Letter: English Country Dancing: Pro and Contra

[ This article appeared in volume 2 of the Letter of Dance. ]

from Geoffrey Cade (Jeffrey L. Singman)

[See also Patri's article in the previous chapter - Dani]

We owe a considerable debt to Dani of the Seven Wells for his intelligent and informative article on English country dancing [LoD Jan. 1991, and First Book of Dance - Ed]. Too often in the SCA we do and teach dances without any reference to their sources, or when and where they were actually current, so that the average SCAdian acquires a vague and misleading idea that it is all `medieval' (which almost none of it actually is).

I am inclined to express at once more and less enthusiasm for English country dances than Dani. It is true that, in the strictest sense, they are 17th-century dances, in that they derive from a 17th-century source; yet it might be misleading to say that they are a product of the 17th century. There is reason to suppose that they are not substantially different from the country dances popular in the latter half of the 16th century. The passage Dani cites from The Complaynt of Scotland [1548] suggests that already by this time insular country dancing had developed the characteristics which set it apart from the more archaic folk dances of the Continent: a large repertoire of dances based on the melodies of popular songs, and thus very probably using the typical Playford verse-chorus structure.

Indeed, nearly 20 Playford dances are actually mentioned in 16th century texts:

[This list derives from Millar's Elizabethan Country Dances]

1551 Trenchmore (Playford 1721) Longways for as many as will
1560 The Catching of the Quails (Playford 1670) Four-couple circle or square
Heartsease (Playford 1651) Two-couple square
Putney Ferry (Playford 1670) Three-couple circle
The Shaking of the Sheets (Playford 1651) Three-couple longways
1564 Trenchmore
1577 The Lusty Gallant / Fain I Would (Playford 1651) Four-couple round or square
1579 The Shaking of the Sheets
1586 Trenchmore
1591 Trip & Go / The Boatman (Playford 1651) Three-couple longways
1593 Sellenger's Round (Playford 1670) Circle for as many as will
1596 Greensleeves (Playford 1721) Three-couple longways
Half Hannikin (Playford 1651) Circle for as many as will
Peppers Black (Playford 1651) Four-couple square or round
1597 Heartsease
1598 Trenchmore
1600 The Beginning of the World / Sellenger's Round
The Cushion Dance (Playford 1686)
The Hunting of the Fox / Trenchmore
Put on thy Smock a Monday (Playford 1670) Three-couple circle
Shaking of the Sheets

There is no way of knowing whether any one of these dances was done in the 16th century exactly as in Playford's time, but it is unlikely that all of them had changed drastically between 1600 and 1650. When we do any of these dances, we can in good conscience feel that we are recreating Elizabethan dance to the best of our ability, and with some measure of accuracy.

However, if Playford is good English Renaissance stuff, it is still very unmedieval. As Dani tells us, it incorporated medieval elements, but reworked them on the basis of Italian Renaissance dances (the concept of the set appears to be one example of Italian influence). What we know of medieval dance suggests that it was much closer to Arbeau's bransles: circle or chain dances, probably consisting of a fairly simple repeating pattern of steps, and relying more on the skill of the dancer and the enjoyment of the sensation of dance than on quaint and curious choreography.

To someone who wants a feel of the Middle Ages rather than the Renaissance, Playford dances embody some degree of threat. Very little medieval dance actually survives, and there is a lot of Playford. Moreover, medieval dance is alien and difficult to get a feel for (like the Middle Ages themselves), whereas Playford is very accessible to our modern minds. As a result, about half of the dancing done in the SCA (and sometimes more) is English country -- which is as if half of SCA fighting were done with pike and musket. It is fun, it falls within the legitimate interests of the organization, but it does nothing for the medieval atmosphere.

Perhaps the most regrettable effect of Playford dancing has been that it has pre-empted efforts to develop more medieval styles of dance. For example, there are a panoply of dance traditions from various parts of Europe -- the Faeroes, Brittany, Provence -- which still retain their medieval character, and which could afford us a much better taste of the Middle Ages. These have seldom been tried in an SCA context.

In the end, it is for SCAdians to decide how much they really want a medieval atmosphere. It may be that this is a low enough priority that it is not worth the effort of learning about genuine medieval dance. The most important thing, as Dani says, is that we should not deceive ourselves or others about what we do: we should recognise our dances for what they are. I hope that others will join this discussion, and that Dani's valuable article will serve to focus attention on a topic which we have neglected for too long.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (lindahl@pbm.com)