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Contra
By Ron Houston

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Ron Houston

BACKGROUND

Information: A dance family.

Translation: "Opposite" dance

Pronunciation: KAHN-trah

Other names: American Country Dance.

Regions: Canada and America, North America


DANCES


TEACHERS, LEADERS, CALLERS, AND AUTHORS


BIBLIOGRAPHY


ORIGIN THEORIES

From the Oxford English Dictionary: Contra-dance. after Fr. contre-danse, Ital. and Sp. contra danza, all corruptions of the English word country-dance, by the conversion of its first element into the Fr. contre, Ital., Sp. contra against, opposite. A Country Dance; esp. a French Country Dance. The English Country Dance was introduced into France during the Regency 1715-23, and thence passed into Italy and Spain; cf. Littri, s.v; Contre-danse2, and Venuti, Scoperte di Ercolano (Rome 1748) 114 `I canti, i balli. che a noi sono pervenuti con vocabolo Inglese di contraddanze, Country Dances, quasi invenzione degli Inglesi contadini'.

The arrangement of the partners in a country dance in two opposite lines of indefinite length easily suggested the perversion of country into contre-, contra- opposite. Littri's theory, that there was already in 17th c, a French contre-danse with which the English word was confused and ran together, is not tenable; no trace of the name has been found in French before its appearance as an adaptation of the English. But new dances of this type were subsequently brought out in France, and introduced into England with the Frenchified form of the name, which led some Englishmen to the erroneous notion that the French was the original and correct form, and the English a corruption of it. Thus a writer in the Gentleman's Magazine 1758, p. 174 said, "As our dances in general come from France, so does the country dance, which is a manifest corruption of the French contre-danse, where a number of persons placing themselves opposite one to another, begin a figure." Partly under the influence of this erroneous notion as to the etymology, partly as a mere retention of the French form, contra dance, contre-dance have been used, and contre-danse continued in use, especially for a French or foreign dance of this type.

1803 – Fessenden Terrible Tractor. 14 So fam'd Aldini, erst in France Led dead folks down a contra dance.

1830 – Juan de Vega' C. Cochrane Jrnl. Tour xix. (1847) 135 After we had danced two or three quadrilles, a contre dance was proposed.

1844 – W. H. Maxwell Scotland (1855) I. 27, I had gone down a contra danse.

1873 – Browning Red Cott. Nt.-cap 1421 If Mademoiselle permit the contre-danse.

1879 – G. Macdonald Sir Gibbie II. xiii. 230 All the ricks in the yard were bobbing about, as if amusing themselves with a slow contradance.

Specious derivations:

Long ways sets began in the British Isles as descendants of Morris Dancing, a descendant of spring rituals. country dancing at one point became popular with the aristocracy in the British Isles. At some point in time these dances and the longways set formation became popular in France. The French, in attempting to say "country" said something like "contre." Already in France there were dances in a square formation called quadrilles. The English country dances crossed Atlantic to North America with the people who began to colonize this continent. Around the time of the American Revolutionary War things French became very popular as the French were in some loose way allies of the Americans. So quadrilles became popular but began to be called squares. These dances caught on quickly in the Southern States. The Yankees in the New England State continued dancing the longways sets but they now began to call them "Contre" dances in the French fashion. I guess the New England accent had as much trouble with "contre" as the French accent had with "country" and soon the word became "contra."

But:

The only records of pre-Playford era Morris dances describe non-longways dances. So the longways format in Morris is probably borrowed from the Playford dances, rather than the other way 'round. Morris dances with ritual significance are not longways, but line or circle.

The name may have been a slurring of the description of "contrary" lines.

I have it on the best authority that "contra" is a colloquial contraction of "contract." The longways dances of our early English and French immigrants became known as contract-dancing in New England and, over time, this was shortened to contradance. Apparently contracts were signed between two dancers at the start of the social season. The contracts were meant to ensure that the signers would be available to dance as partners for specific dances in any evening of dance at which both parties were in attendance. I have read that the custom was for an individual dancer to contract with several partners, assigning them "partnership" in numerically succeeding dances through the evening. (For further info, I cite p.63 of "Prompter's Tiny Instruction Book," Prof. Booker A. Head, 1892.) (The author's name indicates that this is a very well done joke.)

The 15th century English "cone-tress" refers to the covering of the hair with these hygienic devices to prevent the spread of body lice among the elite. This term evolved into "contra" which is still in use today. It has nothing to do with the particular dance formation. Obviously.

The orignal French word Contredanse has been changed to contradance and not the other way around. Why?

1. The French have no need to take the word country and mispronounce it as it is a mispronounced version of the French word contrée.

2. The English language is a mixture of mispronounced French words and the original German words of the majority German speaker (Saxon) population.

3. And here comes the proof for those blindly believing in the nationalistic views of politically correct Encyclopedias:

– IF THE FRENCH TAKE OVER COUNTRY, THEY PRONOUNCE IT COUNTRY

– IF THE ENGLISH TAKE OVER CONTRÉE, THEY PRONOUNCE IT COUNTRY

– BUT IF THE ENGLISH TAKE OVER CONTREDANSE, THEY PRONOUNCE IT AND SPELL IT WITH AN A (CONTRA) BECAUSE THIS IS THE CLOSEST SOUND OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE TO THE "E'" PRONOUNCED THE FRENCH WAY.

But:

Playford published "The English Country Dancing Master" in 1650, and 'contredanse' doesn't appear in print until considerably later. (Feuillet, early 1700s, 'Recuil de Contredanses.') Shakespeare and memoirs of Elizabeth I refer to "country dances," placing the term in the early 1600s. I don't know of earlier French publications.


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