Contra dance (also contradance, contra–dance and other variant spellings) refers to several partnered folk dance styles in which couples dance in two facing lines or in a group of four. It has mixed origins from English country dance and French dance styles in the 17th century.
Our introduction to Contra Dancing was in Bishop Hill, IL, 2013. We were invited to the tiny historical town to perform at their Midsommer Music Festival. After our performance the festival moved indoors for the finally, a contra dance, (also known as a Barn Dance, but not the same as country line dancing.) We had never been to a contra dance so were unsure of ourselves but delighted to find that it was a welcoming community and easy to learn.
The evening began with a caller, who explained and guided the group through a dance. Then once everyone had the general gist, the music began. It was fiddle based tunes, with piano, guitar, banjo and bass accompaniments. It was festive and the energy level was brilliant as we flowed from one partner to the next. The movements were whimsically smooth and spirits were high. One thing that caught us off guard however, was the intense eye contact. Contra dancers make eye contact whenever possible. This adds to the connectedness of the dance, and as we found out, helps reduce dizziness, especially during “the swing.” There were no costumes or role playing, it was just pure dancing pleasure.
Fast forward a year and we are on our way to Austin, TX May 2014, with our fellow bus riders, Greg and Jeffrey. Somehow Contra dancing came up and we decided to look up a dance in Austin. We discovered the Wednesday Night Contra Dance that was open to the public and also allowed musicians to sit in with the band, which they call the Local On-Call Orchestra (LOCO) . It was a win/win, so we took our friends, taught them to dance and played music!
It was such a great time that we went back one last time before our departure, north where we would sit in Wisconsin for the summer. Then as we began to make our way back south for the winter, we told Rhys, our Australian bus rider, about Contra Dance. He smiled that sort of, “yeah, I’m probably not gonna dance,” smile. But we were convinced he’d try it once he saw it. Ha! We joined the Wednesday night Contra Dance as soon as we arrived back in town. Rhys was happy to play music with the band but reluctant to try the actual dance. We got him out there eventually. He was a good sport and in the long run, he can at least say he’s tried.
The History of Wednesday Night Contra Dancing, Austin TX
Contradancing in Austin originated when AFTM (Austin Friends of Traditional Music) started a jam session at Hancock Recreation Center over 30 years ago or so. Somebody (the name was lost in time) said “Hey, this is a good dance floor so let’s dance!” and thus the dancing started. The dancing went through several variations and around 1990 became predominately contradance.
To this day the Wednesday night dance at HRC is still a community dance with an average of 40-60 dancers and occasional 75 dancing to the music of LOCO (Local On-Call Orchestra) – an open band of 3-10+ members with many excellent musicians, where anyone is welcome to come and play. The callers will call a variety of dances, whether it be contras, squares, circles, or whatever. This is a free dance courtesy of the City of Austin and Austin Parks and Recreation Department.
If you’re near Austin, TX we highly recommend a Wednesday night with the The Austin Barn Dancers. They meet every Wednesday night at Hancock Recreation Center from 7:30 until 9:45.
If you aren’t in Austin, do a search for Contra Dances in your area. Fun for the whole family!