Contra dance is rather like English barn dancing -- but on speed. You'll recognise a lot of the terms, like stars, circles and ladies chains. But it's faster and more energetic, and there's more happening.
Historically contra started in England a good while ago, and went to America with the colonists. When it came back in the 1950's it was much more fun.
Every dance is explained first. While you dance the caller will keep calling until people have the idea and will then shut up and let you dance. So you don't have to learn dances and practice them with a partner -- you can just turn up, on your own or with someone else, and start dancing.
Normally people change partners after each dance, so you end up dancing with lots of different people. And we use live music, to keep the excitement up.
Dances start in two long lines, usually everyone facing their partner. Each couple interacts with another couple, forming tight patterns, often with all the dancers moving at the same time. Each time through the figures of the dance the couples change places, moving up or down the line to dance with a different couple. So you get to dance with lots of different people as well as your partner.
(You sometimes get to swing with a different person of the opposite sex every 30 seconds.)
Not really. In contra dancing you dance with a partner. Also you don't wear special clothes.
One theory is that after English country dancing became fashionable in the 17th century, the French took it up and converted the name 'country dance' to French contredans (which conveniently translates as 'opposites dance'). Later, the French term evolved in the young U.S.A. into "contra dance."
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