History of Contra, Square, and Round Dancing
By Dottie Welch, Revised January 2015
Dance is the probably the oldest of the arts. The beginnings of music have been traced to the need for rhythm to synchronize and stimulate the early dancers. Dance has been called the mother of the other arts because the dancing body inspired the musician, the painter, the sculptor, and the dramatist. Since the dim past, man has danced in ceremony and celebration. The earliest records of people dancing are cave paintings in northern Spain believed to have been drawn about 50,000 years ago.
Many cultures have some version of a Circle Dance. Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all had religious ceremonial dances. The Romans brought in professional dancers from all the lands they conquered thus encouraging the mixing of dances from all over the Mediterranean world. Homer describes a dance with “lines running to meet each other”.
Middle Ages – May Games
English villages decorated the Maypole on May 1st. Young girls wore their prettiest dresses and hoped to be chosen May Queen by popular vote. The Queen and her “subjects” danced around the Maypole usually including an elaborate weaving of long ribbons around the pole.
Another important part of the May Games was the Morris Dance which is considered to be one of the primary roots of square dancing. Since the dance originated in Spain as the Moresca, the correct dress was a Moorish costume. Each man wore a leather pad of bells fastened around each calf. Usually the dance was performed by trained teams coaxing and welcoming spring with great gravity and much, energetic bell ringing. The contra term “hey” comes from the Morris Dancers “weave the ring” which would have been done with great bounding steps and waving of swords or, in later years, white kerchiefs.
Church Choral Dances inspire Social Dancing
In England the Church Choral Dances inspired the peasants to develop a type of social dancing that became known as the English Country Dance. With pipe music playing on a village green, a great circle of couples danced a variety of movements with skipping, walking and running steps. Actions probably included circling left and right, moving forward and back, footwork with solo turns, turning partners and corners, and grand right and left actions. There might also have been some figures begun with a lead couple dancing with the couple on their right and then moving on to the next couple with others following behind in the same pattern.
In France the Church Choral Dances inspired early round and ballroom dances within the aristocratic part of society. An early form was a 12th-century French dance known as the branle (from French branler meaning “to sway”). It was performed by a chain of dancers who alternated large sideways steps to the left (usually 4) with an equal number of smaller steps to the right. Branles were danced with walking, running, gliding, or skipping steps depending on the speed of the music which was composed in 4/4 time.
Gradually the French nobility changed the simple dances into complicated affairs with much stiff and elegant posturing and intricate patterns requiring dancing masters. Once learned, such dances were performed in elaborate costumes before the king and queen.
1500 to 1800
The Renaissance brought a new liveliness with many countries in Europe developing new dances. One of these was a sprightly German dance called the Allemande, which was full of turns. It is likely that our “Allemande Left” simply means do a left turn around the lady as they used to do in the old Allemande.
In the 17th century the minuet and the gavotte were introduced in France. The minuet is a dance for two people using very small steps usually in 3/4 time. The gavotte developed from the branle, but the footwork included crossing steps and hops. These began as dances arranged for the French court and developed eventually into ballet, however; their elegance and gracefulness had a lasting impact still felt in some of our round dance rhythms. Perhaps our “standard introduction” comes from these.
In England the Longways Dance became popular during the 17th and 18th centuries. Facing lines danced to gay tunes in phrases of eight measures with a change in the movements for each new phrase. In 1651, a book by John Playford was published in London. This was called The English Dancing Master or, Plaine and easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances with the Tune to each Dance. This is the oldest reliable source for contra and square dancing. It contains dances using formations of couples in proper longways lines for six to as many as will, of couples in rounds of six to as many as will, and includes some that specify eight dancers in a square. Dances in long lines with minor groups within the line were quite rare in the first edition of Playford’s book, but they became the rule in the following editions. The second edition was already printed in 1652, the title now shortened to "The Dancing Master". The 18th and last edition appeared in 1728 with over 600 dances in two volumes, almost all of them now proper duple or triple minor longways. It was common for the first couple to demonstrate the figure by dancing it. The next couple imitated the action when the first couple had danced down the lines far enough (usually two places). Thus the next active couple could dance with two passive couples and longways triple minor dances were common. With some modern adaptations, many of these dances are still danced as English Country Dances.
By the late 18th century the English longways dance crossed the channel to France where the common folk were delighted to find a dance that was easy to learn by watching the first couple. The French gentled it down, polished it up and gave it the name Contredanse (dance of opposition) to describe the lines of dancers standing opposite each other. They gave names to defined movements which made it possible to prompt them and we still use Dosado (dos-à-dos means back-to-back) and Promenade which is the French word for “walk”. Surprisingly, Beethoven enters our history here because he wrote twelve Contredanses for orchestra in 1802 and used one of them in his Eroica Symphony. The Scots contributed the Reel with their unique music and we have the roots of our Contra Dancing.
The big innovation of the early 1800’s was the development of dances for couples. The earliest reference to the waltz is in 1795. This enduring dance form developed from the Austrian peasant dance, the Ländler. Bohemia contributed the polka about 1830. As the story goes, a Bohemian peasant girl read good news in a letter from her lover in the Austrian army. The local musician watched her joyous reaction, and immediately wrote the music for the first polka. The varsouvienne came from Poland about 1850 and introduced its namesake position.
English Country Dancing included something called a “round for eight”. These migrated to France along with the longways dance and eventually were transformed into the quadrille, which became popular early in the 19th century. Here is our first, true square dance with four couples dancing in a square and someone prompting the action. Initially the music consisted of five figures alternately in 6/8 and 2/4 meter. Gradually the term quadrille came to refer to a square dance in which the choreography was pre-cued to emphasize the 8-beat musical phrases. Also quadrilles expanded to include some danced to other rhythms including several beautiful waltz quadrilles.
Certain orthodox quadrilles with a special combination of 5 different types of music are known as the lancers. They were originally composed of five square dances, the first in 6/8 time, the second in 2/4 time, the third and fourth in 6/8 time, and the fifth in 4/4 time. With its marching rhythm, the last figure was always military in style. Here is the origin of our Grand Square.
Quadrilles are set up with couples facing couples which opened new choreographic possibilities such as Ladies Chain which became very popular. Soon attempts were made to use this in a contra as can be seen in a dance apparently created near the beginning of the 1800’s. The “New Century Hornpipe” appeared in The American Dancing Master, and Ball-Room Prompter, by Elias Howe, published in Boston in 1862. (Available on the internet from the Library of Congress.) Note that prompting had become the norm in New England by this time.
New Century Hornpipe
First couple balance, swing once and a half around; ladies chain; first couple balance again and swing once and a half around to place; right and left four.
When the first couple does the balance and two-hand turn once and a half around they end crossed over. Ladies Chain at that time meant over and back and in this case begins with the lady on the left side of the gent but ends with the lady on the right side of the gent and progression has occurred.
Before the end of the 1800’s, the first improper duples were written. Since this was Victorian times (1837-1901) the original proper lines of all one gender became “improper” lines when the genders alternated.
In English dance descriptions of that time, to swing 'round means to circle (from two to many persons). The name suggests that this was done with gusto, but certainly it was danced with arms extended. But then, emboldened by the waltz, some Yankee dancers used a closer hold on the call swing your partner quite ‘round; and some used the Scandinavian buzz-step (Hurre-Trin) for it, and thus they created the Swing, perhaps the greatest contribution of America to country dancing.
The New World
Between 1750 and 1850 European dance halls saw the beginning of the contredanse, waltz, and quadrilles. At the same time many British and French settlers came to the New World. Naturally, they brought with them their dances, so all of these new dances plus English Country Dancing made their way to North America. The great advantage of these dances was that they only required a fiddler and a flat area and they were relatively easy to learn. Accordions were first made about 1830 and were probably in use soon after.
In the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky settlers from northern England and lowland Scotland danced a “running set” which is believed to be an ancient form of English country dance. This was danced in a proper square with a caller. It had an introduction of the “Circle Left…” variety and then a visiting couple figure. The first couple moved to the second couple and executed a special figure, then moved on to the third couple and repeated the figure and finally moved on to the fourth couple. As soon as the first couple reached the fourth couple, the second couple began its circuit by visiting the third couple.
In New England, the contra dance had a long popularity with the names of new ones telling the history of the area such as: “Green Mountain Volunteers and Ethan Allen (pre-Revolution from Vermont), and Hull’s Victory and Sackett’s Harbor (from the War of 1812). The music used for contra dancing was a mixture of Scottish Reels, Irish Jigs and English Hornpipes. Sometimes the only space for dancing was someone’s kitchen and the fiddler and prompter would perch on the sink to be out of the way. Such events became known as Kitchen Junkets. The book by Elias Howe contains 80 quadrille sets and 115 contra dances. More than a third of these contras lasted well into the 1900’s.
Along with the French settlers coming to Quebec and French soldiers coming to fight during the American Revolution were some men who were dancing masters. Quite a few eventually joined traveling, theatrical troupes and wandered up and down the Atlantic coast giving lessons at every stop. Thus the latest quadrille steps and some ballroom manners crossed the Atlantic. In addition to plain quadrilles danced to old Scottish, English or Irish music, callers began using rhyming calls and choreographed many quadrilles to the popular tunes of the day. These were known as Singing Quadrilles and were very much like our square dance Singing Calls.
In Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, the Lancers became popular and were still danced until the mid 1900’s. In Cape Breton the music, of course, had its roots in Scotland and the quadrille developed into the Cape Breton Square Sets with unique figures for each settlement.
In the American and Canadian west, settlers would travel miles to a box or basket social and these often included a square dance. Musicians and prompters would do their best with whatever skills and knowledge they had, sharing the stage and simultaneously sharing their heritage. Such events often lasted until dawn and no doubt there was some spontaneous creativity. With contributions from all parts of the East Coast and Europe, the square dance became a uniquely North American activity.
At the beginning of the 20th century folk dancing was neglected in Europe and North America. Many areas saw a decline in the variety and quality of the dance repertoire. The old figures were forgotten, style was lost, and the music became forlorn. Then Cecil Sharp in England began to research the old English country dances, both from actual dancing in rural communities, and from books of the Playford era. This eventually led to the foundation of the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1911. In 1915 a North American branch formed in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York City and Pittsburg. It was named the Country Dance and Song Society and it is now celebrating 100 years of promoting Anglo-American traditional dance, music and song.
In 1923 Henry Ford visited the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts and there saw Benjamin Lovett teach the gavotte, the schottische, mazurkas, minuets, the Virginia Reel and square dancing. Henry Ford, with his automobile fortune, negotiated a contract with Mr. Lovett to teach dancing and to train dance instructors in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1926 they published a book called “Good Morning – After a Sleep of Twenty-five Years, Old Fashioned Dancing is being revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford”. The school lasted until 1949 regularly filling specially built Lovett Hall with forty squares. They were responsible for a national newspaper column containing choreography and instructions. This was followed up weekly with a radio show from Chicago during which Mr. Lovett called the dances printed the previous week. Henry Ford encouraged Thomas Edison to produce the first square dance records on thick 78 records. In addition, their program introduced square dancing to students in 34 universities around the country.
Their 1926 book inspired Dr. Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw to begin a quest to research and revive the American dance. He taught the students of Cheyenne Mountain School this dancing heritage and by 1937 they were giving performances across the country. In 1939 he published Cowboy Dances containing a discussion of the square dance as it was done in the western United States.
During World War II traveling service men and women were often made welcome by providing a square dance. Church groups and civic organizations organized dances and found callers who could entertain inexperienced dancers in the friendly atmosphere with which we are familiar.
After the war many new communities arose in a much more mobile life style due to family automobiles, modern highways and shorter working hours. Searching for a means of getting acquainted, many remembered that square and contra dancing was an excellent icebreaker. NATO troops stationed in Europe during the Cold War also found square dancing to be an excellent recreation.
Simultaneously, the modern sound system, a by-product of electronic discoveries during the war, made it possible for a caller to be heard and understood by a large dance floor. Also the use of phonograph records meant that music was not limited to the availability and talent of the local musicians. So with potential dancers and good sound, the stage was set for the big boom in square dancing.
Lloyd Shaw reopened his summer classes for callers in Colorado and taught more than 200 each year. He also wrote The Round Dance Book in 1948 about the old-time couple dances. By the time of his death in 1958 he had promoted square dancing on a grand scale and by many is considered to be the Father of Modern Western Square Dancing.
Herbie Gaudreau, a square dance caller and contra enthusiast, wrote a lot of "modern contras" and popularized features like double progression, automatic cross-over and the Becket formation. The leading authority in the field of contra dancing, however, was undoubtedly Ralph Page from Keene, New Hampshire who had learned contra prompting in an unbroken family tradition.
The Transition to Modern Western Square Dancing
In the 1950’s callers began to take advantage of the new sound systems by introducing spontaneous variety into the dancing. Hash calling became popular allowing callers to present new choreographic puzzles for the dancers but also requiring callers to learn how to resolve squares “on the fly”. Hash calling inspired callers to create many new moves and it soon became difficult to dance in a new area because the repertoire of moves was different. Clubs formed with regular meeting nights and classes became necessary. By the early 70’s there were over 1500 calls in Burleson’s Encyclopedia. (By 1993 there were 5000.)
With new ideas proliferating at a great rate, it was obvious that a governing body was needed. Furthering the work of a “Sets in Order” committee formed in 1969, Callerlab met for the first time in 1974. They had two main goals. First they wanted to establish and promote standardization of teaching procedures, terminology and movements. Second they began sorting the commonly used moves into programs in order to meet the different needs and desires of the dancers. Beginning with Basic and Mainstream, gradually additional program lists have been added with C3A having attained official Callerlab status in 1999. Callerlab has also produced official definitions for each of the lists including proper timing and styling.
The Development of Modern Contra Dancing
Contras can be danced very differently, from robust and energetic to graceful and elegant. All styles have the common goal of dancing a smoothly choreographed dance melded to the structure of the music. Also they can be danced to many combinations of instruments including violin, cello, double bass, cornet, clarinet, flute, organ, piano, hammered dulcimer, and drums.
The “hippies” of the 1960’s rekindled the interest in contra dancing. New alternate duple choreography was written with less distinction between the active and inactive couples.
In many places the Traditional or New England Style has developed into the Modern Urban Contra. Its roots are in the New England States of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, but now you can find it throughout the USA, and it has a foothold in Denmark and Belgium. Its most obvious feature is the combination of 4-count balance, 12-count swing. They like to dance it in every sequence, preferably twice, once with the neighbor and once with the partner. Some even dance a turbo-swing and go three times around with eight steps; it is a challenge to feel, with the first step, whether your neighbor wants to dance that way. Dances are first walked through without music. Then they are called during the first few sequences. After that, the dancers may be on their own with a few reminders from the prompter. After every dance you look for a new partner. Also it has become very important to dance to live music. Jigs and reels are still the most common rhythm but they are often intertwined with influences from many cultures. Dance musicians are highly esteemed and much in demand in New England, and consequently there is a tremendous wealth of good to excellent musicians.
A separate line of development occurred in the square dance world where Swings are danced less often and are rarely longer than 8-counts. Also many square dance calls are included. The caller prompts throughout the dance and usually uses recorded music of many genres. Contralab was created in 1986 with the goal of maintaining contra dancing as part of the modern square dance world. It has tried to encourage cross-communication between the square dance world and all of the various contra dance styles including western (square dance style), traditional, English Country, and modern urban. This truly is a folk dance form that has evolved into modern forms while maintaining its welcoming, community spirit.
The Development of Modern Round Dancing
Since the waltz and polka gained popularity at the same time as the Quadrille, couple dances have probably always been part of square dance evenings. However, in 1950 the new dancers did not know how to do the old-time couple dances so callers began cueing them. To avoid collisions, a circle pattern was used and thus modern, cued Round Dancing was born.
New round dances were choreographed to modern tunes almost as fast as new square dance movements were created. Soon special teachers for round dancing emerged, some with ballroom and foreign folk dance backgrounds. These people brought the skills to branch out into new rhythms. They quickly borrowed the popular ballroom dances and we soon had separate clubs dedicated to learning and dancing rounds. In 1963 Round Dancer Magazine began polling their readers to determine the “classic rounds”.
Most of the popular round dance rhythms are relatively recent creations. As already mentioned, the Waltz goes back to Austria in 1795 and the Polka to Bohemia in 1830. The Two-step and Fox Trot were all-American productions and were introduced about 1890 and 1910 respectively. The Argentine Tango originated about 1900 in Buenos Aires and was imported into the ballrooms of the Western world about 1910. The Rumba is a Cuban dance of African origin that became a popular ballroom dance about 1930. The Big Bands of the 1930’s and 1940’s brought in Swing and Jive. The Cha-cha and Mambo came from Cuba in 1954.
As with square dancing, the proliferation of new ideas made a governing body desirable if dancers wished to travel. Roundalab first met in 1977 and began standardizing the Phase lists and move definitions for Round Dancing.
With an enthusiastic and mobile dance population to support it, annual National Square Dance Conventions began in the United States in 1952. Attendance has ranged from 10,000 to a peak of about 25,000 dancers. Biannual Canadian National Square and Round Dance Conventions began in Edmonton in 1978. Attendance at Canadian conventions has ranged from 2500 to a peak of 7000 dancing at Canada Place in Vancouver in 1990.
So, our big circle figures come from the English Country Dancing of the village greens of England. Our square formation comes from the Quadrilles danced in the courts of France. Settlers in the New World preserved and molded these dances in the mountains of Kentucky, the kitchens of New England and the western box socials. Henry Ford and Lloyd Shaw reinvigorated these dances just in time for the advent of good sound equipment and greater mobility. The Big Bands popularized ballroom dancing and the transient population of World War II exposed many young adults to the joys of square dancing. With a time-tested dance foundation, knowledge, good sound equipment, leisure time, and the desire for a friendly recreation, the stage was set for the birth of Modern Western Square, Round and Contra Dancing. In the last fifty years it has spread across the United States and Canada and become popular in most European countries as well as Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Having brought lasting pleasure, fun and fellowship to many thousands of dancers, this is a recreation that builds bridges between ages and between cultures and brings smiles to all. Long may we all “find a partner and square up, form a circle, or make contra lines”.
American Dancing Master and Ball-Room Prompter by Elias Howe, Boston, 1862
The Caller Text Compiled by Bob Osgood, 1983
Cowboy Dances by Lloyd Shaw, 1952
The Country Dance Book by Beth Tolman and Ralph Page, 1937
The Complete Book of Square and Round Dancing by Betty Casey, 1976
Dancing all the Latest Steps by Betty Lee, 1927
The English Dancing Master by John Playford, 1984 reprint of the 1933 version based on the original edition of 1651
The Harvard Brief Dictionary of Music by Willi Apel & Ralph T. Daniel, 1961
History of Contra Dance by Heiner Fischle
Square Dancing Indoctrination Handbook produced by Sets In Order, 1980
The World Book Encyclopedia, 1956