The World's First Dance Craze?

Contra dancing is an American tradition whose present
form would be instantly recognized by anyone from the
pre-Revolutionary War era during which it first became
popular. We can give a great share of the credit to
Queen Elizabeth the 1st of England for creating this
popularity, for it was she who introduced what was
then called "country dancing" at court late in the
16th century.

Up until then, the style of dancing among royalty all
across the Continent was intricate, requiring
extensive instruction, and was limited almost entirely
to those who had the affluence and the leisure time to
practice the complex footwork. According to dance
historian John Millar, while Queen Elizabeth was
visiting in Sussex, England during 1591 she "watched
her hosts doing country dances with their tenants and
servants. From that moment on, country dance appears
frequently in the records of entertainment at court."

From Elizabethan England, country dancing rapidly
spread throughout the other Western European nations,
and to virtually all their colonies as well, much the
way rock music has spread around the globe in recent
times. In contrast to the demanding previous styles,
country dancing was so easily learned that people in
all walks of life adopted it as their most frequent
form of public recreation for most of the next two

Around 1800, new and daring (for the time) dances with
more complicated waltz and polka steps, performed by
isolated individual couples rather than groups of
partners in formation, were giving the Continental
upper classes a new way to command the center of the
floor. On this side of the Atlantic, where royalty had
lost a certain amount of glamour, country dancing in
group formations retained a wide appeal and began to
take on a distinctly American informality as well. But
in England the form gradually dwindled to the point
that a reconstruction based on historical research at
the turn of the century was the only thing that kept
it from disappearing completely. This reconstructed
style had a more elegant, controlled character and
came to be identified as "English Country Dance,"
while the looser American style came to be known by
its two main sub-categories, based on the shape of the
formations. Dances for four couples in a ring were
called "squares," and dances in which "as many couples
as will" progressed up and down long lines were called
"contras." The term "contra" was simply the American
way of pronouncing the French word "contre," which in
turn was the French way of using the original English
term "country."

During the first half of this century, the invention
of audio recording, radio, and movies made it possible
for a new ragtime or jazz tune to attain nationwide
popularity in weeks or even days. By extension, the
new dances that sprang up with them became popular
just as fast, and country dancing was eclipsed in many
areas by the desire for "the latest thing." Square
dancing, largely modernized and organized as a club
activity, did get a ride back into the limelight on
the coattails of public fascination with the American
West, itself fueled by movies about cowboys.

Only in the Northeastern states did the old longways
dances, the contras, truly survive. Unlike in England,
where a lost tradition had to be rebuilt through
scholarly research, in rural New England the tradition
had roots deep and strong enough to withstand the
sharp pruning that extinguished it elsewhere. New Hampshire and Vermont especially were still dotted
with small villages where people gathered regularly to
do the old "chestnuts," as the oldest and most robust
dances were known.

From the 1960's on, there was a national resurgence in
enthusiasm for traditional dancing, augmented by
rising interest in folk music. Many young people were
hungry for an alternative to mainstream popular music,
which was being shaped by commercial pressure into
more of a product than a meaningful musical tradition.
In Northern New England, older musicians were still
playing the rich blend of melodies that had
accumulated over three centuries of country dancing in
the U.S. and nearby Canada. The combination of superb
music and dancing that matched it perfectly drew
increasing numbers of aspiring musicians and dancers
to public contra dances held in town halls, church
basements, and school gyms.

Today that ground swell of renewed enthusiasm has
matured and many of the young people of the 60's and
70's now have children to occupy their spare time, but
contra dancing seems to have settled into a stable
niche alongside all the many other forms of music and
dance presently available. Among those who like their
music and dance unadulterated by commercial trends,
modern communications and mobility have allowed contra
dancing to spread from coast to coast and beyond.

High-quality recording techniques and online
communications are supplementing, rather than
replacing, the age-old tradition of learning directly
from those who have gone ahead. At the same time
contra dancers and musicians are creating new dances
and new music that respect and broaden, rather than
replace, tradition. There is every reason to believe
that contra dancing will move into the next century as
vibrant, as strongly rooted in tradition, and as
enjoyable for both beginners and experienced dancers
and musicians, as ever.

This essay is courtesy of now defunct, and anonymous

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