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 of indefinite length. They are also sometimes described as New England folk dance.
At the end of the 17th century, English country dances were taken up by French dancers; using the steps from French court dance in English dances. 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 American folk dances, especially in New England.
Contra dances were fashionable in the United States until the early to mid-19th century, when they were supplanted in popularity by square dances and couple dances (such as the waltz and polka). 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.
In the 1970s, forms from English Country Dance were introduced to the contra dances. New dances, such as Shadrack’s Delight by Tony Parkes, featured symmetrical dancing by all couples. Double progression dances added to the aerobic nature of the dances, and one caller, Gene Hubert, wrote a quadruple progression dance, Contra Madness.
In 1981, some groups began to use contra dance without any reference to gender, avoiding calling moves with any reference to “ladies” or “gents.” In 1989 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.” 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.
Contra dance events continue to be popular in New England. 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, or polkas. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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 is a great indoor activity for the whole family. So get your dancing shoes on and boogie on down to your local dance hall!