Houston Area Traditional Dance Society

Contra Dance Frequently Asked Questions

If you haven't looked at our About Contra page, please start there.

Is contra dancing difficult?

No it isn't, especially compared to other forms of dance. If you can walk smoothly, have a good sense of space, and can follow directions, you can probably contra dance, although we'd be lying if we said that everyone can do contra. There are only about 20 basic moves and no special footwork. You will learn most of the moves in two or three evenings.

Contra dance is done to the beat and phrases of the music. If you can't hear the beat or phrases, then you may have some trouble. However there are ways to compensate, and you can learn to hear the beat (some of our best dancers had to!), so don't stay away because you think that you have a tin ear.

As with any other activity, the more you do it, the better you will become; the better you become, the more you will enjoy it!

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What if I make mistakes?

Don't worry about making mistakes during a dance—everyone makes them. You just smile (or laugh!) and keep moving.

Plus, one of the wonderful things about contra dancing is the willingness of the more experienced dancers to teach those who are new to the dance form.

Having said that, there are other common mistakes new dancers often make that have little to do with any individual dance. These mistakes aren't at all stupid as the title of the linked article suggests; they are totally understandable and are very, very common. Yet making any of them really can prevent a new dancer from learning and enjoying this most enjoyable form of dance. If you're new to contra, we suggest that you at least scan the article and take it to heart. You will be glad that you did.

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How much does it cost?

We currently ask $10 for the general public, $6 for members of HATDS. Young people under 18 are free.

When you come the first time and pay full price you will receive a card that allows you to come three more times at the members' price. After that we hope that you will become a member and continue to receive the discount.

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What are the ages of those who attend your dances?

We truly have a range of ages, although most of our dancers are adults 20 through 60.

The dances are targeted for dancers about 10 years old and older. Kids younger than 9 or 10 may do very well or could be a danger to themselves and others; it depends on the child.

Parents are always responsible for their young children, especially those who are not dancing! Unfortunately our current hall does not have any good play areas for small children, so parents must actively supervise their children or leave them at home.

Nationwide, teens and the college crowd are discovering contra. Our dances are no exception!

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Do I have to bring a partner?

No! If you do bring a partner, be ready to dance with others. It's contra dance tradition and etiquette to be sociable and dance with different partners throughout the evening.

If you're new to contra dance and you come with a partner, do yourself (and everyone else) a favor by dancing with more experienced dancers for the first few dances. That's the best way to learn quickly.

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How should I dress?

There is no dress code, however we suggest that you dress comfortably. Contra dancing can be aerobic exercise and you're very likely to perspire, so wear clothes that are not restrictive. If you perspire heavily, consider bringing an extra shirt or two.

In order to protect you and our wood floor, we urge you to wear comfortable low-heel shoes with soft soles that won't mar the floor. Many dancers bring a special pair of dance shoes. There are inexpensive bowling shoes that work well.

Women often wear skirts that can flare out during swings and twirls, but that is not a requirement.

And—very important—please do not wear fragrances such as perfume, cologne, and after-shave. Read our Why Fragrance Free? page for the reasons.

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Is contra dance like square dancing?

Yes and no. There are some dance figures they have in common, and both dance forms have a caller, but that's about where the similarities end.

Plus, to confuse the answer more, there are two main types of square dancing. Traditional square dancing is a closer cousin to contra than the club dancing that became popular in the 1950s.

If you want a more thorough answer, keep reading. Else go to the last question or back to the top.

Types of Square Dance

Modern Western Square Dancers

Modern Western Square Dancing (MWSD) is probably what most people think of when they hear the term square dance. MWSD grew out of traditional square dancing and became extremely popular in the 1950s. MWSD is standardized (and institutionalized to a degree), and is in decline.

Traditional square dancing (TSD) goes back many decades before MWSD (but is not quite as old as contra dance), has regional differences, and has much more in common with contra dance than MWSD does. Traditional square dancing is having a revival in some parts of the country while it never died out in other places.

Contra and TSD compared to MWSD
Contra and TSD MWSD
They go back hundreds of years. We're still dancing contras that were danced in the Colonial Era and the early years of the USA. Created after WWII.

Contra sets are longways; they can extend the length of the hall.

A typical contra dance lasts 8-10 minutes, although longer used to be the norm and is certainly possible at many dance venues today.

4 couples in a square set, although many squares in a grid formation can be connected by a good caller.

A square dance typically takes only a few minutes to do, so dances are often done in pairs.

No classes required. There are only about 20 basic moves, and all of those moves can be learned by attending two or three dance evenings. All figures needed for a specific dance sequence are taught before that dance begins. Much closer to true folk dance than MWSD. Weeks of classes are required to learn the figures, which are standardized and assigned to levels of difficulty.
The contra caller chooses from hundreds of pre-composed, named dances with repetitive figures. Once contra dancers have thoroughly learned the specific dance sequence (usually after 4-6 repetitions), the caller often stops calling to let the dancers dance with—and connect with—the live music and each other.

The TSD caller calls throughout the dance and may add a simple opening, break, and ending from figures the dancers already know.
The caller creates dances on the fly from the hundreds of dances figures learned in the classes. The caller must call throughout the dance and the dancers must constantly pay attention to the caller to know what to do next.
Live music by live musicians. In contra dance especially, the music is a major element and the musicians are key to the success and fun of an evening. Recorded music, often with the beat emphasized over the musical phrase.
Danced to the musical phrases. One time through the tune is one time through the dance sequence.

In some variations of TSD the dancing is done more to the beat than the phrase.
Danced to the musical beat. The dance sequence usually does not match the musical phrase.
No dress code except for common decency. However comfortable, loose-fitting clothing is recommended. Standardized dress code with individual clubs often having their own colors.
No partner necessary and dancing with different partners throughout the evening is encouraged. Although there are MWSD clubs for singles, many clubs are for couples only and you are expected to dance 'with the one who brought you' all night.

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Smiling Dancer Smiling Dancer

Contra dance is Real People in Real Time with Real Music. It is Real Life.
~ from Gary Shapiro's "What is Contra Dance?" page.