Article Last Updated: 03/09/2006 12:11 AM MST

Contra dance gains popularity among Utah's young, old
By Barb Shelley
Close-Up Correspondent

Hundreds of Utahns are taking a break from their blogs and other high-tech entertainments, and choosing instead an evening of old-fashioned, toe-tapping contra dancing.

"It's the most fun drunk you can have without actually drinking anything," says Richard Ebling, a self-described "boom chuck" pianist, who founded the first, regular Salt Lake City group in the 1980s after moving to Utah from Indiana.

"It's disgustingly wholesome," he adds referring to the smoke-free, bar-scene-free environment.

What is contra dancing and why in the world is it called "contra?"

First, to make it clear, contra dancing has nothing to do with Oliver North or Nicaragua. The name contra may have evolved soon after the English claimed credit for inventing country dance in the 1700s. That upset the French, who, wanting the credit for themselves, changed the name to contredans, or opposites dance - referring perhaps to the two parallel lines of dancers standing opposite in the dance hall. Then the colonial Americans shortened it to contra dancing to describe their town hall dances.

To this day, contra dancing is all the rage on the East Coast.

As for the dances themselves...

Remember when your sixth-grade teacher forced you to square dance and, to your surprise, you discovered it was a whole lot of fun? Contra dancing is like square dancing, but more lively and varied. The music is nearly always provided by a live band, whose job is to keep the rhythm for the dancers.

Instruments can include the hammer dulcimer; the English-made concertina, which is an accordion with an attitude; piano; lots of fiddles, which usually lead the band; guitar; mandolin; banjos; flutes; whistles; and whatever musicians happen to bring.

The band plays jigs, reels and hornpipes from traditions traced to Ireland, French Canada and New England. Some bands play old-time Appalachian and Cajun styles, and swings, waltzes and polkas.

"The live music is what makes the dancing so much fun," says fiddle player Gillian Tufts. She says the musicians are so hyped up by the end of the evening that they can't possibly go home to sleep, so they often go out for drinks or dinner afterward to socialize.

A caller chooses and teaches each dance. Some of the dances are as many as 300 years old.

Step lively
For area contra dance schedules, go to

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This page last updated on October 20, 2006.