The contra or longways dance can be traced back several hundred years to England. Many of our historic square dance moves can find their roots in English Country dancing. The formation of squares has been found in the history of France and were "quad-drills". These were set patterns done in a square formation by the military on horse back.
It has been suggested that the French took the movements of the English longways sets and adapted them to squares for people to dance. Which in turn traveled back across the channel to England and assumed the name "Quadrill". This term is still encountered today in parts of square dancing.
Now back to contras......the word contra is an abbreviation to describe the formation. Dancers are contrary or opposite each other. Some have suggested that it came from the English as "country-dancing", however this is not as widely accepted as the "contrary" explanation.
Contra and Square Dancing coexisted in the 1700's, 1800's and 1900's. Barn dances would include dancing by couples, circles of couples, lines of dancers and squares of dancers. It was toward the late 50's that Modern Western Square Dancing (MWSD) found contras less and less compatible with square dancing's new creative choreography and image.
The late 40's and early 50's saw a very basic, limited movement square dance activity. Easy rounds, visiting couple squares and contras all danced to the same simple choreography and movements. The middle of the 50's saw MWSDing developed more complex choreography using existing movements and then combining several moves and giving them new names to form "new basic movements". (Could this have been the seed that created the thrust to higher levels?)
What does this have to do with contras? The contra leadership and dancers of the 40's and early 50's enjoyed the elegant style and simple choreography that represented many of the, I"ll describe them as Heritage contras, and felt they should be preserved in their pristine/historic form. Square and round dancing was reaching out for new horizons while contra dance participants were content to live with and enjoy their simple familiar contras.
Many of the contra programs at the Conventions (conducted and influenced by those who enjoyed contras as they had always been danced) did not incorporate elements of the choreography or music of square dancing. What could be described as "Heritage Contra Dances" became more and more a relic in the eyes of many square dancers and leaders, continuing to the present day.
Today Contra Dancers are attracted to three distinctively different dances forms. We still have callers and dancers enjoying our "Heritage Contra Dances", many of whom are most active in the Eastern and Southern part of the country. Another group has gathered, primarily in the Western part of the country, with some referring to themselves as Western style contra. This parallels our square dance movement of the today, using square dance music and mainstream/plus choreography. These two groups attract dancers primarily from round and square dancers. The third and fastest growing, is most often referred to as "Traditional" or "New England" contra dancing. About the only thing "traditional" about these dancers is that for the most part they dance to live music composed of 3 to 8 musicians. The choreography knows no bounds yet is based on a limited number of basic movements. This group attracts an increasing number of callers and dancers who are not a part of organized square or round dancing. No special attire is required at these dances. Sensible, comfortable clothing is accepted.
In Contra Dancing the emphasis is on music and dancing, not only to the beat but with the phrase of the music. For challenge, dancers take pride in their ability to make a continuous pattern, much like round dancer or ice skater who takes individual movements and ties them into a flowing dance. For the most part these are basic square dance movements, however some of the choreography can be quite complex.
Most contra groups will walk figures through once or twice and then danced, repeating the figure 6 to 8 times in the square dance related groups and as many as twenty times at the traditional dances. In each case every 64 beats you and your partner advance to a new couple and do the routine over. You probably interact with 6 to 20 couples over the course of a dance.
Another subtle difference between the square dance related groups and the traditionalists is that square dancers tend to come with their partner, dance exclusively with their partner and leave together. The only interaction with others is as a couple. The Traditional dancers may come together and leave together yet spend much of the evening dancing with a variety of partners. The other major difference is that the Traditionalists tend to swing numerous times around while square dancers make once around the norm.
The traditional dancers also enjoy frequent eye contact, connecting them to their fellow dancers. There is counter balancing on arm turns. Dancing is "zesty" which means full of life and energy. Cost at these live music dances is $5 - $6 per person. There is no "club" structure, except a dance committee runs the dances, book the musicians, caller and book the hall.
Even though Contra and Square Dancing are done separately they have common roots. Their history intersected for awhile during both of their histories. Who knows, maybe in the next life of group dancing, decades from now, the new form of group dancing will once again reunite Contra and Modern Western Square Dancing.
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