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One thing is for sure. Contra dancing has nothing to do with Nicaragua!

Contra dancing developed from English country dancing and was brought to the American colonies by 18th century settlers. The Virginia Reel is an early example. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were avid contra dancers.

Occasionally, we dance "old chestnuts" from the 18th or 19th century, but most of the dances are modern. In fact, new tunes and dances are written every day.

We dance to live music. The bands may include fiddles, flute, guitar, piano, and bass. Occasionally you can hear drums, saxophone, or trombone.

A caller leads a "walk through" before the music starts and then prompts the dancers while the music is playing. The dance moves are nothing fancy, just simple walking steps in time to the music. Here is how it goes:

  • The dancers usually start off in long lines across from your partner.
  • You do a series of moves with your partner and a neighboring couple, then move on to the next couple and repeat the moves.
  • By the end, you've danced with everyone in the line and have had a wonderful experience!

Dancers usually find new partners for each dance, so you can dance whether you came alone or as a couple.

Contra dancing has been popular in the Pacific Northwest since the 1970s. Warren Argo (1942-2010) was an extraordinary musician, caller, sound man, and human being. He wrote a wonderful article for Victory Review, May 2002.

Since the 1970s, contra dancing has grown into a widespread American sub-culture. We started holding New Year's Eve contra dances a few years ago, thinking it would be a great innovation. Then, on December 31, 2004, I was amazed to discover - from a casual search of the Internet - that contra dances were held in almost 50 other American cities. Now that is a real sub-culture!

If you have read this far, you may be interested in good descriptions of contra dancing on other web sites.

  • First is a classic description by Gary Shapiro of Santa Barbara, California.
  • And Click Here to a great National Public Radio segment about Contra Dancing!

Elsewhere on this web site, you can find Contra Videos. These are videos of actual contra dances at Wells Hall in Tacoma.

After reading this, if you still don't quite understand what contra dancing is, the only solution is to experience it yourself. See you on the dance floor!

Matt Temmel
Tacoma, Washington
January 12, 2005

Updated May 3, 2011

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