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What is Contra Dance?



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. What is contra dancing exactly? Well, as we found out, contra is a form of American folk dance. Then, instead of doing any more research, we decided that the best way to learn is by experience. 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're here to contra!" we declared.

In reality, this assembly was an international folk dancing group. But they did contra as well and graciously agreed to give us a taste. We danced away, dancing for a couple hours as more and more people trickled in. It was 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 with you my impressions.

Contra, according to Neda:

Contra dancing is:

  • Road

    "Oh, this is one of those imposter beaches!"

    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, and has its roots in English country dancing, a much more formal and proper type of dance. English country was done in royal courts and performed by individual partners, not by big groups. In the U.S. however, 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)! Though it died off a little towards the end of the century, in the Northeast, the contra dancing roots ran deep and people continued to gather for some good contra times. Today, contra lives on all over the country!

  • I think Becky must have been a contra queen in a former lifetime
    NOT square dancing: but similar... Let's call them relatives. 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 up 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.

  • A break for cake-the group celebrates Dan's new house
    A beginner-friendly community event: Contra may not have the hugest following, but there are weekly community events all over the country where dancers get together. Everyone in the group we joined was so welcoming and friendly, to us as well as to each other, and helped us pick up the steps. When we took a break in our dancing, we got to eat some cake and celebrate Dan's new home. And Beth, who has been folk dancing for 25 years, welcomed us into her own home for the night.

  • Contra for you, contra for me, contra for all!
    Clean, wholesome fun for all ages: With so much movement, it's great exercise, and everyone gets the chance to dance with everybody else. This may not have been quite the real thing with hundreds of people in a dance hall and a live band playing, but even in that small church room with the recorded music and handful of people, we had a fabulous time and learned a lot. Though I'd bet that the average age of a contra dancer is probably a bit older than the two of us trekkers, we certainly were not the youngest dancers in the room. And some contras are even 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!


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - A song of Walt Whitman
Irene - Having a whale of a time