Photo from VFW in Cambridge, MA by Arnold Reinhold, who supplied it to Wikipedia.


This book is an exploration of the way the choreography of the contra dance, a folk dance tradition brought to us from the British Isles, has been changing, particularly over the last twenty years. When I was first involved in contra dancing, in the early 1970s, the dances were made up of comparatively simple figures and transitions, simple enough that I could bring my three-year-old daughter onto the dance floor and guide her through a dance. Today, in the mid-1990s, the dances are more complex and faster-paced, largely because of the creativity of contra dance callers and composers who have been putting together new dances in the contra dance tradition.

This book is the story of these new dances—how they are composed, what aesthetic principles underlie their composition, and how the evolution of the choreography reflects changes in the preferences and priorities of the people who dance them.

The study is based on interviews with twenty-six people who have been involved in contra dancing as callers, dance composers, or musicians. I conducted these interviews in New England, the Washington-Baltimore area, North Carolina, and the Midwest. The first interviews were open, without much direction from me, because I wanted to know what the relevant issues were for those who had thought the most about contra dance choreography. In the later interviews I directed my questions to the issues that surfaced in the earlier ones. In the course of my travels, I visited many local dances, where I was able to talk with dancers about contra dancing and about current issues in the dance revival today. As a dancer of twenty years myself, I was also able to pay attention to my own feelings about dance aesthetics, noticing what I liked in a dance and examining the aspects of dance choreography that led me to prefer certain dances over others. I kept a journal of these thoughts and recorded specific dances as illustrations of these impressions.


My work focuses on a number of relatively neglected areas of scholarship—the anthropology of dance, the study of revival folklore, and the examination of social dance traditions. Dance as a focus of academic study has received comparatively little attention. Early anthropologists saw dance either as a Western art form, in the case of ballet, or as an emotional and primitive activity not worthy of serious scientific and scholarly study (Royce 1977:19). Puritan ethics, which discourage calling attention to the human body, and concepts of masculinity, which view dance primarily as the prerogative of women, have caused some to avoid the field. Dance scholarship has also been hampered by the problems of notating movement. This difficulty has made a scientific study of dance problematic, while a humanistic approach has been considered second rate. The availability of film and video cameras facilitates the recording of dance, but does not eliminate the problems of recording movement from only one perspective, nor the cultural bias inherent in the process of the recording of events from a single person's perspective. As a result of these various problems, dance scholarship has suffered from low status in the academic world:

As all academics, and especially anthropologists who work on dance and human movement in America, know, they cannot emphasize the movement part of their research if they want to be taken seriously as academics. The "status and scholarly position" of dance researchers in America is notoriously low. (Kaeppler 1991:3)

The study of revived folklore is also a relatively recent phenomenon. At the turn of the century the emphasis was on collecting traditional lore before it vanished, and little attention was paid to contemporary adaptations of traditional forms:

What emerged during the early decades of the 1900s as a vigorous folklore revival rooted both in recreation and social reform was so remote from the concerns of the burgeoning discipline as to generate virtually no interest at all for more than forty years. (Bealle 1988:7)

Now scholars recognize that traditions are continually evolving, and we are becoming increasingly interested in this evolutionary process. The contra dance choreography of which I write is a contemporary form expressing current social values, although it has its roots in tradition.

Most anthropological studies of dance have focused on cultures outside of Anglo America. This is in part because anthropologists, unlike folklorists, have traditionally worked outside their home culture. Most of the available literature on dance in the United States focuses on stage dance and performance rather than on participatory folk dance traditions. Contra dance in America today is not performed for an audience, but is primarily a social activity for its participants, and in this way it differs from the dance forms examined by most American dance scholars.

In the American anthropological tradition dance has been used to illuminate other aspects of culture and society. European dance scholars have concentrated their efforts more on the classification of dance, the comparison of regional styles, and the study of historical trends, while their American counterparts have focused their work on dance in context. One of the early pioneers of the anthropological study of dance in America was Gertrude Kurath, whose work with American Indian dance supplemented the ethnographic work of other anthropologists who relied on her expertise in the field of dance.

Adrienne Kaeppler, in her recent article, "American Approaches to the Study of Dance," separates American dance scholarship into two major approaches, the anthropological and the ethnological:

The aim of anthropological works is not simply to understand dance in its cultural context, but rather to understand society through analyzing movement systems....In contrast...the focus of dance ethnology is often on the dance content, and the study of the cultural context of the dance aims to help illuminate the dance. (Kaeppler 1991:4)

Dance scholars working in the anthropological tradition include Kealiinohomoku (1976), Royce (1977), Hanna (1979), Williams (1981), and Kaeppler herself. One concern of these scholars has been to develop theoretical models and methods that situate the study of dance within an anthropological framework (Kealiinohomoku 1976; Royce 1977). Another direction of inquiry has been the use of structuralism and linguistic models to construct grammars of dance movements (e.g. Kaeppler 1972; Martin and Pesovar 1961; Hall 1985). Williams has concentrated her work on the semantics of body language using an approach called "semasiology" (Williams 1981). Hanna is primarily interested in a psychobiological approach to human movement, examining the emotional and communicative aspects of dance (Hanna 1979). Other scholars have used dance to illuminate specific social issues (e.g. Cowan 1990 on gender).

My study is a contribution to the expressed need for good descriptive studies in the field of dance (Royce 1977:217), and it embodies aspects of both the anthropological approach and the ethnological approach. I have tried to bring together the dance form and the dance event by examining both how the social context has influenced the form, and how the consequent changes in form have affected the dance event.

I look at contra dance as a tradition deriving its form in part from individual creativity, and in part from the existence of a system of group aesthetics, and have attempted to show how these points of view interact:

By observing how dancers and choreographers work within a dance style and at the same time introduce change, by seeing how they manipulate the limits of the culturally allowable, we see both what the rules for artistic judgments are, aesthetics, and how the rules are sometimes set aside, creativity. (Royce 1977:190-191)

My attempt to lay out the principles of contra dance aesthetics is similar to Kaeppler's work with the aesthetics of Tongan dance (Kaeppler 1971) in which she outlines the major principles of aesthetics in that dance tradition. My work differs from Kaeppler's in that I do not break contra dance movements down into minimal units, but look at the choreography at the levels of "morphokines" and "motifs" (Kaeppler's terms).1 My work also differs in that I am not examining aesthetics from the point of view of an audience watching a dance performance, but rather from the point of view of the dancers participating in the dance. Consequently the aesthetic principles that emerge from my discussion have an element of physical "feel" to them and a concern with both physical and narrative "flow" which would not be of concern to an audience except as they influenced the visual impact of the dance.
Other scholars have examined the way dance changes in response to social factors (e.g. Kaeppler 1967, 1970; Ranger 1975). Kaeppler and Ranger both look at how dance forms respond to political forces, and I look primarily at forces connected with social relationships. In my work I have given additional emphasis to the reverse direction of influence, the way changes in the dance choreography affect the social context of the dance. Form and context are in a dynamic relationship and it is often difficult to determine the direction of influence, but it is important to realize that the choreography can and does affect the social context as well as the other way around.

My work contributes to the literature on folklore revival. It is related to John Bealle's work (Bealle 1988) in that we both examine the contra dance event as a central focus of our theses. Bealle looks at revival at the community level, while I focus more on the form itself. We share an interest in the way in which community emerges from the dance in the social dance revival (Bealle 1988:106), and in the way the traditional and contemporary elements of the dance blend and interact:

Were revivalism strictly traditional, there would be no place for modern consciousness; were it strictly contemporary, there would be no way to ground it historically. (Bealle 1988:119)

The literature specifically on contra dance is very sparse. Some of it consists of collections of contra dances with instructions for dancing them or teaching them (Armstrong 1973; Hamilton 1969; Holden 1956; Knox 1990; Page 1976; Sharp 1975, 1976). Some of these collections include historical and contextual information in addition to dance notation (Nevell 1977; Page and Tolman 1976 [1937]). Others are collections of contemporary contra dances assembled over the last two decades in response to the increasing interest in these new dances. Some collections are the work of one choreographer and are published as a small pamphlet or book (e.g. Hubert 1986, 1990; Parkes 1988; Sannella 1982). Others contain commentary and advice relating to contemporary contra dance events (Jennings 1983).

Other available writings on contra dance come in the form of notes and instructions written for workshops on dance calling or dance composing offered at camps across the country (Diggle 1989; Kaynor 1990; Morningstar 1982; Olson 1988; Parkes 1989; Pearl 1987). Many of these notes are not so much published as copied and handed around to anyone interested in them.

Another source of information about contemporary contra dancing is the articles, reports, and letters in regional newsletters and in the Country Dance and Song Society Newsletter. The current concerns of contra dancers are discussed in these newsletters (Dalsemer 1988; Jamison 1988­89; Markham 1990; McKenzie 1989; Reed 1989; Sannella 1990), notably in the "Contra Connection" feature of the CDSS Newsletter written by Larry Jennings, Ted Sannella, and Dan Pearl.

Specific research projects on contra dance are few. Ronald Pitkin did some research in New England in 1952 on contra dance in connection with his degree requirements for Goddard College (Pitkin 1952), and John Bealle wrote his dissertation on the local Bloomington, Indiana, dance group (Bealle 1988). I know of no detailed study of contra dance choreography, either traditional or contemporary, and no work focusing on the relationship of this choreography to social change. In these areas my work stands alone.


The scope of this study has been limited by a number of considerations. Most of the material used is from the contemporary contra dance scene. I have not attempted to write a history of contra dance choreography, but have used historical material solely to highlight current trends through a comparison with the past.

The reader should be aware that this study is delimited geographically. One quarter of the interviews were done in the greater Boston area. Another quarter were with dance leaders in other parts of New England. A third quarter took place in the Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia areas. The rest were scattered over the Midwest and the South. Western callers and choreographers are not represented in this study, and the South is only weakly represented. My geographical focus on New England was in part because New England has been in the forefront of changes in the contra dance scene. My neglect of the western areas was due to lack of the time and the means to travel that far.

Most of the people that I interviewed are callers and musicians who travel from one dance community to another and are paid for their work. These people probably have the best overview of the contra dance revival, and are, therefore, excellent informants for this study. However, there are many more callers, musicians, and choreographers who work at a local level and are not paid, and whose work is equally important to the evolution of the contra dance tradition. The latter group contains many women, who are not as well represented in the traveling leadership circuit. Because I focused on a particular group of dance leaders—mostly professional, and mostly from New England—I did not collect or study the dances that are being composed by less visible leaders in other locales. My conclusions represent general trends at best, and are not based on an exhaustive study of all the new dances available.

In setting down my ideas, I have relied heavily upon the knowledge and the thoughtful commentary given to me by the people I interviewed. Consequently I have tried whenever possible to let my interviewees tell the story through the use of quotations from their interviews, because the story really belongs to them.



1In her article, "Method and Theory in Analyzing Dance Structure with an Analysis of Tongan Dance" (1972), Kaeppler defines four structural levels of dance. "Kinemes" are defined to be the smallest elements of movement recognized as significant by the people who perform a dance tradition, and are comparable to phonemes in language. "Morphokines" are meaningful movements composed of one or more kinemes. A "motif" consists of a combination of morphokines that forms an entity. The fourth level is that of the "genre" itself.