Where Contra Dancing's Been---
and Where It Might Go

The world's first dance craze?
Contra dancing is an American tradition whose present form would be instantly recognized by anyone from the pre-Revolutionary War era during which it first became popular. We can give a great share of the credit to Queen Elizabeth the 1st of England for creating this popularity, for it was she who introduced what was then called "country dancing" at court late in the 16th century.

Up until then, the style of dancing among royalty all across the Continent was intricate, requiring extensive instruction, and was limited almost entirely to those who had the affluence and the leisure time to practice the complex footwork. According to dance historian John Millar, while Queen Elizabeth was visiting in Sussex, England during 1591 she "watched her hosts doing country dances with their tenants and servants. From that moment on, country dance appears frequently in the records of entertainment at court."

From Elizabethan England, country dancing rapidly spread throughout the other Western European nations, and to virtually all their colonies as well, much the way rock music has spread around the globe in recent times. In contrast to the demanding previous styles, country dancing was so easily learned that people in all walks of life adopted it as their most frequent form of public recreation for most of the next two centuries.

Around 1800, new and daring (for the time) dances with more complicated waltz and polka steps, performed by isolated individual couples rather than groups of partners in formation, were giving the Continental upper classes a new way to command the center of the floor. On this side of the Atlantic, where royalty had lost a certain amount of glamour, country dancing in group formations retained a wide appeal and began to take on a distinctly American informality as well. But in England the form gradually dwindled to the point that a reconstruction based on historical research at the turn of the century was the only thing that kept it from disappearing completely. This reconstructed style had a more elegant, controlled character and came to be identified as "English Country Dance," while the looser American style came to be known by its two main sub-categories, based on the shape of the formations. Dances for four couples in a ring were called "squares," and dances in which "as many couples as will" progressed up and down long lines were called "contras." The term "contra" was simply the American way of pronouncing the French word "contre," which in turn was the French way of using the original English term "country."

During the first half of this century, the invention of audio recording, radio, and movies made it possible for a new ragtime or jazz tune to attain nationwide popularity in weeks or even days. By extension, the new dances that sprang up with them became popular just as fast, and country dancing was eclipsed in many areas by the desire for "the latest thing." Square dancing, largely modernized and organized as a club activity, did get a ride back into the limelight on the coattails of public fascination with the American West, itself fueled by movies about cowboys.

Only in the Northeastern states did the old longways dances, the contras, truly survive. Unlike in England, where a lost tradition had to be rebuilt through scholarly research, in rural New England the tradition had roots deep and strong enough to withstand the sharp pruning that extinguished it elsewhere. New Hampshire and Vermont especially were still dotted with small villages where people gathered regularly to do the old "chestnuts," as the oldest and most robust dances were known.

From the 1960's on, there was a national resurgence in enthusiasm for traditional dancing, augmented by rising interest in folk music. Many young people were hungry for an alternative to mainstream popular music, which was being shaped by commercial pressure into more of a product than a meaningful musical tradition. In Northern New England, older musicians were still playing the rich blend of melodies that had accumulated over three centuries of country dancing in the U.S. and nearby Canada. The combination of superb music and dancing that matched it perfectly drew increasing numbers of aspiring musicians and dancers to public contra dances held in town halls, church basements, and school gyms.

Today that ground swell of renewed enthusiasm has matured and many of the young people of the 60's and 70's now have children to occupy their spare time, but contra dancing seems to have settled into a stable niche alongside all the many other forms of music and dance presently available. Among those who like their music and dance unadulterated by commercial trends, modern communications and mobility have allowed contra dancing to spread from coast to coast and beyond.

High-quality recording techniques and online communications are supplementing, rather than replacing, the age-old tradition of learning directly from those who have gone ahead. At the same time contra dancers and musicians are creating new dances and new music that respect and broaden, rather than replace, tradition. There is every reason to believe that contra dancing will move into the next century as vibrant, as strongly rooted in tradition, and as enjoyable for both beginners and experienced dancers and musicians, as ever.