The Evolution of Contra Dancing

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

The Evolution of Contra Dancing

Explaining Contra Dancing to someone who has never experienced it is a challenge. Imagine, if you will, a cross between  a ball attended by Jane Austen and a New England barn dance, and you will come close. Square Dancing arouse from contra dancing, as I will discuss later, but the two are separate styles, and the depiction of contra as similar to square dancing, an unpopular pastime with many of the younger generations, has been problematic in contra’s acquiring new dancers. The origins of modern contra dancing, English Country Dancing, are fairly traceable through dance manuals, music styles, and written records. As the dance adapted to more modern times when social dancing lost its appeal to many, the changes seen within the dance are not as easy to follow. Even in the short time I have participated in contra dancing, I have seen changes to the styles and trends, a clear picture of how fast this dance evolves to fit the times and needs of the people dancing it.

English Country Dancing (ECD), the ancestor of contra dancing, was popular in Britain in the 16th and 19th centuries with commoners, and involved stepping less intricate than the court dances of the time. When the dance style spread to France, it became known as contredanse. Written collections of the dances were published in 1651 in England and another in France in 1699 (Noack). These publications are a good way of seeing the roots of the evolutionary tree, as this style of dancing was still much more similar to ECD than to modern contra. The publications did standardize the form and dictated prescribed steps, as opposed to the more spontaneous moves danced beforehand.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw colonists in the Americas, especially New England, dancing with the “spontaneity and energy of rural English country dancing (Noack).” Americans began creating their own dances, especially during the Revolution when American styles were favored over British. This, as well as France’s assistance during the war, resulted in the popularization of the French name for the dancing, contredanse, which was Americanized into contra dance (Noack).

In the late 19th century, most of the stepping was eliminated and dances were done with a walking step, opening up the dances to beginners (and those with two left feet.) The evolution of the dance at this point had taken the dance from a spontaneous expression of dance early on, to a formalized and standard form, and now back to a dance that allowed the dancer to make what they wanted of the dance. One could dance only the basics and have just as much fun as someone flourishing each step. With the end of standardized dances dictated by the song, the caller was introduced to set out the steps required for each dance. Songs no longer prescribed a certain set of steps, so, in addition to the easier steps, someone with no experience could walk in and be on the same footing as an experienced dancer (Nankivell).

The 20th century brought many changes to contra dancing. While the style continues strong in rural areas, especially of New England where it is the most culturally ingrained, the dance begins to lose popularity. Square dancing at this time develops out of contra dance squares, a particular type of dance. This evolutionary branch diverges from the rest of the tree and today is a completely different style of dance.     In the 20s and 30s, social dancing has a comeback, influenced greatly by Henry Ford, or car and assembly line fame (Fischele). He wrote in his book Today and Tomorrow about how the old style of dancing was “clean and healthful” and promoted sociability with multiple dance partners. Ford also liked squares and contras because they, to him, spoke of manners and did not allow for the rude “cutting in” of the popular dances of the time (Fischele).

In the late 20th century, American folk dancing was again popular with the hippie folk revival of the 1960s and 70s. Dances became “improper,” with men and women alternating in the lines, as opposed to the divided lines of women and men of earlier styles. This gender equality, and the slightly later experimentation with “gender-free” dances emerged especially during the feminist movements of the 70s. The 80s brought more attention to the music of the dances as Irish and Scottish tunes were added to the contra repertoire and new songs were written specifically for contra dancing with influences from old time ECD, Scottish and Irish, bluegrass, jazz, and rock and roll (Nanikell).

Callers started writing new dances with steps adapted from other styles of dance and traditional steps were altered to fit the mood of the dance, the expertise of the dancers, etc. There are also to this day regional differences in steps. A promenade is executed slightly differently in New England than it is in Philadelphia, which is different than one in North Carolina. The 90s saw a return to the spontaneous beginnings of ECD, with dancers adding in stepping, flourishes, and other add ons that made the dance unique for each person (Nanikell).

In the early 21st century, a new generation was introduced to contra dancing, either through parents who had danced, or being friends with such children, such as I was. In the past few years, people have started altering popular music to make it danceable, holding alternative contra dances with this music, holding youth festivals, organizing college groups supporting both folk music and dance, and many other returns to styles that many still consider “old fashioned.”

The occurrence of cultural evolution is quite clear in the history of contra dancing. From the fact that it is defined from its ancestors, to the continual cycles of convergence and divergence of styles, steps, and popularity, to the adaptations dances and individual steps have gone through both regionally and on an individual level, the influences people, times and environment have had on this type of dance are evident.

Things of Interest to the Contra Novice:
Example video of English Country Dance:

Example of a traditional contra dance:

Example of Alternative Contra Dance:

Works Cited

Nankivell, Becky. An Outline of the History of American Contra Dance. March 6, 2005. <>

Ford, Henry. Today and Tomorrow. Heiner Fischle. “Henry Ford, the Dancing Billionare.” <>

Noack, William. A History of Contra Dancing. November 28th, 2008. <>


Anne Dalke's picture

stepping out


Well, this is certainly a surprising extension of our study of the evolution of stories—an examination of the evolution of contra dancing.

A couple of smaller questions, to begin: Please define “stepping”? Then tell me why most of it was eliminated in the late 19th century? What are the cultural (or other?) causes of this particular step in the cultural evolution you are tracing? And I was especially struck by Henry Ford’s celebration of a style of dancing that “promoted sociability with multiple dance partners.” Is this comment somehow linked to his investment in “assembly lines”? Is it peculiar to Ford, or an index to a larger social norm of the 1920s and 30s?

My larger, harder questions for you have to do with the implications of this particular cultural evolution. You highlight each stage of the history of this particular phenomenon, but you don’t tell me what caused most of the changes. I’m wondering if there isn’t more to say about each particular moment. Who brought the elements together in unusual new ways? How were the innovations introduced to other dancers? What motivated the changes? How were they received? What remains of history, in the innovations you trace? Wherefrom the changes?

Even more generally: what does your story add to the discussions we’ve been having in class about the evolution of culture? Does it expand the “definition” of evolution? Are you using the term simply as a synonym for change, or is your definition more technical (these phrases are taken from our course notes) evoking “random change, history dependence, differential persistence….”? What of the “three realms nested within one another” that we’ve been looking @--the material, the cultural, the individual? Are all three dimensions included in your study? Or might they be?

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