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Ralph Page Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Contra Dance Background
By Ralph Page


Contra dances and northern New England are nearly synonymous terms in American dance terminology. Far from being quaint "reliques" rescued for the tourist trade from a limbo of forgotten Americana, they are today as vigorously alive, and as much loved among us as were their ancestors – the English "longways for as many as will," the Irish "cross-road dances," and the vibrant Scottish reels – at the time of the settling of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. So much alive that it is, to say the least, disconcerting to some self-appointed leaders elsewhere in the country who would foist upon us, will-nilly, the "great American square dance."

We have never called them "longways," though YOU may if you care to. We called them "country dances," "line dances," "string dances," and occasionally "old folks" dances." Somewhere between the east and west coasts, the contras of our early settlers fell upon evil days, and there has grown up a misconception that this form of country dancing is dull, monotonous, and not worth the learning.

Contras are said to appeal to a spread type of dancer, and that could be true. At least one has to be able to count to eight, and to and in time with the music. To live more or less unchanged for three hundred or so years, they must have something. Why have we retained our love for contras when elsewhere in the United States they have fallen from favor? I doubt if anyone could point to any one definite answer. Perhaps it is a combination of English resentment to change, Irish bull-headedness, and Scottish stubbornness, for in the beginning at least 90 percent of our early settlers came from these three named positions of the British Isles. A less facetious answer would be the lack of qualified dance masters to teach them – some areas had them, others did not.

Literally, a contra dance is dance of opposition; a dance performed by many couples, face to face, line facing line. It is a very old dance form and by no means an innovation of recent centuries. It embodies the principle of sexual attraction, approach, separation multiplied into communal participation. As such, it is allied to ancient rites of fertility and religious dance forms. You can work up quite an argument that they have had their origin in the war dance and battle line. Personally, I think this is a little far-fetched. Does it really matter except to learned scholars? For the present, it is enough to remember that contra dances came to this country from the British Isles; that every one of the thirteen colonies knew and dance them; that they were danced by people from all walks of life and especially by the country people.


Contras, or longways dances, were the rage of England in the 17th century. The peasantry and bourgeois society of the country developed for the contredanse to its highest point in complexity. For example, the number of corresponding country dances of England in 1728 numbered some 900 dances in all, and explored every form of cross-over and interweaving with numbers of participants varying from four to an indefinite number. Sometimes each couple in succession led through the figures, and sometimes the whole group "for as many as will" performed them simultaneously.

Is it any wonder then that during the 16th and 17th centuries the English were known as the "dancing English"? Country dances were the ordinary, everyday dances of the country folk, performed not merely on festival days, but whenever opportunity offered. The steps and figures, while many in number, were simple and easily learned, so that anyone of ordinary intelligence could qualify as a competent dancer. Truly, they were dances of the people. Remember, this was the period in which America was settled.


The Tudor royal family were passionately fond of dancing and introduced many Court Masques embodying many of the country dances of the day and period. In the reign of James I, it was said that it was easier to don fine clothes than to learn the French dances, and that therefore, "None by Country Dances must be used at court."

There is a legend that Queen Elizabeth I bestowed the office of Lord Chancellor on Sir Christopher Hatton not for any superior knowledge of the law, but because he wore green bows on his shoes and danced the Pavane to perfection. No wonder her Court produced so many fine dancers!


No doubt it was some royal personage who commissioned John Playford to collect and set down all the country dances of the country. This he did and since he was a bookseller and a musician of considerable ability, he found no difficulty in publishing a series of books: "The English Dancing Master – Plaine and Easy Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with the Tunes to Each Dance." Now there's a highfalutin' title for a book! The first of these volumes was brought out in 1650 and the last in 1728. Obviously, the books had great popularity and were continued by Playford's successors. While the majority of the dances in the Playford Collection are not pure folk dances, they certainly had a folk basis. The Country Dance ordinarily consisted of a series of figures arbitrarily chosen to fit a given tune; only in certain instances did a particular combination of figures prove so enjoyable as to achieve universal acceptance. The country people never lost their love of these old dances and they still survive from Cornwall to the Border Countries.


From time immemorial the Scots have followed all facets of Country and Highland dancing with delight and enthusiasm. Their fondness for it amounts almost to a passion. All efforts of the Kirk to put down "promiscuous dancing" have been failures. The Scot dances naturally and with intuition, which seems logical enough when we remember their great love of music. However, descriptions of the early dances of Scotland are very meager; though we know the names of many from the old ballad "Cokelkie Sow," wherein twenty dances are mentioned.

Probably the reason for this poverty of description is that the Scots, while practicing the musical arts, had not reached the point of penning treatises on any of them; and then came the times of John Knox, when dancing was looked on as a sin and only spoken of to be inveighed against. We must remember that dancing or sports of all kinds had very much obscured the original significance of religious ceremonies and the Puritans were but endeavoring to return to the simplicity of ancient times when they sought to curtail somewhat the amusements of the people.

In 1723, however, a weekly dancing assembly was established in Edinburgh and was largely patronized, and in 1728, the Town Council of Glasgow appointed a dancing master with a salary of twenty pounds "to familiarize the inhabitants with the art." And, by 1768, we read that the "Reverend John Mills includes dancing – and Church music among the many things necessary for a gentleman's education."

Dancing at the weddings was a common custom among the Scottish people. In the 18th century, dancing took place on the green when weather permitted, and the first reel was bridesmaids and their escorts. The first reel was called "shemit," from the supposed bashfulness of the young people.

From the wedding to the deathbed is a sad journey, but extremes meet. In the night after a death in Scotland, dancing was kept up until the next morning, just as it was at a wedding. If the dead person was a man, his widow – if he left one – led the first dance; if the deceased was a woman, the widower began the measure.


When one thinks of country dancing in Scotland one thinks of the "reel." The Scots dance their reels for the reel's sake. The dance is not with them an excuse for a social gathering, or means of carrying on a flirtation. The Scot arrives on the dance floor as he would on the drill square and he dances until he is tired out. When performed by two couples it is called a "foursome reel," the difference being in the music with a corresponding difference in steps.

How the ballet step known as "Pas de Basque" found its way into the Scottish reels is a most intriguing and controversial question. The logical answer seems to be from the French dancing masters. But perhaps this is too logical an answer. What was the reel step before the introduction of the "Pas de Basque"?

The longways dance was equally a popular in Scotland as in nearby England, and was danced and enjoyed in the Lowlands and Highlands alike. In fact, they have never ceased to be danced in the smaller communities.


The Irish possess a natural flair for both music and dancing, and the Irish Jig has a most wonderful influence over an Irish heart. You can get into all kinds of trouble and arguments over the origin of the word "jig." Whatever may be its origin, in Ireland, it has stood for a dance popular with young and old in all cases.

Let's not lose ourselves in the maze of Irish jigs, for the "Siege of Ennis," "Walls of Limerick," "The Kerry Dance," "Gates of Derry" to name a few. Even the names are attractive enough to make you want to dance.

Few meetings for any purpose took place in Ireland without a dance being called for. It was not unusual for young men, inspired by their sweethearts, to dance away the night to the music of the pipes. For the bagpipe is not a monopoly of Scotland. Every village had its piper who, on fine evenings after working hours, would gather all the people of the town about him and play for their dancing. Before the gathering broke up, the piper would dig a small hole in the ground before him and at the end of the next dance all present were expected to toss coins into this hole to "pay the piper his due." One very old tune of this character was called "Gather Up the Money." Another tune was the one now known as "Blackberry Blossom."


But the harp is really the national instrument of Ireland, and Irish harpers were unsurpassed in skill. Many of the tunes to which we now dance contras were once songs written for the harp.

An Irish wake meant dancing; not in delight because of the passing, but rather in esteem in which the deceased was held. If no musician was present at the time, they danced anyway to their own music what was called "lilting" a tune. Some of these lilts have found their way into the dance music of Ireland.

It is difficult today to realize the extent to which Irish dance and music permeated English life in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the previously mentioned "Playford's Dancing Master," there are many Irish dance tunes given with a key to the dance which was performed to each tune. Some fourteen in all, in the earlier editions.

It is in the realm of music that the Irish have contributed most to New England contras. Who does not know and love such tunes as "The White Cockade," "Irish Washerwoman," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "Turkey in the Straw," and numberless more of similar nature? Some of these tunes were brought over to New England by Irish immigrants in the first wave of colonization.


The English, Irish, and Scottish nationalities constituted the largest numbers of early settlers in northern New England. All three have an inborn love of dancing. All three are well versed in longways-type dances – the English with their highly developed longways dances, the Irish with their well-developed techniques and exactness of steps in reels and longways. The Irish and Scottish people with their well-known fondness of holding to the old traditions and ways of their ancestors. Is it any wonder that contra dances flourished from the first in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont? Is it to be wondered that we still love them? With our preponderance of natives still of the same stock, how could it be otherwise?

I know of no New England contra that is completely Irish in character and figures. The side-step ("seven and threes") which is the basic step in Irish dancing is entirely absent from our contras. The overall style of arms hanging loosely at the sides is a definite inheritance from Ireland. And I have seen a few old-time dancers who "sashayed the center" with arms intertwined in a "wrap-around" figure from Irish dancing. Yet, the music played for dozens of our dances is a direct importation from Ould Sod.


The Scot, on the other hand, has had a big influence on the steps and figures of many of our line dances. Three favorites come to mind: "Monymusk," "Petronella," and "Hull's Victory." The music that we play for Monymusk was written by a butler in the household of Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk, in the Lowlands of Scotland. History tells us that the butler's name was Daniel Dow, and apparently he was a musician of no mean ability, for an early collection of Scottish and Irish airs published by Bunting of London contains many tunes attributed to him. The dance was originally known as "Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk Reel," and as you would suspect, it was too unwieldy a title to have a long life in the country and it was soon shortened to "Monymusk."

"Hull's Victory" is almost step for step the same dance as one known in Scotland as "The Scottish Reform." The same may said for "Petronella." New England dancers for generations have called it "Pat'nell." Further proof of these statements may be found by reading the "Scottish Country Dance Books." The English also have an interesting "Mony Musk." The Scottish dance "Strip the Willow" is an interesting version of "Virginia Reel," in turn a descendant of "Sir Roger de Coverly." A still closer relative to "Sir Roger" is the Scottish dance "The Haymaker."

"Pousette" and "Allemande" were both methods of progression in Scottish country dances, neither of which is practiced now in our New England contras, though once they were common terms with us. Scores of our early contras had for their last figure a "Pousette." Many old manuscripts of the last century contain both terms over and over again. I have copies of several of these old dance manuscripts dated from 1795 to 1816 and they are full of combinations of dance terms, half or two-thirds of which are English terms, and the remainder Scottish. An interesting bit of data it seems to me. That was just after the Revolutionary War, and no doubt in many districts of New England, the English were far from being loved and other terms began to creep into our contra dances. Still others began to be omitted altogether and American substitutions replaced them. "Set" is one term in particular quite common in both English and Scottish dances, corresponding to the New England dance term "balance." Rarely, if ever, will you find the term in descriptions of our dances after 1820.


Within the past one hundred years, New England has experienced another flood of immigration – the French-Canadians. Especially is this true of New Hampshire. Thousands of French-Canadians from Québec have poured across our borders, first to work in our lumber camps, later to become textile workers and shoe workers. This is also true in Maine, and less obvious in Vermont. So many are here in New Hampshire now that within another two or three generations, New Hampshirites of French-Canadian descent will outnumber all others. They are a delightful and fun-loving people who really love to sing and dance.

They have had little or no influence as far as binging with them from Canada contra dances of their own. True, they have a well-known contra called "Brandy" that they are ready to dance the drop of a hat. Other than that, their "contradanses" are few and far between. However, so adaptable are they in all things that they have taken to our contras like young ducks to water, and their contagious laughter and mimicry is now mingled with Irish tunes and English and Scottish figures and everybody loves it immensely.

It is in the realm of music that their influence has been most important. French-Canadian fiddle tunes are used more and more for our New England dances, both squares and contras. Some of our finest folk-musicians are of French-Canadian derivation and they are without peer in this field. A few of their tunes that come quickly to mind are: "Ste. Anne's Reel," "Glise Sherbrooks," "Reel de Montréal," and "St. Lawrence Jig." We must not overlook Johnny Carrignan's playing of "Lord MacDonald's Reel" and "Alley Crocker." Anyone not willing to admit that Johnny Carrignan is the world's greatest fiddler is a biased idiot!

Without a doubt, the French-Canadians have had the strongest influence on our long New England swings. To them should go the credit – or blame – for our frequent 8-to-16-count swings. You can't beat them! Not that we ever needed much incentive to indulge in a swing that is a swing. Two or three times around is considered a long swing in some sections of the United States, and they have a right to their opinion on the subject, but if we can't swing longer than that we refuse to be bothered with it at all! I have danced at French-Canadian weddings, and frequently the swings indulged in their squares were of 16 measures of music. That is 32 counts outside of New England. I have been told, and I can well believe it, that sometimes they swing even longer!

Reprinted from "Contra Dance Background" by Ralph Page.
Viltis Magazine, March-April 1972, Volume 33, Number 6, V. F. Beliajus, Editor.