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What is Contra Dancing?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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Contra dancing is a general term for a number of different styles of traditional dance. The unifying theme among contra dancing styles is that they pair off couples opposite one another in long lines, which have no fixed length. Contra dancing is especially popular in the United States, where it is also known as traditional New England dancing.

The history of contra dancing goes back many centuries, to traditional country dances, especially English country dances. In the late-17th century the French began adopting many English country dances, mixing them with aspects of French formal dances. They dubbed the dances contredanse or contra-dance. Later, as English country dancing made its way through the world, it was referred to by an Anglicized version of the French name: contra dancing.

In the United States, contra dancing was especially popular throughout the 18th century and the early-19th century, when it was eventually replaced in most regions by the square dances. Eventually, square dances themselves were replaced by couples' dances like the waltz, and contra dancing fell even more into obscurity. Although square dancing had a nation-wide revival in the 1930s, contra dancing remained out of the spotlight, except in a few isolated regions.

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The biggest enclave of traditional contra dancing was in New England, especially the far north, such as parts of northern Vermont and Maine. There, contra dancing never went out of vogue, and communities kept the practice and the steps alive. When an interest in contra dancing was rekindled in the 1950s, these small enclaves acted as repositories of steps and traditions for the new dancers to draw from. Ted Sanella was perhaps the most famous of those who brought contra dancing back, expanding and modernizing traditional contra dancing in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the modern day, contra dancing has seen a wide-scale resurgence, and dances can be found in many rural towns and most large cities. The contra dance is a wonderful event for beginners and families, because it tends to be open to people of all skill levels, and is a friendly, open environment. Children and new dancers are encouraged to join in, and most dances will have a brief period before the commencement of the dance proper that serves as a short class in the dance and various techniques.

Music in contra dancing is performed live, and usually consists of traditional English, Irish, and Scottish tunes, played on traditional instruments. A caller leads the dancers through each dance, first by explaining the steps at the beginning of the dance, in a period known as a walk through. After the walkthrough, the dance itself begins, during which the caller will call out the steps of the dance a few times, letting the dancers repeat the steps, before allowing them to dance it on their own with no assistance. Usually at the end of the dance, the last run through of the step will also be called.

The culture of contra dancing is informal, but often incorporates traditional elements. Women may wear swirling peasant skirts, men may wear casual apparel, and the demeanor of dancers will often tend towards traditional attitudes of politeness, with dancers formally thanking one another at the end of each dance, for example. Because of the group dynamic of contra dancing, it is a very social activity, and many view contra dancing as a way to make new friends and meet new people.

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