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An Introduction to Country Dancing
Country Dancing Terms Explained
A Brief History of Country Dancing

A Brief History of Country Dancing


Dancing has always featured in tribal custom and primitive religion throughout the world and the folk dances of today are derived from these ancient rituals Everybody of all social classes joined in them at least until the beginning of the 14th century The people sang as they danced but accompanting dancing with musical instuments allowed further development.

Three forms of dance was common all over Europe including England.

The ROUND was a dance performed in a circle, often round an object such as a green bush, a maypole or a Jack in the Green which was a man dressed up as a bush. The only possible variations were altering the steps, moving left or right or in and out. 
early 18th century couple dancing a jig
early 18th century couple dancing a jig
The FARANDOLE was a chain of linked dancers led by someone choosing their own steps or meandering course. It could be interrupted by figures such as leading the line therough an arch made by the first couple or leading through a series of arches made by the line of dancers raising their arms and each arch collapsing in turn and rejoining the line until it was straight again. This was a simple form of a hey.

The true HEY occurred when two farandoles met, relaxed hands and threaded through each other finally to continue their separate ways

Gradually, these old dances became organised into alterrnate men and women and ravelling dancing teachers moving through Europe led to an exchange of ideas.

Rounds were made progressive so that the first couple moved on, gradually working their way round the ring..This progressive Round may then have opened out and devloped into a longways dance. Variations such as 6 or 8 couple longways were know in Italy before they came to England. The 'longways for as many as will' came to be associated with English dancing.

So the influences of the travelling dancing masters meant that the older communal dances were adopted and adated for the upper social classes early on and, mainly through the Italian influence became more forma, complex and difficult. Meanwhile, the common folk continued with their old-fashioned Rounds, Farandoles and Heys as well as possibly dancing some of the latest court dances.
Country Dancing drawing from an 18th century broadsheet
from an 18th century broadsheet
Towards the end of Queen Elizabeth the First's reign, there was a reaction to the formal dances favoured by the Italian dancing masters and there occurred a growing interest in the dances the ordinary folk were doing. The Queen had seen locals dancing at Warwick and elsewhere in 1572 and she expressed approval so that court dancers began to adopt country dances.
Often these were performed by the accomplished while everybody else watched, but as they became livelier and many of them were accompanied by tues that came fro Ireland, people wanted to join in.
So after about 1625, country dances became popular in court circles, particularly in large country houses and many of the dances were named after famous country houses and palaces, such as Hunsdon and Nonesuch.
The first ever published collection of English country dances was wth 'English Dancing Master' published in 1651 by the successful London music publisher John Playford The 105 dances were at least 100 years old at the time. Playford's son carried on the work and the 18th century (the heyday of the Engish country dance) saw many more dances published by , among others, Walsh, Thompson and Wright.
English country dancing beacme very fashionabl;e in Europe but by the 1800s it had almost disappeared from the ballroom, gradually giving way to fashionable dances from Europe such as waltzes,quadrilles and polkas. The polka meant that end of the 19th century, all emphasis was on couple dances.
Longways dance illustration from Playford's English Dancing Master
from Playford's English Dancing Master - a longways dance
Musicians in the gallery and polite society looking on
Whilst country dancing may have died out in the English ballrooms. it carried on in Scotland where they preferred the dances country foolk were still doing in both England and Scotland. As a result, country dances have often come to be regarded as Scottish even though not specifically Scottish in form or origin.
an 18th century romantic view of country dancing
an 18th century romantic view of country dancing
Dancers at Armscote, Warks in 1912
Dancers at Armscote, Warks in 1912
We don't know much about what was happening further down the social scale in the 19th century English village. However the Dorsetshire novelist Thomas Hardy (himself a 3rd generation fiddle player) noted there was a difference between the dances of the farm labourers (mainly reels and step dances) and the dancing of the better off, the Squire and his family and friends. The only time the whole community danced together would be at the festivals, such as Harvest.

It is from the village dancing that we get much of our current repertoire of country dances, made up, as it was, of old reels and circle dances and some 18th century country or longways dances and some new forms of set dances such as Sicilian Circle. 

There were travelling dancing masters in the 19th century who would travel from place to place and settle in a village for 2 por 3 months and teach for a few evenings a week in a barn or local hall. As most confined themselves to a particular circuit,so when Scottish and northern Engish people talk of dances from a particular region they are really referring to the specialities of past dancing masters as well as a number of dances presereved from times past.
Dancing floourished in the villages for a long time and were often known as Bran Dances. As well as the traditional country dances such as Circassian Circle, Morpeth Rant, drops of Brany and the like there would also be a mixture of old time dances like the Veleta, Boston Two Step and perhaps Quicksteps.

 Early European settlers in America took their dances with tem. The oldest is the southern  square dance of the Appalachian Mountains. English people are more familiar with western square dances where a caller guides the dancers through the figures by prommpting them. They are based on the European quadrille, a square formation which originated in 19th centurty France. Further north, in New England, most setllers were British and they took the style of dancing that waqs fashinable t the time, so we have the New England contra or longways dance
A modern barn dance in Oxfordshire
A modern barn dance in Oxfordshire
Cecil Sharp 1859 - 1924
Cecil Sharp 1859 - 1924

Mary Neal 1860 - 1944
Mary Neal 1860 - 1944

The revival of English country dancingin Britain has been the main work of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) formed in 1932 from a merger of the Folk Song Society (1898) and the English Folk Dance Society (1911)

At the centre of this movement was a London music teacher called Cecil Sharp. He toured the country collecting folk songs from traditional singers and was joined by compposers such as Vaughan-Williams, Grainger and Butterworth. In 1905, Sharp wrote an article in The Morning Post which was read by Mary Neal, a lady who had founded the Esperance Girls' Club in St Pancras, London in 1895 to cater for working class boys and girls. She found the children were very enthusiastic about them so she asked about dances to go with the songs. It was thought that social country dancing had died out but Sharp and others did find some dances in Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Surrey and Devon. These simple English country dances as pereformed in the villages were put into the Country Dance Book 1 published in 1909.

There was a disagreement between Sharp, who favoured a more academic approach, and Neal who believed dance should be a loving, evolving thing Sharp spent many months in the British Museum researching Playford's volumes of English country dances and published 158 of these. Cecil Sharp died in 1924 and the revival siffered, but there was some interest shown in the 20s and 30s and the girls of the Esperance Club were in great demand as teachers of country dancing.
EFDSS HQ - Cecil Sharp House, London
EFDSS HQ - Cecil Sharp House, London
The Second World War pushed EFDSS towards traditional social dance especially with Saturday Square Dances at the headquarters, Cecil Sharp House in London. These were established to cater for serfvicemen on leave or passing through.  

After the War, a new director, Douglas Kennedy led the EFDSS to abandon Playford in favour of traditional dances phasing out the classes and exams of the academic approach and introducing popular social functions using the American style of prompt calling.

Today, new dances are being composed, many if the Playford style and these are performed at Folk Dance clubs. The informality of folk dancing still appeals and the English country dance is a form of folk dancing in which any newcomer can quickly and readily take part without having to learn complicated step and figures. It is an occasiion that appeals to families or individuals of all ages and backgrounds who can enjoy dancing for its own sake, using traditional material.
Display dancing in the 1980s
Display dancing in the 1980s
Dancing display at Waddesden in the 1980s
Dancing display at Waddesden in the 1980s
Youngsters from the National Youth Folklore Troupe of England 
Youngsters from the National Youth Folklore Troupe of England (NYFTE)
carrying on the tradition at Chippenham in 1991

Discovering English Folk Dance                    Hugh Rippon                         Shire Publications, 1993
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