What’s Contra?

Contra is a community dance that’s been around over 300 years! The music and moves change with the times and the dancers. The community is as important as the dancing.

Here are some videos (links go to Youtube, where you’ll find attribution). There’s more on mechanics and history below.

Here’s a traditional contra in Asheville, North Carolina. Notice the big range of ages! More experienced dancers have fun with extra twirls and dips, but the dance repeats the same basic sequence of moves about every 30 seconds. In each cycle, you and your partner meet a new couple and dance as a group of four. Caution, fiddle is hot!

Here’s what they did at the University of Florida back in 2013. This group is now defunct, but they gave us all their decorations, including the blacklights!

How people feel about it:

Contra’s traditional music morphs into more modern beats (and look at the age range in this dance!):

The music and moves are always evolving. Here you’ll see styling from swing and Lindy hop:

Now the other extreme! Contra to EDM/funk/hip-hop. Yes, those sparkles are real! I swear I’ve seen ’em myself! 🙂

The granddaddy of ’em all, the annual Flurry Festival in Saratoga Springs, New York. There are upward of 500 dancers in this room! Follow a dancer for a few dance cycles, then rewind and follow another one.

There are lots of ways to answer, “What is contra?”…

Sassy: It’s the most fun you can legally have with other people in public!

Mechanical: Contra dancing is an American folk dance in which a couple faces another couple, dances 64 musical beats in prescribed steps delivered by a caller, and ends back-to-back with the other couple. At the beginning of the dance, many sets of two couples form a double line (“contra” lines), so there is now a new couple facing the original couple, and the dance repeats. When a couple reaches the end of the line, they turn around, swap places, and continue dancing with the next couple coming down the line. Music is often live and takes a variety of styles, traditionally involving fiddles (Irish, Scottish, French-Canadian, old-time) and more recently mixing in influences from swing, rock, pop, EDM, and hip-hop.

Historical: Contra dancing grew out of America’s oldest (non-native) folk dance, and has become its newest! Contra came to the Americas with the European settlers as English country dancing. Both contra and square dancing grew out of this tradition from the 1600s. Today, contras are still danced to the traditional music of the British Isles, including both Irish and Scottish tunes, as well as French-Canadian pieces, Appalachian old-time fiddle tunes, and modern styles including rock, pop, EDM, and hip-hop. Early English country and contra dances were high-society affairs with memorized dances. Musicians were often slaves, who took the dances to their own people and called moves to the dancers, since they lacked the written dance manuals of the slave masters. Contra and square-dance calling is thus a Black invention, as are both the playing styles and many of the tunes in the Appalachian old-time tradition (not to mention the roots of American country music). Calling opened the dance to everyone and enabled the constant innovation that is the hallmark of modern contra dancing. Callers now have access to thousands of contra dances. The original dances had men in one line and women in the other (proper formation). Half the couples were “active” and did most of the moving, and half were “inactive”. In the 1960s and 1970s, caller like Ted Sanella, Tony Parkes, and others in New England decided to spice things up by swapping every other couple (improper formation), enabling everyone to be active and moving all the time. A move toward gender-free dancing began in the 1990s and took root in the 2010s. Many dances, including ours, now avoid terms like “gents” and “ladies” in favor of “larks” (or “lefts”, the traditional male role) and “robins” (or “rights”, the traditional female role) or calling in reference to where people are standing (positional calling), an effort to make the dance more inclusive.

For more, check out the Wikipedia page…and look, there’s our lead organizer in the top video wearing a tie-dye!

What will our dance be like? Well, what styles do you like? Join us and help us define our own style!