Contra Dance

By Richard Duree

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Ruth Levin and Richard Duree Dance history scholars take great pleasure in researching the connection of today's contra dance with the origins of dance in the misty annals of history. The evolution from tribal chain and circle dance rituals through the Renaissance to the New England Contra is indeed an interesting and worthwhile journey, taking us through the very foundations of modern Western civilization.

It is a dance form that has lasted for half a millennium and was distributed across half the planet in cultures as diverse as an Elizabethan English village and an Early California hacienda. The Renaissance created the early forms of the contra dance, the first time in identifiable history when members of the opposite sex could dance together, even if only by an extended hand hold. Rigid formality prevailed and the dance became a major event at court with complex figures prepared for each ball by court dance masters. Dance technique was rigid, artificial, pompous and, with its artificial technique, frequently harmful to the body – but the thrill of dancing with a member of the opposite sex was worth it. Even Queen Elizabeth I was a noted dancer and thoroughly enjoyed her participation in the dance. The Renaissance's effect on the arts in general and dance in particular significantly changed Western civilization forever and set it on the path to today, with new freedoms to create and think and explore.

The Ottoman Empire, developed a hundred years before Columbus sailed and lasting until World War I – a span of well over 500 years – was a stalwart, impenetrable bastion against the creations of the European Renaissance and the line of differentiation can be identified to this day by the prevalence of couple dance, which reflects Occidental values, and the chain dance, which reflects those of the Islamic world.

But to return to the contra, it is interesting to examine the where and why of its distribution and who has embraced its charm. There surely were parallel developments in the dance by the aristocracy and peasants. One can readily visualize the pomp and pageantry of the Baroque minuet, with the overly decorated court costume of the day, performed in vaulted ballrooms on polished floors to the strains of a full orchestra. Contrast that with the country dance, similar in form, danced with abandon by the common folk in simple clothing perhaps in a barn or on a hard-packed plot of earth somewhere in the village. Similar dances were performed in a character suitable to the aesthetics and values of the dancers. The charm and attraction of the contra in either venue was the same and it fulfilled several social needs – and here lies the value, even today, of the contra dance.

The dance became the opportunity for social and recreational interaction between generations and genders that could not exist in any other place. The business of court and the business of survival could be set aside while music and dance would guide life for the moment.

To be sure, the dance offered the reaffirmation of the social structure. Though the profile of the contra was to change position in the set as the dance progressed, the placement of dancers at the beginning was critical, with the most important persons at the head of the set: elders or guests of honor or ranking nobles, depending on the time and place.

The minuet / contra was originally created and choreographed by professional dancing masters, who, in order to maintain their position, were required to continually create new dance figures. As would be supposed, the figures became more and more complex, as the dancing masters explored the possibilities offered by the contra formation. It is interesting to consider the idea that these figures and the teamwork required to execute them might have been the seed for the interest in complex and precise machinery that eventually created the Industrial Revolution. It is no coincidence that the very ethnic groups which have taken the complexities of the quadrilles and contras as their own are the same ones noted for the exquisite precision of their machinery, optics, watches, cars, and such.

An interesting comparison can be made between the Scottish and English Country Dances and the quadrilles of northern Germany. Contrast the exactly prescribed character of the Scots, with all the discipline of classical ballet, with the almost casual, flat-footed walk of the English. Scottish progressions in the set are marvels of precision, while those of the English are casual by comparison. A comment was once made that the English must be a lot more "laid back" than the Scots based on this observation, to which another person, familiar with both, nodded and agreed thoroughly with the observation. The complex quadrilles of the Germans were indicative of their fondness for smoothly operating, complex machinery. The character of the dance does indeed reflect the personality of the creator.

The "contradanza" found its way to Early California, a direct import from Paris in the early 19th century when the minuet was giving way to the less formal contra dance. Its character follows closely the rigid form and style of the minuet, though following it by some fifty years. It was important enough to be traditionally the first dance of the fandangos and bailes of the Californios and the elders and guests were indeed placed at the head of the set with the rest of the assemblage placed in social order. This arrangement was an important duty for "el tecolero" who controlled the dance.

In New England, the contra dance was an integral part of life from the beginning of colonization. English country dances brought by settlers evolved into the longways sets of the contra; in the villages, callers and musicians were recognized for their contributions to the dance, as were those considered to be the best dancers. Every Saturday night featured a contra dance somewhere and citizens routinely traveled from one to the other to join in.

As the American population spread up and down the Atlantic coast, the contra went with it. Indeed, the wealthy planters of the South were very concerned with being in step with the latest European fashions and the latest contra dance figures from Paris and London were eagerly followed, though some alteration was natural. General George Washington, an avid dancer, had a particular favorite known as "Sir Roger de Coverly"; we know it now as "Virginia Reel." One can only imagine the father of our country grinnin' and spinnin' his way through the set.

The Appalachian Mountains harbored yet another form of the contra in the Big Circle Dance, with the caller dancing in the set. The circle form of the contra provided even more possibilities for figures, a factor not unexplored by the callers. The mix of English, Irish, Scottish, and African cultures created the first truly American dance culture in the remote hamlets and settlements of these mountains.

The westward migration took the contra with it and changed it to suit the new situation. Back home, everyone knew the figures to the dances, but settlers in the new territories came from everywhere. It quickly became apparent that the old figures and dances would have to adapt – and so they did. Figures were contributed by the dancers as they knew them from home and those with the skills of a caller assembled new dances from the patchwork of old ones. Quadrilles became more dominant than long sets – the reasons are many and probably more subtle than we know; it could have been the shape of the rooms or the numbers of dancers present or just the preference of one or another caller. But the square dance became America's dance, a parallel dance to the contra.

Contra dances are perhaps danced more today than at any time in the past. Well-attended contra dances are held in almost every city in America, large and small. Regional variations in style and character are very evident. Ralph Page, who was the man most responsible for re-establishing the contra dance in New England, was one smooth dancer, gliding through the figures as though on rollers, arriving precisely at the correct position at the correct beat. He tolerated no foolishness or inattention in the dances he called and would evict those who would not take the dance seriously. He was a stern New Englander, after all, and he set the standard.

Dance the dance smoothly and well and savor the connection with history. You are, after all, following in the footsteps of Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Antionette, George Washington, and countless others across the passage of time.


Used with permission of the author.