Just What Is Contra Dancing?

by Rich Futyma

Contradancing, also known as New England style country dancing, is related to square dancing, but has a rather different feel.  Instead of four couples dancing in a square set, any number of couples arranged in lines make up a contradance set.  (It's not at all like country/western line dancing.)  The structure of the dance is simple: you and your partner dance a series of movements with another couple, then you and your partner move on to dance the same pattern with a new couple, and so on, until you have danced with all the other couples in your set.

An attractive aspect to newcomers is that you don't have to learn any fancy footwork  for contradances.  Most of the dance movements involve walking in patterns - some as simple as a circle of four people moving with hands joined, or each of the four joining one hand in the center to form a "star."  Other movements are more complex and challenging, such as the "hey for four" and "contra corners."  What the typical contradancer enjoys most is the "swing," which allows a few moments of flirtatious ecstasy while you and your partner whirl around together.

A dance caller teaches the pattern of each dance before the music begins, then calls the movements to the music.  During an evening of dancing, the caller will call about a dozen dances.  For a change of pace, the evening may include a few square dances and some couples dances, such as a waltz or schottische.

Music at a contradance is both live and lively, and is provided by a small band which typically has one or two fiddles, a piano, and maybe a guitar, flute, tin whistle, or hammered dulcimer.  The dance tunes include traditional ones with roots in Ireland, Scotland, Canada, New England, or the southeast, as well as recent compositions.  

Contradancing is non-competitive; the main objective is to enjoy yourself with other fun-loving people.  You don't have to take a course before you're considered experienced enough to dance the whole evening.  Since it's the custom to ask a different partner for each dance, you're sure to meet new people and make new friends during an evening of contradancing.  Beginners are always welcome, and you don't have to bring your own partner.

For something that is relatively simple, contradancing attracts a wide variety of people, many of whom become very passionate about it.  They enjoy it for all sorts of reasons: the exhilaration of movement (the "dancer's high"), the social interaction, the great music, the exercise.

The dance has an informal atmosphere, so dress casually, preferably with lightweight clothing, for dancing generates heat, not to mention perspiration .  In order to preserve the dance hall floor, please bring sneakers or other shoes with clean, soft soles to change into at the dance.

See you at the dance!

"What is contradancing?" - For more perspectives on contradancing, look at Gary Shapiro's page.

Wikipedia on Contra Dance

Contra Dance Video Instructions for Beginners - Learn the basics of Contra Dancing through these short video lessons