In 1989, a former significant other drags me to a “contra” dance at the Thelma Boltin Center in Gainesville Florida’s Duckpond neighborhood. For several months, I am bewildered and hesitant. The dance is challenging for my naturally shy nature as it is openly flirtatious. Somehow I stick with it, and after several months, my comfort level improves. I start knowing and eventually can anticipate calls from the caller. The dance, therefore, grows increasingly enjoyable as I am able to relax and worry less about what I must do next.
An important aspect of this dance is that newcomers tend to be gently guided by friendly and experienced dancers in your “cluster” of nearby dancers. You are almost never all on your own.
After a little more than a year, I finally feel comfortable with the three-step traditional contra waltz (I’m a slow learner). Soon, I decide to “graduate” to an all-weekend contra dance. I quickly learn that these are exceptionally enjoyable. Most of them are “dance-till-you-drop” events. Typically, the dancing starts on a Friday night, starts first thing on Saturday. Usually the Saturday dance goes on late into the night, until people are more like zombies than dancers. Many of the weekend dances end at about noon on Sunday. During these 2-3 days, there is nearly continuous contra dancing and a number of dance/call/musical workshops in various locations. All-weekend dances tend to include relatively high-quality dancers, callers, dances and fiddle bands. The result is an exhilarating, high-energy experience that combines relatively complex and intricate dances, a fast tempo, and rapid-fire calling.
With so many experienced dancers, it is thrilling when a difficult dance succeeds despite the tricky nature of the dance. The feeling of successfully negotiating such dances often leads the group of dancers to finish the dance with a great big group hug and an arms-raised shout.
Here is a description of contra dancing I found on the Internet a few years ago. This comes from Gary Shapiro. See:
Definition 1: an earnest attempt
A caller, usually 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. Dancers often go out to a restaurant after the dance, have a potluck before or during the dance, or hang out with musicians in jam sessions and song circles.
Children as young as seven can participate in adult dancing; your mileage may vary. As long as parents are responsible for keeping non-dancing children out of harm’s way, everyone will enjoy everyone else’s presence.
Some groups sponsor family dances. These are dances designed for participation by the whole family. In addition to dancing, the leader of a family dance might also initiate other activities such as games and singing, and singing games, and dances with singing.
First-time dancers will likely find experienced dancers extremely friendly and helpful. If this does not seem to be the case, talk to the dance organizers. They need to know! Or, depending on your location, you could find another dance group.
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: traditional squares, waltz, polka, swing and other types of couple dance.
At most dance events in North America, we dance with a different partner for each dance, although dates who attend together and significant others might dance with each other more than once.
Women can ask men to dance. At a contra dance this is certainly true and has been for some time. 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).
Contra 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 like it. Remember: they’re gazing into your eyes not because they love you but because they want to make the connection, and they don’t want to throw up on you.
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 half-hour or fifteen minute introduction to contra dance before the dance, at many regular dance events.
We do not wear costumes (except on Halloween) 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 measures.) 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.
Definition 5: an analogy
“A contra dance is like an amusement park ride we make for ourselves.” –Unknown
Learning to contra dance
We recommend that new dancers who wish to learn quickly and effectively seek out the more experienced dancers as partners. If you attend with a date, give each other a present by dancing with others for a while. You’ll then be able to have more fun dancing with each other. Read this paragraph again.
Or not. In a room full of strangers, you’ll want to cling to the one you know. But go ahead, dive into the unknown–we’re all here to catch you.
The short introduction that is offered at many locations is not a substitute for dancing with experienced partners, nor is it considered a prerequisite for joining the dance, but some people feel more comfortable having attended the introduction.
Feel free to attend the introduction multiple times. Different teachers will present it differently. Heck, the same teacher will present it differently. And you’ll notice different things, and different things will sink in, especially after having experienced what they’re teaching.
Also don’t hesitate to ask other dancers, or the caller, for help, but keep in mind you may not get the same answer from two different dancers, or two different callers!
Ultimately, the only way to learn contra dancing is to do it. In comparison, watching it, or reading about it, is not particularly helpful.
Earlier we mentioned that eye contact, especially during the swing, reduces dizziness. However, if your partner is significantly taller than you, looking up at too steep an angle can be uncomfortable and actually increase dizziness. In this case, fix your gaze on some other part of or on your partner, such as chin, or a button, or wherever is comfortable for both.
Conversely, if your partner is significantly shorter than you, looking down can also increase dizziness. In this case, it has been suggested, look at his or her aura.
Then there are those who claim that only by looking into the eyes can dizziness be reduced.
Some more dizziness suggestions:
- Keep your head level, adjusting just your eyes up or down to look at a partner of different height.
- Swing smoothly, without bouncing or bobbing up and down.
- Swing more slowly. Say something to your partner (or neighbor) like “please slow down or I’m going to be sick.”
- As you dance more and more, you’ll get less and less dizzy.
- Some people enjoy being dizzy and don’t get queasy.
- Some contributors to the rec.folk-dancing newsgroup feel that avoiding consumption of drugs before dancing may lessen dizziness. At least one such contributor pointedly included alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and aspartame (e.g., Nutrasweet) as drugs to be avoided. (Whether aspartame is a harmful drug or is a safe product is a matter of controversy.)
- Ginger can help prevent motion sickness.
Why the name ‘contra dance’?
English country dancing gained a certain legitimacy in the 17th century. What might have 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.