Learn How To Contra Dance

Even if you've got two left feet, you can have fun with this beloved tradition

Contra dancers at the Nelson Town Hall Photo by Kendal J. Bush

With the dawn of New Year’s Day and the freezing temperatures that go with it come opportunities to get out of the house and try something new. Instead of letting the snow keep you in, what if you went out and experienced the charm of contra dancing? You don’t need years of experience, a specific type of shoe, or even a strong sense of rhythm to have fun contra dancing. It’s easy — if you can walk and smile at the same time, then you can contra dance. We spoke with Lisa Sieverts, a director of the Monadnock Folklore Society, and asked her about the ins and outs of contra dancing and its historical roots at the Nelson Town Hall.

The Dance

Contra dances are done in long lines, either with or without a partner, to the sounds of a fiddle, piano and a variety of other live instruments. Before the dancing begins, the caller will pick a dance from a collection of hundreds, and then spend a few minutes teaching and walking the dancers through the series of steps, also called “figures,” of the dance. Once the music starts, the caller will then prompt the dancers in time to the music and give instruction just before the dancers need to follow it. The goal is for the caller to stop calling the figures as the dancers become more familiar with the steps as the dance goes on. “It might be a bit overwhelming for beginners at first, but you learn everything the first night and it gets progressively more exciting with time,” says Sieverts. “I love being able to watch those who were brand-new come back and help out the new dancers with their figures.”

It’s the simplicity that makes it fun for dancers no matter if it is their first time dancing or their 100th. “I’ve been dancing since I was a little kid,” says Sieverts. “I love the feeling of moving to the music and interacting with familiar faces and those who are at the town hall for the first time. It’s a beautiful opportunity to listen to the music and calls and get out of your head and into your feet. Don’t think, just do. It’s refreshing.”

The dance selections vary from week to week, but the community favorite that has been danced every week for 150 years is the chorus jig. “The dance is very ritualistic,” says Sieverts. “It is played every week after announcements, and it always has a certain tune that goes with it, which is typical of the older contra dances. You get this sense that the walls are dancing with you because the walls of our hall have seen us dance that dance hundreds of times.”

The History

Contra dancing dates back to the 17th century, and many believe New Hampshire to be the contra dance capital of the world. For hundreds of years, communities have come together to swing, dance, and stomp to live music at local community centers and town halls. Nelson Town Hall has been the hot spot for contra dancing since 1799. “The town hired a dance master in 1799, and we even have records of dances in the style we do today that date all the way back to 1850,” says Sieverts. “It’s amazing to be able to look back and see how the enthusiasm and wonder of the dance has stayed consistent for all of these years.”

While Nelson is (relatively) famous for its contra dancing history, it has become even more well-known for the Monday night dances at the Nelson Town Hall. Dancers who range from young and old to beginner and experienced come from all over New Hampshire, and even the country, to dance the night away. “We’ve been dancing every Monday night since 1978,” says Sieverts. “Our floors have seen lots of happy feet over the years, and thanks to the town, our dancers and local professionals, we just finished the installation of our new wood floors in October. We are excited to keep dancing for years to come.”


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