Contra dance is a traditional style of dance that pairs couples facing each other in long lines. It originated from English country dances and was mixed with French formal dances. It was popular in the US in the 18th and early 19th centuries, especially in New England. It has seen a resurgence in recent years and is open to people of all skill levels. The music is traditional and live, and a caller walks the dancers through each dance. The culture is informal but incorporates traditional elements, and it is a very social activity.
Contra is a generic term for different styles of traditional dance. The unifying theme between counterdance styles is that they pair couples facing each other in long lines, which have no fixed length. Contra dance is particularly popular in the United States, where it is also known as traditional New England dance.
The contrada’s history goes back many centuries, to traditional country dances, especially English country dances. In the late 17th century the French began to adopt many English country dances, mixing them with aspects of French formal dances. They nicknamed the dances contredanse or counter-dance. Later, as English country dancing made its way into the world, it was referred to by an Anglicized version of the French name: contra dancing.
In the United States, contradanza was especially popular throughout the 18th century and early 19th century, when it was eventually replaced in most regions by square dances. Eventually, the square dances themselves were replaced by partner dances such as the waltz, and the flag dance fell even further into obscurity. Although square dancing had a nationwide revival in the 1918s, alto dancing remained out of the spotlight, except in a few isolated regions.
The largest enclave of traditional contra dances has been in New England, particularly as far north as parts of northern Vermont and Maine. There, the controdanza has never gone out of fashion and the communities have kept the practice and the steps alive. When interest in counterdance revived in the 1950s, these small enclaves served as repositories of steps and traditions from which new dancers could draw. Ted Sanella was perhaps the most famous of those who revived the contrada, expanding and modernizing traditional dance in the 1950s and 1960s.
Nowadays, counterdance has seen a large-scale resurgence, and dances can be found in many rural towns as well as most large cities. Contra dancing is a wonderful event for beginners and families as it tends to be open to people of all skill levels and it is a friendly and open environment. Children and new dancers are encouraged to participate, and most dances will have a short period before the actual dance begins which serves as a short lesson in dance and various techniques.
The music in the counter dance is performed live and usually consists of traditional English, Irish and Scottish tunes, played on traditional instruments. A caller walks the dancers through each dance, first explaining the steps at the start of the dance, in a period known as a walk through. After the walkthrough, the dance itself begins, during which the caller will call out the dance steps a few times, letting the dancers repeat the steps, before allowing them to dance on their own without assistance. Usually the last repetition of the step is also called at the end of the dance.
Counterdance culture is informal, but often incorporates traditional elements. Women may wear swirling peasant skirts, men may wear casual clothes, and the dancers’ demeanor will often lean towards traditional politeness, with dancers formally thanking each other at the end of each dance, for example. Due to the group dynamic of counter dancing, it is a very social activity and many see counter dancing as a way to make new friends and meet new people.