Reconstructing an English Country Dance from Playford

[ This article appeared in volume 3 of the Letter of Dance. ]

by Master Trahaearn ap Ieuan

The primary source for period English country dances is Playford's English Dancing Master. The 1650 edition of this book barely squeaks by the generous definition of the SCA period, but few dancers complain about pushing this definition because of the rich variety of dances this source contains. The research work to reconstruct a dance for performance is a challenge, unfortunately. Playford's description of each dance is far from rigorous; it is likely that the descriptions were intended only as reminders for people already familiar with the dances. The descriptions, given in casual English, are presented in an unstructured form; the only hints as to timing of the sections are by symbols that represent the conclusion of a repeat of the melody. As I shall show, however, the dances yield reasonable reconstructions when investigated using familiarity with Playford's conventions and the conventions of English country dance, as well as comparison with other dances and a little bit of arithmetic. Of course, assumptions are made when the evidence is unclear, and different people will often come up with different, equally reasonable, reconstructions for the same dance.

It should be noted that Playford describes very few of the steps that make up the dances, as all he says at the beginning of his book is:

A Double is four steps forward or back, closing both feet.

A Single is two steps, closing both feete.

Set and turne single, is a single to one hand, and a single to the other, and turne single.

The rest is left, presumably, as an exercise for the reader. Different readers have come up with different solutions. The conventions that I use are given at the end of this article; discussing the reconstruction of specific steps, and the sources for them, is beyond the scope of this article (but an excellent topic for another one).

Playford also describes some abbreviations and symbols that are used in the descriptions:

D. Is for a Double.
S. Is for a Single.
Wo. Stands for woman.
We. Stands for women.
Cu. Stands for Couple.
Co. Stands for Contrary.
2. Stands for second.
3. Stands for third.
4. Stands for fourth.
. Stands for a straine playd once.
: Stands for a straine playd twice.
.: Stands for a straine playd thrice, &c.

This list will be a useful reference as we work through the dances.

Playford uses sun symbols to represent women, and moon symbols to represent men. To more clearly represent the direction dancers are facing, in this article I shall use symbols from a later source, for a woman (facing toward the top of the page), and for a man.

The dance I'll reconstruct is called The Bonny Bonny Broom and is given on page 74 of Playford. It is described as for eight, and a diagram equivalent to the one below shows four couples lined up in a longways set.

The melody is 8 measures of 4/4 time music, which gives 16 counts(1) with each repeat:

Music for The Bonny Bonny Broom

The text of the dance is as follows.

Lead up all a D. forwards and back, the first foure cast off and come to your places, the last foure do the like . Lead downe and as much : First and 3. Cu meet and goe back, hands and goe round  :  The other foure as much ::

Sides all, set and turne S. . That againe : The two first men hands and change places, and the last two men change, We. doing the same, set and turne S. . All that againe .:

Armes all, set and turne S. . That againe : The 2. and 3. on each side lead to the wall, while the first Cu. lead up and the last lead downe: change hands and meet; hands all and halfe round .: All that againe ::

By observing the use of Playford's underlined dots, we learn that each of the three sections of the dance accounts for four repeats of the melody. (The fact that in the second and third sections some steps are described, followed by ., and then Playford says That againe, followed by :, shows that the number of dots is counted from the beginning of each section.)

The first 16 counts are occupied by Lead up all a D. forwards and back, the first foure cast off and come to your places, the last foure do the like. This is four counts to do a Double up (up being the direction the dancers face at the beginning of the dance), and four to do a Double back. The remaining eight counts (time enough for 2 Doubles) are taken up by the casting section; the two halves of the set do the same figure independently. The text says they cast off and come to [their] places; casting off is turning away from your partner and walking down the outside of the set. When more than one couple casts, it is most common for all to follow the same path, each couple following the couple before them. Since they travel down the outside, we will assume they come to their places by walking up the inside. We make this assumption because in a different dance, Godesses, it is explicitly called out that they cast again to return to their initial position: Cast off, meet below. Cast off below, meet above:. We'll call this leading up, as once the partners meet at the bottom, they will take hands again, the gentleman guiding his partner back to their original position. Trying out this travel path shows that it fills 8 counts comfortably, helping confirm that the reconstruction is reasonable. We'll describe this as 1st and 3rd couples: 2 Doubles, casting off and leading up the inside; 2nd and 4th couples: 2 Doubles, following the couple above you, which looks like the following:

The next 16 counts are Lead downe and as much. We're echoing the first section, but we start going down instead of up. We face down (facing a direction takes no time, as you generally work it into the last count of the previous step) and then do Double down and back, then perform the same casting and leading as before. Most English country dances begin with pairs of doubles in some direction and back, plus fluff; this dance is reassuringly falling into that pattern.

The third 16 counts are described as First and 3. Cu meet and goe back, hands and goe round. The meet and goe back is likely to be done with doubles. The doubles would take up 8 counts, leaving 8 for the rest of the section. The second half is more interesting, as we have a hands and goe round. Who's doing this? The three possibilities are everyone, or the top two and bottom two couples independently (echoing the first two sections, where these are the groups that cast), or just the 1st and 3rd couples (echoing the preceding steps). Any other combination we'd expect to be called out explicitly. There's not really enough time for 8 people to take hands all around and go completely around the set; also, later in the dance, we're told in a similar situation that everyone takes hands, so that would mean it's not everyone. We do get a clue from the next instruction: the repeat calls for The other foure as much. Saying The other foure would indicate that four folks are not involved the first time around (leaving four to perform the section), and that only these folks are involved the second time around. The beginning of the section explicitly calls for the 1st and 3rd couples, so if only four are involved, they would be the four. So it looks like just the first and third circle (we do it to the left).. Why to the left? Well, Playford rarely gives directions, so most people decide which direction to assume in general, and I assume to the left, as this matches the default initial direction in many other period dances that specify a direction, such as the dances in Arbeau. What happens to the 2nd couple, which is in the middle throughout this section? We assume they move out of the way; this is not uncommon in Playford. In Hide Park, couples are instructed to pass between other couples but the other couples are not instructed to separate and allow them to pass. The circling then looks as follows:

The fourth 16 counts, being The other foure as much, are then the same steps done by the other two couples. This concludes the first third of the dance. We will expect each remaining third to echo parts of the first third, so what we've figured out so far will be useful in figuring out what is to come.

The first 16 counts of the second third are Sides all, set and turne S. Our patience has rewarded us with a simple phrase. Dancers face their partners and then Side left, which takes 8 counts (again, left as the initial direction is an assumption by convention), and then Set and Turn single, for another 8 counts to fill the 16. The next 16 counts, being That againe, are Side right and Set and Turn single.

The next 16 counts are The two first men hands and change places, and the last two men change, We. doing the same, set and turne S. We begin by wondering what order the changes at the beginning of the section take place in, and who's changing at the same time. We do know that the set and turne S. at the end of the figure takes 8 counts; it's going to be done by everyone at the same time, since if some folks did it first and others did it later, we would eat up all the 16 counts for the section. So the changing places takes 8 counts. Trying out the trade shows that 8 counts (two Doubles) to take hands with someone and trade places with someone is too slow, especially compared with the rest of the dance; 4 (one Double) is reasonable; and 2 (a single) is too fast. Do the men all trade at the same time followed by the women trading, or do the first two couples trade first followed by the other two couples? I interpret We. doing the same to mean the women are following the same instructions as the men at the same time. This fits with the first section of the first third of the dance, where the instruction the last foure do the like must occur at the same time the first four are doing something because of time constraints. So I interpret this to mean that the first and second men trade places while the first and second women do likewise, and then the third and fourth couples do likewise. When trading places, since nothing specific is stated for the direction, we'll again assume that we are to go to the left. The section ends with Face partner and Set and Turn single. We should be concerned that people have not returned to their normal position (they have traded places with someone, but not traded back). We should expect them to return to their home position before the end of this third of the dance.

The last 16 counts are All that againe which, happily enough, repeats exactly what happened in the previous 16 counts; since everyone trades places again with the same person, everyone ends up in his original place. That ends the second third of the dance.

The final third of the dance begins with 16 counts of Armes all, set and turne S. and 16 counts of That againe. We'll translate this to Arm left, Set and Turn single, then Arm right, Set and Turn single.

The next 16 counts are The 2. and 3. on each side lead to the wall, while the first Cu. lead up and the last lead downe: change hands and meet; hands all and halfe round. "Lead" here again is used as a synonym for Double, so the 1st couple will do a Double up (they must face up first), and the 4th couple do a Double down (they must face down first). But what's happening with the 2nd and 3rd couples? Here it is helpful to know the environment in which English country dances were done in period. Many of the halls were long and narrow (this led, over time, to the longways for as many as will dances such as Hole in the Wall). When dancing, up was generally along the length of the hall; thus to the wall means out to the side. So Playford's instruction about the 2. and 3. on each side refers to the 2nd man and 3rd man (on the gentlemen's side) and the 2nd woman and 3rd woman (on the ladies' side); these people will do a Double out toward the side (and yes, they must face out first). So the first four counts look like:

Next we have change hands and meet. To change hands, we'll need each pair of dancers to turn around so that their other hands are on the inside; once this is done, they're now facing toward the middle of the set. "Meet" here is a cue for doing a Double to come closer to other people, which works out nicely since everyone is facing the correct direction. They'll all Double forward. We're left with 8 counts for Hands all and halfe round, which is about enough time to walk halfway around the set.. Again, we end a section with people not in their original places; they're halfway around the set from where they started. We should make sure they get home safely by the end of the dance.

The last 16 counts are another All that againe. This should get everyone back to place. We'll have everyone do exactly the same thing again, but there is a question. On the repeat of the Hands all and halfe round, do we go around again to the left, or do we circle to the right this time? Many dances alternate direction on this kind of figure; however, a quick glance through Playford doesn't spot any that do so without specifically calling for a Back again. So we'll decide that these 16 counts are an exact repeat of the previous 16. That concludes the dance.

Now that our reconstruction is complete, we can look at some secondary sources and see if their reconstructions are different. I have three secondary sources that have reconstructions of The Bonny Bonny Broom: Cecil Sharp's Country Dance Book, part III; The Playford Ball, a wonderful book from the Country Dance and Song Society, and Elizabethan Country Dances (ECD), an enthusiastic but less rigorous work.

Interestingly enough, the first difference comes during the second half of the first 16 counts of the dance: the first foure cast off and come to your places, the last foure do the like. I and ECD have everyone do the cast off by going down the outside and up the inside; Sharp and Playford Ball have the 4th couple lead the bottom two couples up the outside and down the inside. The difference looks like this:

The difference is in the interpretation of cast off. Does it mean out and down, or does it mean out and toward the center? Two separate casts happening at the same time is an uncommon thing in Playford, so there's no well-known dance to compare to. In this situation, the call is left to the dancemaster. When teaching this dance, since either interpretation is correct, I will bow to the Sharp version which is almost certainly more entrenched than the other.

Even more interestingly, ECD has the cast go the other way on the repeat, whereas all the other reconstructions have the repeat of the cast be exactly the same. I would guess this is to have the casts always begin with dancers facing in the same direction as they did during the previous set of doubles. This is certainly not wrong, but again, it is different from the more entrenched version. I will stick to having the repeat work the same way as the first time through.

The next set of differences comes up during the third 16 counts of the first third of the dance. Playford Ball and I say the 1st and 3rd couples double toward each other, double away from each other, and then circle. Sharp and ECD say the 1st and 3rd couples double toward each other, double toward each other, and then circle. Here Playford is unambiguous: First and 3. Cu meet and goe back. I would assume that Sharp and ECD think it is strange that the couples should move away from each other before circling, but I believe they are still close enough to be able to circle easily around in 8 counts. I will keep my reconstruction as is.

There are no other differences in the reconstructions; we all agree on the interpretation of The two first men hands and change places, and the last two men change, We. doing the same: all reconstructions have the top two couples peform the change, followed by the bottom two couples. We also all agree that the hands all and halfe round goes the same direction on each repeat.

Our reconstruction has turned out to be compatible with reconstructions made in other dance books. Comparing the differences between the reconstructions has shown us how Playford's directions can be interpreted differently by different people. With an understanding of the sources and the conventions of English country dancing, we can make tradeoffs between confusing people who have learned the dance elsewhere and remaining true to the original text in Playford. We can now take this experience to reconstructing other English country dances.

Appendix: English Country Dance Terms

Double: Four counts. The double is a walking step, that is, as you "step forward" on one foot, that foot ends up half a pace in front of the other. Step forward on each count, alternating feet (step sideways if direction is left or right, or you have taken hands with someone). End with feet together.

Side left : Eight counts. Begin facing the person you are siding with. 1-4: Do a Double forward with very small steps toward just left of the person, meeting the inside shoulder. 5-8: Double back to place. If you Side right, you go toward just right of the person. Note that the siding step is probably the one that different teachers will disagree about the most.

Arm left : Eight counts. 1-8: Starting toward just left of your partner, take inside forearms and circle once around to place.

Set left: Two counts. 1: step to left with left foot. 2: bring right foot up next to left.

Turn single: Four counts. Do a Double, turning one complete circle over your left shoulder. End up facing the way you started.

Set & Turn single : Eight counts. Set left, then Set right, then Turn single.

partner: The person of the opposite gender you are dancing with.

up: Direction you were facing at the beginning of the dance.

down: Direction behind you at the beginning of the dance.

in: Toward the center of the set.

out: Away from the center of the set.

left: To your current left.

right: To your current right.

forward: Direction you are currently facing.

back: Direction your back is facing.


Keller, Kate Van Winkle and Shimer, Genevieve. The Playford Ball. Chicago, A Capella Books, 1990. This book belongs in the library of anyone interested in Playford's dances. In addition to facsimiles of the original source for each dance listed, anecdotal information about the name and tune of each dance make this a wonderful reference work.

Millar, John Fitzhugh. Elizabethan Country Dances. Williamsburg VA, Thirteen Colonies Press, 1985. This secondary source makes assumptions that are jarring to rigorous scholars (such as using a 1650 source for "Elizabethan" dances); the lack of original text for each dance is a disappointment in a modern work. However, it does provide a useful additional opinion.

Playford, John. The English Dancing Master. Modern edition edited by Hugh Mellor. London, Dance Books Ltd., 1984. This edition is still in print, but it took us several months to find one. It's always best to go back to the original source.

Pugliese, Patri. English Country Dances in the SCA, in Tournaments Illuminated #68, Fall 1983. This is an excellent discussion of how best to reconstruct these dances for SCA use.

Sharp, Cecil J. The Country Dance Book, Part III. Originally published in 1912; modern edition republished in 1985 by H. Styles. Morley UK, Moxon Press, 1985. Cecil Sharp's work is the basis of the modern English country dance tradition; many dances are well reconstructed but he is the source of some very pervasive errors and assumptions.


IA11-8Double forward and back
(3rd and 4th couples: Face down)
9-161st couple: 2 Doubles, casting down then leading up
2nd couple: 2 Doubles, following 1st couple
3rd couple: 2 Doubles, following 4th couple
4th couple: 2 Doubles, casting up then leading down
A21-8(Face down and) Double forward and back
(1st and 2nd couples: Face up)
9-16Repeat remainder of A1
A31-8(1st couple: Face down) (3rd couple: Face up)
2nd couple: Face partner and Double back (to get out of the way as)
1st and 3rd couple: Doubles forward and back (to meet)
9-161st and 3rd couple: Take hands all around and Circle to left doing 2 Doubles
A41-16Repeat A3 reversing, 1st/2nd couple and 3rd/4th couple (so 3rd couple will fall back to get out of the way)
IIA11-8Side left
9-16Set and Turn Single
A21-16Repeat A1, but Side right instead of Side left
A31-4(1st and 3rd couple: Face down) (2nd and 4th couple: Face up)
1st man and 2nd man: 1st woman and 2nd woman: Take hands and Double, trading places
5-83rd man and 4th man: 3rd woman and 4th woman: Take hands and Double, trading places
(Face partner)
9-16Set and Turn single
A41-16Repeat A3 (everyone returns to his original place)
IIIA11-8Arm left
9-16Set and Turn Single
A21-16Repeat A1, but Arm right instead of Arm left
A31-4(1st couple pos: Face up) (2nd and 3rd couple pos: Face out) (4th couple pos: Face down)
Double out (forward away from the set)
5-8(Face in and) Double in (forward back to place)
9-16Take hands all around and Circle halfway to left doing 2 Doubles
A41-16Repeat A3 (everyone returns to his original place)


1 I hope serious musicians will forgive me here; I define a count as that unit of musical time corresponding to one step by a dancer. In most English country dances there are two counts to a measure, so a double step (step left, right, left, right) takes two measures.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (