Contra Dancing from There to Here

Published on September 21, 2015
Written by Ray Access

Even George Washington loved to contra dance.

There’s an ancient African proverb: “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.” And the Appalachian settlers took that advice to heart. They danced to celebrate the spring planting and the fall harvest, as well as weddings, births, the midwinter feast… the list goes on. Whenever musicians gathered to play, people danced to the music.

Today, contra dance remains popular in the Appalachians. It’s inextricably linked to the old-timey bluegrass music that pervades every mountain city and town. The guitar, banjo, accordion and fiddle brought people together to dance and socialize. Today’s brand of contra dance contains elements of other styles, from line dancing to swing. Dance, like language, evolves.

Contra Origins

Most mountain settlers had roots in the British Isles. Contra dancing, therefore, derived originally from English country dancing. Unlike the structured dancing that social elites practiced in their formal balls, country dancing was less refined, more exuberant and powered by the fiddler. Since anyone could contra dance, it was seen as democratic and therefore embraced by rural communities.

By the American Revolution, everyone with any social graces could dance. If you didn’t know how to dance, people thought you lacked breeding. George Washington apparently loved to dance the Virginia Reel. While fashions came and went in dress shops and dance halls of the cities, contra dancing remained popular in the countryside and the remote reaches of the Appalachian Mountains.

Set Dancing

Toward the end of the 19th century, a new type of dance called set dancing emerged that brought different forms together. Dance parties at the time cycled through dances. Eventually, a caller — either the fiddler or someone else in the band — led the dancers by calling out the moves everyone knew by heart.

This new dance drew on contra dance, line dance and square dance for its moves. It always involved couples starting in lines, in a circle or some other formation. Sometimes, the callers ran the dancers through set patterns, but other times, they liked to surprise the dancers. It became part of the fun.

Still Swinging

Contra dancing is still practiced and celebrated today in cities and towns throughout Appalachia. Some dancers gather weekly. Others dance at festivals that have sprung up throughout the region. October is just another month in the contra circles, but here is a sampling of dance fests in 2015:

·         The Grand Caverns Grand Illumination and Ball in Grottoes, Virginia, on October 3.

·         Hendersonville Farm City Day in Hendersonville, North Carolina, on October 3.

·         Aurora Barn Dance in Aurora, West Virginia, on October 4.

·         Appalachian Heritage Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on October 9–10.

·         North Georgia Folk Festival in Athens, Georgia, on October 9–11.

·         Mountain Madness Contra Dance Weekend in Jonesborough, Tennessee, on October 9–11.

·         Lake Eden Arts Festival in Black Mountain, North Carolina, on October 15–18.

·         Celebration of Traditional Music in Berea, Kentucky, on October 15–18.

·         Augusta Heritage: October Old-Time Week in Elkins, West Virginia, on October 18–25.

·         Morgantown: 4 Days of Joy in Morgantown, West Virginia, on October 22–25.

·         Charlottesville Fall Dance Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, on October 23–25.

·         John C. Campbell Dare to Be Square Weekend in Brasstown, North Carolina, on October 30.

Take your pick of the festivals in the Appalachian Mountains to relive some history, the fun way. Grab a partner and head out onto the dance floor.