Contra Dancing
in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills

Know (the basics) & Go (have fun at a contra dance)

Contra dancing is a community dance form originally from New England. Unlike many other kinds of dancing, you can master its basics in a single evening. There’s no fancy footwork to memorize. It doesn’t call for great athletic ability; you just need to be able to walk and know your left hand from your right. Every contra dance is a repeated sequence of easy-to-learn parts; these parts and the way they fit together are taught before the dance begins, and then the caller reminds you which part is next while you are doing the dance. The people you dance with will be (for the most part) helpful and non-judgmental. Everyone is there to have fun and knows that experience levels will run the gamut from first-time beginner to accomplished dancer.

Even though contra dancing is easy to learn, it always helps to be prepared when you’re doing something for the first time. This page is intended to provide some guidance and orientation for those new to contra dancing; this includes folks coming for the first time and those who have experienced a dance or two and want to make more sense of what they are doing.

At your first dance

A few items of general advice:

We've included additional information about contra dancing below. You don't need to know any of it before your first dance to do well and have a good time. But we invite you to read on.

How a contra dance works

One contra line made up of three groups of four in improper formation. Most contra dances—and nearly always the first few of the evening—are in this formation. Active couples (also called number 1 couples) move down the hall with each progression; inactive or number 2 couples move up the hall.

During a single contra dance, you do the whole dance with a partner. You and your partner, who make up a couple, dance with another couple (your neighbors) one time through the music and then move on, or progress, to another couple. In the course of the dance, you and your partner dance with every couple in your line.

In the formation that is most common (called improper), one of the couples in each group of four (also called a minor set) is facing down the hall, away from the band, and the other is facing up the hall. The first couple, the one facing down the hall, is the number 1 or active couple. The second couple, facing the band, is the number 2 or inactive couple. (This terminology originated before the modern era, when most dances had the active couples doing most of the figures; now, active couples are generally no more “active” than the inactives.) When it comes time in the dance to progress, active couples move down the hall and inactives up the hall to form new groups of four. A couple keeps moving in the same direction in the line until it reaches the bottom or the top, at which point the two dancers wait “out” one time through the music and then get back “in,” their active/inactive status now switched.

Each of the dancers in a couple has a dancing role—either lead or follow. Traditionally, the lead role is danced by a man and the follow role by a woman—thus the alternative terms gents and ladies. However, gender and dancing role have no necessary correlation: a woman may dance the lead role and a man the follow role. Further, the person dancing the lead role is not leading in the same strict sense that pertains to ballroom dancing. Although the lead may indeed be the person who initiates flourishes and other modifications, the only essential difference between the lead role and the follow in contra dancing is that the lead is positioned to the left of the follow and the follow to the right of the lead when completing a swing, a courtesy turn, and many other figures. This is why there can be such a thing as gender-free contra dancing. From the traditional-role perspective, some callers communicate the relative positioning of lead and follow with the phrase “the woman is always right.”

Lining up

When a caller indicates that it’s time to dance (by saying “Line up for a contra dance!”), the dancers in the hall have the job of forming one or more lines, or major sets, in a way that allows the caller to begin teaching the dance with as little intervention as possible.

The first thing you do is find a partner. Then, you and your partner go and join one of the lines that has begun to form. A line always begins at the top of the hall, and couples add on to it (at "the bottom") as they arrive. If it appears that another line will be necessary to comfortably accommodate those present, you may form a new line by standing at the top of the hall and encouraging others to join you. At our dances there are usually two lines, although sometimes the evening begins with only a single line. The caller is usually the one who determines how many lines there should be, and often encourages people to join the shorter line so as to equalize line length.

The standard procedure is for partners to line up so that, when facing the band, the man (or the person dancing the lead role) is on the left and the woman (or the person dancing the follow role) is on the right, and the two are across from each other. When everyone does this, it creates a line of men and a line of women. It makes things easier for the caller, and helps get the dance going faster, if pairs of couples begin taking hands and forming little circles of four, beginning at the top of the line, or set, before the caller begins teaching. This is called taking hands four.

When the lines are formed, the caller makes sure that everyone “has hands four” and then (95% of the time) asks number one or active couples (every odd-numbered couple) to switch places. This creates, in each group of four, the man-woman-man-woman configuration used in the most common contra dances, those known as improper dances. The first few dances of the evening are nearly always improper. Once everyone does this, the caller is ready to walk through (teach) the dance.

Contra formations and other types of dances

Although improper contra dances are the most common, you’ll rarely, if ever, experience an evening of contra dancing that doesn’t include other contra formations and other types of dances.

Clothing and shoes

Contra dancing does not require any particular type of clothing. No one will expect you to dress a certain way. Most dancers wear clothing that is comfortable and doesn't restrict movement. Shorts and tee shirts for men and simple skirts and blouses for women are common.

Things to consider:

Shoes are an important consideration. You want shoes that are light, make you feel safe and secure while moving on the dance floor, and allow at least some slip. Many contra dance figures involve pivoting on your feet at least a little, and if your shoes stick to the floor it makes the figures harder to execute and less fun, and it may be stressful on your knees. Many experienced dancers eventually get leather- or suede-soled shoes made for ballroom dancing, and can't imagine dancing in anything else. Beginners, however, generally prefer street shoes with less slip and more secure footing. High heels are not recommended.

Social norms—What to do and not to do

A contra dance is an inclusive community activity. The contra dance community values safety, respect for others, civility, equal opportunity, tolerance of differences, unselfishness, creative expression, teamwork, connection with others, patience, and support for personal growth.

Here are a few specifics that arise from these values:

As a general guideline: we are all at a dance to have fun, so anything that maximizes your fun, helps others have more fun, and doesn’t negatively impact others is good.