An   Introduction   to   Contradancing

part of the website for the contradance camp at Burning Man   (about me) 

The many faces of contradancing.  Thanks to Bill Dudley, M.J. Taylor, Dave Foster and other videographers. Thousands of videos of contra are online. See the wonderful 'contra kaleidoscope' video and google for the names of the bands that are listed on our camp history page.

My video made using a helmetcam 'disguised' by an afro wig.  Thanks to all my partners and fellow dancers who (just barely) managed to keep a straight face at the May 2010 LEAF festival and the local Asheville NC Gray Eagle contradance.  I spin much more than most dancers (see text).

 If you have the bandwidth and the time, you can download the ~150 MB and ~260 MB movie files from here and here and get smooth, ~'hi def' video playback. Back to the Burning Man Contradance main page.

A very nice documentary with some history and some of the mechanics of how contradance works.   
  Contradancing is a friendly, easy to learn, adaptable dance form where couples flow through each other in long lines.  Dancers follow a repeating cycle of instructions from a caller (but with room for improvisation).

The zen is flow, synchrony and bonding (not footwork, not competition). If you are smiling, you are doing it right.

As the first video shows, there are contradances 
coast to coast (and abroad)  --  in dance halls with a handful, up to many 100's of
dancers of all ages -- dancing to live music from bands playing many musical styles including old time, celtic, fusion, latin, motown, and techno (DJ'ed).  

Roughly half the moves are with your partner, half with everyone else.  There is no need to arrive at a contradance with a partner - dancers swap partners after every dance.  Contradancing has a very tribal feel, with bonding through synchronous stomping, clapping and hooting.  It is flirtatious, and very playful.  Ad lib variation is celebrated as long as everyone can stay on time.  Common improvisations are changing a move to a different move that ends in the same place, elaborate flourishes, and humorous multi-dancer tomfoolery. 

Contradances are inclusive, family-friendly, community dances where you often see children, parents dancing while carrying a baby, parents dancing with teenage children, elderly dancers, and dancers with a surprising range of disabilities.

Dancers and callers frequently swap gender roles, and playfully mock gender conventions.  Many men wear kilts or skirts.  There are some contradance groups and events which feature gender-free dances, and/or cater to LGBT dancers. 

Dances are repeating cycles of ~8 moves.  There are 1000's of cataloged dances with new ones added every year.  At events, each dance is taught during a 'walk through' before the dancing starts (walk throughs not shown in the videos).  During the dance, the caller repeats the instructions until it appears that the dancers no longer need them. 

To help beginners learn the most frequently used moves of the ~30 common moves, there is usually a lesson just before the official beginning of the dance.  But the basic moves are so simple that most beginners are able to enjoy themselves even without attending a lesson.  The lessons are helpful for learning the advanced moves, and make it more likely that new dancers will get to the point of enjoying the flow (and less likely that they will become disoriented during all the changes in direction).

Slippery/smooth bottomed shoes are helpful.  Most dancers wear a variety of conventional shoes, but some dancers mod their sneakers (or other comfortable shoes) attaching chrome/suede leather soles, while others dance in the smooth-soled models of (or else modded) Vibramfivefingers or Tabi split toes,  Still others prefer the Foot Thongs  and similar footwear used in acrodance (cf. their other names),  

A less than full stomach will make it easier for some people to avoid dizziness.  PLEASE NOTE that the second video looks especially dizzying because I throw in lots of extra turns for myself.


There is a 'helmetcam' (actually handheld) sequence made by someone who engages in a more typical level of spinning at minute 3:20 in the first video.  And even slower is possible - there are swing variations with almost no spinning  (for example see minute 3:16 in the first video). 

Most dances are dizziness-canceling mixture of clockwise and counterclockwise turns.  With experience most dancers learn to enjoy some spinning, 

Dancers expect to adjust their behavior to suit each person they meet in the line - it is most basic tenet of our subculture.   Just ask for minimal spinning or whatever else makes you comfortable.  Often dancers who need TLC will wear a large button with a request/warning (e.g. "sore left arm")..

Learn more and find (pretty much everywhere) a local contradance aka contra dance aka country dance aka old time dance aka oldtime dance aka barn dance at (remarkably up to date, 
exhaustive coverage of **all** the contra dances and events in the US, and most of those abroad).   

Contradance callers often throw in a few square dances, but the 'Western square dance' social scene is mostly separate.  English county dancing is closely related to contra but is usually slower paced and more genteel.  Rueda de Casino has some similarity to square dancing but with salsa steps, salsa music and independently evolved moves and calls.

Before breaks, and at the end of a contradance there is usually a waltz or other ballroom dance, and a variety of traditional and ballroom dances are taught at 3-day contradance weekends and week long camps