Contradance FAQs

by Marjorie Matthews

Newcomers are always welcome to come to a dance. Here are some things you may be wondering as you consider attending your first contradance.

What should I wear?

Dress comfortably! Folk dancing is great exercise, and it is a good workout, and so don’t overdress. Even in winter you don’t want to wear a sweater, sweatshirt, or long sleeves. Women often enjoy dancing in a skirt, as skirts flow to the music. Broomstick skirts are common. T-shirts are common dress. Don’t worry about what to wear – there is no special costume, just be comfortable. You probably will get sweaty as you dance.  

What about shoes – do dancers have special shoes?

Since we dance on hardwood floors, many people bring a separate pair of shoes from the ones they wear to the dance. Clean off any grit from outside that might be on the soles of your shoes and could damage the floor. If possible, it is preferred not to dance in shoes with rubber soles, as these are harder on your joints – ankles, knees and hips. But people have danced in socks, barefoot, in tennis shoes or whatever. If you get into dancing you might purchase a pair of dance shoes. Some people dance in bowling shoes, because they have smooth leather bottoms.

What if I don’t know how to dance, and end up doing it wrong?

Contradancing is not difficult. It is said that if you know right from left, can walk, and can count to eight, that’s all you need. At the beginning of a dance there are some basic instructions for new dancers, and a chance to practice a little. All through the evening every dance is taught – a caller does a walk-though before each dance and then calls the steps for the first several times through. Contradances are repetitive; you do the same set of steps over and over – if you don’t get it at first, you have lots of opportunities to practice. Dancers are very welcoming, and they will help you and not expect you to know what you are doing. Everyone attended their first dance at some point. It is about having fun, not about making no mistakes. No one will glare at you if you goof, or are headed in the wrong direction. There’s lots of smiling at dances.

What if no one asks me to dance?  I don’t want to feel like a wallflower.

Dancers will ask you to dance – you won't be sitting on the sidelines. You don’t need to come with a partner. And if you do come with a partner, it is a good idea to split up and each dance with more experienced dancers. Two brand new dancers can't help each other. The etiquette at contradances is that for every dance people generally change partners and dance with someone else, even if you do come with a partner. It is part of the fun to dance with many different partners.

Can I just watch and listen to the music until I see how it works?

Contradancing is not a spectator sport; it is participatory. People will ask you to dance if you are sitting on the sidelines. They will encourage you to join in and get on your feet – it is more fun to dance than to watch. The music is always provided by live musicians; the band is usually three or more people playing fiddles, guitars, and maybe a banjo, mandolin, bass, or piano. It is lively, fun music, and you will want to get up and move to it!

What should I expect?

Dances usually start at 8 pm, with a half hour of instruction from 7:30-8. They usually charge about $6 for the evening. The musicians are set up before you get there. A caller will provide the instruction for new dancers at the beginning, and then will ask people to get a partner and form lines. The same caller calls all evening. The caller will walk everyone through each dance before the music kicks in. Each dance lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. People look like they are having fun! Dancers are of all ages – anywhere from 20s to 70s (and sometimes younger, or older than that.) Sometimes the caller will do a square dance, but more usually a contradance (two lines of couples, half the couples moving to the top of the set, and half moving to the bottom of the set.) The dances fit the rhythm of the music, and everything is set in phrases of eight – you can hear this in the beat, and can tell when it is time to do the next move. If you need to take a break, you certainly can sit out, and talk to people. Sometime between 9:30 and10 there is usually a break for about 15 minutes. Dances usually end between 11 and 11:30 on weekends, and end by 10 on week nights, and sometimes people go out afterwards to socialize. Dancing is a community event; people come regularly and get acquainted. Locally we hold dances on Tuesday evenings and Saturday evenings. They are not always held at the same location, check the dance website for details. Another tip: bring a waterbottle – you will get thirsty.