BackTraditional English Dance



“Traditional” is one of those words that mean different things to different people.  Let's look through the history of English Country Dancing and see what it really means and how it fits in.

If you want to look at the earlier history, see Mary Railing's Origins of English Country Dance.  I'm going to start with Playford, which many people these days refer to as a style of dance, which it isn't.  I remember Ken Alexander calling one of my dances at Sidmouth and saying “Now that's real Playford”, at which I thought “Thank you Ken but no it isn't — it's real Colin Hume”.

Some of the following information can also be found in Anne Daye's A History of Country Dancing and my own Regency Dance page, but I'm skimming over these to get to the Traditional bit.

John Playford was a music publisher, and in 1651 he published “The English Dancing Master” — the first book of English country dances, with a tune for each.  In 1699 — nearly 50 years later — his son Henry Playford published the 8th Edition and carried on for only four years until the 12th Edition of 1703.  That's “real” Playford — a span of 52 years — but even here there are two distinct styles.  John Playford published mainly set dances for a fixed number of couples, but by Henry's time these had been superseded by “longways for as many as will” and Henry started replacing the old by the new — a process that continued when John Young took over the publication.

By around 1750 the dances had become very simple and repetitive (though of course there was stepping to make them more challenging), and the better dancers got fed up with them.  And perhaps they wanted a dance where they could stay with their group of friends rather than go all the way up and down a long line of couples whom they didn't know (and might not want to know).  Attention switched to the cotillion (various spellings) which had been brought over around 1760 by the French dancing masters (though I like to think they originally got the square formation from England with dances such as “Newcastle”, “Hunsdon House” and many others published by John Playford).  And around 1815 that was gradually superseded by the quadrille, again in a square set of four couples.  At about the same time the (scandalous) couple waltz was introduced, and from around 1840 more couple or round dances such as the polka, schottische and mazurka took over.  And finally around 1900 Ragtime and dances from America put pressure on the country dance, which dropped to the end of the evening in fashionable balls In England.  I suppose this has reached its culmination in line dancing and disco dancing, where you're not dancing with anyone in particular!

But if the history of wars is written by the victors, the history of dancing tends to be written by the upper classes.  Who cared what the working class were doing (except the working class, some of whom were upwardly mobile)?

Of course the servants saw what their masters were up to — they might even have been drafted in to make up numbers when the dancing master came round to the great house to teach the dances to the ladies and gentlemen there — but they were more conservative and were quite happy to continue doing the longways dances which fashionable society now looked down upon, just as they might wear clothes passed down to them by the gentry.  What they lacked in sophistication and style they made up for in vigour and enthusiasm.  Again when the quadrilles fell out of favour with their lords and masters, the lower orders continued to dance them in their own way.  And that's the basis of English Traditional Dance.

At the turn of the 20th century, Cecil Sharp discovered people in villages doing these dances and was fascinated.  He travelled around writing down the figures, steps and music, started teaching these to people in cities, and soon had an enthusiastic following.  His Country Dance Book Part 1 contains instructions for the steps and figures of 20 dances.  Most of these are very simple, and today's dancers may well look down on them.  What they don't realise is that many of the dances published by John and Henry Playford were also very simple, and later collections even more so.  Researchers tend to pick out the more interesting dances and this gives quite a false impression of what was actually danced in those days.

The other standard collection of traditional dances (and others) is the Community Dance Manuals.  These were originally seven booklets published by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) between 1947 and 1967, and they are now available as a single book, though you will search the EFDSS website in vain for it — the shop has now been outsourced to uk.patronbase.com/_EFDSS/Store and I eventually found the book here.  They're not all English traditional.  Some such as “Devil's Dream” and “All the way to Galway” are American contras.  “Belfast Duck” was written by Douglas Kennedy (then Director of EFDSS) in traditional style.  “Danish Double Quadrille” is (naturally) Danish.  “Foula Reel” is from the Shetlands.  “Margaret's Waltz”, “Streets of Laredo” and “Walpole Cottage” are by Pat Shaw.  “Bridge of Athlone” and “Waves of Tory” are Irish.  This is not a criticism — they're all good dances (except “Streets of Laredo”) that I've called many times — just a clarification.

Anne Daye kindly read through these notes, made a few corrections, and provided this definition:

Sharp and other collectors caught versions of longways, 3 couple dances and square dances at the point where they were no longer fashionable and in local versions for which the original published dances had been lost.  These collectors in the early twentieth century were pleased to find 'English' dance differing from the fashionable ragtime and commercial ballroom dances and labelled them 'traditional'.  So traditional can mean a local version of a once-fashionable dance, but also with the implication that they had been invented by the people.

CDMs were put together to encourage dancing by everyone, using the term 'community', the equivalent in that day of 'folk' or 'traditional'.

If you're a caller and you want to teach these dances you need to be able to demonstrate and explain various steps: Skip-change, Rant, Polka, Pas de bas, Step-hop and Waltz.  Follow the links to see how I would teach these and what dances I would use for the purpose.  I'm not saying that mine is the only approach or that my choice of dances is definitive but it works for me!

I wouldn't want to call or dance a whole evening of English traditional dances, but I think it's a great pity that they are falling out of favour, particularly with the ageing dance population of most clubs, and that people can “dance” for years without ever meeting them.  Of course there are also modern dances written in traditional style, just as there are modern dances written in Playford style; they tend to be referred to as “ceilidh dances” these days.  You can find a good selection of traditional and traditional-style dances at barndances.org.uk