Definition 1: an earnest attempt
A caller, 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.
Children as young as seven can participate in adult dancing; your mileage may vary. As long as parents are responsibile for keeping non-dancing children out of harm's way, everyone will enjoy everyone else's presence.
First-time dancers will likely find experienced dancers extremely friendly and helpful.
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: New England or southern squares, waltz, polka, swing and other types of couple dance.
At most venues in North America, we dance with a different partner for each dance, although dates who attend together and signficant 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. 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.
Many 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
Definition 2: what contra dance is not
Contra dance has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with country line dancing. Nada. Zilch. And if it did I would deny it. (I've allowed a personal bias to come through. Certainly some people enjoy both contra dancing and country line dancing.)
Contra dance groups receive absolutely no funding from Oliver North.
No classes are required, or even offered (in general), except for a non-required introduction to contra dance an hour or a half hour before the dance, at many venues.
We do not wear costumes 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 bars.) 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.
Why the name 'contra dance'?
English country dancing gained a certain legitimacy in the 17th century. What 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.