Croakers Square

In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, we’re pretty big on the joys and benefits of square dancing. At the end of the day, however, we believe (as others do) that dancing in and of itself is a great thing. So when people try to get us to take a side in the “square dancing vs. contra dancing” debate, we politely decline.

Having said that, there are a lot fewer diehards on this subject than there are people who simply believe the two styles are actually synonymous. While the two forms of dance do have similarities, there are some key differences, as well.

Being Contrary or Being Square?

Both contra dancing and square dancing are forms of group-oriented dance: you can do the moves to either one by yourself, in theory, but they were designed to be practiced by several people at the same time. Both are also based on the same idea, that of having these groups move from a starting position through a series of steps, complementing the other participants.

In square dancing, the basic group is eight dancers divided into four couples, all arranged in a square (hence the name). Square dancing is largely associated with the United States (it’s actually the official dance of nearly half the states in the Union), but the form was first made popular in European countries during the 17th century. While the exact roots are hard to nail down, historians can trace the origin to England and to the cotillon, a stately French dance later supplanted by the quadrille.

Contra dancing, on the other hand, involves lines of couples instead of a square. It, too, incorporates English country dances but mixes them with steps and moves from 17th-century Scottish and French dance styles from the 17th century. Perhaps more telling, it is also influenced by dance forms from both Africa and the Appalachian Mountain region of the U.S.

Also known as New England folk dance or Appalachian folk dance, contra dance encompasses everything from Irish tunes to French-Canadian folk tunes. The music almost always features a fiddle, but banjo and bass can be included. Modern contra can sometimes use feature current pop or country tunes, just as square dancing does and for the same reason: to make the hobby more familiar and less intimidating for the uninitiated.

Where the Differences Lie

Contra dancing and square-dancing share many of the same basic steps, including swings, promenades, do-si-dos, and allemandes. Each square dance group, however, is comprised of only eight dancers. The number of couples taking part in a contra dance set is theoretically limited only by the size of the venue. That’s one very substantial difference between the two.

Another key differentiator involves instructions. Square dances are called: a designated caller makes up an overall set based on predefined combinations of steps. Essentially, the participants’ movements are dictated throughout the entire set, requiring a certain degree of concentration.

Contra dancing, while still called, is based on choreographed movements that are defined at the event. The caller walks the dancers through each sequence before the dance even begins. After running through the sequences a few times, the dancers begin to remember and anticipate the steps, meaning they can pay less attention to the caller.

Both methods have their benefits: many square-dancers enjoy the challenge of reacting smoothly to the caller’s whim, while contra dancers claim they are able to enjoy the music more than in square dance.

What’s Your Pleasure?

In the end, both contra dance and square dance are healthy, fun, and socially exciting versions of folk dance. The choice between the two largely rests with the individual. Both provide excellent opportunities to become part of something larger than one’s self: dancers learn to take turns, to share attention, and to cooperate with others as they work within a group. These life lessons are part of the appeal of all dance, around the world.



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