Sophisticated Suspense and more . . .

English Country Dancing

In Crossing Paths English country dancing is central to the Georgian Ball, where Grant is tasked with leading the participants when the hired dance master gets sick.  It also plays an significant role in Meri and Robert’s wedding as couples change partners and become acquainted or reveal themselves as part of the festivities.  Who can forget Meri’s father delighting in the English Country Dance patterns that remind him of fractals, or Robert’s mother doing her part with kabuki-like precision?


English Country Dance is a form of social dance done with partners.  Any of a large number of social dances in the British Isles in which couples dance together in a figure or ‘set’ is an English Country Dance. 


Each dancer dances to his or her partner and each couple dances to the other couples in the set. A set usually consists of two or three couples, sometimes four and occasionally five or six. Often dancers follow a ‘caller’ who names each change in the figures.  English Country Dance has a vocabulary of it’s own and in Crossing Paths it is Grant who learned how to call from his Aunt Bessie.


English Country Dances became popular in the court of Elizabeth I of England. Many references to country dancing and titles shared with known 17th-century dances appear from this time, though little is known of these dances before the mid-17th century when John Playford’s The English Dancing Master (1651) was published.  It listed more than a hundred tunes, each with its dance steps, and was reprinted regularly for 80 years. Playford and his successors set the standard and had a virtual monopoly on the publication of dance manuals until 1711, but these manuals ceased publication sometime around 1728.


It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century that a revival of English Country Dance took place due to the efforts of Cecil Sharp, Mary Neal, and the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The revival was so successful that for a period of time schoolchildren in England were taught Country Dances. Cecil Sharp, in particular, published a six-volume set of his Country Dance Book between 1909 and 1922.  He attempted to reconstruct English Country Dance as it was performed at the time of Playford, using the surviving traditional English village dances as his guide. Sharp published 160 dances from the Playford manuals and 16 traditional village Country Dances.


In 1932 the first collection of modern English country dances since the 1820s was published, though only in the late 20th century did modern reconstructions and compositions of historical dances become more fully accepted, as well as new compositions.


English Country Dancing remains popular.  It takes place in communities around the world, at regularly-scheduled events, special events, as part of folk festivals, in literature, on stage, and in films.


If you want to get an idea what melodic English Country Dance music sounds like and looks like, rent the film versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.  You may also find a familiar ring when you hear English Country Dance tunes from composers such as Purcell, Handel and Grainger, as well as other traditional, folk, classical and contemporary sources.