NEFFA Essay: Contra (Contre) Dance? Square Dance? Folk Dance? Barn Dance? Country Dance?

Dudley Laufman – December 1997

Fifty or sixty years ago in rural central New Hampshire a Saturday night dance would have foxtrots, waltzes, polkas, Paul Jones, Grand March and Circle (Portland Fancy) and Virginia Reel. Seventy miles away in Nelson with Shorty Durant calling the squares, there would be foxtrots and waltzes and three or four set of squares plus maybe a Hull’s Victory. Next town over in Hancock, Ralph Page would do mostly squares with a few contras. In Downeast Maine, the order would be round dances and Lady of the Lake three times. All these dances were referred to as the Dance or in some cases, the Square Dance. And so it went throughout New England, upstate New York, Ohio, and probably all of America.

In Boston, Tuesday night was Ralph’s dance at the Y, contras and squares. Wednesday night was Charlie Baldwin at the other Y, mostly squares. English at the Cambridge Y. Thursday was Dick Best, squares and contras at the Cambridge Y. Friday was Ted Sannella at Porter Square, folk, contras and squares. Saturday night everyone left town for dances up country. Nowadays in the city, the night of the week tells you whose dance it is and where and what will be done. All you say is, I’m going to Tuesday night.

Where it used to be just “the dance”, today you have quite a choice. Contra Dancing, Square Dancing, Folk Dancing, Scottish Dancing, English, Irish, Cajun, African, Swing, SW Line and/or two step, etc., etc.

What to call it? I did a program for some pre-schoolers in Peterboro a few years back, and the teacher said to the kids, “Come on, let’s do come contra dancing”. Well, what I did could hardly be called contra dancing…a fractured La Bastringue, several singing circle games, and two singing games in lines. Not really contras.

At the majority of the dances we play for, we seldom do progressive contras, so we can’t really call the even a contra dance. We usually only do one quadrille an evening, so we can’t truthfully call it a square dance. The trouble with saying its a folk dance (which it really is) is that people think it means international folk dancing. We do dances from Quebec, so I suppose it is international, but we don’t wear lederhosen. When we play for dances in barns, it really is a barn dance. But, when we do the same dances in a church, what do you call it? Ralph Page said that contras plus square equals country dance. But, what do you do when you advertise it that way and you get folks coming attired in cowboy boots and shirts and are pissed because the event isn’t CW and/or line dancing? Or English, of Scottish. Not much more than fifty years ago, contra dances were seldom done outside of New Hampshire let alone the rest of New England. In Vermont, the Ed Larkin dances performed their four couple contras as the Tunbridge Fair, and Emerson Lang always included some at his parties. Morning Star was the last dance in Brattleboro at the Grange dance. Hull’s Victory could be found at grass roots dances in Vermont and New York. Lady of the Lake and relatives were done at crossroads pavilion dances in Maine. Ralph Page always did four or five contras at his dances in New Hampshire and in Boston. All of these events were called square dances (some were called Square and Round Dances) and this was to differentiate them from the all round cheek-to-cheek dances with oozing saxophones and booze. The back-to-the-landers leapt into the fray and they called them contra dances to separate themselves from the squares even though at the time, square dances were predominant on the programs. But, soon the contras became the focus, and Contra Dance was more apt even though some squares were done. Nowadays at many if not most Contra Dances, contras only are done, with a token square in the middle and a waltz at the end.

At our public dance in Tamworth, we do three maybe four progressive longways, mostly duple or triple proper, maybe one improper, one or two sets of squares, some reels, several whole set longways, plus schottisches, polkas, Gay Gordons, Roberts, Rye Waltz and regular waltzes. Is it accurate to say it is a contra dance?

At most of our non-public, or one night stand public dances, the program consists of Brandy Sherbrooke (Virginia Reel), Portland Fancy, La Bastringue, Grande Salute, one or two square dances like Crooked Stovepipe or Figure Eight, some reels like The Nine Reel, Sir Roger de Coverly, a cotillion, with repeats if necessary. Would you call this a contra dance?

I would like to say what we do is Traditional American Folk Dancing of the Atlantic Northeast. But, that is a mouthful, isn’t it. And, it is too intellectual. Won’t appeal to the person on the street. Calling it a contra dance is a good generic term, I suppose. But, we are looking for something different.

When people hire us for a public dance and ask about what to say on posters, we usually ask them to print TRADITIONAL NEW ENGLAND DANCE in bold print and in smaller print, say Contre Dances (spelling it with an “e” get around the Central America politics) Quadrilles, Squares, Reels, Jigs, Polkas, Waltzes. For private house dances and church functions, we ask them to say something similar. For dances in barns, it is called exactly that.

Person called the other day says do you do “contra” dances? I said no, what we do are old time social dances. Sounds good to me.

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