Contra Dance History

©Becky Nankivell 1/29/05 rev. 3/6/05
“Where did you come from, where did you go?” Cotton-Eyed Joe
I. LATE 18TH AND EARLY 19TH CENTURIESA. Comes out of English and Scottish country dance – fancy stepping was expected and/or specified
B. Longways sets: “for as many as will”, facing partner
C. Proper formation: men and women segregated
D. Primarily triple minor formation: one active couple (#1), followed by two inactives (#2 and #3)
E. Contra dances are highly fashionable
F. Quadrilles and cotillions (squares) added in early 19th century.II. MID- TO LATE-19TH CENTURYA. Duple minor formation dances added, some are improper
B. Steps mostly simplified to a walking step
C. Calling dances becomes expected
D. latter half of 19th cent: swings in ballroom position
E. Contras and quadrilles become less fashionable toward end of century: round dances (waltz, polka, etc.), and German “cotillon” (a sort of dance/game) take overIII. FIRST HALF OF 20TH CENTURYA. Country dancing (contras and squares) continues in rural northeast
B. 1910s-1930s: Folklorists (nostalgic preservationists) and physical educators (social activists) promote “folk” dancing: first European dances, then rediscovering American dances
C. 1930s-1940s:
1. Square dances are the visible thing
2. The urban folk revivalists do squares and European folk dances
3. Role of technology:
a. amplification makes it easier for callers to call to a larger crowd
b. record players make presence of local talent less essential
D. 1950s:
1. TV, drive-in movies, rock and roll, etc. are thinning the rural dance crowds
2. Square dancing takes off in club style
a. Becoming more complex and innovative, reliant on dancers taking classes
b. Becoming reliant on caller’s improvisation and losing connection to melody of music
3. Some contemporary contras are starting to be written, in part by people who like contras but are also active in the lively square dance scene
a. Becket formation is “invented” (rediscovered?)
b. New dances are duple minor, usually improper, some are more equal
c. Some traditional triple-minor dances are adapted to duple minor use
1. Early 60s: rural community dances are closing down
2. Late 60s into 1970s:
a. The second- (or is it third-?) wave folk music revival and back-to-land/hippie folks discover country dancing as a reaction to convention
b. European folk dancing is still associated in the urban scene
c. Music: repertoire expands with musicians’ interest in Scottish and Irish music, new tunes being written in traditional style, bands start playing tunes in medleys
3. Late 1970s:
a. Contras overtake squares in popularity
b. Contemporary contra composition gets rolling (see ’80s for details), with a fair amount of experimentation
c. International folk dance becomes a separate scene with minimal overlapB. 1980s:
1. Contras spread west
2. Music:
a. Southern tunes are adapted to contra dancing
b. Experimentation with rhythms and instrumentation, rock, jazz (swing) influences
3. Contemporary contra composition booms:
a. Duple minors and improper formation
b. Swings of partner and neighbor
c. Well-connected: by hand or eye
d. Equal action for 1s and 2s predominates
e. Integration of moves from English country dance: hey, gypsy
f. Integration of moves from modern square dance: especially turns (box the gnat, California twirl), star promenade, butterfly whirl
g. Adaptation of traditional moves to contemporary style: “Petronella twirls”, “Rory O’More turns”, contra corners
C. 1990s to present:
1. Thru the 1990s:
a. Choreography: consciousness of and experimation with gender roles: in part due to increase in female callers?
b. Squares and other forms drop out of the contra scene in many areas: some people are concerned
c. Music: the music develops into a new genre of its own, integrating a variety of styles and instruments, including styles from outside anglo-celtic and American traditions.
d. Boom in dance camps (1) Does this satisfy those looking for more challenge and leave the home dances as a welcoming scene for beginners? (See 2.b., below)
(2) National scene becomes somewhat more uniform due to dance qypsies and touring callers and bands (to say nothing of the internet)2. Early 1990s:
a. Some parts of scene thin as dancers have families: concern over recruitment of new dancers develops
b. Development of concern over move toward more complexity: will contras go the way of club squares, becoming more and more exclusive and eventually failing to recruit new dancers?
3. Late 90s to present:
a. Triple minor contra dances and New England-style quadrilles are on the verge of becoming extinct outside New England
b. In some areas the kids are coming: some are kids of the hippies, some encountered it in school (and weren’t scared off), some respond to recruitment, some find it serendipitously as it becomes ubiquitous
c. Family dance scene starts to develop, as does a small cadre of folks taking the contra dance perspective to the schools
d. A separate old-time square scene starts to develop – a “separate but equal” approach to the contras v. squares conflict.

Doing the research for the Dancing Through History workshop, dance, and article has been great fun (that’s why the article is still an outline, and probably will be a series of articles!). Here are some web-based resources on contra dance history (and many other contra dance topics) you might enjoy.
— Becky


Contra Dance Articles and History

Stories and pictures of the Monadnock and New Hampshire folk music and dance scene

Gene Murrow on how heys and gypsys got into modern contradancing

Henry Ford (yes, of the cars), “Today and Tomorrow”

History and Heritage of Modern American Square Dancing
A summary of the essays by Dorothy Shaw, Bob Osgood and Kenny Reese.
Henry Ford
Lloyd Shaw

English Country Dance and its American Cousin: History and Comparison, by Alan Winston

Henry Morgenstein’s essays on contra dancing, and comparing American and English dancing


University of New Hampshire Library Special Collections, New Hampshire Library of Traditional Music & Dance including digitized Northern Junket (dance magazine from Ralph Page), and Ralph Page Legacy Weekend Syllabi

An American Ballroom Companion presents a collection of over two hundred social dance manuals at the Library of Congress, from ca. 1490 to 1920..

Links on Contras Country dancing (contras and squares) continues in rural northeast

New England Contra Dance History – Old Timers Talk (1 of 6) – Bob McQuillan

A Very Short History of Contra    narrated by Peter Coyote