History of Contra Dancing
Tucson Friends of Traditional Music
A Guide To Contra Dance
English Country dancing of the 16th-17th century became
popular in France late in the 17th where it was known as contredans or contre danse.
By the beginning of the 18th century these dances were common in the respective
American colonies of England and France. By the mid-18th in the major cities,
English dances merged with French court dances (minuet, pavanne) to become Colonial American
dances. The rural south and north were not much influenced by this and developed their own
dance forms derived loosely from English Country Dance. In northern
New England contra dancing was common in the late 1700s. French terminology was used very little
in English Country dancing. Colonial American used French terminology derived from court
dances (allemande, rigadoon, cotillion). Contra Dance uses different French terminology.
|allemand||à la main||by the hand|
|dosido||dos à dos||back to back|
|balance||balance||swing or rock|
|box the gnat||baisse le nez ??||dip the head|
To me, the predominance use of French terminology implies that contra dancing was developed
by English and French colonists living in the same community or in neighboring ones. This
was frequently the case in northern New England from 1700 to the present day. Not only was there mixing across the
almost non existent border, but following the loss of Canada to the English, large numbers of French left Canada. The
major waves were in 1713 following the loss of Acadia and the rest of maritime Canada and the loss of Quebec in in
1763. While many emigrated to Louisiana, many settled in the New England colonies. Currently about 25% of northern
New England is identified as having French ancestry. In some cities 60% have French family names.
"Box the gnat" and "Ladies chain" are speculative but appear consistent with French usage. "Baisse le nez" literally means lower the nose but "nez" is used frequently in French where face or head would be used in English.
Please do not use perfume or other heavy fragrances before dancing. Living Fragrance Free contains tips for avoiding objectional fragrances.