The term 'country dance' is first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in the play Misogonus Act 2 scene iv, printed in 1577. This implies that the genre was well known at the time; if the play was written in 1560, then we can assume that the country dance was a well-established genre by the middle of the sixteenth century. The English measures also date from approximately the middle of the sixteenth century, recorded in manuscripts relating to elite social dancing.
The English measures are a group of couple dances developed from the pavan and almain of France; a number of manuscripts have survived recording them, showing that there was a group of the same dances repeated across time from c. 1560 — c. 1680. Several of the manuscripts were written by members of the Inns of Court (the centres for legal training and professional practice — as today), so they are also known as the Inns of Court measures. Measures were also danced in court balls, and in both locations they were danced at the beginning of a ball, thus forming communal 'warm-up' dances, before the main event of solo couple virtuosic dances such as the galliard.
The country dance and the measures originate in England, and, alongside the hornpipe, the jig and morris dancing are the vernacular dance genres of early modern Britain. Although the country dance is often called a 'folk' dance, it belonged to all levels of English society, not just people dwelling in the country or the lower orders, so the term 'vernacular' is a more inclusive label and identifies it more broadly with the particular country and nation. What did 'country' mean here? I suggest it meant 'national' dance, and referred to the whole country, not just the part outside towns. An equivalent would be 'court and country', for example, when the king was in contention with the nation leading to the Civil War in 1640. However, the 'country' dance was and is frequently assumed to belong to rural life rather than that of the court, city or town, an interpretation made throughout its history. It may have originated outside the court and city, but was central to fashionable dancing for most of its history. In the 21st century, the importance of the country dance as a significant cultural element in English history is undervalued, and I hope that this short article will make plain its unique, native features.
Our first notion of country dancing comes from The English Dancing Master published by John Playford in 1651. He presents us with a variety of dances, in circles, squares and columns; set dances for four, six, and eight couples; longways and round dances for 'as many as will'; dances with complex figures, simple and repetitive sequences and dance-games; some known from earlier citations as dances (The Shaking of the Sheets), some as melodies only; to a variety of tunes, mostly of English origin, but including tunes of Scottish, Irish and continental origin. They are all social dances, for men and women in pairs interacting with the other couples. The equivalent in France at the time, of a communal, sociable, vernacular dance form (rather than the European-wide court culture of solo couple dancing, such as the galliard), was the branle, executed in a simple line, each dancer or couple maintaining the same placement within the group, danced with a short repeated step sequence. In contrast, the country dance figures required a sophisticated spatial awareness and more complex interaction amongst the dancers, as they change places in the dancing group. The variety of forms of the mid-seventeenth century country dance were also more sophisticated than the variations of the branle.
Playford's successful publishing venture of a small, modestly-priced book of tunes with brief dance instructions beneath initiated three centuries, or more, of country dance publications in the same format. Through them, we get an idea of the development of the genre. However, the economical presentation gave the briefest information on the steps to be used. The publishers could rely on their clientele knowing the steps of the time, and also there was a certain freedom and individuality in the dancers' choice of steps.
Two good examples of this genre in an elite setting are La Chiaranzana (described by Fabritio Caroso, dancing master of Rome, in Il Ballarino published 1581) and La Catena d'Amore (described by Cesare Negri, dancing master of Milan, in Le Gratie d'Amore published 1602). A popular dance for weddings, as many couples as wish form a column. Then the leading couple move down the column and up again several times making circles, arches and turns with each couple they meet, progressing on to the next. After this, they turn the column into a single file, and lead the company into and out of a spiral or snail formation; they start a hay or chain from the top, all joining in as the leading couple reach them. Other figures include casting, threading the needle and, with hands held going under or over another pair ('duck and dive'). The lengthy dance finishes with a going-out figure, in which the ladies are returned to their seats. Throughout the entire dance, a step sequence is maintained fitting the phrases of the music.
In England and Ireland such dances were known as 'Long Dances'. Playford 1651 includes vestiges of such forms in Sedany or Dargason (hay figure), The Slip (going-out figure) and Half Hannikin (meeting every dancer). Note that Step Stately is called 'a long Dance' for up to nine couples. Both The Countrey Coll and The London Gentlewoman are further examples of the Long Dance, in which the changes are danced with every couple. The circle dances for as many as will were a version of this genre too, such as Pepper's Black. We still have a Long Dance in the Helston Furry Dance, taken through the streets in a column of couples, the simple figure performed in pairs of couples.
By the mid-seventeenth century, this fundamental genre had been elaborated into more complex figuring while dances for four, six and eight were added to the communal forms for as many as will. This process was unique to England, and parallels the development of the English measures from the international court forms of pavan, almain and courante. Evidence of the performance of the measures (dignified dances by couples in a column, not exchanging places) come from manuscript sources, with connections to the Inns of Court (Wilson 1987; Payne 2003). However, there are indications in other sources, such as contemporary plays, that these measures could include figures allowing couples to change places in the column; however, no choreographic information has survived. The English interest in figuring is therefore found for both the courtly measures and the general country dance (and arguably, for the morris dance of this era too). Details of the process of development are lost to history, but probably arose from a synthesis of invention by dancing masters, musicians and the people of every level of society. Exchange of ideas may have followed the royal and aristocratic seasonal journeys from London, the centre of power and international exchange, to the country house estates north, south, east and west, where aristocratic and gentry families lived in close communication with the lower orders.
Queen Elizabeth enjoyed seeing country dancing on her progresses; a telling account of her visit to Cowdray in August 1591 shows the social range of the vernacular dance: 'In the evening the countrie people presented themselves to hir Majestie in a plesaunt daunce, with taber and pipe, and the Lords Montague and his Lady among them, to the great pleasure of all the beholders, and gentle applause of hir Majestie' (Nichols 3, p.95). The dance is not specifically named as a country dance, so strictly speaking this anecdote only supports the mingling of nobles and the lower orders in a dance. It's also worth noting that Shakespeare never used the term 'country dance' in a play; the nymphs and reapers of The Tempest entered in 'country footing'. Nevertheless, the enjoyment of country dancing as a recreation by the Queen and her court is plain. Earl of Worcester to Sir Robert Sidney 1602: 'we are Frolyke heare in cowrte: mutch dauncing of contrey dawnces before the QM [Queen's Majesty] Whoe is exceedingly pleased therwith' (Nichols 3, p. 40).
No country dance choreographies prior to 1651 have survived. We select what we judge to be an older form or having a tune recorded as circulating in the latter half of the sixteenth century or an association with those times as representing the country dances of Elizabethan England. A few are recorded as dances (not just tunes): The Shaking of the Sheets for example.
Thomas Morley in A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597) states that country dance music is in the courante or compound duple measure. This is a dance metre associated with France (according to the Italian masters) and the courante step is described by Arbeau 1589, as well as Caroso and Santucci. Two thirds of the dances in Playford 1651 are in this metre; the majority of the remainder are in duple metre. Upon a Summer's Day is a good example of the lilting and attractive courante metre. Today, musicians have the habit of referring to the compound duple tunes as being in jig time: there are only a few true jigs in Playford 1651: Skellemafago, Millisons Jig (second strain) and Kemps Jig have the driving relentless quality of the excitable jig.
The Civil War brought an end to court dancing, but not to dancing in other social milieus, as it was a fundamental aspect of social intercourse. Contrary to many assertions, Puritans did not ban dancing, only expressing disapproval of 'promiscuous' dancing, in other words unregulated and sexually-charged activity. However, the times were disturbed, and the notion of the identity of the country, as opposed to the monarch, was in question. As Keith Whitlock proposed in 1999, it may be that John Playford had a loyalist agenda to the king and non-Republican government in publishing his particular choice of dances in 1651.
Playford also dedicated the publication to 'The Gentlemen of the Innes of Court, whose sweet and ayry Activity has crowned their Grand Solemnities with Admiration to all Spectators.' The country dance was associated with lively energetic dancing in many sources. Indeed, the one step named in The Maurice Dance of BL Add MS 41996 (for couples of men and women) is a caper — a high jump passing the feet several times while in the air. The gentlemen of the Inns came from an upper level of society, ranging from aristocratic families to small gentry, but were famed for their dancing ability, being well-placed to take lessons with London dancing masters.
Samuel Pepys went to Whitehall on New Year's Eve 1662, where he saw the King dancing:
After seating themselves, the King takes out the Duchess of York; and the Duke, the Duchess of Buckingham; the Duke of Monmouth, my Lady Castlemaine; and so other lords other ladies; and they danced the Bransle. After that, the King led a lady a single Coranto; and then the rest of the lords, one after another, other ladies; very noble it was, and great pleasure to see. Then to the country dances; the King leading the first, which he called for; which was, says he, 'Cuckolds all awry' the old dance of England'.
Thus the King and his brother adopted French practice in the branle and courante, alongside the English vernacular country dance: a canny mix of foreign fashion and national practice. Across the next three decades in England, a transition in social and theatre dance was made from the 'Renaissance' system of dancing (pavans, almains, galliards) to the 'Baroque' or 'French' system, known also as 'La Belle Dance' (bourées, minuets, rigaudons) with some dances keeping the same name but changing significantly in character, such as the courante. The country dance proved a flexible choreographic formula that could absorb a major change in stepping practice. Through the continuing editions of Playford's book, now called The Dancing Master, we can trace the shift from the Renaissance system to the Baroque in England. It is corroborated by the manuscript records of the measures (known as the Inns of Court measures), which indicate the longevity of the Renaissance system from mid-sixteenth century to post-Restoration.
See Appendix below for further information on this important change.
Country dances in distinct French dance metres appear alongside dances to English tunes: bourée, minuet, rigaudon, courante. Also, for the first time, dances in the British metres of hornpipe and slip-jig appear, so the new French steps allow for country dances set to British vernacular tunes. Additionally, we have evidence of jig steps from dancing masters, that suit country dance figures.
The stepping conventions began to shift too, but the development is more difficult to analyse than that of the 1680s. There is very little information on stepping in any dance manuals. The Chassé, now like a forward travelling skip-change, began to replace the pas de bourée/fleuret, and skipping was probably a common move. Hornpipe steps were used in the common-time hornpipe, and Irish steps were needed for 9/8 tunes (now often called 'Irish jigs').
The traditional repertoire also includes dances in square formation from the quadrilles and some couple round dances such as the schottische. This mix of out-of-date nineteenth century fashionable repertoire is also found in the Barn Dance scene and Ceilidh practice.
In Scotland, meanwhile, dancers were happy to enjoy ball programmes with a mix of fashionable and Scottish country dancing. Yet, to some it seemed that the 'traditional' dances of Scotland were under pressure.
The preservation of national folk dances, including the country dance, became the pursuit of individuals troubled by the degeneration of modern life, so that Cecil Sharp and others for England, Jean Milligan and others for Scotland and the Gaelic League for Ireland investigated, described and promoted their versions of 'folk' and country dancing. Their investigations and realisations triggered new waves of country dance practice and soon, for England and Scotland, the devising of new dances with inspiration from America and other countries. Meanwhile in Ireland, a fixed group of dances were established, labelled 'ceilidh dances', and linked closely to training young people in Irish step-dancing. Along the way, the publications of Playford were rediscovered and the rich repertoire of eighteenth century Scotland was explored. As understanding of historical practice was not available before c. 1950, these sources were not fully understood. Hence, 'Playford dancing' in the EFDSS tradition neglects the steps of the day for walking through the figures. Scottish country dancing in the RSCDS tradition uses nineteenth century steps for eighteenth century dances, and consequently ignores those in 3/2 hornpipe or 9/8 slip-jig metres.
After the Second World War, EFDSS promoted country dancing as easy and accessible, a community dance, with no need for mastering special steps. The notion that the English country dance was identified by its figuring alone, and lacked steps became a truism; sadly, on the back of this has come the notion that the casual and easy style of walking the dance reflects the English national character. A very false stereotype! Once upon a time, we were known as 'the dancing English'.
Rich with information, Lorin confirms that the English were the inventors of the country dance. He recounts seeing country dancing at court in the informal balls, at assemblies in town, at dancing schools, at masquerade balls, at balls and comedies, in pleasure gardens and in the country. He tells the king that people of quality devise country dances, as well as dancing masters, with well-founded figures. However, to French taste, the stepping is eccentric and diverse, as each dancer does his own thing, for example one doing a jump or caper while his partner does a simple step. So, Lorin has selected steps that are more suitable, and regulated according to French taste. Each country dance in notation is presented so clearly that they can be danced today, and they indicate the kind of stepping used in England, although ordered here by a dancing master. The steps are of the new vocabulary called today 'Baroque' or 'French' steps (modern edition Sutton & Tsachor 2008).
The French interest in English country dancing was further nurtured by Raoul-Auger Feuillet in Recueil de Contredances 1706 published in Paris, using an adaption of the Beauchamp/Feuillet notation to present 32 dances, some familiar from Playford's publications and some new. An introduction provides a clear overview of how a country dance works. He states that the steps which best suit country dances are the pas de gavotte, sideways chassés, pas de bourée and skips, and that each figure should be concluded by an assemblé on both feet; a minuet country dance should be done with minuet steps. Further publications followed.
While it is clear that the French took up country dancing after 1688, knowledge of the English genre can be traced back to the 1620s, when Buckingham and his circle used the country dance as the English national dance.
British colonial rule took the English and Scottish country dance to all parts of the Empire, where naturally further mutations of the genre developed.
The significant change in social dance stepping from the Renaissance style to the French or Baroque style can be traced through the country dances as published by Playford: one of the few documents for this period of change in Europe. It is corroborated by the sequence of Inns of Court manuscripts from c. 1560 — c. 1672 which record the Renaissance system.
I discussed this transition at the DHDS/EFDSS Conference 2001 John Playford and the English Dancing Master in a paper 'Taking the Measure of Dance Steps 1650 — 1700, through the publications of John Playford', pp. 13 — 20. The chart below is developed from that paper. The discussion followed investigation of the copies of Playford 1651 — 1701 held by the British Library in conjunction with Barlow (1985).
|SIGNS OF CHANGE 1650 — 1700|
|Evidence of 'Renaissance' system|
|1. Use of the term 'double'||Ceases from 1675|
|2. Inns of Court mss.||Last manuscript 1672|
|3. Triple honours formula [USA]||Old and new versions of this occur, but disappear after 1679|
|Evidence of transition|
|1. New honours formula||1665||1679|
|2. New dances in longways for as many as will formation only||1675||→||→||→||→|
|3. Many 1651 dances cut||1690-1698|
|Evidence of new style|
|1. Dances in French metre||1690-1701|
|2. Lorin visit & mss.||c. 1680|
|3. Dances taken to France*||1670 — 1690|
|4. Hornpipes and slip-jigs||1679||→||→||→||→|
|5. Apollo's Banquet **||1690|
|Conclusion: Change is underway by 1680 and complete by 1700|
*Dances described by Lorin c. 1688 & published by Feuillet 1706: their currency in Playford
** 'Tunes of French dances:performed at Court, and in Dancing-Schools'
|Arbeau, T. (1596)||Orchesographie. Lengres: de Preyz. Facsimile reprint: Geneva, Minkoff 1972.|
|Barlow, J. (1985)||The Complete Country Dance Tunes from Playford's Dancing Master (1651 — ca. 1728). London: Faber|
|Caroso, F. (1581)||Il Ballarino. Venice: Ziletti. Facsimile reprint: New York, Broude Bros. 1967|
|Buckland, T. J. (2011)||Society Dancing: Fashionable Bodies in England, 1870 — 1920. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan|
|Daye, A. (2001)||Taking the Measure of Dance Steps 1650 — 1700, through the publications of John Playford in John Playford and The English Dancing Master, DHDS conference proceedings, pp. 13 — 20.|
|Emerson, G.S (1972)||A Social History of Scottish Dance. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press|
|Feuillet, R-A. (1706)||Receuil des Contredances. Paris: Feuillet. Facsimile reprint:New York, Broude Bros. 1968|
|Mellor, H. & Bridgewater, L. (1933)||John Playford's The English Dancing Master. New York: Dance Horizons|
|Minuet to Mazurka 1745 — 1845.||DHDS Summer School book 2001.|
|Morley, T. A. (1966)||A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke. London: Short 1597. Edited by Harman, r. London: Dent 1966|
|Negri, C. (1602)||Le Gratie d'Amore. Milan: Pontio & Piccaglia. Facsimile reprint: Bologna, Forni 1969|
|Nichols, J. (1823)||The Progresses and Processions of Queen Elizabeth. London 3 vols.|
|Papworth, C. (1984)||Polka Round: The Cambridgeshire Feast Dances and The Comberton Broom Dance. Cambridge: Papworth, Crouch & Palmer|
|Peacock, F. (1806)||Sketches Relative to the History and Theory, but more especially to the Practice of Dancing. Aberdeen|
|Playford, J. (1651)||The English Dancing Master. London: Playford. Facsimile reprint: Dean-Smith (ed.), London, Schott, 1957|
|Rameau, P. (1725)||Le Maître à Danser. Paris: Villette. Facsimile reprint: New York, Gregg 1970|
|Santucci, E. (1614)||Mastro da Ballo. Facsimile and edition: Sparti, B. (2004) Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag|
|Sutton, J. & Tsachor, R. P. (2008)||Dances for the Sun King: André Lorin's 'Livre de Contredance'. Annapolis MD: The Colonial Music Institute|
|Tomlinson, K. (1735)||The Art of Dancing and Six Dances. London: Tomlinson. Facsimile reprint: New York, Gregg 1970|
|Walker, C. (2001)||'The Triumph' in England, Scotland and the United States in Heaney, M. (ed.) Folk Music Journal, Vol. 8, 1|
|Whitlock, K. (1999)||John Playford's The English Dancing Master 1650/1 as Cultural Politics in Heaney, M. (ed.) Folk Music Journal, vol. 7, 5|
|Wilson, D. R. (1987)||Dancing in the Inns of Court. Historical Dance, 1987, 2 (5), 3 — 16|
© 2017 Anne Daye, Director of Education and Research for The Historical Dance Society www.historicaldance.org.uk.