History Of Country Dancing

The Farandole

Medieval Dance popular in southern Europe and descended from ancient Greek dance. Essentially an outdoor dance for large numbers of people in a chain led through various figures by the person at the leading end of the chain. Various meanderings and weavings in and out of each other and under arches formed by raised arms.

The Branle

A circular dance with linked hands around a central object such as a tree, maypole, or the central hearth of a medieval hall. Only the steps and direction of movement can be varied. Branle means “to sway” in French which describes the movement of the dancers, first one way then the other. Especially popular in Northern Europe. Farandole and Branle are both sometimes referred to as Caroles and a farandole chain may link to become a circle or a circle break to form a chain.  

The Estampie

Devised by the Troubadors of Provence in Southern France in the 12th century this is a couple dance with the man standing to the side of and taking the hand of the lady who stands on his right or even sometimes between two ladies. The couple can now move freely around the space available, forward and back and describe various figures using various steps. In Provence both the Farandole and Branle were also popular.

The Estampie Spreads

What may have remained a local dance was suddenly dispersed in the early 13th century as the Troubadors fled the religious persecution of the Albegensian Crusade (starting 1208). Courts throughout the rest of Europe adopted the new dance and it developed in different ways in each country as it mixed with the local traditions.

What Happened Next in England

In medieval times dances easily transferred from the manor hall to the village green and vice versa, and by the time of Elizabeth I the common people had incorporated many of the fashionable court dances into their own merry making. It was these dances which were to impress the Queen on her royal progressions up and down the country, particularly when she stayed at Cowdray House (near Midhurst, Sussex) in 1591 and watched the Mantague’s and their tenants dance. The English Country Dance was soon after introduced to court.

The Inns of Court

During the 16th century the sons of wealthy land owners would increasingly seek an education at the law schools in London known as the Inns of Court. One of the recreations here would be dancing, including the English Country Dance. Here they would learn Latin and Greek and many became familiar with the works of classical writers. Some of the more exuberant dances with lots of leaping about such as the Galliard would be used for vigorous exercise and be incorporated into the lavish court entertainments of the time called Masques with story lines often based on Greek mythology. In the hands of the common people these would influence the development of the morris dance.

Playford and The Dancing Master

The country dance with its emphasis on the patterns made by the movement of the dancers, or “figures” was to become the popular social dance of all levels of society. In the year 1651 a music publisher called John Playford employed assistants to collect such dances from the nearby Inns Of Court from his shop in the Inner Temple in the city of London. He published a book called the English Dancing Master with these dances and popular tunes of the day to go with them. From 1651 until 1728 18 editions of this book were published by John Playford and his descendants.

The Golden Age of The English Country Dance

From 1730 onwards more and more publishers of country dances appeared such as Thompson, Wright, Rutherford, and Bremner and from 1775 until 1810: Preston, Skillern, Causac, Campbell, Longman and Broderip. High class balls would take place at large Assembly Rooms such as in Bath or London and dancing for a more general public in pleasure gardens such as at Vauxhall and Ranelagh (Chelsea) in London. The dance would spread throughout Europe and became established in Scotland where it would continue even during its decline elsewhere.

The Country Dance Declines

Changing social conditions and fashions and new dances such as the Waltz and Polka from Europe saw the decline of the country dance in the English ballroom during the 19th century. The Treasures of Terpsichore

What Survived in the English Countryside

Some of the older dances were kept going by rural communities, Thomas Hardy, for example mentions a longways country dance called “The Triumph” in his novel Under The Greenwood Tree. As rural communities declined in the early 20th century, people such as Cecil Sharp collected the old dances (Morris and Country) and interpreted them for a modern audience leading to the folk dance revival. When sources from the countryside dried up, Sharp turned to the published Playford dances for his material.

What Cecil Sharp found in America

When touring Kentucky and the Appalachian mountains in America, Cecil Sharp came across a curious dance known as the “Running Set” after the kind of running step used by the dancers. Probably introduced by early settlers from Northern England and the Scottish lowlands, this appeared to be a very old kind of dance in a circular formation or square. Uniquely, during the dance, a “caller” would shout or sing the instructions for each coming figure to the dancers. The dance would often just be accompanied by the clapping of hands and stamping of feet rather than any music. The calling of the figures would become popular in many types of country dance and is perhaps associated most with the Square Dance, adopted as the national dance of the USA. 


The Maypole Manual   Available from Tradamis

The Playford Ball   103 Early English Country Dances Kate Van Winkle Keller & Genevieve Shimer 1990   ISBN 1 85273 021 8

May I Have the Pleasure   The Story of Popular Dancing. Belinda Quirey. 1976 ISBN 0 563 11000 7

Historical Dances 12th to 19th Century   Melusine Wood. 1952

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