English Country Dance

The first printed source for the Country Dance in Britain is the publication by John Playford in 1651 of The English Dancing Master, a collection of 104 dances, each presented with its own music. This volume of tunes and dance instructions was the first of eighteen editions that appeared over the next seventy-seven years. Many of the dances in that first edition probably derive from earlier times, but, despite literary references to the titles of certain of the dances, there are no specific choreographies prior to this publication. (The second and subsequent editions dropped the word English from the title, becoming simply The Dancing Master.)

Norwich Historical Dance

Norwich Historical Dance

Today, English Country Dance continues to thrive under the aegis of the English  Folk Dance and Song Society, thanks to Cecil Sharp, and occupies an important  part of the international dance world. Its earlier forms are now increasingly being  reconstructed from an historical point of view. (See the bibliography below.)

Scottish Country Dance grew from the tradition of Playford, later influenced by  French contredanse. In more recent times, it owes its revival to Dr Jean Milligan and Mrs Ysobel Stewart, joint founder members of what became the Royal Scottish  Country Dance Society.

 Historical development

The country dance has been popularly regarded by some as Queen Elizabeth I’s legacy to the dance world. A keen dancer herself, she encouraged these dances at her court. However, they were not some form of folk dance, but an important pastime for the more educated and wealthy classes of the Renaissance. They came to be seen as specifically English.

The seventeenth century saw the greatest flowering of the country dance which, contrary to common belief, was not suppressed by Cromwell’s puritan regime. Indeed, dancing continued to be enjoyed in the privacy of the long galleries of country houses, spaces that were ideally suited to the evolving longways formation of the country dance, ‘for as many as will’. The first edition of The English Dancing Master was published a mere two years after Charles I’s execution in 1649.

First Edition, Playford

First Edition, Playford

On 31 December 1662, Samuel Pepys recorded a diary entry describing a visit to Whitehall, where he saw a formal ball in progress: ‘Then to Country dances; the King leading the first which he called for; which was – says he, Cuckolds all a-row the old dance of England.’

‘Cuckolds all a row’ in the first edition of The English Dancing Master (1651)

Many eighteenth-century dancing masters and music publishers followed Playford’s lead, composing new dances and publishing in increasing profusion, with names like Bray, Kynaston, Walsh, Rutherford and Thompson dominating the scene.
Kellom Tomlinson in The Art of Dancing (1735) said of country dance that it is ‘become as it were the Darling or favourite Diversion of all Ranks of People from the Court to the Cottage in their different Manners of Dancing.’
Throughout the eighteenth century in England, the formal minuet always opened the proceedings at Assemblies, after which country dances were enjoyed. Comparing country dance to the intricacies of ballet steps, a writer, identified only as ‘A Lady of Quality’, in A Mirror of the Graces (1811) made the following observation, ‘Their character is that of gay simplicity. The steps should be few and easy, and the corresponding motions of the arms and body unaffected, modest and graceful.’ In other words, such dancing should be relaxed and enjoyable. Of course, many of the dance patterns are nevertheless satisfyingly complex.

Thomas Wilson was the last (and most prolific) of the publishers of country dances. His final publication appeared in 1821, when country dancing was being gradually superseded by the increasingly popular quadrilles and couple dances.

Primary Sources

T. Bray, Country Dances (London, 1699).

N. Dukes, A Concise & Easy Method of Learning the figuring parts of country dances (London, 1752).

R. A. Feuillet, Recüeil de contredanses (Paris, 1706).

N. Kynaston, Twenty-eight new country dances for the year 1710 (London, 1709).

J. Playford, The English Dancing Master ( London, 1651); various editions up to c.1728; facsimile of 1st ed.(London, 1957); reprints ed. H. Mellor & L. Bridgewater, with tunes in modern notation (London, 1933, & New York, 1975); D. Wilson ed., Historical Playford, Cambridge, 2001).

J. Walsh & P. Randall, The Compleat Country Dancing Master (London, 1718).

The collections of Playford, Bray, Kynaston, Walsh, Thompson, Rutherford and Wilson are mostly rare books not generally available outside specialist libraries. The principal library for studying English Country Dance is the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House, 2 Regent’s Park Road, London, NW1 7AY.

Performing versions of a number of dances are given in the following:–

N. Broadbridge & M. Fennessy, Purcell’s Dancing Master (Lanark, 1997) [with CD].

N. Broadbridge, A Neal Ball: 20 Dances from J  & W Neal’s Choice Collection 1726 (Lanark, 2012) [with CD].

D. Cruickshank, The Lovers Luck: twenty country dances … by Thomas Bray 1699 (Salisbury, 2001) [with CDs].

P. Dixon, Dances from the Courts of Europe, vols. IV, V, VII-IX (Nonsuch Productions) [with cassettes].

C. Helwig & M. Barron, Thomas Bray’s Country Dances (New Haven, 1988) [with cassette].

K. Van Winkle Keller & G. Shimer, The Playford Ball (London, 1990).

A. Shaw, Mr Kynaston’s Famous Dance (Altrincham, 2000) [with CD/cassette].

P. Shaw, Holland as seen in the English Country Dance (Netherlands, 1960).

See  Learning the Dances for details of instruction-books and recorded music produced by the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society (now HDS Historical Dance Society), by Nonsuch Productions and others.  These give interpretations of how to dance many of these dances,  along with their music.

General Books on Historical or Early Dance

M. Dolmetsch, Dances of England and France from 1450 to 1600 (London, 1949; reprinted, New York, 1976)
M. Dolmetsch, Dances of Spain and Italy from 1400 to 1600 (London, 1954; reprinted, New York, 1975)
B. Quirey, May I have the Pleasure? The story of popular dancing (London, 1976; reprinted, 1987)
B. Quirey & M. Holmes, Apology for History (London, 1993)
C. Sachs, World History of the Dance (English version, New York, 1937; reprinted, 1963)
J. Wildeblood, The Polite World (London, 1965; revised ed., 1973)
M. Wood, Historical Dances (Twelfth to Nineteenth Century) (London, 1952; reprinted, 1982)
M. Wood, More Historical Dances (London, 1956)
M. Wood, Advanced Historical Dances (London, 1960)