You can't do English Country Dancing for long without coming across a poussette — most likely a half poussette. The first kind, which I refer to as a “normal” poussette or a “push-pull” poussette, works like this. Assume the ones are above the twos, both proper. You give two hands to your partner (straight, not crossed) and in four steps the first man and second lady push, their partners pull, finishing with the two couples level with each other in a column of four. In the next four steps the other two people push, to finish progressed. That's a half poussette, and for a full poussette you continue in the same direction to go all the way roiund the other couple and back to place. Fried Herman objected strongly to the terms “push” and “pull”, so the politically correct term in The States is “the first man moving forwards and the first woman moving backwards”, but I use the shorter terms and take it for granted that it won't turn into an arm-wrestling match. In fact in order to maintain a good connection the action really is “the first lady pulls and the first man resists slightly”. Give some weight, and keep the arms reasonably straight without looking like a couple of Daleks. This also helps to avoid the “pseudo-poussette” where one person pushes and the other bends their arms without really moving much.
The second kind, which seems to be very fashionable these days, is a draw poussette. This time often the first man and the second lady go backwards, drawing their partners round, and they keep going in the same direction as if circling right half-way, until the ones are below the twos and both are improper. That's a half draw poussette; a full draw poussette is very rare. The Scottish poussette is a rotating move, like a “swing and change” in English traditional dances, and has been formalised by the RSCDS who specify bar-by-bar where the four people are.
When I started dancing I don't think the draw poussette was used. Cecil Sharp defined “Half poussette” and “Whole poussette” as the push-pull type. Interestingly, in his interpretation of “Crosby-Square” (CDB 6 p.109) he uses a draw poussette (wrongly, in my opinion given the original wording) but had to spell it out as it wasn't a figure he had defined:
First man joining both hands with his partner, falls back, pulling his partner after him, bears to his right and falls into second place (improper); while second woman, joining both hands with her partner, falls back, bears to her right and falls into first place (improper).
“Poussette” is the French word for “Pram” — meaning a “little push”, which is an appropriate word for carriage in which to push babies around. I don't know when this word was first applied to the English Country Dance move. Some people spell it with a single “s”, but the French originals use double “s” so that's what I prefer.
As the word “poussette” was not used in Playford's day, I've been wondering whether what is described in The Dancing Master is what we do today, and in particular whether the draw poussette actually existed. I went through my repertoire of dances from The Dancing Master containing a poussette and I've extracted the original wording for each:
Cuckolds all a Row (Hey, Boys, up go we)
Men put the Co. Wo. back by both hands, fall even on the Co. side.
Drive the Mounsieur from Flanders
The 1st Man draw his partner into the 2d Cu. Place, and the 2d Man put his Partner into the first Cu. place.
The Devil's Dream
The first man pull up the second man and the second wo. put back the first wo. then the first wo. fall back against the second man s back. Then the first man put back the second man on the Co. side, and the second wo. put back the first wo. on the Co. side, and fall back.
The 1. cu. take hands and draw into the 2. cu. place, the 2. cu. at the same time hands to the 1. cu. place
the 2 (?) men take hands with your own and put back
Then 1. Cu takes hands, and puts back into the 2. cu. place the 2. cu does the same at the same time
The first man and woman take hands, and the second man and second woman take hands and draw their Partners into each others place
Queen Bess's Dame of Honour
The first and 2d couple take Hands and draw (?) half round, then back again
The Twenty-Ninth of May
First Cu. take hands, the 2. Cu. doing the like at the same time, the first man puts back his wo. and slips down behind the 2. wo. into the 2. Cu. places, while the 2. man draws his wo. to him and slips into the first Cu. places. Do this back again the same way
The two first men take hands, the two first we. do the same, and put back till the men fall in the we. places
The first couple cast off and draw Hands below the third couple, then cast up again and draw Hands above the second couple
I'm pretty confident that “put back” means poussette, and you can see that this phrase appears in most of them. But what about those where it doesn't?
The Princess is normally done with a draw poussette, but it could be made a normal poussette by speeding up the four changes and making the final two-hand turn once around instead of half-way. Charles Bolton's interpretation of Queen Bess's Dame of Honour has a full draw poussette, but it could equally well be a full poussette. And we always dance Orleans Baffled with a normal poussette, but by analogy with The Princess maybe it should be a draw poussette.
I suggest that the draw poussette is a 20th century misinterpretation of instructions which actually mean an ordinary push-pull poussette. I asked the ECD List and the two people whose opinions I particularly value both agreed with me. There was also other discussion — some people didn't like the ordinary poussette and much preferred the draw poussette, which is certainly not my opinion.
See also the archive of Susan de Guardiola's earlier post on the ECD List.
And then some time after I'd written this page, Jacob Bloom emailed me from the States to say:
I just took a look in Thomas Wilson's “An Analysis of Country Dancing” (London, 1808), to see how he described poussettes. He refers to them as “Poussee or Pousset” in the table of contents and as just “Pousse” on the page where he describes them. His diagram was a surprise — it seems to me to show the two couples doing a draw poussette one and a half times around each other to change places.
1808 is not 1651, but this does seem to create a case for the draw poussette not being a 20th century invention.
But later still I heard from John Sweeney:
I too first looked at Wilson's diagram and thought “Draw Pousette”, but if it were then the couples would end improper and the text says they don't. So I believe that we were fooled by the circular path and the word “draw” in the heading. The path shows the position of travel, not the orientation. So it is a normal poussette, which he sometimes calls a “draw” (perfectly good word instead of pull).