To say contra is a dance craze would imply that it just came about recently or is going out of style. Neither of which seems to be true.
Contra’s origins lie with the early American colonists who brought the popular English Country Dances with them when they hopped the pond to settle in the New World.
A very social form of dancing, the English Country Dances are organized, as is contra, in a long line which sets of partners move through, so everyone has the opportunity to dance with everyone else. This kind of dancing remained popular until the rise of more couple-centric dances, such as the Turning Waltz, which came to popularity starting in the 1870s.
As more metropolitan dancers began to abandon Country Dancing, the style remained popular in more secluded communities. Its sink into semi-obscurity in the small, rural towns of Appalachia and New England both changed and saved the dance form, making it dissimilar from English Country Dancing and more distinctively American Contra. The American form of the dance is freer in meter and music selection and has been influenced by intermingling and coevolution with traditional square dancing.
Unlike some turn-of-the-century Macarena, though, contra didn’t remain in obscurity. Folklore historian Cecil Sharp documented the dances of small, rural communities in the World War I era, founding the Country Song and Dance Society, and priming contra for large-scale revival in the 1950s and 60s.
Renewed interest in contra was fueled by the incorporation of new dance moves such as the “gypsy” and the “hey” by new contra choreographers in the 1970s. The dances don’t require any formal training or set partner (which must feel liberating after decades of couples dancing!), and often each dance is taught by the caller before the music begins.
Today, American contra has spread to all 50 states. It remains perhaps most popular, however, in the places where it survived the cruel whims of fashionable society.
So grab a pair of dancing shoes (clean and soft-soled, please) and go swing your partner… or your neighbor, depending on the dance!
The Chattahoochee Country Dancers in Atlanta have dances weekly on Fridays and on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Tuesday. Their website has a great series of instructional videos for beginning contra dancers from all regions. Online at contradance.org.
Oh Contraire! based in Berea, Ky., holds a monthly dance every 4th Saturday as well as a “pick-up dance” on the 3rd Friday, where live music is performed by a pick-up band and calling is open mic. Online at folkcircle.org/contra.
Lexington Traditional Dance Association sponsors dances on the 1st Saturday and most 2nd and 4th Fridays. They give a discount to first time dancers. Online at ravitz.us/ltda.
Boone Country Dancers hold a contra 2nd Saturdays year-round, though they move indoors during the chill mountain winters. Online at boonecountrydancers.org.
Old Farmers Ball in Asheville, N.C, holds two weekly dances: Thursday nights on the campus of Warren Wilson College, and Monday nights at the Grey Eagle. Online at oldfarmersball.com
Historic Jonesborough Dance Society holds dances twice monthly on 1st and 3rd Saturdays. They also regularly sponsor dance weekends, including the upcoming Carolina Contrathon in September and Mountain Madness in October. For information on these events, visit their website: historicjonesboroughdancesociety.org
Knoxville Country Dancers dance weekly on Monday nights. They offer a deep discount for student dancers (only $3!). Find them online at discoveret.org/kcd
Chattanooga Traditional Dance Society dances on 2nd and 4th Saturdays. They offer a yearly dance pass for $70. Online at contranooga.org
Nashville Country Dancers dance both English Country Dance and American Contra. Contras are held Fridays and English Country Dances are held each 2nd Sunday. Online at nashvillecountrydancers.org
Charlottesville Contra Dance holds a Friday night dance September- June and also during those months Contra Corners hosts Greenville dances on the 2nd and 4th Sundays. Online at contracorners.com.
Blue Ridge Country Dancers holds contras in Floyd, Va., on 2nd Saturdays September through June. Online at floydcontradance.org.
Two Dog Waltz sponsors contra dances in Blacksburg once a month on the 3rd Saturday. Online at twodogwaltz.com/contra.
Roanoke Virginia Contra Dances began in February of this year and are now being held every 4th Saturday. Online at roanokecontra.org.
Kanawha Valley FOOTMAD (Friends of Old Time Music and Dance) of Charleston, W.Va., not only holds dances every 1st and 3rd Friday October to June, they also hold concerts, workshops and festivals! Online at footmad.org!
Morgantown Friends of Old Time Music sponsors dances at different times throughout the month and dance a mix of old time squares, contras, circle dances, and waltzes. Online at myweb.wvnet.edu/~mswim/sqdance.html.