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Contra Dance: What & where
Learn what contra dance is and where to do it in Australia

By Julie Bishop
Posted Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Maybe you have only just heard about contra dance. For a bit more about what it is, have a look at my article "RFDS Contra Dance", on this website. Or just search for "what is contra dance?" on the net, and you will find rapturous descriptions of it.

Basically, it is what happened to longways English country dances over a couple of centuries or so, starting in America's New England states, and spreading across the USA. If you saw the "Pride and Prejudice" series on ABC-TV, and remember the dance where Elizabeth Bennet is coolly talking with Mr Darcy as they progress down and then up a long dance set - well, that was a longways English dance (couples, in a longways set).

In New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, and other early settlements, those dances gradually took on a life of their own. Under the influence of French allies and their dancing teachers, the English "back-to-back" became known as a "dos-a-dos" (do-si-do), the right- or left-hand turn as a right (or left) allemande. The music over time borrowed more from Irish, Scottish and French-Canadian jigs, reels, marches, etc.

But apart from the "swing" (a popular movement, in ballroom hold), or "balance and swing", contras are done with a walking step, like so many English dances. No fancy footwork is needed. The same pattern of movements, taking up 32 bars of music, is repeated each time you move along the set and meet a new couple. So after a few times through you're getting a good idea of what you should be doing (and the dance caller continues to call the movements, as needed). And if you're still struggling, the more experienced dancers you meet will guide you; and then hand you on to the next couple; and so on.

The dances flow! They're so much fun! I have never seen a glum contra dancer.

Now, where can you do it?

In Canberra:

  • The Canberra Contra Club runs fortnightly contra workshops, on 1st & 3rd Tuesdays, with live music. They also have 4 Saturday night dances a year, with Contratemps, Canberra's contra dance band led by Rob Mahony. Colin Towns, (02) 6232 9231, (0417) 020 615 - email - web
  • Also in Canberra, the National Folk Festival over Easter generally has a contra workshop and/or dance in its dance program - web
  • Sydney's annual Contra Dance (fundraiser for the Royal Flying Doctor Service), usually at Granville Town Hall or Ermington Community Centre, in late June or July; with Pastrami on Ryebuck and caller Julie Bishop. (The band is Australia's first (and Sydney's only) contra dance band. As Ryebuck, it is Sydney's longest-running bush band, formed in 1978. And if Ryebuck is the band for any public bush dance, there's likely to be a contra or two on the program.) - email
    The 2008 RFDS Contra is on Saturday 26 July, 8pm-12, at Granville Town Hall.
  • There is an annual Christmas Contra on the 2nd Saturday in December, at East Gosford, north of Sydney, run by the Central Coast Bush Dance and Music Association. This year, it's on 13 December, 7.30-11.30pm, again with Pastrami on Ryebuck and Julie Bishop - web
  • The Illawarra Folk Festival (September, Bulli Showground) and the Cobargo Folk Festival (February) usually have a contra dance workshop or two. The last few have been presented by the Canberra Contra Club.
  • This year (2008) the only regular contra classes are at the Wesley Mission's School for Seniors (over-50s until now - but new members must be 60+), Pitt St, Sydney, on Thursdays in term time, 12-1.30pm, with Julie Bishop - email
  • The Bush Music Club sometimes has a night or two of contra at its Monday night dance workshops at Pennant Hills. - web
I'm not quite so familiar with other states, but here goes:
  • Victoria: I'm not aware of any regular contras. But the November TSDAV Spring Dance Weekend, Portarlington, sometimes includes a contra workshop. - web
  • South Australia: Maureen Morris teaches Australian, English and Scottish dances, and some contras. The Australian Traditional and Bush Dance Society, at Broadview, 2nd, 4th & 5th Tuesdays. (08) 8261 8225
  • Tasmania: If anyone does contras, it's Danceaholics Unanimous, in Hobart. Dave Wanless, (03) 6273 2127 - email, web
  • Queensland: An occasional contra is taught. The best people to ask are Vic and Jan Orloff, (07) 3848 7706 - email, web
  • Western Australia: Assorted international dance, but I know of no contra - web
  • Northern Territory: No contra, but some English Playford dancing, as well as international, in Darwin. Sue (08) 8985 1827 - email, web
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