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.) No step descriptions are given, but it is thought a variety of steps were used as well as singles and doubles. The patterns, not the steps, were of most importance. Dancers at the time of Playford’s first edition would have used a left foot start for their steps, but by the tme of the second editon fashions had changed and steps began using the right foot first.

Norwich Historical Dance

Norwich Historical Dance

Playford’s dances are extremely varied. However three formations occur frequently: (1) dances in the “round” for an indefinite number of couples, (2) the “longways” set, an indefinite number of couples “as many as will”, men on one side with women on their right hand, and (3) geometric formations (e.g., squares, triangles) or sets, usually for two, three, or four couples. The dances often follow the pattern of “up a double and back”, then “siding”, and finally “arming” with various patterns in between. Dances are usually progressive so that a new leading couple moves up to the head of the set with each repetition of the pattern of figures. In all of these forms, the social courtesies of honouring partners and the set are traditional.

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.

Irish Dance developed out of English country dance and quadrilles throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. As in England, travelling dancing masters moved across Ireland and separate dance forms developed according to regional practice, fashion and differing purposes. Irish dance became a significant part of the Irish nationalist movement. From the early 20th century, a number of organisations promoted and codified the various forms of dance, creating competitive structures and standardised styles.

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 at that time some form of country folk dance, but urban and courtly, an important pastime for the more educated and wealthy classes of the Renaissance. They came to be seen as specifically English. They form a huge part of Britain’s intangible heritage, unfortunately not nearly so much valued as we treasure bricks and mortar.

The seventeenth century saw the 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. 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.

A Diaspora of English Country Dance

Very early the characteristic dances we call English Country Dance began to move beyond the borders of Britain. About 1700 they began to appear on the Continent, where they were somewhat formalised and baroque steps were introduced. The French called these popular set dances contredanses. The longways dances were termed contredanses anglaises; the rounds became contredanses françaises, also known as cotillions and quadrilles. These figure dances, which quickly spread to Spain, Germany, Poland, and other countries, were the dances of the rising middle classes and, in their new and elegant forms, they became freshly popular in Britain.

With the colonists, they spread to North America where American Square and Contra developed, now popular with folk dancers in the UK. Some examples can be seen here on You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Upg9FTxJmw. With the British Empire, the many forms of English country dances spread across the globe.

In the Caribbean. for example, European traditions of dance were assimilated from the various colonial powers, re-created and passed on. Caribbean Quadrilles are dances of the French and English ballroom imitated locally, adapted and transcended in a myriad of ways. Some of these, alongside a costumed version of the 17th century dance Picking of Sticks, can be viewed on YouTube along with an interview about their history with Beverley Bogle at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v90TVS97sVs.

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).

K. Tomlinson,  The Art of Dancing Explained by Reading and Figures: Whereby the Manner of Performing the Steps Is Made Easy by a New and Familiar Method (Forgotten Books, 2017)

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)