What you should wear
Contra dancing does not require special costumes. The most important thing is to wear something cool that allows for freedom of movement. Contra dancing can be vigorous exercise. There will be a variety of clothing worn by women. Some enjoy dancing in t-shirts and jeans or slacks, while others will wear a long flowing skirt or dress. Men usually wear shorts or slacks and t-shirts. Also be sure to wear comfortable shoes that will not mark the wooden floor. Many dancers bring an extra pair of dance shoes or shirts to change into for the evening.
When you arrive
Get right into the first few dances, which are always easy. Our dancing looks more difficult from the outside than it feels from the inside. As a beginning dancer, you are a V.I.P. The caller and experienced dancers are eager to help you learn the basics as the evening progresses. If you’re with a group of beginner dancers, we recommend splitting up to join a “hands four” with some experienced dancers. You can count on them to help guide you through the calls.
Choosing a partner
Traditional dancers change partners often. This long-standing custom promotes a feeling of community and helps new dancers to learn more quickly. Men and women share equally in asking others to be their partner. Stay on your feet while looking for a partner, because sitting down may be taken as a signal that you don’t want to dance. Above all, don’t be shy about finding a partner. The more you dance, the better you’ll become.
Before each dance
The caller will “walk you through” each dance, explaining everything that you will need to know before the music starts. Everyone—especially new dancers—should pay close attention, since a well-learned dance will flow smoothly. If you become confused during the walk-through, raise your hand immediately to ask for an explanation. Usually, others have the same question and the caller is glad to help.
During each dance
Use a light walking step and move as smoothly as possible. Try to relax while you dance and just “go with the flow.” Every dancer makes mistakes from time to time, even those who have danced for many years.
Listen to the caller. Sometimes you’ll notice that experienced dancers modify standard dance figures with extra steps or turns. This is acceptable as long as they are on time for the next move and consistent with the style of the dance. Beginners are strongly advised to “play it straight” until they gain some experience.
If you make a mistake or miss a figure, don’t try to make it up. Just go on with the next move. Contra dances are very repetitive. If you didn’t get a figure this time, you will get another chance.
Don’t drop out of the set in the middle of a dance. If you want to drop out, wait until you get to the end of the line. Contra dancing is community dancing, and we need everyone to make the dance work.
During swings, if you feel dizzy, try maintaining eye contact with your partner. If eye contact feels awkward, it is OK to focus on your partner’s forehead, nose, ear, collar, etc. Most dancers love the thrill of a vigorous swing, but we do not want you to feel pressured to do anything that makes you feel dizzy. At the beginning of a dance, it is acceptable to tell your partner/neighbor something like, “Easy on the swings, please. I get dizzy.”
The Chattahoochee Country Dancers in Atlanta has produced a series of videos called Contra Dance Training for Beginning Dancers that teaches, encourages, and gives confidence to new dancers. This set of videos is highly targeted toward new and beginning dancers. The 9 vignettes are about 3 to 6 minutes each. The instructors are Rob Harper and Susan Davis, who are just off camera providing instruction, while experienced dancers illustrate and dance on screen.
The video is introduced by contra caller Janet Shepherd. The instructions start out very simply with two dancers, progress to four dancers, then a contra line, and then some actual basic dances as called by Scott Russell. Text is included to assist new dancers. The background track of contra music is provided by Ann Whitley and Scott Russell. Tim Cape and Tomas Valenti provide the music for the live dances in Chapters 6 and 7 of the series.
Free instruction online
These tips were adapted from Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers.