Contra dancing is a tradition born in New England and now enjoyed all over the world, involving simple, lively social dancing to (most often) live music. In the pages in this section, you'll find some general information on contra dance plus resources for contra dance callers, musicians and organizers.
The essential ingredients for a contra dance are: 1) music (live or recorded); 2) calling/teaching (usually live, but some groups have created pre-recorded calls); 3) dancers; 4) a space large enough for 1, 2, and 3.
Click on the tabs below to read more in your area of interest, whether you are a dancer, caller, musician or organizer. Within each tab are accordian dropdowns to information in that category. Click on the accordian title to open the article; click on it again to close it.
Here are links to a few online articles that attempt to answer the question: "What is Contra Dance?" in various ways.
For a more visual approach, click on the dropdown for Contra Dance How To Videos.
- What is Contra Dance? by Gary Shapiro
- Contra Dance entry in Wikipedia, (focused on choreography and geometry of the dances, more than the social aspects)
- A Contra Dance Primer by Les Francey and Farrell Boyce, Hamilton (Ontario) Country Dancers
- Chattachoochie (Atlanta, GA) Country Dancers What is Contra Dancing? page. (There are also some links to instructional videos on this page.)
- Hands Four By Greg Rohde (article about personal history of getting into contra dance)
It is important for beginning callers, musicians and organizers to understand how the choreography of contra dancing fits with the music. Here is a good place to start.
Contra Dances are generally done to tunes that are 32 musical bars (64 beats) long. The tunes usually have an A part and a B part, each of which is 8 bars (16 beats) of distinct music. The A and B parts are each repeated, to make a form that is described as AABB, with a total of 32 bars (64 beats). The dances are made up of sets of figures (such as forward and back, allemande, do-si-do) that are mostly 4, 8, or 16 beats long, strung together in a pattern that results in 32 bars (64 beats) of dancing. Once through the tune equals once through the dance.
The dancers dance the figures once through with their partners and neighboring couples, and then move on (progress) to a new couple and do the pattern all over again. We usually repeat the dance 10 or 15 or 20 times through. The caller prompts the figures for as long as is necessary until the dancers can do it on their own. The band plays the music in this form (ideally without dropping any parts or adding any extra beats) until the caller decides to end the dance.
Let's break that down a bit and look at a specific dance and tune. At this point don't worry about trying to figure out the specific dance - it's just an example.
SAMPLE DANCE AND TUNE
Here's the simple contra dance "Broken Sixpence" by Don Armstrong.
BROKEN SIXPENCE, BY DON ARMSTRONG; FROM REBECCA LAY
longways; duple imprope
A1: Neighbor do si do (8)
two gents do si do (8)
A2: two ladies do si do (8)
Ones swing, end facing down (8)
B1: go down the hall, 4 in line, turn alone (8)
up the hall, bend the line into a ring (8)
B2: Circle Left 1x
star Left 1x
The numbers in parentheses represent the number of musical beats that each figure should take. For example, the A1 has a neighbor do-si-do for 8 beats, and then a gents do-si-do for 8 beats. "Longways" indicates that the dance is done in long lines of couples, with each person standing across from their partner and next to their neighbor. "Improper" means the number two couples in each group of four cross over, so that the long lines are gent - lady, gent- lady, etc.
Now, here's the simple Irish reel "Silver Spear," a common contra dance tune (click the image to see a larger version).
You can see the relationship between beats (red dots) and bars (the horizontal lines that divide the music), as well as the structure of the A and B parts. [Note to musicians: this concept of "beats" may be different than what the time signature says about beats per measure, depending on how the music is written out. It reflects the way dancers hear the beats - and callers match the figures to the music - when the tune is played at dance tempo. Don't think too much about the time signature.] The musical notes are the melody of the tune, while the chord letters give information to the rhythm musicians about how to accompany the tune.
If you were dancing Broken Sixpence to the Silver Spear, the neighbor do-si-do would take up the first line of music (8 beats, 4 bars), then the gents do-si-do takes up the second line, and that is the end of the A1. The band will repeat the A part; this time the ladies do-si-do takes up the first line, and the ones swing takes up the second line, and that's the end of the A2. For the B1 dancers go down the hall while the band plays the third line, and back up the hall for the 4th line. Repeat! B2: Circle = 3rd line, star = 4th line. Then we have reached the end of once through the dance and once through the tune. The dancers have progressed to face new couples; the band repeats the tune from the beginning, and the caller starts at the beginning of the figures for the second time through.
Presto! A contra dance!
Here are some videos that teach basic figures of contra dancing and give information about what to expect when you come to a contra dance for the first time.
Contra Dance Basics for Begining Dancers, by Chattahoochee Country Dancers: DVD version or by chapter on YouTube:
These videos on YouTube highlight the excitement of contra dancing, and can help you show friends what a contra dance looks like. Videos were chose for their sound quality, video quality, presence of young people, and geographic distribution.
Inspired by some conversations with Laura Lengnick on what it takes to play music for a contra dance, Dennis Merritt of the Old Farmers' Ball, a regional dance in Asheville, NC, conducted a number of video interviews with various bands, musicians and callers on the topic. Dennis has graciously made these video interviews available to CDSS to share with our members and friends.
The biggest complaint dance organizers hear about callers, is confusing walk-throughs and/or lengthy walk-throughs. Beth Molaro shares her thoughts on efficient walk throughs, planning and evening, and a bunch of other topics as well.
The Free Raisins
The day after playing at the Grey Eagle, the Free Raisins set up to practice, but took a break to talk about their approach to the music, using the full band set up to illustrate many of the points. Audrey Knuth - fiddle, Jeff Kaufman - mandolin, Amy Englesberg - piano.
The morning after playing the Monday Night Dance at the Grey Eagle, Ed Howe and John Coté spent some time talking about their approach to music, both from an acoustic and electric perspective and played an acoustic tune illustrating some of their ideas.
Andrew VanNorstrand of the Great Bear Trio
The morning after playing the OFB New Year's Eve Ball, Andrew VanNorstrand spent some time talking about the music, explaining the Great Bear Trio's emphasis on dance rhythms rather than specific tunes.
Jamie Laval spent the better part of an afternoon recording a number of his thoughts on contra dance music and how to play it for a dance.
John Herrmann & Meredith McIntosh