What is contra dancing?

Contra dancing is a form of North American folk dance in which the dancers form two parallel lines that run the length of the hall. In its simplest form, it is danced by pairs of couples. One lady and gent face another lady and gent. Under the direction of a caller, each couple dances a sequence of figures with each other and with the other couple, for 64 beats of live music. Then each couple moves forward to meet another couple, and they repeat the same figures. When a couple reaches the end of the line of couples, it turns around and comes back the other way. Eventually each couple dances with every other couple in the set.

Normally, the caller teaches each dance before it is actually done to music. This gives everyone an idea of what to expect, and an opportunity to practice the figures. The caller calls each figure just before it is about to begin, hence the dancers can perform the figures in time to the music. Once the dancers appear to have mastered a particular dance, the caller may choose to stop calling, leaving the dancers to enjoy the movement with music alone. Many of the basic figures in contra dancing are similar to those in square dancing. Listed below are some of the most common contra dance figures. When a couple stand side by side, normally the lady is on the right and the gent on the left.

To see a PBS report on contra dancing in Maine, click here.

To see for yourself, check out the TCD schedule here.

What to expect at your first dance

Beginners are welcome and you do not need to have any prior dance experience. Also, you do not need to bring a dance partner with you. A beginners class starts at 7:30 PM so you will learn everything that you need to know to be able to contra dance. The dance starts at 8 PM and ends at 11 PM. We also recommend that you dance with experienced dancers, rather than dancing with other beginners, since your experienced partner can guide you through the dance. Anyone may ask anyone else to dance so don't be shy about finding a partner and getting on the dance floor.

What should I wear?

Wear loose, comfortable clothing, and dress to stay cool since you can expect to sweat. Many of us bring an extra shirt to change into partway through the dance.

Shoe policy

To protect our floors:


"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

- William Butler Yeats, "Among School Children"

"Any problem in the world can be solved by dancing."

- James Brown

"You've gotta' dance like there's nobody watching, Love like you'll never be hurt, Sing like there's nobody listening, And live like it's heaven on earth. (And speak from the heart to be heard.)"

- William W. Purkey

"To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak."

-- Hopi Indian saying

"Dancers are the athletes of God."

-- Albert Einstein

"Those who dance are considered insane by those who can't hear the music."

-- George Carlin

Figures for two dancers

Figures for four dancers

Prepared by Peter Calingaert.

Contra dance etiquette

Contra dancing... high energy, whirling, twirling fun! To foster a safe, friendly atmosphere, TCD offers the following suggestions:

Contra dance etiquette flyer


Instructional videos by Chattahoochee Country Dancers

  1. Introduction
  2. Two Dancers
  3. Four Dancers
  4. A Contra Line
  5. Come Dance With Us
  6. A Called Dance #1
  7. A Called Dance #2
  8. The Basics
  9. Contra Video Credits

They also offer a higher resolution DVD version of these videos.


Santa Barbara Country Dance Society has a good page: What is Contra Dance?