Garland Publishing. ISBN 0815319843. Retrieved 2008-06-12. 
  3. Holden, Rickey; Frank Kaltman and Olga Kulbitsky (1997). The Contra Dance Book. Lovendegem, Belgium: Anglo-American Dance Service. ISBN 9080208736.  (Reprint: first published in 1956 by American Squares as a part of the American Squares Dance Series)
  4. Jennings, Larry (1983, revised with corrections 1988). Zesty Contras: A Selection of 500 New England Style Dances with a Provocative Explanatory Text. Cambridge Massachusetts: New England Folk Festival Association. 
  5. 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. 
  6. Jennings, Larry; Dan Pearl and 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 0917024141. 
  7. Keller, Kate Van Winkle (2007). Dance and Its Music in America, 1528-1789. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press. ISBN 978-1576471272. 
  8. Linscott, Eloise Hubbard (1993, a reprint of the 1963 2nd edition). Folk Songs of Old New England. Dover Publications. ISBN 0486278271.  See chapter entitled "Country Dancing," Pages 57 – 120. (The first edition was published in 1939.)
  9. Nevell, Richard (1977). A Time To Dance: American Country Dancing from Hornpipes to Hot Hash. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0312805227. 
  10. Parkes, Tony (1992). Contra Dance Calling, A Basic Text. Bedford, Massachusetts: Hands Four Productions. ISBN 978-0963288011. 
  11. 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 0917024052. 
  12. 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 0917024052. 
  13. Sannella, Ted (2005). Calling Traditional New England Squares. Northampton, Massachusetts: Country Dance and Song Society. ISBN 0917024168. 

External links

Contra dance associations
Descriptions & definitions
Different traditions and cultures in contra dance
Research resources
Finding contra dances
  • Contra Dance Links - calendars and further links for the world
  • The Dance Gypsy - locations of contra dances, and many other folk dances, around the world
  • NEFFA LinkFest - indices of contra dances around the world, as well as callers and musicians
In North America
Photography and Video

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • contra dance — 1803, from Fr. contre danse, altered from English country dance by folk etymology from Fr. contra against, suggested by the arrangement of the partners in the dance. The dances and the name were taken up in France c. 1720s and from there passed… …   Etymology dictionary

  • contra-dance — ˈcontra dance, danse a corruption of country dance: see contre dance …   Useful english dictionary

  • Contra Dance — Der zeitgenössische Contra Dance ist ein Tanz nach Ansage, dessen Abläufe im Takt der Musik in sich gegenüberstehenden Linien, den sogenannten Gassen, getanzt werden. Für den historischen Kontratanz siehe dort. Inhaltsverzeichnis 1 Verbreitung… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • contra dance — or contredanse noun Etymology: French contredanse, by folk etymology from English country dance Date: 1803 1. a folk dance in which couples face each other in two lines or a square 2. a piece of music for a contra dance …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • contra dance — noun A type of folk dance style in which couples dance in two facing lines of indefinite length …   Wiktionary

  • contra dance — variant of contredanse …   Useful english dictionary

  • Contra dance form — This article supplements the main contra dance article. Contra dance form describes the arrangement of dancers into contra dance sets and minor sets. There are various forms, and each dance s choreography specifies its formation. A caller s first …   Wikipedia

  • Contra dance choreography — This article supplements the main contra dance article. Contra dance choreography specifies the dance formation, the figures, and the sequence of those figures in a dance. The figures usually repeat in a consistent pattern aligned with the… …   Wikipedia

  • Contra — is a Latin preposition meaning against . It is very frequently abbreviated to con, which is a separate preposition. It may refer to: Contras, Nicaraguan counter revolutionaries opposed to the Sandinistas Iran–Contra affair, the Reagan… …   Wikipedia

  • Contra — (lat.: „gegen“) oder Kontra steht für: Vorsilbe in der Bedeutung „gegen“, siehe Liste lateinischer Präfixe in Abstimmungen gleichbedeutend mit „dagegen“, siehe Abstimmung (Stellungnahme) Contra (Organisation), die gegen die Sandinisten Nicaraguas …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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