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Contra dance (also contradance, contra-dance and other variant spellings) refers to several partnered folk dance styles in which couples dance in two facing lines or in a group of four. It has mixed origins from English country dance and French dance styles in the 17th century. Sometimes described as New England folk dance, contra dances can be found around the world and have some popularity in North America and the United Kingdom where weekly or monthly dances and annual dance weekends are common.
Considered a type social dance, contra dancing involves steps that require a partner, where couples can be variously arranged in lines up and down the dance hall. Throughout the course of a dance, couples progress up and down these lines, typically interacting with different couples as they progress. The dance is led by a caller who facilitates a walkthrough before the actual dance begins. Callers describe a series of steps called "figures", and in a single dance, a caller may include anywhere from 6-12 individuals figures which are repeated as couples progress.
The accompanying music for contra dances includes, but is not limited to Irish, Scottish, and French-Canadian folk songs. The fiddle is considered the core instrument, though other stringed instruments such as the guitar and mandolin are used as well. Music in a dance can consist of one or multiple songs, and key changes during the course of a dance are common.
At the end of the 17th century, English country dances were taken up by French dance masters. The French called these dances contra-dances or contredanses. As time progressed, these dances returned to England and were spread and reinterpreted in the United States, and eventually the French form of the name came to be associated with the American folk dances, where they were alternatively called "country dances" or in some parts of New England such as New Hampshire, "contradances."
Contra dances were fashionable in the United States and were considered one of the most popular social dances across class lines in the late 18th century, though these events were usually referred to as "country dances" until the 1780s, when the term contra dance became more common to describe these events. In the mid-19th century, group dances started to decline in popularity in favor of quadrilles, lancers, and couple dances such as the waltz and polka. By the late 19th century, square dances too had fallen out of favor, except in rural areas. When squares were revived (around 1925 to 1940, depending on the region), contra dances were generally not included. In the 1930s and 1940s, contra dances appear to have been done only in small towns in widely scattered parts of northeastern North America, such as Ohio, the Maritime provinces of Canada, and particularly northern New England. Ralph Page almost single-handedly maintained the New England tradition until it was revitalized in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly by Ted Sannella and Dudley Laufman.
By then, early dance camps, retreats, and weekends had emerged, such as Pinewoods Camp, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which became primarily a music and dance camp in 1933, and NEFFA, the New England Folk Festival, also in Massachusetts, which began in 1944. These and others continue to be popular and some offer other dances and activities besides contra dancing.
In the 1970s, Sannella and other callers introduced movements from English Country Dance, such as heys and gypsies, to the contra dances. New dances, such as Shadrack's Delight by Tony Parkes, featured symmetrical dancing by all couples. (Previously, the actives and inactives —see Progression below— had significantly different roles). Double progression dances, popularized by Herbie Gaudreau, added to the aerobic nature of the dances, and one caller, Gene Hubert, wrote a quadruple progression dance, Contra Madness. Becket formation was introduced, with partners next to each other in the line instead of opposite. The Brattleboro Dawn Dance started in 1976, and continues to run semiannually.
In the early 1980s, Tod Whittemore started the first Saturday dance in the Peterborough Town House, which remains one of the more popular regional dances. The Peterborough dance influenced Bob McQuillen who became a notable musician in New England. As musicians and callers moved to other locations, they founded contra dances in Michigan, Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, and elsewhere.
In the 1970s, the Boston Lesbian and Gay Folk Dance was the first group regularly contra dancing without gender roles; its dances were referred to as "gender-free" or "gender-neutral" dances. In 1981, a group in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, called "Les be Gay and Dance" was started, in which callers deliberately eliminated references to gender by avoiding the terms "ladies" or "gents." In 1987, Chris Ricciotti started a gay dance group in Providence, RI, using the terms "ladies" and "gents," although dancers were not lining up according to gender. Other gender-free dance groups started in the area after that, and in 1989, at the gender-free dance group in Jamaica Plain, MA, a group of dancers led by Janet Dillon protested the use of these terms, and the armband system was devised: the traditionally male-role dancers would wear armbands and be called "armbands" or just "bands," and the traditionally female-role dancers would be called "bare arms" or just "bares."
Contra dance events are open to all, regardless of experience. They are family-friendly, and alcohol consumption is not part of the culture. Many events offer beginner-level instructions for prior to the dance. A typical evening of contra dance is three hours long, including an intermission. The event consists of a number of individual contra dances, divided by a scattering of other partner dances, perhaps one or more waltzes, schottisches, polkas, or Swedish hambos. In some places, square dances are thrown into the mix. Music for the evening is typically performed by a live band, playing jigs and reels from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, or the USA. The tunes are traditional and more than a century old, or modern compositions which follow the same form as the traditional pieces.
Generally, a leader, known as a caller, will teach each individual dance just before the music for that dance begins. During this introductory walkthrough, participants learn the dance by walking through the steps and formations, following the caller's instructions. The caller gives the instructions orally, and sometimes augments them with demonstrations of steps by experienced dancers in the group. The walkthrough usually proceeds in the order of the moves as they will be done with the music; in some dances, the caller may vary the order of moves during the dance, a fact that is usually explained as part of the caller's instructions.
After the walkthrough, the music begins and the dancers repeat that sequence some number of times before that dance ends, often 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the length of the contra lines. Calls are normally given at least the first few times through, and often for the last. At the end of each dance, the dancers thank their partners. The contra dance tradition in North America is to change partners for every dance, while in the United Kingdom typically people dance with the same partner the entire evening. One who attends an evening of contra dances in North America does not need to bring his or her own partner. In the short break between individual dances, women and men invite each other to dance. Booking ahead (lining up a partner or partners ahead of time for each individual dance) is common at some venues and other times discouraged.
Most contra dances do not have a strict dress code. No special outfits are worn, but comfortable and loose-fitting clothing that does not restrict movement is usually recommended. Lightweight skirts are often worn, as these have a very pretty effect when swinging or twirling. However, low, broken-in, soft-soled, non-marking shoes, such as dance shoes, sneakers, or sandals, are recommended and, in some places, required. As dancing can be aerobic, dancers are sometimes encouraged to bring a change of clothes.
As in any social dance, cooperation is vital to contra dancing. Since over the course of any single dance, individuals interact with not just their partners but everyone else in the set, contra dancing might be considered a group activity. As will necessarily be the case when beginners are welcomed in by more practiced dancers, mistakes are made; most dancers are willing to help beginners in learning the steps. However, because the friendly, social nature of the dances can be misinterpreted or even abused, some groups have created anti-harassment policies.
Contra dances are arranged in long paired lines of couples. A pair of lines is called a set. Sets are generally arranged so they run the length of the hall, with the top or head of the set being the end closest to the band and caller. Correspondingly, the bottom or foot of the set is the end farthest from the caller.
Couples consist of two people, traditionally but not necessarily one male and one female, typically referred to as the gent, gentleman or man, and lady or woman. Couples interact primarily with an adjacent couple for each round of the dance. Each sub-group of two interacting couples is known to choreographers as a minor set and to dancers as a foursome or hands four. Couples in the same minor set are neighbors. Minor sets originate at the head of the set, starting with the topmost dancers as the 1s (the active couple or actives); the other couple are 2s (or inactives). The 1s are said to be above their neighboring 2s; 2s are below. If there is an uneven number of couples dancing, the bottom-most couple will wait out the first time through the dance.
There are three common ways of arranging couples in the minor sets: proper formation, improper formation, and Becket formation. There are many additional forms a contra dance may take. Five of them are: triple minor, triplet, indecent, four-face-four, and whole-set. (For diagrams and full descriptions, see Contra Dance Form main article.)
A fundamental aspect of contra dancing is that the same dance, one time through which lasts roughly 30 seconds, is repeated over and over - but each time you dance with new neighbors. This change is effected by progressing the 1s down the set and progressing the 2s up (also up the hall and down the hall; see the article on contra dance form for full characterizations of the progression in the eight dance forms mentioned above).
A single dance runs around ten minutes, long enough to progress 15-20 times. If the sets are short to medium length the caller will often try to run the dance until each couple has danced with every other couple both as a 1 and a 2 and returned to where they started. With longer sets (more than ~40 people) this would require long enough sets that the caller will usually only run the dance all the way around on (rare) non equal-turn dances.
Contra dance choreography specifies the dance formation, the figures, and the sequence of those figures in a dance. Notably, contra dance figures (with a few exceptions) do not have defined footwork; within the limits of the music and the comfort of their fellow dancers, individuals move according to their own taste.
Most contra dances consist of a sequence of about 6 to 12 individual figures, prompted by the caller in time to the music as the figures are danced. As the sequence repeats, the caller may cut down his or her prompting, and eventually drop out, leaving the dancers to each other and the music.
A figure is a pattern of movement that typically takes eight counts, although figures with four or 16 counts are also common. Each dance is a collection of figures assembled to allow the dancers to progress along the set (see "Progression," above).
A count (as used above) is one half of a musical measure, such as one quarter note in 2/4 time or three eighth notes in 6/8 time. A count may also be called a step, as contra dance is a walking form, and each count of a dance typically matches a single physical step in a figure.
Typical contra dance choreography comprises four parts, each 16 counts (8 measures) long. The parts are called A1, A2, B1 and B2. This nomenclature stems from the music: Most contra dance tunes (as written) have two parts (A and B), each 8 measures long, and each fitting one part of the dance. The A and B parts are each played twice in a row, hence, A1, A2, B1, B2. While the same music is generally played in, for example, parts A1 and A2, distinct choreography is followed in those parts. Thus, a contra dance is typically 64 counts, and goes with a 32 measure tune. Tunes of this form are called "square"; tunes that deviate from this form are called "crooked".
Sample contra dances:
Many modern contra dances have these characteristics:
An event which consists primarily (or solely) of dances in this style is sometimes referred to as a Modern Urban Contra Dance.
The most common contra dance repertoire is rooted in the Anglo-Celtic tradition as it developed in North America. Irish, Scottish, French Canadian, and Old-time tunes are common, and Klezmer tunes have also been used. The old-time repertoire includes very few of the jigs common in the others.
Tunes used for a contra dance are nearly always "square" 64-beat tunes, in which one time through the tune is each of two 16-beat parts played twice (this is notated AABB). However, any 64-beat tune will do; for instance, three 8-beat parts could be played AABB AACC, or two 8-beat parts and one 16-beat part could be played AABB CC. Tunes not 64 beats long are called "crooked" and are almost never used for contra dancing, although a few crooked dances have been written as novelties.
In terms of instrumentation, fiddles are considered to be the primary instrument in contra dancing, though other stringed instruments can also be used, such as the mandolin, banjo, or guitar. Occasionally, percussion instruments are also used in contra dancing, such as the Irish bodhran or less frequently, the dumbek or washboard.
Until the 1970s it was traditional to play a single tune for the duration of a contra dance (about 5 to 10 minutes). Since then, contra dance musicians have typically played tunes in sets of two or three related (and sometimes contrasting) tunes, though single-tune dances are again becoming popular with some northeastern bands. In the Celtic repertoires it is common to change keys with each tune. A set might start with a tune in G, switch to a tune in D, and end with a tune in Bm. Here, D is related to G as its dominant (5th), while D and Bm share a key signature of two sharps. In the old-time tradition the musicians will either play the same tune for the whole dance, or switch to tunes in the same key. This is because the tunings of the banjo are key-specific. An old-time band might play a set of tunes in D, then use the time between dances to retune for a set of tunes in A. (Fiddlers also may take this opportunity to retune; tune- or key-specific fiddle tunings are uncommon in American Anglo-Celtic traditions other than old-time.)
In the Celtic repertoires it is most common for bands to play sets of reels and sets of jigs. However, since the underlying beat structure of jigs and reels is the same (two "counts" per bar) bands will occasionally mix jigs and reels in a set.
In recent years, younger contra dancers have begun establishing "crossover contra" or "techno contra" - contra dancing to techno, hip-hop, and other modern forms of music. While challenging for DJs and callers, the fusion of contra patterns with moves from hip-hop, tango, and other forms of dance has made this form of contra dance a rising trend since 2008; it has become especially prevalent in Asheville, NC, but regular techno contra dance series are spreading up the East Coast to locales such as Charlottesville, VA, Washington, DC, Amherst, MA, and Greenfield, MA, with one-time or annual events cropping up in locations further West, including California and Washington state.
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