English Country Dance Santa Cruz

About English Country Dancing

If you’ve never heard of English country dancing, you might have seen it performed at the Renaissance Fair, you might have read descriptions of it in the works of Dickens, or you might have seen it in Emma Thompson’s film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Couples dance either in long lines, or in sets of various shapes, and weave through a series of ingenious patterns as they interact with the other couples. The music, traditionally played on such instruments as fiddle, recorder, pennywhistle, lute, mandolin, and viol, evokes images of village greens, thatched-roofed cottages, and lively old-world taverns. Even the names of the dances suggest a flavor of the setting: “Childgrove,” “Newcastle,” “Maiden Lane,” and “Shepherd’s Holiday,” to name but a few.

The dances were first recorded at length in a collection made by John Playford in 1651 called The English Dancing Master (and are thus sometimes called “Playford dances”), but evidence suggests that they originated at least one hundred years before then. Playford’s book gained tremendous popularity, which reflects the extent to which they won their way into the social circles of all levels of society.

During the Victorian era, the quadrille and, later, ballroom dances such as the waltz and polka, displaced the country dances from fashionable urban balls. They lived exclusively in the country villages for a time, but were nearly extinct toward the end of the century, until folk historian Cecil Sharp began a revival which gained momentum, and restored the tradition.