BackPlayford with Style

Taught at Lichfield Folk Festival, 2005 and several other places.

Colin in Playford costumeWhat do we mean by “Playford 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”!

“Playford” is a word used to describe all manner of dances, many of which John and Henry Playford would certainly not have recognised as English Country Dances.  Responses range from “Oh I love Playford, it's so graceful and the tunes are wonderful” to “Playford is slow and boring, with old people plodding through the movements and ignoring the music”.  In this workshop we'll be doing genuine Playford, from editions of the Dancing Master between 1651 and 1703.  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 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 danced by a single couple while everybody else watched.

I was going to call this workshop “Playford — Plod or Prance?” but Frances Richardson [Dance Director for Lichfield Folk Festival] threw that out because she said it shouldn't be either.  And of course she's right, but some people find it difficult to steer a middle course between these two extremes — to dance stylishly but naturally.  Let's try some dances and see if I can help you.

Mr Beveridge's Maggot

The Pat Shaw version is danced almost everywhere in England, though in the States they still tend to do Cecil Sharp's unlikely version.  (Since I ran this workshop in 2005 I've come up with my own interpretation.)  I'm going to walk you through as both ones and twos, because the two couples do radically different things and it's difficult to dance with style when you don't know where you're going.  Not impossible, but difficult.

I do this all to a walking step, and the style consists of moving positively to get where you need to be at the right time and ready to move in the required direction.  When you walk it through it doesn't seem that difficult, but what you don't think about in the walkthrough is the transitions from one move to the next.  You need some momentum (if I may use that word) [the band for the workshop was Momentum] to get you through the moves successfully.  If you finish a move, then fall back and sink back onto your heels, you'll be caught out — I guarantee it.  You need to think ahead: to see the dance as a continuous whole, not a series of unrelated moves.

Lull Me Beyond Thee

Sharp: Country Dance Book

This one is quite a bit slower in my opinion.  Of course we don't know what speed they danced it in 1651 — all you can do is listen to the music, pick up a sense of the dance, think of the clothes they were wearing, and make an informed guess.

Dancing slowly is much harder than dancing fast, but that doesn't mean you just give up and plod through it — why would you want to do that?  Think about being up rather than down; it really may help to imagine that you're a lady or gentleman dancing in the time of Playford.  I certainly find I dance and act differently when I'm wearing some kind of a costume.  Give it a bit of rise and fall at the end of a move, such as the forward a double and back, and move in time with the music.

From Aberdeen

Sharp: Country Dance Book

This by contrast is a busy dance — as with Mr Beveridge's Maggot you need to move with conviction and give even more weight in the circles and particularly in the roll-away.  The ones don't stop moving, and are effectively making a big clockwise circle round the set.

Some people think that to get a circle moving quickly you need to get in really close and hold your hands above your shoulder level, but you can't give much weight with your hands up there.  As a test, I'd like you to try it that way first, and then the way I would recommend — arms somewhat bent but not right up there!  You can give more weight and move the circles effectively, without scurrying round the way some people do.

It's important that twos and threes move in to make the circles at top and bottom.  (It's also important that the ones fall back rather than turning, which a few people want to do.)  The twos are always above the threes at the end of the circles on the side — but it's really up to the ones to control the circles and open up when they are in middle place.

In Sharp's version the quarter turn in B1 is without hands, but I prefer it with hands — it means that if one of you forgets or is late the other can help.  The original wording says “turn”.

The first lady is rotating clockwise for the whole of the dance, and the first man the same for all but the first two bars, so some people will have problems with this one.  I now have my own version which has less clockwise rotating.

Up with Aily

Sharp: Country Dance Book

See the notes in the section on Three-time.


This one isn't in the Country Dance Books — in fact Sharp interpreted very few dances in three-time.  Maybe that's because they didn't go well to the “running step” that he said was the normal step for English Country Dances; maybe he just didn't like them.  This is quite a simple dance, to a beautiful tune — but it gives an opportunity to both the plodders and the prancers.  The plodders won't manage to use up twelve steps for the turn 1½, so they'll be ahead of the music and wondering why the band… no, they won't even wonder — if you're lucky they'll at least wait before starting the next move.  The prancers will do the turns with all sorts of flourishes, thinking themselves very fine, and in the States they'll be doing that cute trick of leaning their heads together before the cast — urgh!

The Hole-in-the-Wall crosses need to be done well to be effective, and the hardest part of the dance is the second corners using up the whole six steps of the cloverleaf turn single and still having the momentum (that word again) to go smoothly into their cross without stopping.

Some other dances which I might use in this section are: