What Is Contra Dance?

Answering that question since February 1995
Created and maintained by Gary Shapiro

Although it's fun beyond words, we explain it ad nauseum anyway.

My personal favorite is #0.

But wait: is this too much for you? Here's a concise Contra Dance Primer.


Definitions of contra dance

  • Definition 0: the only real definition
  • Definition 1: an earnest attempt
  • Definition 2: what contra dance is not
  • Definition 3: whimsical
  • Definition 4: analytical
  • Definition 5: an analogy
  • Other topics

  • Learning to contra dance
  • Regarding dizziness
  • Why the name 'contra dance'?
  • Why can't I find a full-tilt multimedia description of contra dance here?
  • Other Web pages of possible interest
  • Credit and thanks
  • Change history of this document

  • Definitions


    Definition 0: the only real one

    Contra dancing is social interaction, meeting people, and making new friends, set to music.

    The rest is just details.

    Otherwise, the only real answer to the question "What is contra dance?" comes when you try it. Check out Charlie Seelig's Contra Dance Links to find a dance in your neighborhood.

    So find a dance, close this window before reading any more, go to the dance, then come back here and see how the event compares to the description below.

    Oops, you're still reading!

    There's a danger in that. You are probably already feeling a little afraid to try something new. Below you will likely find some little tiny detail that will give you an excuse to not try contra dancing. And thereby deprive yourself of something that could give you decades of a joyful activity.

    So say goodbye now and come back later. Ta-ta!


    Definition 1: an earnest attempt

    A caller, usually working with a group of live musicians, guides new and experienced dancers alike through a variety of dances.

    A dancer and his or her partner dance a series of figures, or moves, with each other and with another couple for a short time. They then repeat the same figures with another couple, and so on. The figures are similar to those of old-time square dancing. The figures are combined in different ways for each different dance.

    The caller teaches each dance before it is actually done to the music. This gives everyone an idea of what to expect so the movements can be easily executed. The caller leads the dances while they are being done to music, so dancers are able to perform each movement to the music. Once the dancers appear to have mastered a particular dance, the caller may stop calling, leaving the dancers to enjoy the movement with music alone.

    People of all ages and lifestyles, including children, are welcome. Contra dances are a place where people from many walks of life come together to dance and socialize. Dancers often go out to a restaurant after the dance, have a potluck before or during the dance, or hang out with musicians in jam sessions and song circles.

    Children as young as seven can participate in adult dancing; your mileage may vary. As long as parents are responsible for keeping non-dancing children out of harm's way, everyone will enjoy everyone else's presence.

    Some groups sponsor family dances. These are dances designed for participation by the whole family. In addition to dancing, the leader of a family dance might also initiate other activities such as games and singing, and singing games, and dances with singing.

    First-time dancers will likely find experienced dancers extremely friendly and helpful. If this does not seem to be the case, talk to the dance organizers. They need to know! Or, depending on your location, you could find another dance group.

    An evening that includes contra dancing might be called a Contra Dance, an Old-Time Contra Dance, an Old-Time Country Dance, a Barn Dance, or similar. Most contra dance events will include a few dances of other kinds: traditional squares, waltz, polka, swing and other types of couple dance.

    At most dance events in North America, we dance with a different partner for each dance, although dates who attend together and significant others might dance with each other more than once.

    This is [insert current year here]. Women can ask men to dance. At a contra dance this is certainly true and has been for some time. It might be just as common as men asking women, or more so. Women will sometimes dance with women, and men will sometimes dance with men. In general, especially for the men, this happens only when a gender imbalance exists in the hall (men tend to be real chicken about dancing with other men otherwise).

    The above notwithstanding, it is a good idea at some point to dance the opposite role. It's a real eye-opener! Be warned, however, that you'll need extra alertness and concentration.

    Contra dancers make eye contact whenever possible. This adds to the connectedness of the dance, and helps reduce dizziness, especially during the swing. It is also uncomfortable for some. Don't let anyone tell you that you must make eye contact, but give it a try even if it's a little uncomfortable. Expand your comfort zone. You might get used to it and even like it. Remember: they're gazing into your eyes not because they love you but because they want to make the connection, and they don't want to throw up on you.


    Definition 2: what contra dance is not

    Contra dancing is not the same as country line dancing.

    Contra dance has nothing to do with Nicaraguan history.

    No classes are required, or even offered (in general), except for a non-required half-hour or fifteen minute introduction to contra dance before the dance, at many regular dance events.

    We do not wear costumes (except on Halloween) or any particular style of clothes. Some groups ask that you bring a separate pair of soft-soled (non-scuffing) shoes to protect the dance floor. Tennis shoes are quite adequate for the first-time dancer.

    Very little footwork is required in contra dance. The most common type of movement is a smooth walking step.


    Definition 3: whimsical

    Contra dance is a form of dance that thrusts a different person of the opposite sex into your arms every 30 seconds or so.

    Actually, this is only true sometimes. It might be more prudent, but less whimsical, to say that contra dance is one of the few dance forms where by the end of the evening you are likely to have danced with everyone.


    Definition 4: analytical

    Contra dancing takes place in sets. A set consists of two lines, with your partner usually across from you in the other line. The set is subdivided into minor sets, which nowadays usually consist of two couples. A contra dance with such minor sets is a duple minor contra dance.

    A contra dance with minor sets of three couples is a triple minor contra dance.

    The minor set dances one time through the dance. Each couple moves on to a new couple, forming new minor sets, and repeats the dance. Some slightly more advanced dances involve interaction with dancers who are not in the minor set. Other dances involve two minor sets each time through, and you move on to the third minor set. These dances are called "double progression." There are even a few, rarely called, triple and quadruple progression dances.

    The dances are done to live music, usually reels or jigs. The music consists of an A part and a B part, which are related much like a chorus and a verse. Each part consists of 16 beats, or steps, and is repeated twice. So a complete dance goes A, A, B, B, and consists of 64 beats total. (Musicians will usually say 32 measures.) The A and B parts are usually specified A1, A2, B1, B2. The music is phrased in 8-beat sections, and to a lesser extent, in 4-beat sections. A typical figure takes up 4, 8 or 16 beats of music.


    Definition 5: an analogy

    "A contra dance is like an amusement park ride we make for ourselves." --Unknown

    Other topics


    Learning to contra dance

    We recommend that new dancers who wish to learn quickly and effectively seek out the more experienced dancers as partners. If you attend with a date, give each other a present by dancing with others for a while. You'll then be able to have more fun dancing with each other. Read this paragraph again.

    Or not. In a room full of strangers, you'll want to cling to the one you know. But go ahead, dive into the unknown—we're all here to catch you.

    The short introduction that is offered at many locations is not a substitute for dancing with experienced partners, nor is it considered a prerequisite for joining the dance, but some people feel more comfortable having attended the introduction.

    Feel free to attend the introduction multiple times. Different teachers will present it differently. Heck, the same teacher will present it differently. And you'll notice different things, and different things will sink in, especially after having experienced what they're teaching.

    Also don't hesitate to ask other dancers, or the caller, for help, but keep in mind you may not get the same answer from two different dancers, or two different callers!

    Ultimately, the only way to learn contra dancing is to do it. In comparison, watching it, or reading about it, is not particularly helpful.


    Regarding dizziness

    Earlier we mentioned that eye contact, especially during the swing, reduces dizziness. However, if your partner is significantly taller than you, looking up at too steep an angle can be uncomfortable and actually increase dizziness. In this case, fix your gaze on some other part of or on your partner, such as chin, or a button, or wherever is comfortable for both.

    Conversely, if your partner is significantly shorter than you, looking down can also increase dizziness. In this case, it has been suggested, look at his or her aura.

    Then there are those who claim that only by looking into the eyes can dizziness be reduced.

    Some more dizziness suggestions:

    Why the name 'contra dance'?

    English country dancing gained a certain legitimacy in the 17th century. What might have happened next is described by James Hutson in his article "A Capsule Chronicle of Contradancing, Part One," from the Fall 1994 issue of Contra Corners, the newsletter of the California Dance Co-operative:
    The French, who thought that they invented country dancing (as well as anything else culturally significant), and who were miffed at the notion that the English should receive credit for anything, converted the name 'country dance' to French contredans (which conveniently translates as 'opposites dance'), then turned around and claimed that the English term was a corruption of the French!

    Later, the French term evolved in the young U.S.A. into "contra dance."

    At least this is one theory.

    An exchange on this very topic took place on rec.folk-dancing in 1996 and is reproduced in the article, Why Is It Called Contra Dance?


    Why can't I find a full-tilt multimedia description of contra dance here?

    Perhaps you will some day when someone with the necessary tools steps forward and puts one together, but consider this: Contra dance is Real People in Real Time with Real Music. It is Real Life. You cannot experience this while sitting on your duff, VR helmet or not. Get out more often! You know you spend way too much time in front of your computer and/or TV.

    In other words, it is impossible to record the incredible synergy and spirit that occurs when you combine enthusiastic, connected, happy dancers, hot musicians and swell choreography. It would take quite a talented multimedia author indeed to capture just a tiny slice of that magic that takes place.

    Having said that, here's some great photographs of contra and square dancing by Doug Plummer. Have a fast connection or be patient!

    If you go to YouTube and search for "contra dance" you'll find some videos.

    Speaking of which:

    The above is a 10-minute low-res clip of a 30-minute DVD, Dancing Contras: an Introduction to Contradancing, by Henry and Jacqui Morgenstein. Normally, we don't mention commercial products, but the price including shipping makes it seem not particularly commercial.


    Other Web pages of possible interest

    A Contra Dance Primer that I recommended way up at the top of this page.

    Wikipedia's definition (quite extensive)

    A good starting page to help you find a contra dance near you.

    A History of Contra Dance by Heiner Fischle.

    A page that answers the question, What Is English Country Dance? and another page About English Country Dance.

    What is Irish Set Dancing?

    What is Scottish Country Dancing?


    Credits and thanks...

    ...to Joel L. Breazeale for his input, especially regarding the social and community aspects of contra dance. Some verbiage is almost completely his.

    ...to Kiran Wagle for his input, inspiration and encouragement.

    ...to California's November 1982 Proposition 12, the Nuclear Freeze Initiative, Santa Barbara office, which held a benefit barn dance that turned out to be my first of many contra dance experiences.

    ...for the graphic at the top of the page, to the late Dance Awakening weekend, and to Bob Engel, the artist.

    ...to the Santa Barbara Country Dance Society for allowing this page to reside at its current address. Note that the SBCDS is not responsible for this page.

    Much of this page is based on vague recollections from a thread on rec.folk-dancing with the same subject as this page. Your feedback is welcome. Please send it to Gary Shapiro.

    Last modified 3 November 2010 | First posted February 1995 | Change Log | Disclaimer