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date: 19 November 2019

Country dancefree

  • Pauline Norton

A lively (but not rustic or rural) dance of 17th-century English origin known in France as the “contredanse,” by which name it soon came to be called in England as well. In the United States, “contre” became “contra,” and the name “contradanse” has been used interchangeably with “country dance” to the present day. It can be performed in a circle or square, but the form used almost exclusively in this country has been longways, with two lines of dancers facing each other. Like the cotillion and quadrille, the country dance is executed geometrically, and the progressive movements down the columns of dancers import a smoothness and precision that is satisfying both to the dancer and to the observer.

Chart from Elias Howes American Dancing Master and Ballroom Prompter, Boston, 1862. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society

The music for country dances has generally been arranged from existing tunes, such as jigs (in 6/8) and reels (in 2/4), and performed on the fiddle and/or transverse flute. Some tunes have become associated with particular figurations, so that today country dances like Money Musk and Pop Goes the Weasel refer to both the tune and the dance pattern itself. The tunes generally consist of two strains, each eight bars in length and repeated (AABB). The tempo is about 120, and the beat and step have a springing, or in the case of jig tunes, a skipping quality.

In recent years, the revival of country dances in New England and the efforts of organizations like the Country Dance and Song Society have stimulated interest in this form of dance throughout the country. In its revived form, however, it is a rustic dance, with musical accompaniment provided by such instruments as the piano, fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, bone castanets, hammered dulcimer, tin whistle, melodeon, flute, string bass, clarinet, bohdrán (Irish frame drum), and euphonium. Commonly performed country dances and dance tunes include Hull’s Victory, Soldier’s Joy, College Hornpipe, White Cockade, Fisher’s Hornpipe, and Rory O’More.


  • Cantelo: Twenty-four American Country Dances as Danced by the British during their Winter Quarters at Philadelphia, New York & Charles Town (London, England, 1785)
  • A Collection of Contra Dances: Containing the Newest, Most Approved and Fashionable Figures (Stockbridge, MA, 1792)
  • R. Holden: The Contra Dance Book (Newark, 1956)
  • K. Van W. Keller and R. Sweet: A Choice Selection of American Country Dances of the Revolutionary Era 1775–1795 (New York, 1976)
  • P. Rogers: Country Dance Index: an Index to Sources of English and American Country Dances (New York, 1986)
  • M.M. Dart: Contra Dance Choreography: a Reflection of Social Change (diss., Indiana U., 1992)
  • R.J. Blaustein: “Old-time Fiddling and Country Dancing in North America: Some Reconsiderations,” Communities in Motion: Dance, Community, and Tradition in America’s Southeast and Beyond (Westport, CT, 1995), 191–202
  • P. Jordan-Smith: For as Many as Will: Deciphering the Folklore of Contra Dance and English Country Dance Events (diss., U. of California, Los Angeles, 2000)