A History of Country Dancing – Origins

Anne Daye, HDS Director of Education and Research


I propose that the country dance evolved from the communal dances by a line of people. These still exist in local practice all over Europe, such as the carole (sung and danced), cousin to the kolo of Yugoslavia, hora of Rumania, horo of Bulgaria, the khorovod of Russia and la danza grande of Northern Spain. With a repetitive step pattern, the line travels onward guided by a leader, passing through the streets of the town, forming circles, spirals and weaving patterns in open places. Such a line can easily form into pairs to make further interactive patterns down the line.

Two good examples of this genre in an elite setting are La Chiaranzana (described by Fabritio Caroso, dancing master of Rome, in Il Ballarino published 1581) and La Catena d’Amore (described by Cesare Negri, dancing master of Milan, in Le Gratie d’Amore published 1602). A popular dance for weddings, as many couples as wish form a column. Then the leading couple move down the column and up again several times making circles, arches and turns with each couple they meet, progressing on to the next. After this, they turn the column into a single file, and lead the company into and out of a spiral or snail formation; they start a hay or chain from the top, all joining in as the leading couple reach them. Other figures include casting, threading the needle and, with hands held going under or over another pair (‘duck and dive’). The lengthy dance finishes with a going-out figure, in which the ladies are returned to their seats. Throughout the entire dance, a step sequence is maintained fitting the phrases of the music.

In England and Ireland such dances were known as ‘Long Dances’. Playford 1651 includes vestiges of such forms in Sedany or Dargason (hay figure), The Slip(going-out figure) and Half Hannikin (meeting every dancer). Note that Step Statelyis called ‘a long Dance’ for up to nine couples. Both The Countrey Colland The London Gentlewoman are further examples of the Long Dance, in which the changes are danced with every couple. The circle dances for as many as will were a version of this genre too, such as Pepper’s Black. We still have a Long Dance in the Helston Furry Dance, taken through the streets in a column of couples, the simple figure performed in pairs of couples.

By the mid-seventeenth century, this fundamental genre had been elaborated into more complex figuring while dances for four, six and eight were added to the communal forms for as many as will. This process was unique to England, and parallels the development of the English measures from the international court forms of pavan, almain and courante. Evidence of the performance of the measures (dignified dances by couples in a column, not exchanging places) come from manuscript sources, with connections to the Inns of Court (Wilson 1987; Payne 2003).

There are indications in other sources, such as contemporary plays, that these measures could include figures allowing couples to change places in the column; however, no choreographic information has survived. The English interest in figuring is therefore found for both the courtly measures and the general country dance (and arguably, for the morris dance of this era too).

Details of the process of development are lost to history, but probably arose from a synthesis of invention by dancing masters, musicians and the people of every level of society. Exchange of ideas may have followed the royal and aristocratic seasonal journeys from London, the centre of power and international exchange, to the country house estates north, south, east and west, where aristocratic and gentry families lived in close communication with the lower orders.


Caroso, F. (1581) Il Ballarino. Venice: Ziletti. Facsimile reprint: New York, Broude Bros. 1967

Negri, C. (1602) Le Gratie d’Amore. Milan: Pontio & Piccaglia. Facsimile reprint: Bologna, Forni 1969

Payne, I. (2003) The Almain in Britain, c.1549 – c. 1675. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Daye, A. & Thorp, J. (2018) English Measures Old and New: Dulwich College MS. XCIV/f.28 Historical Dance 4 (3), 27–40

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

Wilson, D. R. (1987) Dancing in the Inns of Court. Historical Dance, 1987, 2 (5), 3-16

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