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
Modern contra dances are usually done, on the West and East Coasts, to medleys of jigs and reels, chosen by the band. The same dance might be done on different evenings to three different sets of three different tunes each, all of them in 2/4, 4/4, or 6/8 time, each tune played for thirty-two bars per time through the dance. Tempos are usually pretty consistent throughout the evening, generally pretty fast (about 120 beats per minute). In the Midwest and South, according to Paul Stamler, most contra is done to old time music, mostly sticking to one tune per dance; 99% of this repertoire is in 4/4 time. English dances are usually written to go with specific tunes, so you get the same tune each time. There's more variety in meter; some dances are in waltz time, polka time, minuet time, or other options. (In the US, most dances are still done with a simple dance walk, but see "Footwork" below.) The tempo may vary widely from dance to dance, from very slow to very fast. The English dancer is encouraged to "dance to the phrase of the music", starting and finishing figures when the music says to do it. This is a good idea in contra dancing, too, but sometimes difficult -- and impossible in Southern squares, which are danced unphrased.
Contras are usually done with partners across from each other in long lines. Many English dances use this formation, but there are also three, four, five couple set dances, some in circles, squares, or other formations. (Colin Hume says that the US uses a much higher percentage of longways dances than the UK.)
English commonly uses a wider variety of figures than contra dance does. (The contra dance figure vocabulary expands frequently, often through borrowings from some flavors of square dance, but the number of core figures is smaller.) You'll see heys-for-three more often than heys-for-four. Two hand turns are much more frequent than partner swings -- although in England, partner swings are more frequent than in the US. There's a lot more emphasis on eye contact than on physical contact, which makes flirting a bit subtler, but just as much fun.
As originally done, "historical" English dances used serious footwork. (The names of various steps might be familiar to modern ballet dancers.) We don't know precisely what the appropriate footwork was for every period, but we have some good ideas for the 18th and 19th centuries. There were a wide variety of setting steps as well. Few modern reconstructions (with the notable exceptions of Chip Hendrickson's work on Early American dance and his English Dances for the Dutch Court) make use of this step vocabulary; you'll very occasionally see a simple minuet step. "Traditional" dances used simple, vigorous, stepping of several varieties. Some give the opportunity for improvisatory step dance, which could be as complicated as the dancer wanted to make it. These include skipping, slipping, polka, skip-change, step-hop, and rants, both travelling and in place.
In the United States, the overwhelming majority of dances done nowadays use the dance walk, with the addition only of skipping, skip-change, and slipping. You'll see an occasional step-hop or rant dance. In Britain, the story is considerably different. At a ceilidh dance [see Ceilidh Pages for a lot of information] you will hardly see a walking step all evening, says my informant. Indeed, if an English caller says to "dance" a figure, that means to use some appropriate kind of stepping.
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.
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