SFDH Logo (tiny)

The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

Contra Background
By Ralph Page, 1981

[ Home | About | Encyclopedia | Links | Publications | Members ]

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

Ralph Page

BACKGROUND

Contra Dance Information: Contra dances and Northern New England are fast becoming synonymous terms in American dance terminology. Far from being quaint "reliques" rescued for the tourist trade from a limbo of forgotten Americana, they are today as vigorously alive, and as much loved among us as were their ancestors the English "longways for as many as will," the Irish "cross-road dances," and the vibrant Scottish reels – at the settling of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. So much alive that it is, to say, the least, disconcerting to some self-appointed leaders elsewhere in the country who would foist upon us, willy-nilly, the "grand American Square Dance."

We have never called them "longways," though you may do if you care to. We called them "Country Dances," "line dances," "string dances," and occasionally "old folks" dances. Somewhere between the east and the west coasts, the Contras of our early settlers fell upon evil days, and there has grown up a misconception that this form of Country Dancing is dull, monotonous, and not worth the learning.

Contras are said to appeal to a special type of dancer, and that could be true. At least one has to be able to count to eight and to dance in time with the music. To live more or less unchanged for three hundred or so years, they must have something. Why have we retained our love for Contras when everywhere in the United States they have fallen from favor? I doubt if anyone can point to any one definite answer. Perhaps it is a combination of English resentment to change, Irish bull-headedness, and Scottish stubbornness, for in the beginning, at least ninety percent of our early settlers came from these three named portions of the British Isles. A less facetious answer would be the lack of qualified dancing masters to teach them – some areas had them, others did not.

Literally, a Contra dance is a dance of opposition; a dance performed in many couples face-to-face, line facing line. It is a very old dance form and by no means an innovation of recent centuries. It embodies the principle of sexual attraction, approach, separation, multiplied into communal participation. As such, it is allied to ancient rites of fertility and religious dance forms. You can work up quite an argument that they have their origin in the war dance and battle line. Personally, I think this is a little far-fetched. Does it really matter except to a few learned scholars? for the present it is enough to remember that Contra dances came to this country from the British Isles; that every one of the thirteen colonies knew and danced them; that they were danced by people from all walks of life, and especially by the country people.


IN OLDE ENGLAND

Contras, or longways, were the rage of the 17th century. The peasantry and bourgeois society of the country developed the Contredanse to its highest point of complexity. For example, the number of corresponding Country Dances in England in 1728 numbered some nine hundred dances in all, and explored every form of crossover and interweaving, with number of participants varying from four to an infinite number. Sometimes, each couple in succession led through the figures, sometime alternate couples, and sometimes the whole group "for as many as will" performed simultaneously.

Is it any wonder then that during the 16th and 17th centuries the English were known as the "dancing English"? Country Dances were the ordinary, everyday dance of the country folk, performed, not only on festal days, but whenever opportunity offered. The steps and figures, while many in number, were simple and easily learned, so that anyone of ordinary intelligence could qualify as a competent dancer. Truly, they were dances of the people. Remember, this was the period in which America was settled.


ROYAL FAVOR

The Tudor Royal Family were passionately fond of dancing and introduced many Court Masques embodying many of the Country Dances of the day and period. In the reign of James I, it was said that it was easier to don fine clothes than to learn the French dances, and that therefore, "None but Country Dances must be danced at Court." There is a legend that Queen Elizabeth I bestowed the office of Lord Chancellor on Sir Christopher Hatton, not for any superior knowledge of the law but because he wore green bows on his shoes and danced the Pavane to perfection. No wonder her Court produced so many fine dancers!


THE PLAYFORD COLLECTION

No doubt it was some royal personage who commissioned John Playford to collect and set down all the Country Dances of the country. This he did, and because he was a bookseller and a musician of considerable ability, he found no difficulty in publishing a series of books: "The English Dancing Master: Plain and Easy Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances." Now there's a high-falutin' title for a good book! The first of these volumes was brought out in 1650, and the last in 1728. Obviously, the books had great popularity and were continued by Playford's successors. While the majority of the dances in the Playford collection are not pure folk dances, they certainly had a folk basis. They consisted of a series of figures arbitrarily chosen to fit a given tune; only in certain instances did a particular combination of figures prove so enjoyable as to achieve universal acceptance. The country people never lost their love of these old dances and they still survive from Cornwall to the Border Counties.

This then was the status of Country Dancing at the time of the first settlements in New England. No one will ever make me believe that the English colonists did not bring with them their love of Country Dancing. Not all of the Puritans were pickle-faced joy-killers. So much for England. Let us turn northward and see what was happening in Scotland during this same period.


OUR DEBT TO SCOTLAND

From time immemorial, the Scots have followed all the facets of Country and Highland Dancing with delight and enthusiasm. Their fondness for it amounts almost to a passion. All efforts of the Kirk to put down "promiscuous dancing" have been failures. The Scot dances naturally and with intuition, which seems logical enough when we remember their love of music. However, descriptions of the early dances of Scotland are very meagre; though we know the names of many from the old ballad "Cokelkie Sow," wherein twenty dances are mentioned.

Probably the reason for this poverty of description is that the Scots, while practicing the musical arts, had not reached the point of penning treatises on any of them; and then came the time of John Knox, when dancing was looked on as a sin and only to be spoken of to be inveighed against. We must remember that dancing or sports of all kinds had very much obscured the original significance of religious ceremonies and the Puritans were but endeavoring to return to the simplicity of ancient times when they sought to curtail somewhat the amusements of the people.

In 1723, however, a weekly dancing assembly was established in Edinburgh and was largely patronized, and in 1728, the Town Council of Glasgow appointed a dancing master with a salary of twenty pounds "to familiarize the inhabitants with the art," and by 1768, we read that the "Reverend John Mills includes dancing – and Church music" among the many things necessary for a gentleman's education. Dancing at weddings was a common custom among the Scottish people. In the 18th century, dancing took place on the green when weather permitted, and the first reel was danced by the newly-married couple; next in line were the bridesmaids and their escorts. The first reel was called "shemit" from supposed bashfulness of the young couple.

From wedding to the death-bed is a sad journey, but extremes must be met. On the night after a death in Scotland, dancing was kept up until the next morning, just as it was at a wedding. If the dead person was a man, his widow, if he left one, led the first dance; if the deceased was a woman, the widower led the measure.


SCOTTISH REELS

When one thinks of Country Dancing in Scotland one thinks of the reel. The Scots dance their reels for the reel's sake. The dance is not with them an excuse for a social gathering or a means of carrying on a flirtation. The Scot arrives on the dance floor as he would on the drill square and he dances until he is tired out. When performed by three couples, it is called a Sixsome Reel, etc., the difference being in the music with a corresponding difference in steps. It might als be noted that the Scot did not depend always on the playing of some instrument to accompany his dances, but often "reeled" to his own music.

How the ballet step known as "Pas de Basque" found its way into the Scottish reels is a most intriguing and controversial question. The logical answer seems to be: from the French dancing masters. But perhaps this is too logical an answer. What was the reel step before the introduction of the "Pas de Basque"?

The longways dance was equally popular in Scotland as in nearby England, and was danced in the Lowlands and Highlands alike. In fact, they have never ceased to be danced in the smaller communities.


THE IRISH INFLUENCE

The Irish possess a natural flair for both music and dancing, and the Irish Jig has a most wonderful influence over an Irish heart. You can get into all kinds of trouble and arguments over the origin of the word "jig" Whatever may be its origin. In Ireland it has stood for a dance, popular with young and old, in all classes.

Let us not lose ourselves in the maze of Irish Jigs, for the Irish have some lovely Contra dances: Waves of Tory, Seige of Ennis, Walls of Limerick, Kerry Dances, Gates of Derry, to name a few. Even the names are attractive enough to make you want to dance.

Few meetings of any purpose took place in Ireland without a dance being called for. It was not unusual for young men, inspired by their sweethearts, to dance away the night to the music of pipes, for the bagpipe is not a monopoly of Scotland. Every village had its piper who, on fine evenings after working hours, would gather all the people in the town around him and play for their dancing. Before the gathering broke up, the piper would dig a small hole in the ground before him and at the end of the next dance, all present were expected to toss coins into it to "pay the piper his due." One very old tune of this character was called "Gather Up the Money." Another tune was the one now known as "Blackberry Blossom."


HARP TUNES

The harp is really the national instrument of Ireland and Irish harpers wer unsurpassed in skill. Many of the tunes to which we now dance Contras were once songs written for the harp. An Irish wake meant dancing, not in delight because of his passing, but rather in the esteem in which the deceased was held. If no musician was present at the time, they danced anyway to their own music which was called "lilting" a tune. Some of thes lilts have found their way into the dance music of Ireland. It is difficult today to realize the extent to which Irish dance and music permeated the English life in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the previously mentioned "Playford Dancing Master," there are many Irish dance tunes given with a key to the dance which was performed to each tune, some fourteen in all in the early edition.

It is in the realm of music that the Irish have contributed most to the New England Contras. Who does not know and love such tunes as "White Cockade," "Irish Washerwoman," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "Turkey in the Straw," and the numberless more of similar nature? Some of thes very tunes were brought over to New England by Irish immigrants in the first wave of colonization.


OUR EARLIEST SETTLERS

The English, Irish, and Scottish peoples contributed the largest numbers of the early settlers in Northern New England. All three races had an inborn love of dancing and well-versed in longways-type dancing, the English and their highly developed longways dances; the Irish with their well-known skill in music; the Scots with their highly developed techniques and exactness of steps in reels and longways; the Irish and Scottish people with their well-known fondness of holding to the old traditions and ways of their ancestors – is it a wonder that the Contra dances flourished from the first in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont? Is it to be wondered that we still love them? With our preponderance of natives still of the same racial stock, how could it be otherwise?

I know of no New England Contra that is completely Irish in character in character and figures. The side-step (sevens and threes) that is a basic step in Irish dancing is entirely missing in our Contras. The overall style of arms hanging loosely at the sides is a definite inheritance from Ireland, and I have seen old-time dancers who "sashayed the center" with arms à la "wrap around" figure from Irish dancing. Yet, the music played for dozens of our dances is a direct importation from the Ould Sod.


THE SCOTTISH INFLUENCE

The Scot, on the other hand, has had a big influence on the steps and figures from many of our line dances. Three favorites come quickly to mind: Money Musk, Petronella, and Hull's Victory. The music that we play for Money Musk was written by a butler in the household of Sir Archibald Grant of Moniemusk in the lowlands of Scotland. History tells us that his name was Daniel (or Donald) Dow, and apparently he was a musician of no mean ability, for an early collection of Scottish and Irish airs published by Bunting of London contains many tunes attributed to him. The dance was originally called Sir Archibald Grand of Moniemusk Reel, and as you might suspect, it was too unwieldy a title to have long life in this country and it was soon shortened to Money Musk. Hull's Victory is almost step for step the same dance as one known in Scotland as The Scottish Reform. The same may be said for Petronella; New England dancers for generations have called it Pat'nella. Country fiddlers steadfastly refused to play the tune found in all music books that went with the dance. They called it "that damned tink-a-tink thing." Instead, they played one of three tunes, depending upon what part of New England you were in: Finnegan's Wake, The Girl I Left Behind Me, or another nameless one (at least, I've never known a name for it). And, our dancers, just as steadfastly refused to "Turn a quarter round to the right and balance" as the first figure. Rather, we preferred it this way: "Balance partner around to the right and balance once again," etc. The English also have an interesting Money Musk.

The Scottish Strip the Willow is an interesting version of Virginia Reel, in turn a descendant of Sir Roger de Coverly. A still closer relative to Sir Roger is the Scottish dance, The Haymakers. Pousette and Allemande were both methods of progression in Scottish Country Dances, neither of which is practiced now in our New England Contras, though once they were common terms with us. Scores of our early Contras had for their last figure a Pousette. Many old manuscripts of the last century contain both terms over and over again. I have copies of several of these old dance manuscripts dated from 1795 to 1816, and they are full of combinations of dance terms, half or two-thirds of which are English terms and the remainder Scottish. An interesting bit of data , it seems to me! That was just after the Revolutionary War and no doubt in many districts of New England, the English were far from being loved, and other terms began to creep into our Contra dances. Still others began to be omitted altogether and American substitutions replaced them. "Set" is one term in particular common in both English and Scottish Country Dances, corresponding to the New England dance term "balance." Rarely, if ever, will you find the term in descriptions of our dances after 1820.


THE FRENCH-CANADIAN INFLUENCE

Within the past one hundred years, New England has experienced another flood of immigration – the French-Canadians. Especially this is true in New Hampshire and Maine. Thousands of French-Canadians from Québec, Canada have poured across our borders, first to work in our lumber camps, later to become textile and shoe workers. This is less obvious in Vermont, but give them time! So many are now here in New Hampshire that within another two or three generations, New Hampshirites of French-Canadian descent will outnumber all others. They are a delightful and fun-loving people who really love to sing and dance.

They have had little or no influence so far as bringing with them from Canada dances of their own. True, they have a well-known Contra called Brandy that they are willing to dance at the drop of a hat. Other than that, their Contradanses are far and few between. However, so adaptable are they in all things that they have taken to our dances like young ducks to water and their contagious laughter and mimicry is now mingled with the irish tunes and English and Scottish figures and everybody loves it immensely.

It is in the realm of music that their influence has been most important. French-Canadian fiddle tunes are use more and more for our New England dances, both Squares and Contras. Some of our finest folk musicians are of French-Canadian origin and they are without peer in this field. A few of their tunes that quickly come to mind are "Ste. Anne's Reel," "Glise à Sherbrooke," "Reel de Monteál," and "St. Lawrence Jig." We must not overlook Johnny Corrigan's playing of "Lord MacDonald's Reel" and "Alley Crocker." Anyone not willing to admit that Johnny is the world's greatest fiddler is a biased idiot!

Without a doubt, the French-Canadians have had the strongest influence on our long New England swings. To them go the credit, or blame, for our frequent 8- to 16-count swings. You can't beat them when it comes to swinging! Beat them? You can't even approach them! Not that we ever needed much incentive to indulge in a swing that is a swing. Two or three times around is considered a long swing in some sections of the United States, and they have a right to be bothered by it at all! I have danced at French-Canadian weddings and frequently the seings indulged in in their Squares was of 16 measures of music. That's 32 counts outside of New England. I have been told, and I cn well believe it, that sometimes they swing longer!


DANCING ACADEMIES AND MUSICIANS

Up until the present generation of New England Contra dancers, the area was filled with "dancing academies" in which young men and women were taught, not only the dances of the day, but etiquette and decorum as well. In smaller communities, the dance schools were organized on a weekly basis, and occasionally on an alternate-week basis, by a dancing master who set up a chain of dance schools, one to a town, and made a regular circuit on schedule. Many of these schools would conduct classes for two hours, followed by general dancing for all who cared to pay the admission fee.

Following the American Revolution, there were many French dancing masters who emigrated to this country in search of fame and fortune. They were joined by scores of young French noblemen during and after their own revolution. These young men had no means of earning a livelihood except by joining the armed fores or as dancing masters. None of these were more important than the native, John Griffith(s), author of the first dance book published in America and the most influential dancing master of his generation. Among the other places, he operated up and down the Connecticut River Valley as far north as Walpole, New Hampshire, where he had published "A Collection of Contra Dances" in 1799. In the spring of 1787 he was at Hartford, Connecticut, where he remained for a season before moving on to nearby Norwich. In February 1788, he established himself in Providence, Rhode Island, and Providence Plantations, where in May of that year, his first book "A Collection of the Newest & Most Fashionable Country Dances & Cotillions. The Greater Part by Mr. John Griffith, Dancing Master in Providence" was published. (Now there's a title-page filling title, and the Balkan and Israeli dances weren't the first apparently.) That fall, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts where he remained for several years – 1794 found him teaching in Amherst, Northampton and Greenfield (he published booklets at the latter two towns that year and another in Hartford in 1797). It was his Northampton book that proved so influential. It was a complete rewriting of his first book, retaining but four of the original dances: "Constancy," "Fishers Hornpipe," "Griffith's Fancy," and "The Young Widow."

Griffith's importance was not so much because of his unusual activity or his pioneering in small towns that had never had a dancing master before, but in the fact that he published books, and that so many of his dances were pirated by other less talented dance teachers. So many of his dances are found in "A Select Collection," Otsego, New York, 1808, that it might be more to the point of the curious to list those omitted than those put in. Contra dances, 350 of them, alphabetically arranged, make up this collection. It is believed that Griffith put together the figures of "Fishers Hornpipe" that was the most popular Contra dance of the period.

We have never lacked for fiddlers capable of playing the proper tunes for our Contras. This could be because of our radical strains – for you can find a touch of the Gael [an Irish Gaelic-speaking person, .ed] in many of our fiddlers. Itinerant fiddlers traveled over the countryside, sure to find a warm welcome where night found them. Word soon spread of their presence in town and neighbors came from far and near to listen, and oftentimes to dance a Contra or two with the fiddler standing in an out-of-the-way corner of the room. After playing a few figures, the musician would "pass the hat," collecting from each man what he could afford. The total amount collected decided how long the fiddler would continue to play.

For larger parties in the local Town Hall, for the many balls, assemblies, or any other name you cared to give them, other instruments were added and the traditional orchestra of Mother's Day consisted of first and second violins, clarionet (that's the way they spelled it then), cornet, double bass, and if the occasion warranted it, a violincello and flute. My earliest recollection of dancing recalls an orchestra of two violins, clarinet, cornet, and a piano.


AND YET THEY LIVE!

For more than half a century, dance manuals did their best to kill Contra dances. Such dancing masters as Howe, Ferraro, W.B. DeGarmo, C.H. Cleveland Jr., and T. Hillgrove, proclaimed bitterly against them as unfashionable. Ballroom habitues in the big cities believed them, but characteristically, northern New Englanders paid no heed to such hifalutin' fiats and continued dancing Contras with as much verve and zest as ever – an excellent example of rural Americans being "their own man."

There are those who hold that Puritanism took the merriness out of "Merrie England," but it didn't take the merriness out of the stock that came from Old England to make New England. Neither did John Knox drive it completely from the minds of the Scottish immigrants – nor could Cromwell drive it out of the lives of the Irish folk coming to America. Perhaps all of this persecution only made our pioneer forefathers more determined than ever to carry on the customs of their native lands here in New England.


DOCUMENTS


Printed in Folk Dance Scene, February, March, and April 1981.


This page © 2018 by Ron Houston.
Please do not copy any part of this page without including this copyright notice.
Please do not copy small portions out of context.
Please do not copy large portions without permission from Ron Houston.