Atlanta Contra Through the Decades

Atlanta is such a melting pot of diversity and culture because communities stick together throughout the years.

Atlanta’s contra dance traces its origins to 1975. This was a time when the back-to-the-earth and home-crafts movements were in full swing. They were influenced by cultural phenomena such as Woodstock, the Whole Earth Catalog, and Mother Earth News, as well as the popularity of folk music icons like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and the Grateful Dead that were all bringing people together. Contra dance for Atlanta was a way to unite traditional southern fiddle tunes and barn dances with the broader free spirit, hippie culture. It really bonded people in a way that is evident now in how many of those same dancers are still dancing in Atlanta today, 50 years later.

The trend at the time was to name dance groups after the natural geography , so the Atlanta group chose the name Chattahoochee Country Dancers to honor the local  Chattahoochee River that is a connector in the region. The name has an earthiness that aligns with what contra is all about. In 2024 the name was officially changed to Atlanta Contra Dance, details below.


The dance started at the Garden Hills Recreation Center with a small group of people and then  surged in size when it moved from to the Existentialist Church in Chandler Park, not far from lively Little Five Points. At that time, the neighborhood was relatively inexpensive, youthful and free-spirited. It was very common for people walking by to hear the stomping and music coming from the church, be curious, wander in, and find themselves welcomed and dancing the night away with new friends.  Soon the group quadrupled to 80 dancers.

The group was made up of people in their 20s and 30s. They became good friends and started supporting each other through life. There were several weddings each year, and for each wedding, people would gather to make a quilt for the couple. Each quilt panel represented a person, story or event, and quilters’ names were sewn into the fabric. The group has made dozens of quilts over the years. Here’s a picture of early group members, Scott Russell and Susan Davis, with the quilt the dance group made for their wedding. Ginger Lyon, one of the quilters and a founding group member, is second from the right.

Needless to say, many lifelong friendships came out of the weekly gathering of dancers, callers, volunteers and musicians. Contra is more than just dancing together on a Friday night. It’s hard to meet people sometimes, so dancing provides this graceful path to social interaction and conversation that makes connection with other people easier. There is a lot of research that shows people with genuine relationships and connections in their lives live longer. Also, people who exercise have healthier lives, but it’s hard for some of us to get to the gym or go for a run. A night of contra will sometimes burn way more calories than you’d burn in a gym on your own.  Contra facilitates the 2 hardest things to do that are the best for us, exercise and making friends!


In the beginning, the dance included a wide variety of traditional dance forms, including squares, English Country dances, the Virginia Reel, and Appalachian circle dances. As more folks came for the dynamic music and social scene (and less to learn specific folk dances), the callers switched to more lively, all-move contras and squares, which could be taught quickly and enjoyed by all.

The group held other events, such as picnics and parties, advertised dances in Creative Loafing, and even issued a paper “Rant and Reel” newsletter, complete with funny quizzes, to share contra news.

Outreach to the community, including holding dances for school kids and other community groups, has always been a part of our culture. And when you see petronellas, wrist-stars and contra-style swings in the Hunger Games 2 movie – that’s thanks to coaching from our community (specifically, Seth Tepfer and Kimbi Hagen).In 1977, the group hosted its first dance weekend, known for its Saturday night costumed dance and imaginative themes, including the Dr. Suess-themed “Green Legs and Ham,” the space travel-themed “Starship CCD,” and the beach-themed “ContraSurf.”Participants from at least 23 states and four countries have attended these events.

Venues for the weekly Friday dances changed over the years, with the group moving from the Garden Hills Recreation Center, to the Existentialist Church, to the Shakespeare Tavern’s rehearsal space, to Horizon School, to Morningside Baptist, to Clarkston Community Center, and ultimately to our current home, Decatur Recreation Center. We invested in these rented spaces in various ways…by installing a floor, adding storage space, upgrading lighting, air conditioning and acoustics, and more. For example, 60 volunteers worked to install a wood dance floor at the Horizon School, completing the project in just one day. We’ve left each space better than we found it.


In 2017, we changed the group’s name from Chattahoochee Country Dancers to Chattahoochee Contra Dancers, to better reflect the “urban contra” style that we so enjoy. Then, in 2024, we made another change, renaming the group Atlanta Contra Dance for better clarity on our location and to reflect the many non-dancing people who are so important to our community, including sound techs, callers, musicians, and volunteers of many stripes. It takes a village, and Atlanta has a long-standing network of people working with each other to put on good dancing and build a solid and supportive community. The logo resembles a quilt which is a big part of the heritage of contra and a big folk tradition. Each dance weekend we pull out all the storage boxes and display over 50 quilts that surround dancers and decorate the dance hall. They also remind us that contra is more than just dancing. It’s a way of life. It’s a way that we can sustain movement and connection with each other over time.

A recent example of Atlanta’s community showing up is in 2023 when our rent contract terms changed dramatically, and members from the community met at City Hall to advocate for the benefits of contra dance and its impact on the neighboring communities.

Now, an amazing group of people are working to keep the community going to pursue our mission of uplifting people through movement, connection, and music.

See you soon on the dance floor!