Ottawa Contra Dance

About contra ... it's what you put into it!


Are you asking what's with "contra - it's what you put into it"? Well, here's the secret... anyone can contra dance! It's great fun as a beginner and easy to learn the basic moves - a wonderful evening from the start. However, experienced dancers love contra dancing because if you pick up little tricks and timing as well as work on connection, it gets more and more tighter and electrifying... so in this way, it can be whatever you put into it.

About contra dancing - the basics 101


Contra is a fun form of community dance where you begin and finish one dance (about 10min) with the same partner, progressing up and down the hall in long lines while you dance with different sets of other couples, repeating a sequence of moves guided by the caller. Essentially it's lots of fun AND excellent exercise. To see videos of what contra dancing looks like in Ottawa, click here.


Below are common questions that are asked by people new to contra dancing.


What if I have never danced before?

You are very much welcomed! Contra is great place to learn dancing period. Like most other contra dance communities, Ottawa has a free beginners workshop before every dance (7:30-8:00pm) where you can learn some basic moves and get used to listening to the caller. All you need to know is how to walk - the rest you learn once you start. People are very open to beginners and all dances are taught before you dance them leaving you comfortable to enjoy.

Do I need to have a partner?

No! Many people come to contra dances by themselves. It is customary to dance with different partners throughout the evening so there will be lots of people available for dancing. And, if you're uncertain about walking into a hall with a group of people you don't know, remember that they are generally a great group.

Should I wear certain clothes?

No. Just dress in what you feel comfortable and with a few layers as you will get warm if you are dancing. Women often wear casual skirts while men often wear lightweight pants or shorts.

As for shoes?
Pull a pair out of your closet. Experienced contra dancers tend to prefer leather soled shoes but as long as your soles aren't really sticky or you don't have high heels, you'll be just fine. To keep one of the few sprung hardwood floors in Ottawa in good shape, please wear outdoor shoes to the hall and change to indoor shoes before dancing.

Is contra dancing for all ages?

For sure. In lots of communities, you'll have strong representation right from the college/university crowd to retired members of the community. Some children who like to dance start as young as 6-7 years of age.

What is the music like?

We're lucky because we get to dance to some of the best live traditional music around. In Ottawa, we have bands from the local community as well as Montreal, Toronto, and the New England states come to play our dances - and for approximately half the price of a concert or the price of a movie.

Contra dancing can be done to various styles of music but it is mostly done to reels and jigs played by some combination of fiddle, Irish flute, accordion (Quebecois), concertina (Irish/English), guitar, double bass, banjo, piano, percussion... You get the idea. Horns also tend to add a lot to the groove of contra music.

You can listen to a few great contra dance bands/musicians through the following links:

  • Big Bandemonium myspace here
  • Nightwatch myspace here
  • Ethan Hazzard-Watkins myspace here
  • For more bands, check out the list of bands that have played in Ottawa here, or this external link

Here are a few great videos of contra dancing in New England and Quebec.


Fun contra links for all!


There are some hot video examples of contra dancing online. Check out our suggestions on the links page here.

Below is some interesting info including some tips:

  • Wikipedia: Wikipedia has an excellent description of contra dancing here. It also provides extensive information about contra dance form here and about the movements used in contra dancing here
  • Country Dance and Song Society: CDSS is an American based organization that promotes traditional English and Anglo-American folk music and dance - this includes contra dancing. In addition to offering camps, CDSS is one place where you can find interesting articles about contra dancing and information about youth involvement in contra dancing
  • Tips for newcomers from the Harvest Moon Folk Society here
  • Photo essay describing contra dancing here
  • What is an experienced dancer by Lisa Greenleaf here
  • The Top Ten (plus) things that make a good (contra) dancer on Jonathan Sivier's site here
  • Tips for experienced dancers dancing with beginners on Jonathan Sivier's site here
  • Good contra and square dancing defined by Paul Tyler here
  • Dance Tips index by Harvest Moon Folk Society here
  • Youth Dance Weekend 2008 dance discussion here
  • Gary Shapiro's fun 'definitions of contra' here

AND... a few tips we like to think about as more experienced dancers


  1. Courtesy:

    Most contra dancers are just great people. However, it's important to remember courtesy such as thanking your partner at the end of the dance. If you're an experienced dancer, it's great to dance a few sets with beginners as you make the experience that much more fun for them and help them improve their skills so that the dance experience is better for everyone (e.g., a caller can call more complicated dances if beginners are supported).


  2. Maintaining eye contact:

    You'll notice that many contra dancers maintain eye contact with other dancers during the dance. Although it can be a bit awkward for most in the beginning, it is a great way to connect with the other people with whom you are dancing and to put you 'in the moment' of the dance. Do as you are comfortable!


  3. Carrying your own weight during swinging:

    It makes a significant difference to both your dance experience as well as your partner's when you carry your own weight during swinging. This means that your weight is above your own body and that you aren't clamping on too tight to your partner or pulling/pushing down on their shoulders or arms. Not sure if you have this part of swinging down pat? Ask someone for advice.


  4. Giving weight:

    This is different than carrying your own weight during swinging and is probably the biggest key to contra dancing that some people miss. Again, it helps you connect better, move much more efficiently, allows for more flourishes (fancy variations) if you want, etc. The best way to describe giving weight is that you are providing a bit of resistance in your arm. To provide resistance, you keep a bit of flex/tension in your arm and keep it bent, using it as a spring, rather than having it fully extendd or loose. Giving weight is especially useful in allemandes, balances, women chaining across, and right and left throughs.


  5. Being on time:

    Just as it sounds, being on time is about getting to the next move when it's time. When everyone is on time, no one is waiting for anyone else and movements flow really well. Important stuff :)


  6. Flourishes and moves more experienced contra dancers use:

    Although contra dancing can easily be done by novices, experienced dancers often get their kicks out of things like giving weight, dancing that much more tightly, or on-time foot stomps throughout the room. They also add lots of flourishes (fancy variations) to the dance such as twirling the woman different ways during the ladies' chain or spinning more than once during wavy lines. One place that you see lots of variation is during a balance and swing or swing.


The following list has many different ways of swinging. Some of these are fun, however, mostly people use the ballroom position of swinging and create variety in the balance/getting into the swing or when the man lets the woman out of the swing (e.g., spinning her out in different ways). Watch some of great YouTube videos here. If you are interested in learning more moves, ask a dancer for tips or let us know and maybe we can organize a workshop.