Contra dance (also contradance, contra-dance and other variant spellings) refers to several folk dance styles in which couples dance in two facing lines of indefinite length. Contra dances can be found around the world, though they are especially popular in the United States. Contra dance is also referred to as traditional New England folk dance. There are regularly scheduled contra dances in many North American cities, as well as in Belgium, Denmark, England, Czech Republic and Australia.
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, and NEFFA, the New England Folk Festival, also in Massachusetts, which began in 1944. These and others continue to be popular and some offer dancing and activities besides contra dancing.
In the 1970s, Sannella added heys and gypsies to the contra dances. 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, 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.
In the 1980s, Tod Whittemore started the first Saturday dance in the Peterborough Town House, which remains one of the more popular regional dances. Whittemore also started the popular Thursday night Boston area dance. As callers moved to other locations, they founded contra dances in Michigan, Washington, California, Texas, and elsewhere.
Most contra dances are open to all, regardless of experience. They are family-friendly, and alcohol consumption is not part of the culture. 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. Often the tunes are traditional and more than a century old, and sometimes a few tunes are more recent compositions that follow the traditional form, perhaps composed by the musicians on stage. (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.
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 people find them more comfortable to dance in than pants. This includes some men as well; contra dancers can be quite liberal in the way they dress. 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. Perfumes, colognes, or other scented products are not commonly worn.
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; mistakes will be overlooked, in most circles, as long as they do not upset the experience for the rest of the group.
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. 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 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.
Most contra dances consist of a sequence of about six to twelve 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 sixteen 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". Crooked tunes are more commonly used in square dancing, where the phrasing of the dance does not have to align as closely with the phrasing of the music.
Sample contra dances:
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 Em. Here, D is related to G as its dominant (5th), while D and Em (dorian) share a key signature of two sharps. In the southern 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) it is not uncommon to mix jigs and reels in a set.