ENGLISH COUNTRY DANCE AND ITS AMERICAN COUSIN:
HISTORY AND COMPARISON

By Alan Winston

Part 1: History

There are written references to English Country Dance going as far back as the 1400s, but the first published dance descriptions and tunes we have are in publisher John Playford's collection, The English Country Dancing Master, first printed in 1651, going through many different editions over the next hundred and thirty years. (There was a lively trade in pirated editions of Playford, as well as other country dance collections.)

Dances were written to folk tunes, popular ballads, and stage music, as well as music composed for the purpose. A number of dances used music by Henry Purcell. Plays often used a country dance as an afterpiece; Thomas Bray published a collection of dances written for that purpose.

An excellent book covering the origins and modern interpretations of individual dances is The Playford Ball, by Genevieve Shimer and Kate van Winkle Keller, published by the Country Dance & Song Society and Da Capo Press.

English Country dancing went to North America with the colonists. In New England especially, country dance was extremely popular through the early 1800s. Americans eagerly awaited new dance books from England; they also wrote their own dances and published their own books.

Country dance, of essentially the English style, was popular throughout Europe. Beethoven and Mozart wrote country dance music. Our first hard information about footwork comes from a French book of 1710, Feuillet's Recuil de Contredanse - which was shortly thereafter published in English.

The popularity of the quadrilles, spreading from France in the early 1800s, eroded the appeal of country dancing in fashionable urban areas - both in the US and England - but the death blow came with the couple-dancing/ballroom dance crazes. When the polka swept across Europe in 1844, it legitimized the waltz in polite society, and subsequent dance fashions changed social dance in the cities almost completely into couple dances. (With a few token exceptions. The Lancer's Quadrille was done throughout the Victorian period; the Virginia Reel retained some currency as well. Victorian balls often had cotillons -- not to be confused with cotillions, an American predecessor to quadrilles; cotillons (apparently originating in Germany) were a combination of dance and party game.)

By mid-century, country dancing had retreated to, well, the country. Americans kept on country dancing in Appalachia, and in small New England towns; quadrilles spawned square dances in the Midwest. (Tom Senior reports seeing a copy of a dance manual published in Indiana by a French dancing master as he passed through in 1835, while country dancing could still support dancing masters.) In England, country dancing became the province of the villages exclusively, and most villages had only a few dances which they'd do at all their celebrations. English and American Country dance were cut off; dancing masters rarely travelled between the countries, there was no trade in country dance books. Not surprisingly, the two dance forms diverged considerably. (But some connections are still very evident. "Sir Roger de Coverly," which Dickens mentions in A Christmas Carol, is essentially the same dance as the "Virginia Reel.")

ECD was essentially dead by the beginning of this century, while contra dance and square dance was still alive, if in hiding. Ethnomusicologist Cecil Sharp and his followers collected extant country dances from villages, then turned to printed sources to develop a large repertoire of English Country dances. He started a revival movement, published new books of country dance, founded the English Folk Dance & Song Society, and brought ECD back into the cities, making it again a living tradition. In the 90 or so years of the revival, ECD has been researched; more authentic reconstruction of historical dances have been done, and people have written many new dances. [The style we use today is basically Sharp's style, even when later research has disclosed that it was not historically correct.]

Sharp came over to the US in the 'teens, and did some ethnomusicological research. He reported on what he called the "Kentucky Running Set" dances, Big Circle dances. (At the demonstration he saw, there were no musical instruments and rhythm was provided by body percussion, but this was quite atypical). He provided the impetus for the 1915 founding of the Country Dance & Song Society, which has done a lot of good work in promoting English, Contra, and ritual dance. (CDSS started out as the American branch of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, and changed the name in 1940 to reflect a growing interest in American dance.) [I'll leave out Lloyd Shaw's revival of square dancing in the 30s and 40s, which seems to have spawned the "club squares" movement, because I don't know that much about it. I'm told that Shaw was inspired to use folk dance in his school by the work of Frank Smith in Berea, who was himself following the example of Cecil Sharp.]

The big folk revival of the sixties and seventies brought traditional dance and music to the fore again, and contra dancing came back to the cities, starting in New England but spreading throughout the US, and even back to England, where dance clubs often do ECD and contra together in a single evening. English ceilidh dances do traditional (not, generally, Playford-style) dances to high-energy, modern, eclectic music.

Part 2: Differences in English and Contra

Part 3: Acknowledgments

My ideas about ballroom dance of the 1800s come largely from Richard Powers, and those about quadrille stepping from Stan Isaacs. Thanks for corrections and suggestions from members of the ECD list, including Paul Stamler, Colin Hume, Carol Martinez, Tom Senior, Roger Broseus, Margaret Connors, and John Ramsay. Any errors remaining are entirely the fault of Alan Winston.

Followthis link for a description of ECD

Followthis link to find Regular English Dances in the US

Followthis link for Alan Winston's article on ECD and Contra history and differences

Followthis link for Gene Murrow's notes on ECD origins and evolution

Followthis link for Gene Murrow's take on how ECD figures got into Contra dancing

Followthis link for Kitty Keller's reminiscence on reconstructing Early American dance

Follow this link to return to the ECD Home Page

This document last modified: Thursday, 21-Jun-2001 17:37:57 PDT Accesses: (none)

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