By Mike Sonntag, Musician; used with permission
Everywhere you go, if you look, you can find what Anne Shirley called “Kindred Spirits.” It’s particularly enjoyable to me when I meet people who share a love of dance and dance music. Mike Sonntag is one of those people. We met at a dance in Ft. Worth, TX. He plays the violin and loves to share his enjoyment of music, dance, and dance history. Some months later I asked Mike to share what he’s learned through the years about English Country Dance history. He obliged, and below is his short article on English Country Dancing.
Dancing prior to Queen Elizabeth I, whose main recreation was dancing, took two forms: dances in the royal court and peasant dances. Court dancing was very status conscious, and in many of those dances, one couple was designated to be the center of attention. In the latter years of the reign of Elizabeth, a new form of dancing arose out on the country estates, so it was called English Country Dancing. These dances used one of three dance formations – the circle, the square (or quadrille), or two long lines (called longaways) – and no couple was featured above the others. A man named John Playford got exclusive publishing rights and produced in 1651 a work entitled “The English Dancing Master” which contained 103 dances and the songs that went with them, many of which had likely already been in practice for 50 or more years. Some believe that the title may have been a play on words, because it was common knowledge at the time that the French were the dance experts, and the idea of an Englishman as a dance master may have been comedic at the time. Playford’s customers were the law school students in London. They had the money to buy books, they had the time to learn to dance, and they had the motivation to display their social status through a knowledge of dancing, manners, dress, etc. That first edition sold so well, that Playford produced a second edition…and a third…and a fourth…, and after he died, his son Henry continued to publish editions. In all there were 18 editions, the last in 1728. In their day, Country Dancing did not have dance callers – the dancers took lessons ahead of time from dance instructors and memorized the dance figures. From England, this form of dancing spread out to other European countries, and became the stimulus for the development of Scottish Country Dancing. In 1699, a representative of the French Court witnessed English Country Dancing and, when back in France, described what he had seen. Following this, Country Dancing became popular in France. The French eventually called it Contre Danse, which is the origin of the currently used label Contra Dance. The 13 British Colonies imitated the English, and there would be a ball about every fortnight in one of the larger cities in America in which an English Country Dance would be held. A dance called “The Virginia Reel” was an American version of the English Country Dance “Sir Roger de Coverly”. As the American settlers moved westward, the desired to take the dancing with them, but they could not take the dance instructors, and, once away from the mansions in the big cities, floor space became very limited. The square (or quadrille) formation survived the transition, and this is the origin of what later became known as square dancing. By the 1880s, country dancing was fading from popularity, being replaced by more modern dance forms. Our current knowledge of English Country Dancing is owed to a large degree to a man named Cecil Sharp who in 1912 figured out how to interpret the English Dancing Master. Square dancing was revived in the mid 1930s in Denver, Colorado.