By Brian Elmer
Contra dancing can generally be recognized when the dancers are seen interacting primarily in two facing lines.
It can be traced back to at least the mid-1400's and has been danced almost continuously since then. Dancing was the primary form of recreation during the colonial period of North America and "country" or "contra" dancing was the most popular of all social classes. Colonialists had inherited this tendency from Elizabethan England and many Europeans as well picked up English country dancing as their own.
It is believed that the first square dance was a contra dance for four couples because the figures are similar to those of square dancing. After dancing contra in the line formation, the two end couples found they could face up and down the lines while the two center couples danced a sequence of the dance. They then found they could repeat the dance sequence with each other and up and down the lines, rather than across the lines. This was equivalent to today's head position in square dancing and the center two couples were equivalent to the side position.
Contra dances are normally formed in "sets" of two parallel lines and go through a certain sequence of figures according to the caller's direction, repeated several times. Each repetition results in some of the dancers progressing toward one end of the set and the others moving toward the other end. The line formation lends itself to "as many as want to" dancing together without regard for the number of couples. There's always room for one more in a contra and, as couples arrive, they merely "form on" at the foot of the set, there is never a problem of waiting
for "three more couples" as in square dancing.
Several formations are used in contra dancing and the lines may be straight or they may be formed into a circle. In standard contra dances, partners are opposite each other in facing lines, although in some line formations the partners are adjacent to each other as in the square formation.
In Contra, the dance sequence is normally repeated every eight movements and it is common for the caller to "shut up" and let the dancers dance solely to the music after the first few times through the sequence. Contra dances also have the dancers in unusual (to square dancers) positions that require the dancers to be "all-position dancers" and to have the ability to visualize their relationship to the rest of the set.
Contra dances are generally done to reels, jigs and hornpipes because of their pronounced phrasing, rhythm and melody but contra dancing is also done in waltz, polka, two-step rhythms and to modern country western tunes. They can also be done to classical music. Many callers are using the best of the current square dance singing call records. The primary requirement is that the music be well phrased so the dancers and the caller can "be with the music."
In contra dancing the rules of the dance do not change, the timing of each movement does not change, and new movements are added only infrequently and then only if they match the musical phrasing and provide comfortable body flow.
To contra dance enthusiasts, dancing with the phrase and measure of the music, in a variety of formations, to a variety of musical rhythms and tempos, in a social atmosphere and with interaction with other dancers, and dancing with a minimum of voice over the music, it's the most enjoyable dance activity.
For contra dancing to have survived and flourished for more than 500 years, it must have some popular appeal. Those same enthusiasts believe contra dancing will still be popular for another 500 years and longer.