To the best of my knowledge, contra dancing was first mentioned by Homer in the 18th song of the Iliad, when he described the new armament of Achilles: Also did the glorious lame god devise a dancing place ... There were youths dancing and maiden of costly wooing, their hands upon one another’s wrists... And now would they run round with deft feet exeeding lightly, as when a potter sitting by his wheel that fitteth between his hands maketh trial of it whether it run: and now anon they would run in lines to meet each other. And a great company stood round the lovely dance in joy; and among them a divine minstrel was making music on his lyre.
But after this, for about three thousand years nothing can be made out for certain. However, I believe that country dancing in its widest sense developed under Viking influence. Why? Look at these works of art. Folks who could design, understand and enjoy such an interwoven pattern, certainly also could design, understand and enjoy dances with the interwoven pattern of traditional country dancing. (This is of course no scientific proof that the Vikings developed country dancing; but on the other hand, who else would have done it?)
In 1651, a book was published in London: The English Dancing Master. Plaine and easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances ... to be sold by John Playford. This is the oldest reliable source for contra dancing. It contains dances in many different formations. Therefore, country dance may be a generic term for all group dancing with a traditional flavor. Many of these dances were easy enough to be considered as folk dances; but quite a few other dances were obviously devised to be danced before a knowledgeable audience. However, dances in long lanes with minor groups within the lane were quite rare in the first edition of Playford’s book. They became the rule in the following editions. The second edition was already printed in 1652, the title now shortened to "The Dancing Master". The 18th and last edition appeared in 1728 with over 600 dances in two volumes, almost all of them now proper duple or triple minor longways. There must have been a change in contra dancing styles in the second half of the 17th century as drastic as the changes in square dancing between 1940 and 1980.
In the Rococo period, when merry simplicity became fashionable again, French dancing masters came across the Channel to bring English dances to the French society. They changed the name Country Dance to Contre Danse (dance of opposition), which seemed more logical to them, because here dancers stand opposite each other. Instead of merely describing the dances verbally, as the English books did, they made drawings of the paths to follow. And they gave names to defined movements which made it possible to prompt them. Two of these names are still commonly used: Dosado (dos-à-dos, back to back) and allemande (German turn).
Soon English dancing spread all over Europe. J. W. Goethe described in his novel "The Sufferings of Young Werther" a rural ball of the good society where "English" and "German" dances alternated.
We can deduct from this description that Goethe danced himself, and loved it; otherwise, he would not have found such warm words for it. And he assumed that every educated reader would know the basic rules of country dancing sufficiently to imagine the described scene. And yet another point: There was no caller at the dance. The first couple demonstrated the figure by dancing it, and the next couples followed suite as soon as the preceding couple had danced down the lane far enough.
"Far enough", as a rule, meant two places, so that the next active couple found two passive couples to dance with. Triple minor contras were the common fare for contra dancing during the 19th century.
In France, another formation became more popular: two couples facing each other. Soon two more couples were added at right angles, to fence off the dance area. The best known dance in this formation was THE QUADRILLE with the five parts of Pantalon (the Trousers), Été (the Summer), Poule (the Hen), Pastourelle (the Shepherdess), and Final (the End).
Couples facing couples led to a new kind of movements; e.g. a ladies chain was quite
impossible with a line of men facing a line of women, but with the Quadrille,
it became very popular. And soon attempts were made to include it in contra dancing,
as you can see from the following contra. This is how it appeared in the
American Dancing Master, and Ball-Room Prompter / Boston - Elias Howe (1858):
And this is how I interpret it:
NEW CENTURY HORNPIPE Proper Duple Minor; traditional - - - - ; Actives two-hand balance twice - - - - ; Two-hand turn, once and a half (a) - - - - ; From this place the ladies chain (b) - - - - ; - - Ladies chain back - - - - ; Actives two-hand balance twice - - - - ; Two-hand turn, once and a half - - - - ; Back out, right and left thru (c) - - - - ; - - Right and left back # - - - ; (Actives two-hand balance twice ... )# = On at the head, every other sequence.
a) Actives give both hands, balance twice, and two-hand turn clockwise once and a half. Thus, you get an alternate duple minor set.
b) The ladies start the chain from half-sashayed sides, but end it in the normal fashion. This achieves progression.
c) After this turn, the actives face each other and step back to proper lines. The right and left thru is danced with the same passive couple, now above the actives, two men facing two ladies.
The title indicates that this dance was written in 1799.
Though the original dance description told the actives to swing around, there is no swing in this dance. In English dance descriptions of that time, to swing ‘round means to circle (from two to many persons). The name suggests that this was done with gusto, but certainly it was danced with arms extended. But then, emboldened by the waltz, some Yankee dancers used a closer hold on the call swing your partner quite ‘round; and some used the skandinavian buzz-step (Hurre-Trin) for it, and thus they created THE SWING, the greatest contribution of America to country dancing.
Soon after, contras were devised where the active couples change places before the start. However, this formation was considered as improper. The name is still used, but now without a smack of transgression.
In 1849, the great goldrush in California happened, and people from all states of the USA came together. Many perished, many stayed in California, but most goldseekers returned back home after a while; not necessarily richer in wealth, but certainly richer in experience. Some experience probably was about different styles of dancing. I believe, that the swing was spread throughout the USA that way. However, it was not admitted to the ballrooms of society.
In England, the dancing master Thomas Wilson wrote several books, which culminated in "The Complete System of English Contry Dancing". He made country dancing systematically perfect, and perfectly systematical, and coffined it. In America, square and contra dancing was kept alive by the swing.
Americans also developed the custom to prompt during the dancing. To European visitors this seemed strange and uncouth, but it made it possible that all minor groups started at the same time and had not to wait for the very topmost couple to progress down the lane to dance with them. The title of the book "American Dancing Master and Ball Room Prompter" mentioned above shows that this office was accepted as a matter of fact. Anyhow, even in 1937 when Beth Tolman and Ralph Page published "The Country Dance Book", they thought it necessary to remind the reader that the third and fifth couple also start the dance.
From New York on to the south, people followed the French fashion and danced almost exclusively quadrilles in square formation. From Boston on to the north, people still stuck to the English longways formation. The book by Elias Howe contains 80 quadrille sets and 115 contra dances. More than a third of these contras are still danced today - at least you can find them in books printed in the past twenty years. The quadrilles are all forgotten.
In the fin de siècle era from 1880 to 1900, folk dancing was neglected in Europe and in America. But then Cecil Sharp in England began to research the old English country dances, both from actual dancing in rural communities, and from books of the Playford era. This eventually led to the foundation of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). In the Twenties, Henry Ford brought the New England dancing master Benjamin Lovett to Detroit to revitalize old-fashioned dancing. Soon after this, Lloyd Shaw, a school principal in Colorado, began to research square dancing at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, and made the USA aware of their heritage. The ensuing boom of squaredancing during the Forties and Fifties also kindled an increased interest in contra dancing. The changing style of square dancing demanded a change in the style of contra dancing too. Alternate duple minor sets became the rule. The distinction between the active and inactive couples became less obvious or was avoided. Herbie Gaudreau, a square dance caller and contra enthusiast, wrote a lot of "modern contras" and popularized features like double progression, automatic cross-over and the Becket formation. The leading authority in the field of contra dancing, however, was undoubtedly Ralph Page, a man who had learned contra prompting in an unbroken family tradition.
Soon modern or clubstyle square dancing developed in a way where contra dancing could not follow without loosing its identity: all the calls were hashed on the fly, the caller overruled everything, the structure of the music became secondary. Thus contra dancing and square dancing became estranged.
But this leads already to the next chapter: STYLES OF CONTRA DANCING
(This is a chapter from my book A Guide to Contra Dance
Published 2006-12-31 / Heiner Fischle, Hannover, Germany