The oldest known English traditional dance
styles are Sword Dances, Morris Dances and Processional Dances. English country dance has its roots in all of these together
with the court influences and popular culture of later periods. It is a hard concept for people to grasp but the dances
we regard as traditional were the 'rock and pop' of their day. We can be sure that at some time the elders of the
village would have bemoaned the decline of dance being quite scathing over the antics of the younger generation
('Call that proper dancing? No sticks, no hankies... and the music!').
The English were well known for their dances in Tudor times and our dances were first recorded in print by John Playford in the middle of the seventeeth century. This collection represented the forms carried out by the upper echelons of society, Often (in common with most village dances) the dancers had a repertoire of sets and sequences which they carried out arbitarily chosen to fit in with a piece of music - presumably with a caller preventing chaos. There were some dances that had already been danced the same way for generations but there were no particular dances for the music of the day.
As a result of Playford's book, specific sequences were associated with particular tunes and many other dance teachers followed suit with collections of their own. They were all addressing the audience of their time being more concerned with selling books rather than preserving history. These collections were then seen to be authorative. As a result many of the dances that have come down to us are those that were enjoyed by the wealthier classes of 17th century society and modified to suit their tastes.
The English Country dance has several forms including longways, rounds and squares. Longways allows any number of
couples to do the dance whilst squares and rounds require specific numbers to form a 'set'. The choice of steps
is quite informal and include skipping, running, walking as well as slip-steps, step-hops, pivoting and polka. The steps
are always kept simple and not exaggerated - more or less whatever feels comfortable.
The aim of most of the dances is to make a moving pattern and how the dancer moves from position to position is less important than that they do so at the right time. As a result the younger dancers can show off their energy whilst the older dancers can demonstrate their skill at a slower pace. In fact the dancers can often chose the style that is most comfortable, though it is best if everyone in a set has chosen the same one!
Usually the arms hang loosely at the sides of the body. When joining hands, the man's hands are underneath with the palms upwards with the woman's above palms downwards. When the man leads the woman, they join right hand to right hand or left to left. When turning (swinging) the partners join hands right to left and left to right or, in a later tradition, in ballroom hold. When in couples, the woman is always on the right. At the end of each dance the partners always 'honour' each other, that is the man bows to the woman who responds with a curtsey or bob (a 'courtesy curtsey').
The overall style changes depending on where you are dancing. At a Playford Ball, the dancers will seek to emulate the elegance and formality of a court occasion from a bygone age whilst at a village fete or children's dance, jollity is the order of the day. Each club evolves a 'club style' reflecting the local traditions and the understanding achieved within a long-standing gathering of friends.