The first known references to English Country Dancing occur during the reign of Elizabeth I. As a keen dancer, Elizabeth encouraged these dances at her court. A hundred years later in 1651, John Playford published a collection of then new and old country dances in ‘The English Dancing Master’, a dance manual containing the music and instructions for English Country Dances. Such was the popularity of these manuals that several further editions followed over the next 70 years with the first edition containing 105 dances with single line melodies. Dances from The Dancing Master were re-published in arrangements by Cecil Sharp in the early 20th century; many of these dances remain popular today.
The term ‘country dance’ applies to dances in line formation, circle dances and square dances, the most common formation being the ‘longways’ set in which men and women form two lines facing each other. The dance ‘Sir Roger de Coverley’ is one of the most familiar of this kind. Unlike circle dances, these dances tend to be non-progressive; each couple retains their original position and partner. The “longways” set flourished during the seventeenth century where, contrary to popular belief, dancing was not suppressed by Cromwell’s puritan regime, “dancing continued to be enjoyed in the privacy of the long galleries of country houses, spaces that were ideally suited to the evolving longways formation of the country dance, ‘for as many as will’. The first edition of The English Dancing Master was published two years after Charles I’s execution in 1649.” (Source: Early Dance Circle)
King Charles II’s favourite country dance, ‘Cuckolds all a row’, was in the first edition of Playford’s Dancing Master, a copy of which Samuel Pepys had purchased from the author before attending a New Year’s Eve Ball at White Hall.
On 31 December 1662, Samuel Pepys recorded a diary entry describing his visit to the ball:
‘The King led a lady a single Coranto; and then the rest of the lords, one after another, other ladies. Very noble it was, and great pleasure to see. Then to Country dances; the King leading the first which he called for; which was, says he, Cuckolds all Awry the old dance of England.’
(The Shorter Pepys, Samuel Pepys/Robert Latham (1985) ISBN 0520034260, 9780520034266)
Pepys and country dancing
Pepys himself was not a proficient dancer and had never really tried dancing until 1661 when he was invited to join a dance at a friend’s party. At this time, the middle classes of England would go to a ball once or twice a week; this was an excellent opportunity to show off their sophisticated dance routines so it was important to be a competent dancer. Pepys soon realised that he should learn more and later decided that his wife should learn too. He hired dancing teachers Mary Ashwell and Mr Pembleton to come to his home but became suspicious that his wife had taken a liking to her male teacher and the lessons therefore came to a close!
Over 50 years later, new editions of these popular dancing manuals were still being published. Note the distinctive change in dress from the 1st edition depicted above!
The way we dress inevitably affects the way we move, it impacts on the quality of movement and creates restrictions on mobility. This understandably had an influence on the way dance was carried out. This was the time where the upper classes began to walk with their toes turned out. Some dances, the Branle for example, had sideways movements which were much easier to dance with the feet turned outwards due to the fashion for wide topped ‘Cavalier’ boots.
Imagine the restrictions imposed by corsets and a farthingale (a devise used to give structure and shape to a skirt), or by a well-padded, tight fitting doublet (jacket), together with cloak and hat. Most periods before our own required women to have extravagant hairstyles and a hat, sometimes the men would wear a wig. Managing all of these in a dance would have taken practice!
Playford dancing today
Nowadays some dancers enjoy dressing up in period clothes to take part in a Playford ball, but as in the photo of Coventry Zezty Playford most wear something a little less restrictive.
The caller Lisa Heywood is enthusiastic about calling for Playford dances as well as ceilidhs. She says: “There’s some really great dance moves in the Playford collection, from flowing elegant figures to energetic galloping and jumping around.”
The figure demonstrated in the photo at the top of this blog is called into-line siding. Partners face each other across the set and walk forwards four steps to stand right shoulder to right shoulder, make meaningful eye contact, then four steps back to place, then the same with left shoulders. Sometimes dancers go past their partner and look over their shoulder at them, shown here, or partly turn to face each other.
The English Folk Dance and Song Society are collaborating with the National Maritime Museum to present country dancing ‘Playford style’ as part of Party Like It’s 1669, the Pepys Show Late on 26 November. During the two dance workshops – named The Dancing Schoole in keeping with language from the 1600’s – the Playford Liberation Front (‘dancing master’ Will Hall and musicians Paul Hutchinson, Karen Wimhurst and Fiona Barrow) will be giving a zesty and fun introduction to sociable dancing 17th century-style. Dances are similar to those currently popular at ceilidhs and barn dances; the beauty of a ceilidh is that everyone can take part, young or old, experienced dancers to beginners, dances are taught and walked through so no previous experience is required. Pepys’ wife was a fan of these dances as were many of her contemporaries and they’re still enjoyed today.
Great music is key to the enjoyment of these dances so Playford Liberation Front, leaders in reviving and re-popularising these beautiful tunes and dances, will be playing on the night. Founder and leader Paul Hutchinson introduces the band:
“The members of The Playford Liberation Front are Karen Wimhurst on clarinets, Fiona Barrow on violin, and me, Paul Hutchinson on accordion. Our musical backgrounds are diverse – jazz, classical and folk – but we all share a love for this beautifully crafted 17th century dance music, first published in 1651 by John Playford. If Jane Austen were around today we think she would have approved of The Playford Liberation’s 21st century interpretations!” Paul Hutchinson
Join us on 26 November to try some of these dances yourself. There’ll also be guided tours of our new exhibition, a great range of talks and the chance to make your own crown and dress like the King of bling himself, Charles II. For out more and book tickets
To enjoy lots more English country dances and ceilidhs, as well as folk song and music, visit Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society in Camden, North London. Look out for the twice yearly a Zesty Playford balls that take place there Our Vaughan Williams Memorial Library contains many important dance manuscripts and publications, including original copies of several editions of Playford’s Dancing Master. Some of these have been digitised and can be viewed via the library website: vwml.org/dancetunebooks.
Playford dances take place in other parts of the country including those organised by our friends Coventry Zesty Playford in the West Midlands and called by Lisa Heywood based in Bristol.