Dance to the Music of the World!

What is . . . Dance?

This is Leslie Hyll's page of descriptions of various forms of dance.


What is International Folk Dancing? What is Folk Dance? What is Ethnic Dance?

- by Leslie Hyll

First we have to define folk dance - folk dance is dance as participated in by everyday people at weddings, parties, rituals, etc. Every ethnic group has its own folk dances. In the USA, square dance (in all its various forms), and contra dance (in all its various forms) qualify as folk dance. In England, english contras and sets (also know as English Country Dancing) qualify as folk dance. Kolos are particular to Balkan countries. When we are referring to the folk dance of a particular ethnic group, we also might call it ethnic dance. (Although I've seen at least one interpretation of ethnic dance as folk dance that has been brought to the professional stage.)

Given the definition of folk dance, above, international folk dance may be defined as as activity where common people get together to explore and enjoy the folk dances of many ethnic groups and countries. Ideally, this would include dances from any and every ethnic group in the world. Realistically, IFD groups do dances of types and styles that the members particularly like. That's why you will find many IFD groups that dance primarily non-partner dances of the Balkans and IFD groups that dance only couple dances of Western Europe and IFD groups that dance Balkan and Scandinavian and IFD groups that dance German and American and Mexican, etc, etc, etc.

What is Round Dancing?

(This definition was provided by Herb Norton of Glen Ellyn, IL on the newsgroup, 9/20/96)

Round dancing uses ballroom steps, but the leader (called the cuer) calls out the steps to be done in a manner similar to the way that a square dance caller tells the square dancers what to do. Thus, all of the couples are going around the floor doing the same steps at the same time. A choreographer has chosen the steps so that they fit the piece of music being played. Thus, while line dances and sequence dances have an unvarying pattern no matter what the music actually does, a round dance choreographer can account for the fact that some arrangements of a piece of music may have an extra measure or two sandwiched in between the longer 8 or 16 measure phrases. Round dancing is closely associated with western square dance, since at many square dances, the will alternate 2 squares with 2 rounds, but there are events where only rounds are done. At the easiest level only waltz and two-step (different from Texas Two-step) are done, but at the higher levels fox trot, jive, rumba, cha cha, bolero, pasa doble, tango, and other rhythms are added. The International Round Dance Teachers Association (usually called Roundalab) is the main group for round dance teachers and there are many other groups for both teachers and dancers.

What is Contra dance?

- by Leslie Hyll

The technical form of contra dance is that of the well know Virginia Reel: Two lines of people facing each other (or two opposing lines). Each person has a partner, who is the person directly across in the opposing line. If all men are in one line and all the women in the other, then we refer to the contra set as a proper set. If there is a mix of men and women in each line then we refer to the contra set as an improper set. There may be as many couples in a contra set as the dance hall will allow. Bob Shapiro has a multi-faceted definition that traditional-style contra dancers will appreciate. Contrary to his explanation that it is done to live music, it may be done to recorded music (for those of us who don't have access to live music or just can't afford it). There are various shades of contra dance:

As with any folk form it constantly mutates and evolves.

Another definition of Contra & Square Dancing by David Kirchner

Why is it Called Contra Dance?

This article is from a thread on the subject in the newsgroup rec.folk-dancing in July, 1996.

B. Parkes writes:
This is a common bit of folk etymology. It makes sense, therefore it must be true. Although widely stated in contra dance circles, the term contra dance did not originate from "across from." The person who quoted Oxford English dictionary had it right: contra dance is a French corruption of the English word country.

Daniel Luecking wrote:
So why did the french corrupt it to "contre" or "contra"? Is it really only because that sounds like "country"? Or is it because the word means "across" and that is the formation used? ...
I maintain that both theories are correct: The French corrupted "country dance" and the English reimported the word, but in the process it came to be applied only to the longways formation, and THAT was because of the meaning "across" for "contre".

From Bo Bradham,
The water was starting to get muddy so I looked in the OED and Daniel's take seems to be in accord with what I found:

contre-dan ..contre-dance, -danse, contra-dance. [after Fr. contre-danse, Ital. and Sp. contra danza, all corruptions of the English word COUNTRY-DANCE, by the conversion of its first element into the Fr. con-tre, Ital., Sp. contra against, opposite.]

The English country-dance was introduced into France during the Regency 1715-23, and thence passed into Italy and Spain; cf. Littre, s.v. Contre-danse[2], and Venuti, Scoperte di Ercolano (Rome 1748) 114 `I canti, i balli..che a noi sono pervenuti con vocabolo Inglese di con-traddanze, Country Dances, quasi invenzione degli Inglesi contadini'. The arrangement of the partners in a country-dance in two opposite lines of indefinite length easily suggested the perversion of country into contre-, contra- opposite. Littre's theory, that there was already in 17th c. a French contre-danse with which the English word was con-fused and ran together, is not tenable; no trace of the name has been found in French before its appearance as an adaptation of the English.

So Beth had it right in that "contra" did not originate with "Contrary" or any such thing. But the happy accident of the French adopting "Country" from English and the resemblance to the French "contre" make it a kind of bi-lingual pun. The confusion is not of recent origin, either. Here is more from the OED:

But new dances of this type were subsequently brought out in France, and introduced into England with the Frenchified form of the name, which led some Englishmen to the erroneous notion that the French was the original and correct form, and the English a corruption of it. Thus a writer in the Gentleman's Magazine 1758, p. 174 said, `As our dances in general come from France, so does the country-dance, which is a manifest corruption of the French contre-danse, where a number of persons placing themselves opposite one to another, begin a figure'. Partly under the influence of this erroneous notion as to the etymology, partly as a mere retention of the French form, contra-dance, contre-dance have been used, and contre-danse continued in use, esp. for a French or foreign dance of this type.

What was the question?
Bo Bradham,

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