A History of Country Dancing – Introduction

A History of Country Dancing
with an emphasis on the steps

Anne Daye, HDS Director of Education and Research


A complete history of the country dance has yet to be written, and would form a major challenge. Here you will find an overview of the country dance from the 16th to 19th centuries, as a framework for discussion of the changing steps with which it was danced.

The term ‘country dance’ is first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in the play Misogonus Act 2 scene iv, printed in 1577. This implies that the genre was well known at the time; if the play was written in 1560, then we can assume that the country dance was a well-established genre by the middle of the sixteenth century. The English measures also date from approximately the middle of the sixteenth century, recorded in manuscripts relating to elite social dancing.

The country dance and the measures originate in England, and, alongside the hornpipe, the jig and morris dancing are the vernacular dance genres of early modern Britain. Although the country dance is often called a ‘folk’ dance, it belonged to all levels of English society, not just people dwelling in the country or the lower orders, so the term ‘vernacular’ is a more inclusive label and identifies it more broadly with the particular country and nation. What did ‘country’ mean here? I suggest it meant ‘national’ dance, and referred to the whole country, not just the part outside towns. An equivalent would be ‘court and country’, for example, when the king was in contention with the nation leading to the Civil War in 1640.

However, the ‘country’ dance was and is frequently assumed to belong to rural life rather than that of the court, city or town, an interpretation made throughout its history. It may have originated outside the court and city, but was central to fashionable dancing for most of its history. In the 21st century, the importance of the country dance as a significant cultural element in English history is under-valued, and I hope that this short article will make plain its unique, native features.

Our first notion of country dancing comes from The English Dancing Master published by John Playford in 1651. He presents us with a variety of dances, in circles, squares and columns; set dances for four, six, and eight couples; longways and round dances for ‘as many as will’; dances with complex figures, simple and repetitive sequences and dance-games; some known from earlier citations as dances (The Shaking of the Sheets), some as melodies only; to a variety of tunes, mostly of English origin, but including tunes of Scottish, Irish and continental origin. They are all social dances, for men and women in pairs interacting with the other couples.

The equivalent in France at the time, of a communal, sociable, vernacular dance form (rather than the European-wide court culture of solo couple dancing, such as the galliard), was the branle, executed in a simple line, each dancer or couple maintaining the same placement within the group, danced with a short repeated step sequence. In contrast, the country dance figures required a sophisticated spatial awareness and more complex interaction amongst the dancers, as they change places in the dancing group. The variety of forms of the mid-seventeenth century country dance were also more sophisticated than the variations of the branle.

Playford’s successful publishing venture of a small, modestly-priced book of tunes with brief dance instructions beneath initiated three centuries, or more, of country dance publications in the same format. Through them, we get an idea of the development of the genre. However, the economical presentation gave the briefest information on the steps to be used. The publishers could rely on their clientele knowing the steps of the time, and also there was a certain freedom and individuality in the dancers’ choice of steps.


Playford, J. (1651) The English Dancing Master. London: Playford. Facsimile reprint: Dean-Smith (ed.), London, Schott, 1957

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