What is Contra Dancing?


Traditional Music in Tucson


First of all, here’s a Youtube video of our local contra dance:

Contra Dance Video

Contra dance is American folk dance which emphasizes interaction with other dancers, smooth transitions between moves, and achieving a “groove” state through repetition of a sequence of moves. The live music, often old-time or Celtic in flavor, drives the dance with its steady beat, and musicians also enjoy entering the “groove.” Dancers arrive singly, in couples, or in groups, but quickly disperse as they adhere to the custom of changing partners each dance. To signal they are looking for a partner, dancers mill about at the bottom of a newly-forming line until one asks another to dance.

Modern contra dance is characterized by its frequent use of the swing. Virtually every contra dance being danced today contains a partner swing, and most of the time dancers also swing an opposite-gender-role dancer who changes each time through the sequence, called a neighbor. To swing, dancers assume a modified waltz position in which each dancer supports their own weight with a flat, paddle-shaped hand place on their partner’s shoulder-blade. They then spin around together in a smoother version of what children do on a playground, maintaining eye contact to signal sociability and prevent dizziness.

Choreographers have created thousands of contra dances, most of which contain a 64-beat sequence of 4-, 8-, 12-, and 16-beat moves. The sequence takes about 35 seconds, and dancers repeat it for 8 to 15 minutes, until the caller cues the musicians to end. The caller walks the dancers through each dance once or twice before cuing the musicians to start playing, since even the most experienced dancers are probably not familiar with that particular dance. Once the music starts, the caller gives the dancers a brief verbal cue before each move, and gradually shortens and drops these cues as the dance gets into the dancers’ muscle memory and the cues become unnecessary distractions from connecting with the music.

An evening of contra dance is organized into two “halves,” the first being 75 to 90 minutes long and the second being 60 to 75 minutes long. In between, there is a 15 to 30 minute break, during which dancers socialize, drink extra water, and partake of snacks volunteers may have brought. Each half is immediately followed by a 2 to 5 minute waltz, for which no formal instruction is given. In many communities, the evening of dance is preceded by a half hour introduction for beginners, which is usually taught by the caller without music.

Click here to download a printer compatible (pdf) description of some of the dance moves.

Unlike square dancers, contra dancers have no dress code. Many women and some men wear skirts because they are fun to twirl in, but almost any comfortable clothing is acceptable. As dancers will frequently have their hands on one another’s back throughout the evening, sweatier dancers often bring along an extra shirt to change into at the break for courtesy. Dance shoes are varied, but the most important feature is a smooth sole that will slide across a wood floor. Contra dancers have used jazz shoes, ballet slippers, leather dress shoes, bare feet, duct-taped bare feet, character shoes, dance sneakers, moccasins, and sneakers with or without suede glued to the sole.

No one is entirely sure where the name contra dance comes from, but two prominent theories are that the name is an English corruption of the French phrase for “country dance,” or that “contra” refers to the way the two lines of dancers stand opposite one another. Contra dance has existed in one form or another since the pilgrims brought over their English country dances, and it acquired a more American flavor over the centuries until it became a distinct dance form unto itself. The second half of the 19th century brought innovations such as placing dancers in an alternating gender formation, where men and women were holding hands with one another more frequently. This formation, known as “improper formation,” was indeed considered risque at the time, but now contra dance is done almost exclusively in improper formation.

Contra dance almost died out multiple times in American history, most recently when Modern Western Square Dance rose in popularity during the 1950’s and drew off many dancers. Contra dance was then “saved” by a grassroots movement in the 1970’s, and modern contra dance maintains some trappings of that hippie culture. The aesthetic favors acoustic musical instruments, tie-dyed shirts, and broomstick skirts, and there is a strong emphasis on community-forming and volunteerism. Bands and callers are paid a nominal amount, but are mostly motivated by enjoyment of the dance. Suggested donations collected at the entrance mostly go to cover other matters, such as the cost of renting the hall.


Elio Lewis



Photos by Jeff Buchin