Traditional contra dancing and modern western square dancing are both dynamite dance activities to get involved in. They each have their own flavour and cultural norms.
Let’s look at similarities:
Both dance forms have a caller who teaches and calls the dances. Both are community dances where you dance with many folks rather than with just 1 partner. The caller plans the evening program and has overall responsibility for the entire evening. The caller is responsible for the success of the dancers on the dance floor. The dancers are responsible for listening and responding to the caller with the appropriate dance action. The gentleman does not have all the responsibility and pressure to lead his partner in the dancing. He does not have to be creative and think about what he’s going to do next to entertain his partner and ensure she enjoys dancing with him. There is no fancy footwork either. All the dance moves are done by simply walking or shuffling to the beat of the music. The only exception is the swing, which can be done with a simple walking step or with a buzz step. The buzz step allows one to swing faster and more energetically. The footwork there mimics riding on a scooter, where the weight is on the right foot and the left foot pushes and propels you around. Even those who can’t hear the beat at all can actually square dance or contra dance. There are lots of dances moves which are shared by these two dance forms. A contra dancer or square dancer can learn the other dance form quickly and easily. You will find both square dancing and contra dancing all across the country and around the world too.
Now for the differences:
Contra dancing is done in long lines. You dance with your partner and 1 other couple. After each iteration of the dance or 64 beats of music, you and your partner move on to meet another couple and repeat the dance with them. In that way you dance with your partner and lots of couples in the line. Because the dance repeats, the caller eventually stops calling the dance so the dancers can listen and enjoy the music without the voice of the caller. The enjoyment is in the grove, the trace of the dance, not the complexity. The caller only calls as long as necessary to ensure the dancers are successful on the dance floor. Most dancers change partners at the end of each contra dance, although that is not required. There is a great deal of swinging in each and every dance, anywhere from 8 beats to 32 beats out of 64 beats of music. This is what the dancers like most as it gives them an opportunity to interact with their partner and frequently others in the set as well. This makes contra dancing very vigorous and energetic.
Modern western squares are done in 4 couple squares. You dance with your partner and 3 other couples in your square. In a patter square you will keep your original partner and you have a working partner as well at any point in time. In a singing square, typically, you change partners each time through the figure and end up with your original partner for the ending. The fun is in the surprise factor and in being able to work together as a team of 8 to successfully execute the calls. There is also lots of fun in recovering from mistakes and omissions and the “creative choreography” required to recover! There is very little swinging at a square dance as compared to the contra dance. A typical square dance swing is once around, twice if you are really fast, and off you go! The singing call may or may not include a swing and it may be omitted entirely from a patter square. It depends on the caller really. There are many square dance clubs in the area and each club has their own culture. You will want to attend dances at the various clubs and see which fits your personality best. There are groups which are primarily couples based and you dance with your partner for every dance. There are groups where folks change partners frequently and which more singles attend so they are better for singles. Some groups actually use a card system to ensure everyone dances all night long, including singles. There are groups which cater to the gay and lesbian crowd. Some groups are more focused on the social aspects of the club and not so much on the dancing while others are great for the hard core dancer and the dancing is more challenging. Some groups consist primarily of older dancers and are targeted at the older dancer while others have a greater mix of age and are much more dynamic and energetic. There is something for everyone.
The Contra leader will start with a walk thru at the start of each contra dance. Once dancers are accustomed to the sequence of figures, then the music starts. At a typical 3-hour contra dance, there are 11 to 12 dances in an evening. The caller presents an evening consisting of mostly duple minor improper contras and may include 1 or 2 dances of other formations as well: circle mixers, Sicilian circle, triplets, mescolanza, 4 couple square, grid squares, triple minors, proper contras, and the newest thing, zia’s.
The caller at a modern western square dance, for the most part, the same caller calls for the group at every dance. The group, known as a club, has guest callers when their primary caller is unavailable. There are some square dance clubs who do hire in different callers for each or most of their dances. There is no walkthrough before the dancing starts. The dancers are expected to know a particular set of dance moves and the caller is expected to call material they already know. The caller calls for the entire duration of the dance because the dancers don’t know what the caller is going to call ahead of time and are not supposed to anticipate the calls! The caller’s goal is to surprise the dancers with fun and creative choreography that they can dance successfully and will find interesting. The longer patter square is typically followed by a singing square. The goal of the singing call is for the dancers to just relax and enjoy the music. There could be some repetition in the figure called for a singer and the choreography might be simpler. The caller typically presents material in the formation of a 4 couple square. They may occasionally call 6 couple, hexagon or progressive squares. After each tip, there is a short break, about 5 minutes or so, for socializing.
At a contra dance, anyone can attend without any prior experience. Most dances have a 30 to 60 minute introduction for new dancers. That covers just enough to give the new dancer some very basics, enough to help them know where and how to line up and generally what to expect and some pointers. For the most part all the regular dancers are very helpful and will actively seek out new dancers to dance with during the evening. The new dancer essentially learns by dancing with the experienced dancers and through the repetition. This also means that the caller has to call to the general level of the floor. A new dancer attending a dance of primarily experienced dancers can feel overwhelmed and intimidated very quickly. The experienced dancer at a dance with a high percentage of new dancers will mostly likely find the dancing too rough or unsatisfying. The dances at the beginning of the evening tend to be easier and build on one another and in complexity as the evening progresses in order to incorporate the new dancers on the floor as gently as possible. Lots of new dancers leave at the break and the dances in the second half of the evening are typically more challenging.
For modern western square dance, new dancers must learn the square dance moves thru a series of lessons before they can attend a regular dance of a particular level. While the lessons are lots of fun and you will meet lots of folks, the regular dances are even more fun! At the regular dances there is no teaching, or very little. Dancers square up, the music starts and the caller calls! Different clubs dance at different levels (typically mainstream, plus, plus DBD, challenge and advanced). Once you have learned to dance at a given level, you can dance at any club dancing at the level you have attained. Experienced and proficient contra dancers can learn the mainstream material very quickly, in as little as 8 weeks. Learning time for those with no dance experience will vary and depends on each person. The complete mainstream program is most typically taught over a period of 24 weeks.
(Posted with permission from Eva Murray)