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Learn more about contra dancing in the "Contra Dance Primer"



The Country's First Dance Craze

The folks at Clemson contra the night away

Before hip-hop, before disco, even before swing or jazz…. there was contra. And let me tell you, it was all the rage. What is contra dancing exactly? A few days ago, I wasn't so sure -- but it had the word "dancing" in it, and I figured it would be right up my alley. We found out that contra is a form of American folk dance, but instead of doing any more research, we decided that the best way to learn is by experience. So Becky and I started searching for a place to get our contra groove on. It was a Tuesday -not the best night to find social gatherings such as a contra dance -- but being the resourceful trekkers that we are, we managed. With a little bit of investigation, we found out about some weekly dancing held at a Presbyterian church in Clemson, South Carolina… and we were on our way.

We walked in to find about a dozen people standing around on the hardwood floors, chitchatting and waiting for the fun to begin.

"We're here to contra!" we declared.

"This isn't actually a contra dance," someone replied.


Okay, so in reality we had stumbled upon an international folk dancing group. But they did contra as well, and graciously agreed to give us a taste. We danced away, and even got to do some English country and Israeli folk as well (with Becky reliving her high school youth group days). Dancing for a couple hours as more and more people trickled in, we had an absolute blast!

Becky checks out the music selection.

So now that I am the contra expert (yeah, right), I feel like I should share my impressions with you.

Contra, according to Neda... Contra dancing is:

  • Historical: Hey, it's on the U.S. Trek website…there's got to be some history involved, right? Contra can really be seen as our country's first dance craze. It was the thing to do back in the 1800s! Contra has its roots in English country dancing, a much more formal and proper type of dance. English country dancing was done in royal courts and performed by individual partners, not by big groups. In the U.S., the idea of royalty had lost its glamour. People were not interested in being elegant and serious like those stuffy British monarchs. So, they adapted a more informal version of country dancing… and contra was born (the word itself actually came up as a mispronunciation of the word country)! The dance swept the nation and was based on big groups of people dancing together. Towards the end of the century, ballroom and polka and other more traditionally "couples" dancing took over and killed off contra-mania. But in the Northeast, especially in New Hampshire and Vermont, the contra dancing roots ran deep, and people continued to gather for some good contra times. Today, contra lives on all over the country!

  • The promenade: taking us back to our square-dancin'days!
  • NOT square dancing: but it is similar. "I may not be an expert contra dancer," I thought to myself before swinging onto the dance floor, "but hey, at least I have great square-dancing experience from elementary school gym class." I will even admit to having enjoyed going country line dancing a couple times with my friend Lindsay. Would either of these experiences be helpful in my quest to become a contra champ? Well, square dancing and contra are actually related. Square dances are when four couples dance in a "square" (imagine that), whereas contras are when many couples move up and down a long line and switch partners as the dance progresses. A lot of the basic moves are similar though, so when steps such as promenades or dos-e-dos were called, I knew just what to do.

And luckily for me and Becky, contra dancing is also:
I think Becky must have been a contra queen in a former lifetime

  • Friendly to beginners: Before the music even starts, the caller teaches the different moves for each dance, and everyone walks through the steps. When I have gone line dancing, it has sometimes been hard to jump right in and follow along perfectly with all the choreographed moves. I, of course, tend to just improvise in such situations and dance wildly about anyways. With contra, however, even when the music starts, the caller is right there, telling you what steps are coming up. Plus, people who know what they are doing (i.e. not me) are very helpful and willing to guide you.

  • A break for cake-the group celebrates Dan's new house
  • A community event: Contra may not have the biggest following, but there are weekly community events all over the country where dancers get together. We were told to check out Asheville on Thursdays, Durham on Fridays, Greenville every other Saturday, and so on and so on. Everyone in the group we joined was so welcoming and friendly to us, as well as to each other. We took a break in our dancing, for example, to eat some cake and celebrate Dan's new home. And Beth, who has been folk dancing for twenty-five years, welcomed us into her own home for the night.

  • Great exercise: Any type of dancing can be a good workout, and contra was no exception. Becky and I worked up quite a sweat bouncing around to all the contra tunes.

  • Eye contact is key.
  • Flirtatious: There is supposed to be a lot of eye contact involved. You know, gazing lovingly into your partner's eyes. Does this make it a bit shady? Well, I don't know what it is like at the big contra dances, but according to Beth, the flirting is all a harmless part of the dance. A website I was reading said that if someone is staring into your eyes, it doesn't mean that they are hitting on you. They were just trying to make a connection, and "They don't want to throw up on you." Apparently, all the moving and swinging involved in contra dancing can cause some people to get dizzy, and staring at a specific spot can help reduce this dizziness. I will definitely take some eye contact over vomit any day.

  • Contra for you, contra for me, contra for all!
  • For all ages: Okay, I will bet that the average age of a contra dancer is probably a bit older than the two of us trekkers. But we certainly were not the youngest dancers in the room. And I also know that some contras are held on college campuses and attract more of the student population. Whatever the case, I think everyone should give contra a try!
    Contra sure is fun!
  • Clean, wholesome fun: Everybody had a grand time. And with so much movement, everyone gets the chance to dance with everybody else. It may not have been a full-out contra dance, with hundreds of people in a dance hall and a live band busting out the traditional jigs and other tunes. But even in that small church room with the recorded music and handful of people, we had a fabulous time and learned a lot. Becky jokingly says we should plan the rest of our trek around contra dances all across the land. Yes, Becky, I agree… we are just the ones to keep the contra tradition alive!


    Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


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