Origins and History
At the end of the 17th century, English country dances were taken-up by French dancers — hybrid choreographies exist from this period that use the steps from French court dance in English dances. The French called these dances contra-dance or contredanse. As time progressed, English country dances were spread and reinterpreted throughout the Western world, and eventually the French form of the name came to be associated with the American folk dances, especially in New England. As of 2005, there is a regularly scheduled contra dance in most North American cities or regions, as well as in Belgium, Denmark, England, Czech Republic and Australia).
Contra dance events
A typical evening of contra dance is 3 hours long, including an intermission. During a typical event, attendees will dance a number of individual dances, called contra dances, divided by a scattering of partner dances, like waltzes or schottisches. In some places, square dances are thrown into the mix. Music for the evening is invariably provided by a live band playing jigs and reels from the British Isles, Canada, the USA.
Most contra dance events are open to all comers, regardless of experience. Generally, a leader, called a caller, will teach each individual dance in the period immediately before the music for that individual dance begins, a time called the "walk through." During each dance's walk through, the dancers learn the dance by walking through in order the moves that comprise an individual contra dance, following the caller's instructions.
The contra dance tradition is to change partners for every dance. As such, one who attends an evening of contra dances does not need to bring his or her own partner. In the short break between individual dances, the dancers invite each other to dance. Traditionally, one either dances with the first person who asks or else sits out the dance. The music begins and the dancers repeat that sequence some number of times before the dance ends. Then the dancers thank their partners, and find new partners for the next dance.
No special outfits are worn, but "peasant skirts" or other full, light weight skirts are popular, as these have a very pretty effect when swinging. This includes some men as well; contra dancers can be quite liberal in the way they dress. Low, broken-in, soft-soled, non-marking shoes are recommended and, in some places, required.