A potted history of English Country Dancing

Dancing was a popular pastime in the Medieval period amongst the privileged classes.  They had time on their hands and sufficient wealth to pay musicians, and looked for entertainment, especially in the cold winter months.  Queen Elizabeth is said to have “danced a Galliard every day”, the dances of her day were Galliards, Pavanes and Brawls (French for Circles).  Dances performed at Court were almost always written with the “Presence” in mind.  The Presence in some cases would have been the King or Queen but more usually barons and earls, bishops, the lord of the manor, or in any event the highest dignitary they wished to impress.  Often the Presence did not dance but was a mere spectator, so the dances had to be entertaining from his (or her) perspective.

Dancing was not a purely English activity.  Many dances were being written for the French and other courts, and the  English courts were always keen to learn new dances that were being introduced from the continent.

John Playford

John Playford was 17c London based publisher who in 1651 published a book called “The English Dancing Master” which had a collection of dances and their associated tunes.  This popular publication was reprinted many times by John and his son up until 1720, during which new dances were added, some were deleted and then some of those made a re-appearance years later. So now there is a comprehensive collection of dances that are usually referred to as Playford dances.  It is believed that John Playford’s sources were mainly from similar publications being produced in France.

In 1660 was the restoration of the Monarchy with Charles II (the Merry Monarch) coming to the Throne. It is thought that there was an air of optimism about the country and this could account for the Playford dances becoming very popular.  They no doubt inspired Morris Dances because some of the movements are very similar, but the dances also percolated down through the social strata and travelled the country.  As they were passed on orally many regional variances evolved, and inventive people would have been inspired to create dances of their own.

Cecil Sharp

Cecil Sharp lived from 1859 to 1924.  A music teacher and composer, he became fascinated (if not obsessed) with folk music and travelled extensively collecting songs, tunes and dances. Like Playford he published his own collections, and where he found Playford and other sources lacking in detail, he made educated guesses as to some of the finer detail which nowadays some dancers observe religiously whilst others are more sceptical.

The American Influence

Emigrants to America took dances with them, presumably mostly in their heads rather than written down, so needless to say more variations evolved as a result.  They did not have the knowledge or skills to re-produce the same tunes so danced to tunes popular or written over there.  These made use of the popular American instruments of the time including the Banjo.  Square dances became particularly popular with the singing calls that we are now familiar with, and the term Barn Dance is said to come from America as the farming community would get together to help each other build barns and would then hold a dance inside it to celebrate its completion.

Nowadays English Country Dances or Folk Dances can draw on dances from any of these sources and also from contemporary dances being written by callers all the time.  Some of these are so popular they are now solidly embedded in our folk tradition.