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Where do Contras come from?

The question is asked often, and never satisfactorily answered: Where do Contras come from?

It seems to me there is a simple "double" answer.

If you are asking about the basic structure of Contra dances, in World History of The Dance, Curt sachs writes: "The dance in which, men form one row, women another, dance with and opposite each other in a form of loveplay is widely diffused and may be confidently assigned to Protoneolithic culture."  In other words in one sense -- long lines of men facing long lines of women -- Contra dances can be traced way, way back, to Protoneolithic times.

The second answer is that a Contra, a dance which "has one characteristic found nowhere else, the gradual entrance of couple after couple, the pleasing combination of the choral dance and the single couple dance ... enters our historical vision at the end of the sixteenth century," specifically, with the publication in 1651 of Playford's book The Dancing Master.  To quote Curt sachs yet again, "How England first came to this dance can scarcely be ascertained for the country dance was first a pure folk dance and hence cannot be traced historically."

Why then is the question "Where do Contras come from" so hard a question to answer?  Contras, line dances where men & women line up opposite each other, cannot be traced, may be confidently assigned to Protoneolithic culture.  Contras, English line dances wherein there is a gradual entrance of couple after couple, can be traced, in print, very specifically, to 1651 -- The English Dancing Master -- but very clearly, such dances existed for some time before they saw print.

Something else no one has explained clearly to me is the difference between English Country dances & Contra Dances.  Answer?  There is no difference.  Contras are one kind -- the most popular kind -- of English Country Dances.  In fact, contras became so popular they became a whole "new" category of dances -- and suddenly people forgot where these contras came from.  Contra dances came from the Playford book that contains English Country Dances.  Contras are simply one kind of English Country Dance.

Contras are an easily distinguished "type" or "sub-category" of English Country dances.  Contras are that dance that is always 64 beats long -- and then repeats & repeats.  Playford's book contained Contras & "other dances" -- "rounds," "squares," and many different kinds of "longways".  There are longways with a three part structure, longways for four couples, etc...  Contras are "longways for as many as will."  Later editions of The Dancing Master contained so many longway-structure dances that longways almost drove out all other kinds of dances.  Edition one (1651): 35 longways out of 115 dances.  Final edition (1724): 904 longways out of 918 dances.

A FURTHER EXPLANATION.  Some English Country Dances are structured exactly like Contra Dances (64-beat long repeated structure), but they contain certain moves that up until recently never appeared in what we think of as Contra Dances: "setting" (which is usually accompanied by "turn single"), "siding", and "cast".  Moves very similar to these do occur in contras.  "Set & turn single" is probably the precursor to "balance & swing," "siding" has been transmuted to "right & left through & back," "cast" has become "go down the outside."  In two out of three of these the moves have become more intimate:  more touching occurs.

Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

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