In the 17th century English country dances wereadopted by the French, who called them contredanses. In time these dances found their way to the United States and the name contra dance was associated with American folk dances. Contra dances became very popular in the 18th century and were danced by people of all social classes.
In the 1850's social dancing such as contra dances and square dances fell out of favour as couple dances such as the waltz and polka became more popular. By the 1930's and 1940's contra dances were only danced in scattered parts of northeastern North America and the maritime provinces of Canada. Contra Dances were almost single-handedly kept alive by Ralph Page until it they were revived by the likes of Ted Sannella.
In the 1970's Ted Sannella and others introduced movements such as heys and gypsies and the becket formation was introduced.
The following video shows a dance at Alcester Contra's. Kevin and Sandra can be seen in the distance.
Contra dances are a walked form of dance and normally consist four parts, the first two part use one music and the last two parts use a different phrase of music. The music is either a reel or a jig. Each part is usually 8 bars long. COntra dances are normally danced in a longways improper set or in becket formation and occasionally in a longways proper foration. In a good contra teh movements should flow smoothly in to the next movement with no one stationary for more than 16 bars. There should be at least one partner swing in the dance. Cary Ravitz is a very prolific writer of Contra dances and has a very specific set of rules of choreography that make for an enjoyable dance.
Contra dances are oneof my favourite forms of folk dancing and both Sandrs and myself go to the Alcester Contra Club, which meets once a month on a Friday evening. Further information can be found here.