The Origin of English Country Dance

by Dani of the Seven Wells

[ This article appeared in volume 1 of the Letter of Dance. ]

Playford is "honorary period". We accept his 1651 English Dancing Master (1650 if we wish to split hairs) as the first published documentation of a form of dance whose roots lie before 1600, and the dances we find there are an important part of our recreated culture. I would not change this: English Country dance is an important component of the Medieval culture as-it-should-have-been, and I have no wish to lose it. But it is worth being aware that it is a product of the seventeenth century.

A passage in the 1548 The Complaynt of Scotland describes a shepherds' revel, and the dances which the shepherds danced:

"...Base dansis, Pavanes, Galzardis, Turdions, Braulis and Branglis, Bouffon, vitht mony uthir lycht dansis, the quhilk ar over prolixt to be rehearsed."

The list is familiar to us as the standard litany of French dances. But they were being danced to English tunes of the sort that would later be used for English Country dances:

"Zit nochterles I shall rehearse so many as my ingyne an put in memorie. In the first, they danced, Al Cristyn Nennis Dance, The North of Scotland, Hunts up, The Comont Entray, Lang Plat Fut of Gariau, Robin Hood, Thom of Lyn, Freris al, Ennyrnes, the Lock of Slene, the Gosseps dance, Levis Grene, Makky The Speyde, The Flail, The Lammas Vynde, Sontra, Cum kyttil me nykyt vantounly, Schayke leg before gossep, Rank at the Rute, Baglap, and al, John Ermistrangis dance, the Alman Haye, the Bace of Varagon, Dangeir, The Beye, the Dede Dance, The Dance of Kylrynne, the Vod and the Val, Schaik a trot."

We can recognize titles of Country dances and of traditional ballads. The different nature of the music would have led to a distinctive English style, different from that found among the peasants of France.

It is not clear at what point, and to what extent, a distinctive style evolved into a distinctive form, but in 1572 Queen Elizabeth I, visiting Warwick Castle, had the local country folk

"daunce in the Court of the Castell, her Majestie beholding them out of her chamber window; which thing, as it pleasid well the country people, so it seemed her Majesty was much delighted, and made very myrry." 1
One presumes she was not watching local variants of bransles and pavans.

The Queen's interest in the Country dance 2 continued for the remaining thirty years of her reign, and needless to say, what interested the Queen interested the entire court. Thus during her 1591 visit to Cowdray we have the local folk dancing before the Queen "and the Lord Montagu and his Lady among them, to the great pleasure of all the beholders, and the gentle applause of hir Majesty." 3

In those days, her Majesty's applause was everything, and it is not to be wondered that we read with increasing frequency of Country dances being danced at court.

To courtiers used to the intricacies of the Italian dances being choreographed at this time, however, the Country dances would have begun to pall fairly quickly. No intricate figures here -- no figures at all, in fact.

The closest thing we have to evidence as to the nature of these dances is Sir John Davies's 1596 poem "Orchestra", which uses the development of the new dances from the old as an allegory for the reduction of Chaos to Order, by Love. There is no reason to think that his characterizations of the old and new dances are anything but accurate: 4

Then first of all he doth demonstrate plaine
The motions seven that are in nature found,
Upward and downward, forth and back again,
To this side and to that, and turning round;*
	*How Live taught them do dance.
Whereof a thousand Brawles he doth compound   
Which he doth teach unto the multitude,
And ever with a turne they must conclude.

As when a nymph* arysing from the Lande,
	*Rounds or Country Daunces.
Leadeth a daunce with her long watery traine    
Down to the sea, she wries to every hand,
And every way doth cross the fertile plaine:
But when at last she falls into the maine,
Then all her traverses concluded are,
And with the Sea her course is circulare.

Thus when at first Love had them marshalled,
As erst he did the shapeless mass of things,
He taught them Rundes and winding Heyes to tread,
And about trees to cast themselves in rings:
As the two Beares, whom the First Mover flings
With a short turne about Heaven's axle tree,
In a rounde daunce for ever whirling be.

But after these, as men more civil grew,
He did more grave and solemn Meausres* frame,
With such fair order and proportion true,
And correspondence every way the same,
That no fault finding eye did ever blame;
For every eye was moved at the sight
With sober wond'ring, and with sweet delight.

We can see what John Davies recognized as Country dances of the old style: there were Rounds, sometimes danced round a central focus such as a tree. There were Heys. There were Brawles. (These last might have been serpentine line dances which ended in Rounds.) Dull, dull, dull.

So the courtiers began to modify these dances. Figures of the Italian style were added "as men more civil grew", and the dances became more strictly choreographed.

Many of the features which we consider characteristic of English Country dance existed in Italian dances of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including such fundamentally English Country steps as siding, arming, and setting. The rhythms would have been different, the footwork more elaborate, but there are a good number of Italian dances which, shorn of their footwork and constrained to follow English melodies, would be easily assimilated into English Country dance. Consider, for example:

	"Processional, finish by opening out into a square.
	Men Honour, women Honour, men exchange places.
	Women Honour, men Honour, Women exchange places.
	Men Honour, women Honour, Men turn single.
	Women Honour, men Honour, Women turn single.
	It should be remembered that the couples have previously changed places. 
	The first man now dances round the second woman to his original place whilst 
	the second man moves round the first woman to his original place (their tracks 
	cross in the centre).
	Women the same to their original places. 
	Men Honour, women Honour.  
	Men close in to take their partners by the hand, all facing up."

No, this is not an early version of "Hole in the Wall". It is "Anello", by Domenico di Ferrara (c. 1440), shorn of the instructions for the footwork. 5

There seems little doubt that the English court took its cultural cues from Italy, rather than France, at this point. (It probably suffices to observe that the Queen was known to have preferred dancing in the Italian style.) This dance, and others like it, would have provided the raw materials with which to spice the old Country dances.

By 1600 we have two distinct styles of Country dance, and the Queen would sit and "see the ladies daunce the old and new Country dances, with the taber and pipe." 6

The new style was an eclectic mixture. It borrowed from the old, it borrowed from abroad, it borrowed from the Morris dancers. 7 Morris dances were a relatively recent import from Spain and the continent.

And in the decades that followed it subsumed the old dances. 8

In the following decades of the seventeenth century, the dances subsequently collected by Playford came into existence.

A comparison of the original English Dancing Master with subsequent editions indicates that in 1650 English Country dance was part way through a transition from the older forms. As the century progressed, dances for sets of two or three or four couples fell increasingly out of style. These were appropriate in the older, courtly tradition, when a small number of dancers would dance for the pleasure of the rest, but they were increasingly out of place in later years, when everybody wanted to dance. By 1700, English Country dance was almost totally dominated by the longways dances for any number, a development encouraged by new architectural trends towards large assembly and dance halls better able to accomodate them.

These dances spread abroad, gaining international popularity. In Europe they became increasingly formalized (before falling out of fashion). In America they gave rise to the Contra dance (`contra' comes from `country', not from `opposite') and the square dance.

The earliest editions of Playford, then, give us the earliest and widest variety of dance forms, with set dances, figures, kissing dances, 10 round dances, squares, and the always popular longways dances. Thus we will prefer to draw our English Country dances from those editions, and especially the first edition. But we should not suppose that the first edition is authentically Period in some sense that later editions are not. Nor should we refuse to take dances from later editions (such as "Sellinger's Round", which does not appear in the form we know it till 1670) when we feel it appropriate.

In order to maintain some degree of focus, little space has been devoted in this article to either the development of the early English Country froms from the earlier bransles and caroles, or to the evolution of the English Country dance over the course of the 1600's, concentrating rather upon the intermediate period during which the old Country dances gave way to the new.

I have described above the evolution of the English Country dance, as I believe it to have occured, but it should be understood that the solid evidence is exceedingly sparse: A transcription of all existing pre-seventeenth-century references to English Country dance (beyond the two lengthy citations given above) can easily fit on a single page. Which is why if any readers are in a position to throw more light on the matter, to identify other appropriate references, or simply to bring greater clarity of thought to bear, I would be grateful to hear from them, either directly or through the pages of this Letter.


Alford, Violet, "Morris and Morisca", Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 2, 1935, pp. 41-9

Chambers, E.K., "The Elizabethan Stage", (date?).

Cunningham, J.P., "The Country Dance -- Early References", Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 9 #3, 12/62, pp. 148-54

Dean-Smith, Margaret and Nichol, E.J., "The Dancing Master: 1651-1728", Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 6, #4 pp. 131-45 (1943), #5 pp. 167-79 (1944), #6 pp. 211-31 (1945)

Nichols, J., ed., The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vol., 1823.

Pilling, Julian, "The Wild Morisco or The Historical Morris", English Dance and Song, Vol 46 #1, Spring 1984, pp. 26-9

Wells, Evelyn K., "Playford Tunes and Broadside Ballads", Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol 3 #2, 12/37, pp. 81-91

Wood, Melusine, "English Country Dance Prior to the 17th Century", Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 6 #1, 1949, pp. 8-12

Wood, Melusine, "Some Notes on the English Country Dance before Playford", Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 3 #2, 12/37, pp. 93-99

Note: It will be noted that most of these are secondary sources, all but one taken from the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. These articles refer in turn to many other primary and secondary sources, but I haven't listed most of them separately. The presentation of this paper owes most to Wood's 1937 article.

Figure 1: `Round Dance in the Antique Manner'

[Figure 1 is from the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Volume VIII, No. 2, December 1957, and shows a "Round Dance in the Antique Manner", an Ivory carving from Constantinople, circa 1460-1470.]


1. Nichols, vol 1, p. 319

2. The earliest appearance of the term is in a play dated 1577

3. Nicols, vol 3, p. 95

4. The marginal notes in the poem appear in the original manuscript.

5. Wood, 1937.

6. Sydney, quoted in Chambers, vol 4, p. 112

7. Attempts to trace Morris dancing back to the time of the druids are as unprofitable as attempts to trace Playford's dances back to time immemorial;

8. We know that "Sellenger's Round", "The Shaking of the Sheets", "Trenchmore", and a number of other such dances were being danced in the sixteenth century, but we don't know how they were danced. We may suppose that their original versions influenced their later ones (for example, we have a 1592 reference to "the old hop about, commonly called Sellengars Round") 9 and we may suppose that they were danced to the same tunes, but we may not suppose that Playford would have recognized them. (To cite another example, Playford's "Trenchmore" is a longways dance for as many as will, while in the earliest (1551) reference it appears to have required three dancers.)

9. Bacchus' Bounty, by the probably pseudonymous Philip Foulface

10. In the sixteenth century it was the English who casually kissed in public and the rest of Europe which thought it crude.