English Country Dance

Each dance consists of a number of figures or moves that are usually linked together so that there is a smooth transition from one figure to the next without awkward or difficult turns of the dancers’ bodies. The music may be designed to fit the dance figures, or alternatively the dance may be composed so that it fits a particular tune. In the English Dance tradition some dances have a specific tune to which they are danced. There are many examples of dances that were written to fit particular melodies from classical composers too.

The most common form of music is a 32 bar reel (4/4 time) or jig (6/8 time) although there are numerous examples of different types of music of different lengths being used. Other forms of music such as waltzes and  slip jigs are found too.

There are a variety of dance forms. In the time when many dances were originally composed it was difficult for single men and women to meet each other socially without a chaperone. The ability to dance was an essential accomplishment for both men and women because it enabled them to meet socially, albeit for a relatively short time and to assess each other.

Dances from around 1650 are often danced in a short set, or group, consisting of three or four couples (each couple being a man and a woman). This was the time of the Commonwealth when dancing in public was not allowed, so the three or four-couple set could be accommodated in many rooms in private houses. At the end of each ‘turn’ of the dance the dancers change position, and sometimes partner as well, so that after three turns through a three-couple set dance the dancers will all have returned to their original positions. As society became more liberal after the restoration of the monarchy people met in assembly rooms – very long public rooms – where the ‘longways’ form of dances were danced. As the name suggests these dances are performed in a long set, generally ‘for as many as will’.

In the original form of longways dances, a couple would start dancing at the ‘top’ of the set (where the music was) and dance with another couple, then move down the whole set dancing with each subsequent couple in turn. This means that there was only one group of four people dancing at any time, leaving a lot of time for conversation away from friends or chaperones.