BackEnglish with Style

First taught at a weekend for the Toronto English Country Dance Assembly in 2019.

Colin in Playford costumeWhat do we mean by “English with Style”?  Two of those three words mean quite different things to different people and evoke strong and different responses — I think we're OK with “with”!

“English” is a word used by North Americans to describe what they think of as “Playford-style” dances, many of which John and Henry Playford would certainly not have recognised as English Country Dances.  Responses range from “Oh I love English, it's so graceful and the tunes are wonderful” to “English is slow and boring, with old people plodding through the movements and ignoring the music”.

But “English” means a lot more than Playford-style, so I also want to introduce you to the other side of English dances — lively, energetic, often with a step rather than just walked.  Some people don't like this — they go away saying “Colin Hume may be a good caller, but he doesn't understand what English means”.

In this workshop we'll be doing genuine Playford, from editions of the Dancing Master between 1651 and 1703, together with English dances from a much later period.  Some are slow, some are fast — none is boring in my opinion.

“Style” is an even more controversial word.  Responses range from “If you're not dancing with style it's not worth dancing” to “I came here to enjoy myself, not to be told what I'm doing wrong”.  So what do I mean by Style?  I certainly don't mean affectation, airs and graces, artificiality, “putting on the style”…  that's not what English Country Dancing was about in Playford's day (or in Jane Austen's day) and it shouldn't be today.  When the country dances became old-fashioned, and the minuet became the Queen of dances — yes, there you have the artificiality, and it's not my thing at all.  Another significant difference was that the country dances were for the participants, whereas the minuet was performed by a single couple while everybody else watched (and probably criticised).  So in the country dances you're not trying to impress an audience; you're trying to make the dancing more enjoyable for yourself, your partner and the other people in your set.  Maybe you just see “style” as the way you hold yourself and move, but to me it's also the way you dance with other people — and I shall keep coming back to that aspect of it.

The Country Farmer

Sharp: Country Dance Book
See Playford's original wording at
and Sharp's interpretation at

Not a difficult dance, but plenty of opportunity for style.  It starts with the first man casting and his partner following.  Do you just go, and hope she'll follow?  Or do you give her a little look that says “come this way”?  I don't want anything over the top, just an acknowledgement that you're dancing with someone rather than doing your own thing.  And of course if the ones finish in the twos' place, the twos need to move up to the ones' place.  Do you do it with a sort of embarrassed shuffle, as if you've just realised you're in the wrong place?  Or do you wait four beats and then move up positively?  It's part of the dance, even though Playford never mentions moving up.  I prefer to take my partner's hand and lead up, though I don't have any historical justification for that.  Or do you lead up and then turn single away from your partner?  For me that's going too far.  The ones are the active couple; the twos are just getting out of their way, not trying to steal the limelight by saying “Look at me, I'm twirling”.  Anyway the twos now have the chance to lead the same move.

When the corners cross, is it just “ships that pass in the night”?  Or do you look at each other?  You're dancing together, if only briefly.  For some reason Sharp reversed the order of these moves, but Playford is perfectly clear:

The 1. Man being in the Wo. place, change place with the 2. Wo. the 2. Man cross over with the 1. Wo.

Next the ones have 8 steps to cast up, so a little acknowledgement of each other, and you have time to move in towards each other and then turn down into a wide cast.  But don't do that cute little lean of the head that some Americans do!  In my opinion that's not style; it's affectation.  The twos wait four beats, then lead down, turn in and change hands, ready for the next move.  It's a circle all the way, and I'd like a good slipped circle as Sharp prescribes, not a half-hearted walked one.  You need to give some weight — some tension in the arms — and draw the person on your right.  You've got to get all the way round in 8 slips because the next move is busy too.  Three changes of a circular hey, which in England we would do with hands, and I want it danced with a skip-change step (or a single-skip if you really can't do a skip-change).  Make sure the third change is in effect a right-hand turn half-way with your partner, rather than just pull by and then spin round on the spot.  In particular, if the ones finish facing your partner the man is then ready to give the little look to start the next turn of the dance.

By now you're probably thinking — “Wow, if he's going into all this detail on the first dance, we'll only get through three dances in the whole workshop”.  So let me reassure you, all of these points apply to hundreds of dances — you don't have to learn a new book of style rules for every dance you do.

The Pride of Newcastle

Dance and Music: Pat Shaw, 1963

You can see the instructions at

Here's a complete contrast — a Pat Shaw dance in English Traditional style.  Some dancers in North America don't believe that moves like ladies' chain and right and left through belong in English dances because they think of them as American figures.  No they're not; they appear in hundreds of English (and Scottish) dances and they come from the 19th century quadrilles which were danced everywhere — England, Germany, America, France, Russia…

See my notes on the dance here, and look at my description of The Plain Quadrille if you don't believe those figures belong in “English” dances.

Manage the Miser

John Young -- Dancing Master Volume 2, 1st Edition, 1713.

A triple-time dance, and I would do the whole thing with a smooth walk, though in 1713 they would have used some kind of step and probably a little jump at the end of each move.  Is your dance-walk smooth?  (That's a rhetorical question.)  But one aspect of style is surely fitting the dance to the music, and some people are completely thrown by 3-time music because it isn't in 8-step phrases.  In my opinion there are 2 bars (6 steps) for the first corners to cast into your neighbour's place (and the second corners to move left into your neighbour's place without any twiddle), and then the remaining 6 bars of music give you 18 steps to do the figure eight through the second corners, to finish where you started the figure eight on exactly the last beat of the music.  How do you achieve that?  By checking at the half-way point.  You should then have completed half the figure eight, so you're just ready to pass each other the second time.

  Let's get the band to play one A-music, and see if you can hear 2 bars (6 steps) for the cast, 3 bars (9 steps) for the first half figure eight, 3 bars for the second.

Of course the music isn't in phrases of 2, 3 and 3 bars, it's in 4 and 4, but can you count (silently) those 9 steps?  Try again.

  Now let's dance that for the first corners — see if you can fit perfectly to the music.  If the second corners feel so inclined, you may tell your partner whether you think they achieved this — bearing in mind that you are now going to do the move.

And with all that counting, did you still remember you were dancing with people?  Just before the cast, you look at the other corner person to say “Here we go”.  If I don't think the other person is going to move, I look at them rather more pointedly and cast slightly early with a pronounced pull-back of my shoulder — that's usually enough to remind them of the track.  You may not think that's your job — you're just looking after yourself — but surely a good dancer helps other people in the set, as unobtrusively as possible.  Let me stress again: being a good dancer is not about “Look at me, aren't I wonderful”; it's about helping everyone in the set to enjoy the dance and dance it well.  That attitude seems to be dropping out of contra; I hope it's not dropping out of English too.

A good dancer at Boston once said to me, “Colin, you're amazing.  You look as if you're going to be late, and then you're not!”  What I think he meant was that I was fitting the move to the music, unlike most people who get there too early.  I know I'm not a particularly stylish dance, but I do usually manage that!

One final point on the figures of eight, if you aren't sure which shoulder to pass: the rule is “Hug the post” — in other words pass in the middle so that you're close to the stationary person you're about to go round.

Right-hand star, left-hand star — six steps each.  Pat Shaw's interpretation has:

All right hands across (3 steps), back away (3 steps) and left hands back (3 steps) and back away (3 steps).

but I find this fussy and unsatisfying, and the original wording just says Then All Four hands a-cross and back again so that's what I'm doing.

And then the final move.  The original says:

Then lead through the third Couple and through the second Couple, and turn your Partner.

The dance was originally triple minor, but the threes do nothing so most reconstructors would convert it to duple minor.  The instructions are directed to the first couple, and we assume that having led through you then have to cast back.  And indeed that's what Pat Shaw says:

1st couple lead down through next 2nd couple, cast up a place and lead up between original 2nd couple above them and cast down to progressed places.  1st couple turn with both hands once round.

Nobody says how to fit this to the music, and most callers won't tell you either.  In fact it's possible that and turn your Partner is a mistake in the original — it seems to be thrown in at the end of a lot of dances and sometimes there's no time for it, such as in My Lady Winwood's Maggot.  Maybe it's my mathematical mind, but I really want to know how many steps to take.  There are 24 in all, so I can see two possibilities.  You could lead down and cast up in 6 steps, lead up and cast down in 6 steps, and then take 12 steps for the two-hand turn.  That seems too rushed for the first part and too much music for the second part.  Or you can allocate 6 steps for the final two-hand turn, which means 9 steps for each lead and cast.  This seems a comfortable number of steps to me, but as in the first move it doesn't naturally fit the music: this time the music is again 4 and 4 bars but we want to consider it as 3, 3 and 2.

  Let's get the band to play one B-music, and see if you can think of it as 3, 3 and 2 bars.

I'm sure some people don't like the mathematical approach at all — they just want to float through the figure — and if you can do that and still finish the three moves at the end of the music that's absolutely fine, but I can't work that way.  Let's try the dance and see how you feel about it.  I'll remind you of my suggested phrasing the first few times, and then let you find your own.

Love's Triumph

John Young -- Dancing Master Volume 2, 1st Edition, 1713.

See my interpretation here.

In English dances you sometimes have a lot of music and not very far to go, sometimes the opposite.  It's up to you to be aware of this, and make your dancing fit the music.  I'm really not sure whether the original instructions mean that the ones and twos take their partner's hand and lead forward to meet the other couple, or whether all four move forward on the diagonal into a tight bunch, and I'm going to try the latter way this time.  So the ones and twos meet and then acknowledge, and in the turn single you need to open out back to your places or the circle will be too cramped.  Then circle left half-way and two-hand turn your partner half-way.  As always you need to think ahead — each move should flow into the next, but some people do a move in isolation and then think about what comes next.  Of course in the walk-through they're taught as four separate moves, but you need to see the connections as you walk them through.

The ones' cast up is only 4 steps, and the threes must be ready to lead down immediately.  Again it's a matter of thinking ahead and fitting the moves together.  Those two couples have just done a two-hand turn half-way, so they both need to finish facing down, then the ones can cast up as the threes lead down.  If the threes finish their turn and then fall back to the side lines awaiting further orders, it's not going to happen — and some callers won't warn you!

In England we almost always give hands for four changes.  Take your time, four steps per hand, looking at people as you pass them, and in my opinion there's no courtesy turn (or “polite turn” as the Scots say) at the end of the fourth change; you just face into the set.  As always the lady gets the difficult move: she has to change directions to go up to the top man for a right-hand turn.  Don't let it take you by surprise!  And again in the final moves the ones need to think ahead so that each flows into the next.  Yes, I know I keep saying the same thing, but that's because a lot of people don't do it, so their dancing is inevitably jerky.

This is a typical 18th century triple minor: the ones never stop moving and the twos and threes only move when the ones need them to.  But at least I've converted it to a three-couple set so you don't have to wait nearly so long before becoming a one!

Country Courtship

John Young — Dancing Master Volume 3, c. 1727.

See my version here

I'd definitely recommend a skip-change step for the first half or you just won't get there.  You can walk the corners crossing, the circle and the cast, though you still need to be awake to fit them in.  Walk the back-to-back and then dance the three changes, with hands, and the ones need to be facing their partner ready to cast while the twos need to be ready to lead up.  There's always a danger that you get to the end of one turn of a dance and think, “OK, that's it” — no it isn't!

I was at a conference in Toronto in 2010 where one of the speakers said that English had always been walked whereas Scottish had always been danced.  Several of us set her straight on that score!


Henry Playford — Dancing Master, 11th Edition, 1701.

See my notes here

King of Poland

Henry Playford — Dancing Master 10th Edition, 1698
Original instructions at
Cecil Sharp's interpretation at dances/cdb/cdb4/king

I don't think Sharp's version is correct, and maybe one day I'll finish my own interpretation, but for the moment I'm sticking with his.

This is a very busy dance, and the style consists of moving quickly and confidently.  I would dance the two-hand turn 1½ with a skip-change step.  The next move is not quite a two-hand turn partner all the way, which would be easy; you cross right shoulder with your partner, turn right and two-hand turn your partner halfway, back to where you just came from.  People find that surprisingly difficult.  The twos are now above the ones.  The next move is for the twos to cast and the ones to move up — I would lead my partner up and keep a firm grip (you may not think of that as dance “style”, but it is) because most ones want to follow the twos and cast back to where they came from.  If you do that you're dead!  Instead it's three changes of a circular hey, danced with hands and a skip-change step.  If the ones keep right hands joined after the third change, the man can hand his partner up into a half figure eight, finishing progressed and proper.  Then they remember that this is one of the very few old dances which starts with the ones improper, so they do a two-hand turn half-way!

And again there's the danger of getting to the end of the turn, stepping back on your heels and thinking “Wow, that was busy”.  No, you don't stop; you immediately face your new twos ready for that busy two-hand turn 1½.

One aspect of style that very few people teach (or learn) is recovering gracefully when things go wrong.  I see plenty of people who just freeze if the unexpected happens.  Surely one aspect of being a stylish dancer is knowing what to do in this situation.  First of all it helps to know where you and your partner should be, which means having a good understanding of the shape of the dance rather than just following instructions.  Often you can point the other people to where they should be — again provided you're aware of the whole dance and not just your little part of it.  At the very least you can get to where you should be at the start of the next turn of the dance and wait for the music.  Don't waste time criticising your partner or the other couple — that'll probably mean you get the next turn wrong as well!  Possibly when the dance has finished you can seek out the other couple and say “I think I know what went wrong…” — but that's difficult if they're already switched partners and are lined up in a longways set!

Hunsdon House

John Playford — Dancing Master 3rd Edition, 1657
Original wording at
Cecil Sharp's interpretation at dances/cdb/cdb3/hunsdon
My interpretation here

We don't know what speed they danced it at in 1657, though it's a fair bet that they didn't walk it.  Sharp suggested walking step (“w.s.”) for the Grand Square, and running step (“r.s.”) for the three figures.  I'm not going to suggest some fancy steps, but we tend to do it fairly slowly these days, and there's a danger that it becomes a plod; it's much harder to dance slowly than to dance fast.  So stand up straight, and think of yourself as being held up by a string running through your head, rather than being glued to the floor.  Think “up”, except when you come down at the end of a move.  Make sure the Grand Square really is square, rather than a Grand Meander: three steps forward or back and turn a quarter on the fourth while bringing the feet together.

  Let's try the Grand Square to music, dancing on the balls of your feet rather than a flat foot, coming down and turning a quarter on the fourth beat of each move.

I suggest hands down rather than over your shoulders for the back ring.  And try not to look like a penguin!

Bonny Breastknot (Devon and Somerset)

A traditional English dance.  There's also a Sussex version which is totally different.

See my notes on Connections, or dances/cdb/cdb1/bonny for the way it's usually danced now.

Maid Karpeles added the dance to the Country Dance Book part 1 when she produced the second edition in 1934.  She specifies walking step or running step for the whole figure.  People usually walk the first part these days, though I prefer a skip or skip-change unless the music is too fast for that.

I want an energetic kick-balance each time.  No doubt the dance derives from an old forgotten triple minor, but when Sharp and Karpeles collected their versions of the dance it had become English Traditional, danced by the country folk and not the gentry in London who had no interest in those old-fashioned country dances.

Some people think that you balance once each way and then the ones do an elegant turn single into middle place on their own side.  There's no truth in this!  There are four kick-balances — left, right, left, right — and on the fifth beat the ones leap to their left while the others turn to face their partners while continuing the kick-balances.  It's the twos' and threes' job to catch the ones as they leap — I can't be expected to leap and kick, and at the same time look in both directions for hands to grab!

“Contra corners” is a move that contra dancers may think was invented in the States, but we had it first!  (It also appears in Scottish, though it starts with first corner rather than partner — we had that version first too!)  I would dance this with a skip-change step, and you need to give plenty of weight in the turns.  It doesn't matter which side the ones finish on because the dance ends with everybody swinging.  In England, where we're used to an English dance having a swing, there's a danger that the new top couple will finish facing down with the man on the left (as you would in a contra), in which case they will have to think quickly to follow the correct track.

Up with Aily

See my notes here.