For Contra Dancers

Traditional contra dancing and Modern Western Square Dancing are both dynamite dance activities. They each have their own flavor and cultural norms. If you have enough time and energy, get involved in both. You will meet so many new friends and will always have somewhere to go dancing and lots of friends to dance with. In fact, you will have so many choices, you will have to pick from one of several options on any given night of the week. That’s the only downside!

How are square and contra dancing similar?

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 one partner. The caller plans the evening program and has overall responsibility for the entire dance. The caller is responsible for the success of the dancers on the dance floor and the dancers are responsible for listening and responding to the caller with the appropriate dance actions. There is no fancy foot work either. All the dance moves are done by simply walking or shuffling to the beat of the music. Even those who can’t hear the beat can actually square dance or contra dance. There are many dance 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 US and around the world.

How are square and contra dancing different?


Traditional contra dancers dance to live bands that typically play reels and jigs. The musicians typically play one to three tunes in a medley. Each dance runs from 8-11 minutes depending on the caller.

Modern Western Square Dancers dance to recorded music. Because it is recorded, the variety is endless. One single tune is used for a given dance. Each individual dance runs approximately 4 to 7 minutes and two dances are typically paired together, a patter and a singer, to form a tip. You will find live music for square dancing at the national and many state square dance conventions.

The Dancing

Contra dancing is done in long lines. You dance with your partner and one 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 other 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 trace of the dance, not the complexity. There is a great deal of swinging in each dance, anywhere from 8 beats to 32 beats out of 64 beats of music.

Modern Western Square Dancing is done in four couple squares. You dance with your partner and three other couples in your square. In a patter square you will return to your original partner frequently. In a singing call, 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 eight 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 compared to the contra dance. Some clubs are more focused on the social aspects of the club than the dancing while others are focused on more challenging dancing. Some groups consist primarily of older dancers while others have a greater age mix and are much more dynamic and energetic. There is something for everyone.

The Caller

At a contra dance the caller will walk through each dance before it is danced. The caller calls for a bit and the dancers dance! At a typical 3 hour contra dance, there are 11 to 12 dances in an evening. Sometimes the caller will call a no walk through dance or a medley of dances (the dance choreography changes on the fly while the music is playing).

At a Modern Western Square Dance there is no walk through 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 segment is typically followed by a singing call. 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 and the choreography might be simpler. After each tip, there is a short break, about five minutes or so, for socializing.

New Dancers

Anyone can attend a contra dance without any prior experience. Most dances include a 30 to 60 minute introduction for new dancers. That covers just enough to give the new dancer some very basics, to help them know where and how to line up and generally what to expect. 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. The dances at the beginning of the evening tend to be easier and build 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 Dancing, new dancers must learn the square dance moves through a series of lessons before they can attend a regular dance. 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. Dancers square up, the music starts and the caller calls! Once you have learned to dance at a given level, you can dance at any club dancing at that level. Experienced and proficient contra dancers can learn the beginning level material very quickly.