Styles of Contra Dancing

Contras can be danced very differently, from robust and energetic to moderate and elegant. All styles have in common that devised dances are danced in coincidence with the structure of the music.

The Traditional or New England Style has its roots in the New England States of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, but now you can find it throughout the USA, and it has a foothold in Denmark and Belgium. Its most obvious feature is the combination of 4-count balance, 12-count swing. They like to dance it in every sequence, preferably twice, once with the neighbor and once with the partner. Some even dance a turbo-swing and go three times around with eight steps; it is a challenge to feel, with the first step, whether your neighbor wants to dance that way. You would get dizzy from that? Some people over there go to the contras with the set purpose to dance themselves dizzy. "In any case, it is cheaper than alcohol and drugs, and probably it is more healthful", someone told me, half in jest and half seriously. The same person told me: "Iíve tried clubstyle square dancing for a while, but found it too staid."

New dances are devised regularly, but new movements are included very reluctantly. Those new movements which have developed in square dancing in the past thirty years are shunned, or at least they are described by different names.

Dances are first walked through without music. Then they are called during the first two sequences. After that, the dancers are on their own. After every dance you look for a new partner. And very important: whenever possible, you dance to live music. Traditionalists insist that any musician who can play a steady beat is better than the best canned music. Therefore, dance musicians are highly esteemed and much in demand in New England, and consequently there is a tremendous wealth of good to excellent musicians.

But some people now deny that this is still traditional contra dancing, and describe it as Modern Urban Contra.

The Western Style of contra dancing was developed in California among square dancers who were dissatisfied with the complexity of clubstyle square dancing and the ensuing disregard for bodyflow and the structure of the music. Therefore, smooth transitions between the basics are the main concern of this style of contra dancing. For the other styles too, this is an important topic; but here, it has topmost priority. Swings are danced less often, only eight steps, and sometimes only with your partner. The balance is omitted, except for the ocean wave balance. All square dance basics are accepted; but movements which are common in traditional contra dance but unknown in modern square dancing, are rarely included in this style. (E.g. the hey for four or the figure eight.) The caller calls throughout the dance, and as a rule he uses recorded music. Very often he uses singing call music. In most cases, this is played somewhat faster than traditional contra dance music, and therefore the dancing is slower. In Western Style, a circle of two couples goes only three quarters around with eight steps, while in traditional style they go full around.

Recently (1999) at a California State Square Dance Convention they had live music in the contra hall, and therefore a lot of traditional style contra dancers attended. But it was reported that this resulted in a clash of two cultures. A lot of the ensuing debate was about the clothing. Traditional style dancers wear T-shirts, while western style dancers insist on "proper square dance attire", i.e. long-sleeved western shirts for the men and knee-length skirts with petticoats for the ladies.

Buchlogo The CONTRALAB Style (or the Lloyd Shaw Foundation Style, as you could say with equal good reason) tries to keep the best of both worlds. Here too, most of the dancers, and certainly all the callers, come from clubstyle square dancing. Now guess where I come from. As a further proof, you may look at the logo on the front page of this book. It means: Contra dance interwoven in square dancing. By the way - this was the first time that two parallel lines were used in a logo to symbolize contra dancing. In short, it is the intention of this book to support the CONTRALAB style.

In the Old English Style you dance contras from the 17th and 18th century, which are commonly known as Playford Dances. Most of these dances are "married" to a certain tune, and sometimes their structure differs from the AABB scheme. Very often, these dances are learned beforehand, and not called during the dance. For one thing, sometimes couple #2 dances, at the same time, a figure different from what couple #1 dances, yet both movements complement each other marvelously. In that case, it would take longer to call both movements, than it takes to dance them. Besides that, the music is mostly so beautiful, that it would be a pity to gabble inbetween.

Then there is the contemporary English Style, often known as Barn Dance. This can be truly considered the folk dance of the British Isles. And the Scottish Country Dance, where you have to learn a certain way of stepping before you learn the figures. And Irish Country Dancing, which is a lot like the English Barn Dance, only faster; and the Irish take even more pride in their fancy stepping than the Scots do. However, I know too little about these dance forms to give a detailed account.

Quoted from my book Leitfaden / A Guide to / Contra Dance


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Published 2003-09-30  /  amended 2004-07-12  /  Heiner Fischle, Hannover