A Brief History of Contra Dancing

Contra Dance was created by the union of English Country Dance and evolving musical styles and instruments. As English Country Dances moved indoors, the violin, the dulcimer, the guitar, and the tabor (a snare drum) gradually replaced the Scottish bagpipes, the sound of which carried far enough to provide accompaniment at outdoor dances.  The new English Country Dance music and dances traveled to France, eventually landing in French Canada. It was in Canada that contra dance truly evolved.

French Canadians played the violin faster than the English, in the style we now call fiddling, and they often performed “crooked” tunes, which were played in triple meter. In Quebec and the northeastern United States, traditional tunes blended with Irish music and Latin rhythms to produce modern contra music.  In North America, the German accordion and a mixture of percussion instruments, including bongos, spoons, and sticks, were added into the mixture. These new sounds added complexity and created acoustic diversity.

As the music evolved, so too did the dances. English Country Dancing, practiced mainly in the wealthy plantations of Virginia, came to be seen as an elite dance style, whereas contra dancing, practiced mainly in New England, became the dance of the common people. During this time, contra dance forms changed from the original square forms into the now-standard set lines.  The tempo of the music was faster than that of the English Country Dance, usually between 110 and 120 beats per minute.  These tempos were fast enough to entertain the younger dancers but slow enough to accommodate older dancers.

Contra dance lost popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as  industrialization and technology took root, but it resurfaced in the 1970s during the back-to-the land movement. The Thatcher and Reagan eras encouraged the continued regrowth of contra dance in the 1970s and 1980s. In the New England dance halls, especially those in the Pioneer Valley, improvisation and self-expression served as a much-needed escape from what many dancers saw as an increasingly inhospitable world.

In the Pioneer Valley, musical improvisation eventually became a technique of the trade. This was a defiant departure from the English Country Dance style, which was heavily influenced by Baroque and Classical music, in which musicians have little, if any, room for improvisation. Musicians who improvise in contra music do not improvise melodic lines because the melody is an important piece of contra music. Callers and dancers use it to orient themselves and to know when to switch partners, and musicians improvise by restructuring the beat of the song to add acoustic interest.

Dancers in the Pioneer Valley also participate in rhythmic improvisations. Many dancers wear wooden heels that allow them to tap or clog on the hardwood floors. Others clap eighth-note beats on the and of beat three and on beat four. Others still call out loud and high-pitched “Oo-ee!” sounds. Audience participation creates what David Cantieni calls “a symbiotic relationship between the music and the dancing.”

At the end of the day, that’s what contra dance is all about: unity, community, and fun.