BackWhat Playford Style?

Chippenham Folk Festival, 2000

What do we mean — “Playford with Style”?  What style should we dance Playford in?  When you start to think about it, there are lots of possibilities.

John Playford published the first edition of “The English Dancing Master” in 1651.  In it he says not a word about style.  He wasn't a dancing master; he was a publisher.  And he wasn't writing a manual on how to dance; he was writing an aide-memoire — a quick reminder of the dances to people who already knew them.  The modern Scottish equivalent is a little green book by Pilling which gives very condensed instructions for hundreds of dances considered to be in the current repertoire.  There are later books than Playford's which explain the steps and give other vital information such as the correct way for the gentleman to take off his hat and bow to a potential partner.  So should we dance in the style specified here?  There are certainly historical dance groups who do this, but they tend not to dance country dances; they're more interested in the dances where the steps are laid out in detail.  Playford didn't mention the steps, either because he thought it was obvious, or because the tradition was that people varied the steps as they pleased; it wasn't specified in the way a figured minuet would be.

When Cecil Sharp reintroduced the English Country Dance (or reinvented it, some would say) he certainly gave instructions for steps, but he clearly didn't think they were what counted.  In part 6 of “The Country Dance Book” — his final published thoughts on the matter — he says:

The chief difficulties to be resolved in deciphering these dances have been:   (1)   to interpret the language of the Playford notations;   (2)   to determine the steps that were used in the 17th century Country Dance, a question upon which Playford and other contemporary authorities are silent; and   (3)   to capture the spirit and style of the dance.  Continued research has thrown little or no additional light on either of these last two questions.  Concerning the steps, however, there is this to be said, that those which I originally propounded have been tested in the last ten years in a very practical way, and in the result have been found to be serviceable and to satisfy the needs of the dance.  Even if, therefore, they are not historically accurate — as in the main I still believe them to be — they at any rate serve their purpose.  And this, as later on I shall have occasion to point out, is the chief, if not the only, function of the steps in a dance which, like the one in question, depends almost wholly for its expressiveness upon figure-movements.
So if we follow Sharp, we shouldn't feel obliged to learn the steps which they would have danced in the 17th century.  Sharp also quotes Barclay Dun's book of 1818 which quotes from “a small volume said to be written by a lady of distinction”:
The characteristics of our English Country-dance is that of gay simplicity.  The steps should be few and easy, and the corresponding motion of the arms and body unaffected, modest, and graceful.
Sharp says after Playford's day the Dancing Masters got their hands on the dances and put in all sorts of complicated steps, so that people would have to hire the Dancing Masters to teach them how to do them.

Anne Daye (Chairman of the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society) says that in 1660 the French style (known as baroque) was taking over, so Playford in 1651 was publishing in a transition period.  The older Playford dances were danced with pavan, almain and courante doubles.  With the French influence the standard step became the pas de bourrée (also called the fleuret).  So even in Playford's day there were major changes going on.

Melusine Wood, in the preface to her book “Historical Dances” says

Something must be said about Style.  It is impossible to teach a dance with the written word alone, but in respect of the old dances there are certain principles which may serve to guide us.  In all historical periods young people were subject to strict training in deportment from the moment they could walk.  This training is a matter on which we are well informed, and we may be sure it influenced their dancing.  For the present purpose it is enough to say that no one can go far astray so long as they hold themselves erect without stiffness, and carry their heads high — but not so high that they look down their noses.

But do we dance the way they did in Sharp's day?  I think he'd hardly recognise much of what we do.  He said that the normal Country Dance step is The Running Step.  The step should be on the ball of the foot — the heel off, but close to, the ground.  I've once seen someone do what I think was the Sharp Running Step, and it looked very odd to me.  But you play some of those old 78's — they're mighty fast.  You need to do a Running Step.  Have you seen the photo of “Parsons Farewell”, where they're all leaning at an amazing angle?  Our dancing has slowed down since Sharp's day.  We even listen to the Orange and Blue Playford recordings, made in the 1970's, and think they're fast!  (When they were being transferred to a double CD, I was asked how much they should be slowed down, and I argued that we were doing a disservice to the dances by slowing them down to cater for an ageing dance population; I'm pleased to report that the speeds were kept as they were.)  Sharp also mentions other steps, including the Skipping-Step, but he doesn't mention the skip-change step at all — and if we want to dance rather than walk, that's what we normally do in England nowadays.

There are other possible styles.  In the States they dance even less than us — it's all walked — but when they set they're taught it with much more bounce than we would use.  And there are other aspects of their “English” style that I'm not happy with.  Fried Herman had very strong views about what our dance style should be — but did she really know?  How could she be so definite about what “Playford” style should be?

So what is the answer?  Perhaps we should dance in the style which we feel is appropriate to each specific dance.  Perhaps there is no standard style.  Of course, this gives you licence to say “I feel a plod is appropriate to this dance”.  But I believe English dancing isn't standardised the way Scottish dancing is.  And this freedom is surely getting back to what actually happened in Playford's day — English dancers chose their steps as they saw fit, and foreigners were impressed.

When it comes down to it, I can't make you dance in a particular style, or any style at all.  All I can do is point out some possibilities, perhaps make you think more about things.  The rest is up to you.