What is contra dance?
Contra dance is a high energy, non-competitive social dance form done to live roots-based music. The word “contra” refers to the formation of the dances in lines that are “opposite” to each other. The dances resemble madcap English country dances and require fast reflexes. Each dance is taught briefly, so no experience is needed; however, we recommend that newcomers attend the 30-minute orientation session that precedes each evening’s dance. It is not necessary to bring a partner. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. (Thanks to Bill Hixson for some descriptive language)
In a contra dance, you, your partner, and another couple dance a 32-bar phrase of simple figures done with a smooth walking step, then progress onto another couple and repeat the phrase. It’s about the geometry, the patterns, not the footwork. The dance phrase progresses you and your partner along the set to other couples. Everyone dances the entire time. A set may consist of a handful of couples or of twenty or more couples.
This is a technical definition of the form. Most contra dancers would consider it inadequate to convey the experience of the dance itself.
What is the music like?
Music is usually live at contra dances. Musicians and dancers feed off of each other. This gets the endorphins flowing and adds to the sense of community. Expect reels, jigs, and hornpipes, usually with a fiddle as the lead instrument, backed by banjo, guitar, bass, and/or piano. You may also find accordion, wind instruments, and percussion. Contemporary musicians may weave in jazz or popular music elements. The vitality of the music is part of what keeps contra an active dance form, as opposed to a purely traditional form.
What is an experienced dancer?
Are you “experienced” enough to be comfortable at an “Advanced Dance”? Here’s a general criteria: An experienced dancer is adept enough to require little or no walkthrough of intermediate or advanced dances.
Caller Lisa Greenleaf puts it this way:
- An experienced dancer knows how to do a roll away, California twirl, pass through to a wave, and the basic moves without being taught
- An experienced dancer knows where to be at the start of each dance phrase and how to recover from a lapse
- An experienced dancer assists his or her partner and neighbor to the next move
- An experienced dancers executes flourishes safely and on time without disturbing others