BackHow to enjoy Playford

Chippenham Folk Festival, 2001.   The programme said:

There was a time when Colin Hume was not thought a serious enough caller to do the Playford Ball at Chippenham.  Last year there were fears that he was too serious a caller to do the final dance!  Colin still refuses to be categorised, and will be doing a Children's Dance at Sidmouth; for this year's Chippenham Festival he will be calling Scottish, Playford-style, American Squares and Contras, English Traditional and his own “Dances with a Difference”.  If you've been put off Scottish dancing because people are expected to go to classes and turn their toes out, why not try his “English meets Scottish” workshop where he will be showing the similarities and differences, and calling good dances in both categories.  If you've been put off Playford by the “this is serious stuff” or “doing the Playford Plod” factions, Colin will help you to overcome the opposition in his “How to enjoy Playford” workshop.  If you've been put off Colin's own dances, don't come to his final session — we've chosen a very small hall so that he won't be embarrassed by the lack of dancers!

I think dancing — of any kind — is there to be enjoyed.  Why else would anyone do it — unless they're being paid to, which doesn't seem likely in this case.  And yet a lot of people who dance Playford don't appear to be enjoying it, and some people don't dance Playford because they don't think they will enjoy it.  I called a Playford Evening at Eastbourne Festival in 2000, and someone from a display team who were there doing a spot said it was a great ceilidh and asked me whether this was real Playford or had I spruced it up.  I said some of the interpretations were mine, but it was all genuine Playford.  And yet the atmosphere was quite different from what he had expected — people were obviously enjoying themselves.  He was really surprised.

Rule 1

So, Rule 1 of “How to enjoy Playford” is Choose your caller.  The band make a difference too, but I think the caller has the edge when it comes to making it enjoyable or not.  Some people still don't think of me as a “proper” Playford caller, because I don't treat Playford with the reverence due to the dead.  And that's because I don't see it as dead — it's a living thing, so long as people are dancing it and enjoying it.  I don't know where this “Playford is serious stuff” attitude comes from.  It wasn't the way Cecil Sharp and his followers thought about it.  They wanted to dance it well, but they certainly enjoyed it too.  Read some of the Elsie J Oxenham “Abbey School” books — there are schoolgirls dancing Playford and loving it — and in “The Abbey Girls Go Back to School” they are longing to go on a proper course where they can be told what they're doing wrong.  Maybe it was after the Second World War, when Douglas Kennedy picked up on the Square Dance boom, and changed the Society from classes and teachers to clubs and callers, that “Playford” became a dirty word.  So, choose a caller who enjoys calling and dancing Playford, and you're several steps ahead already.

Rule 2

Choose who you dance with — your partners, your set and the whole room.  I realise this may present problems to some of you.  I've been to a club night and thought “There's no-one here I want to dance with”.  But equally I've been with a good group of people dancing all sorts of simple stuff and really enjoying it!

I've been taken to task over this rule by some dancers in America, who pointed out that what I suggest is damaging to the Dance Community and encourages people to dance with the good dancers and keep away from the beginners (both new and perpetual).  I didn't really mean that.  I certainly do dance with new dancers, and I enjoy helping them get through the dance better than they might otherwise.  I helped run the “Beginners” class at Cecil Sharp House for many years and enjoyed dancing with people there — they were usually good fun.  But if you find that the whole club or group are terrible dancers, or don't show any signs of being there to enjoy themselves, I think it's reasonable to go somewhere else to find what you're looking for.

Rule 3

Decide to enjoy it anyway.  I've read lots of books and been to lots of talks about Attitude, and I've realised how important it is, so you'll hear me mentioning this again and again.  If you go into it thinking “This is going to be a boring evening” you'll be right — I guarantee it.  If you start with the attitude “I don't like Playford — or American — or International” , you're programming your subconscious not to allow you to enjoy it.  It's like constantly telling yourself “I'm always late for things” or “I'm useless at maths” — your subconscious will work to make the statement true.  You may dismiss this as pop psychology, but it really does work that way.  I do it too — it's an easy trap to fall into.

Rule 4

(really part of rule 3) is Smile.  I know it sounds simple, and I also know I'm not very good at it, but it does make a tremendous difference, to you and to others.  It's difficult to remain irritated with the caller or the dancers in your set when you're smiling — try it and see.  Also, when you smile at someone they are much more likely to smile back, and suddenly you're both enjoying the dance more.  It gives them the message that you're enjoying dancing with them, that you're not totally dependent on everyone getting the whole dance right before you can allow yourself any enjoyment.  Do you think film stars and royalty are really enjoying all the functions they appear at?  Probably not, but they know the value of smiling and appearing to enjoy themselves, and once you've put yourself in this frame of mind it's much more likely that the enjoyment will appear.

Rule 5

Dance better.  If you're playing badminton or football or any other sport — do you enjoy it more if you're playing really well?  Of course you do.  So listen to the music, enjoy the music, fit your dancing to the music.  I get real enjoyment from being in the right place at the right time — particularly if my partner's doing the same.  But many people seem to dismiss that with “Oh, dance technique!  We don't bother with that!”  Perhaps they think they'll enjoy it more if they don't have to work at it at all.  But is that your experience with other activities in life?  I don't think so.  Dancing is like most activities — you get out of it what you put into it.  So put in a bit more and you may be surprised at the results.  Another point is that if you dance well you'll find people enjoy dancing with you more, and will want to be in your set.  Do you find it difficult to get anyone to dance with you apart from your wife?  Are you always the square looking for three more couples?  But I'm definitely not suggesting you get big-headed and give out the attitude of “You should feel privileged dancing with me” — that won't help you one bit.

Rule 6

is strongly related to the previous one.  Don't walk everything.  We tend to do the minimum necessary — we won't dance it unless the caller tells us to.  Again, it's largely down to attitude.  I know some people have ailments that mean they can't do a skip-change or a slip-step, and of course I'm not going to force them to damage themselves, but most dancers aren't in that category.  They just think “I can't be bothered” — and then wonder why it's been a lifeless evening.  Let me repeat: you get out of it what you put into it.

Rule 7

Try and see the whole picture.  If you're a caller you're probably good at this anyway, but some dancers just do their own little bit and have no idea what the other people in the set are doing.  Be aware of other people, and be aware of how the figures fit together.  Then you'll be able to help if someone goes wrong (the caller, for instance), you'll be able to fit your dancing to the music better (rule 5), and I believe you'll enjoy the dance more because you'll feel a part of the whole thing rather than a little cog-wheel going round without reference to anything else.

Rule 8

Get better at the tricky stuff.  Some club callers will give you an evening of idiot-level dances.  This may be because they're not very good callers, but it may also be because they don't think the club dancers will cope with anything complicated.  Once again it comes down to attitude — this time more the caller's attitude.  I go into calling with the attitude “Of course you'll be able to dance this”, and as a result I surprise people at what I can get them through.  Yes, it's partly the way I call, but it's also the attitude being passed on: “Well, Colin thinks we can do this — maybe we can”.  Even with a negative caller, you'll have more success if you tell yourself “I'm going to get through this” rather than “This is going to be a total disaster”.  Of course, you can get the odds in your favour in other ways too.  Listen to the walkthrough (a bit revolutionary, that).  See what's going on.  If you don't understand the call, ask the caller to explain it again — that's his job!  (But remember rule 1.)  Seeing the whole picture helps you with the tricky stuff — if you're doing a double figure eight and you watch where everyone else is going rather than concentrating on your own path, you're more likely to do it right — or at least not hit anybody.  If you don't know what a draw poussette is, or who goes through the middle first in a Morris hey, ask someone reliable in the interval — borrow a few people and try it out till you feel confident.  If you're someone who feels happier reading things, Hugh Stewart has an excellent booklet called “Elements of English Country Dance” which is well worth buying and reading; maybe your club should buy a copy to show or lend to new dancers who are intimidated by all these strange phrases.  It's also available on the web at

Rule 9

Finally, Rule 9, courtesy of the Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is Don't Panic!  Dancing isn't brain surgery; you're unlikely to kill anyone if you go wrong in a Morris hey.  Don't spend ages apologising (or attacking) if something goes wrong — just pick up from where you should be, or some other reasonable position, and carry on from there.  And if you help other people in your set to enjoy the dancing, you're much more likely to enjoy it yourselves.

The more astute of you will have realised that there's very little in my rules that's specific to Playford.  The rules aren't “How to enjoy Playford”; they're “How to enjoy dancing”.  But this is a session of Playford-style dances, and we'll be putting the rules into practice — won't we!  I see you've already applied rule 1 — let's see how you do with the others.

The dances I actually called this session were:

You can download a list of rules from Rules.RTF which you can then print out using Wordpad, Microsoft Word or any other editor or word processor which accepts Rich Text Format (RTF).  I stick this up on the wall after I've gone through the rules, and invite people to look through the list during the workshop (and the evening dance, if any) and see which of the rules they are following.

On Friday, November 7, 2008, Alison Howells from Essex Uk wrote:
I read you comments with great interest - sounds commonsense to me but
we are country dancers with 4 years experience but recently we went to a "Playford" session which was very badly called.  I was still trying to expalin to several complete newcomers how to do a star while the caller was explaining 'switching sets'. It was not re-explained and we were left looking like idiots because we were confused.  There is an awful lot of snobbery around.  Plus have you been to Cecil Sharp House?  Dire!!
Thanks for your comments

On Saturday, January 30, 2010, Yvonne Shapiro from Pretoria, South Africa wrote:
Hello Colin!

I have just heard of Playford dances for the first time - it was mentioned by chance on the Circle Dancing Friends group.  Intrigued, I used Google and found your site.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading your rules!  May you continue to enjoy your dancing and to help others to apply your rules for a very long time to come!

Yours in dance,

On Friday, September 28, 2018, Derek Shaw from East Yorkshire wrote:
For me the quality of the music is an an important issue. By quality I mean some music as played is purely for listening to, there is no dance rhythm or phrasing. A few years ago I was at a dance were the music while pleasant to listen to was virtually impossible to dance to.       
On Friday, April 10, 2020, Mo Waddington from Cheshire wrote:
My 'rule' is "When in doubt, cheat."
I.e. keep going even if you are dancing with the wrong partner or have swapped roles. Miss out the 2 hand turn if you are late. Etc.

On Friday, April 10, 2020, Colin Hume from Letchworth, England wrote:
Mo -
I totally agree.  But it seems there are some people who would rather argue about who went wrong than carry on dancing with the wrong partner!