Country Dance

 Country Dances.  Sir Roger de Coverley

First lady and bottom gentleman advance to centre, salute, and retire; first gentleman and bottom lady, same. First lady and bottom gentleman advance to centre, turn, and retire; first gentleman and bottom lady the same. Ladies promenade, turning off to the right down the room, and back to places, while gentlemen do the same, turning to the left; top couple remain at bottom; repeat to the end of dance. 

Country Dances


C LISTHENES, tyrant of Sicyon, says Herodotus, had a beautiful daughter whom he resolved to marry to the most accomplished of the Greeks. Accordingly all the eligible young men of Greece resorted to the court of Sicyon to offer for the hand of the lovely Agarista. Among these, the most distinguished was Hippoclides, and the king decided to take him as his son-in-law.

Hippoclides before Clisthenes.

Clisthenes had already invited the guests to the nuptial feast, and had slaughtered one hundred oxen to the gods to obtain a blessing on the union, when Hippoclides offered to exhibit the crown and climax of his many accomplishments.

He ordered a flute-player to play a dance tune, and when the musician obeyed, he (Hippoclides) began to dance before the king and court and guests, and danced to his own supreme satisfaction.

After the first bout, and he had rested awhile and recovered breath, he ordered a table to be introduced, and he danced figures on it, and finally set his head on the table and gesticulated with his legs.

When the applause had ceased, Clisthenes said—as the young man had reverted to his feet and stood expectantly before him—"You have danced very well, but I don't want a dancing son-in-law."

How greatly we should like to know what Herodotus does not tell us, whether the tyrant of Sicyon was of a sour and puritanical mind, objecting to dancing on principle, or whether he objected to the peculiar kind of dance performed by Hippoclides, notably that with his head on the table and his legs kicking in the air.

I do not think that such a thing existed at that period as puritanical objection to dancing, but I imagine that it was the sort of dance which offended Clisthenes. Lucian in one of his Dialogues introduces a philosopher who reproaches a friend for being addicted to dancing, whereupon the other replies that dancing was of Divine invention, for the goddess Rhæa first composed set dances about the infant Jupiter to hide him from the eyes of his father Saturn, who wanted to eat him. Moreover, Homer speaks with high respect of dancing, and declares that the grace and nimbleness of Merion in the dance distinguished him above the rest of the heroes in the contending hosts of Greeks and Trojans. He adds that in Greece statues were erected to the honour of the best dancers, so highly was the art held in repute, and that Hesiod places on one footing valour and dancing, when he says that "The gods have bestowed fortitude on some men, and on others a disposition for dancing!" Lastly, he puts the philosopher in mind that Socrates not only admired the saltatory exercise in others, but learned it himself when he was an old man.

On hearing this defence of dancing, the morose philosopher in Lucian's Dialogue professes himself a convert, and requests his friend to take him to the next subscription ball.

Steele, in the Spectator , declared that "no one ever was a good dancer that had not a good understanding," and that it is an art whereby mechanically, so to speak, "a sense of good-breeding and virtue are insensibly implanted in minds not capable of receiving it so well in any other rules."

I cannot help thinking that the dancing commended by the Spectator , learned in old age by Socrates, and that in which the Greeks won the honour of statues, was something far removed from that which incurred the displeasure of Clisthenes, and lost Hippoclides the hand of his beautiful mistress.

Here is a letter in the Spectator , given in Steele's article. It purports to be from a father, Philipater: "I am a widower, with one daughter; she was by nature much inclined to be a romp, and I had no way of educating her, but commanding a young woman, whom I entertained to take care of her, to be very watchful in her care and attendance about her. I am a man of business and obliged to be much abroad. The neighbours have told me, that in my absence our maid has let in the spruce servants in the neighbourhood to junketings, while my girl play'd and romped even in the street. To tell you the plain truth, I catched her once, at eleven years old, at chuck-farthing, among the boys. This put me upon new thoughts about my child, and I determined to place her at a boarding-school. I took little notice of my girl from time to time, but saw her now and then in good health, out of harm's way, and was satisfied. But by much importunity, I was lately prevailed with to go to one of their balls. I cannot express to you the anxiety my silly heart was in, when I saw my romp, now fifteen, taken out. I could not have suffered more, had my whole fortune been at stake. My girl came on with the most becoming modesty I had ever seen, and casting a respectful eye, as if she feared me more than all the audiency, I gave a nod, which, I think, gave her all the spirit she assumed upon it, but she rose properly to that dignity of aspect. My romp, now the most graceful person of her sex, assumed a majesty which commanded the highest respect. You, Mr. Spectator, will, better than I can tell you, imagine all the different beauties and changes of aspect in an accomplished young woman, setting forth all her beauties with a design to please no one so much as her father. My girl's lover can never know half the satisfaction that I did in her that day. I could not possibly have imagined that so great improvement could have been wrought by an art that I always held in itself ridiculous and contemptible. There is, I am convinced, no method like this, to give young women a sense of their own value and dignity; and I am sure there can be none so expeditious to communicate that value to others. For my part, my child has danced herself into my esteem, and I have as great an honour of her as ever I had for her mother, from whom she derived those latent good qualities which appeared in her countenance when she was dancing; for my girl showed in one quarter of an hour the innate principles of a modest virgin, a tender wife, and generous friend, a kind mother, and an indulgent mistress."

It is a curious fact that the beautiful and graceful dance, the dance as a fine art, is extinct among us. It has been expelled by the intrusive waltz. And if in the waltz any of that charm of modesty, grace of action, and dignity of posture can be found, which delighted our forefathers and made them esteem dancing, then let it be shown. It was not waltzing which made Merion to be esteemed among the heroes of the Trojan war; it was not waltzing certainly that Socrates acquired in his old age; and it most assuredly was not whilst she was waltzing that the correspondent of the Spectator  admired in his daughter the modest virgin. It is possible that it was a sort of topsy-turvy waltz Hippoclides performed, and which lost him the daughter of Clisthenes.

The dance is not properly the spinning around of two persons of opposite sex hugging each other, and imitating the motion of a teetotum. The dance is an assemblage of graceful movements and figures performed by a set number of persons. There is singular beauty in the dance proper. The eye is pleased by a display of graceful and changing outline, by bringing into play the muscles of well-moulded limbs. But where many performers take part the enchantment is increased, just as part-singing is more lovely than solo-singing; for to the satisfaction derived from the graceful attitude of one performer is added that of beautiful grouping. A single well-proportioned figure is a goodly sight; several well-proportioned figures in shifting groups, now in clusters, now swinging loose in wreaths, now falling into line or circles; whilst an individual, or a pair, focus the interest, is very beautiful. It is the change in a concert from chorus to solo; and when, whilst the single dance, projected into prominence, attracts the delighted eye, the rest of the dancers keep rhythmic motion, subdued, in simple change, the effect is exquisite. It is the accompaniment on a living instrument to a solo.

A correspondent of the Times  recently gave us an account of the Japanese ballet, which illustrates what I insist on. He tells us that the Maikos or Japanese ballet-dancers are girls of from sixteen to eighteen years of age; they wear long fine silk dresses, natural flowers in their hair, and hold fans in their hands. Their dance is perfectly decorous, exquisitely graceful, and of marvellous artistic beauty. It partakes of the nature of the minuet and the gavotte; it makes no violent demands on lungs and muscles; its object is to give pleasure to the spectators through the exhibition of harmony of lines, elegance of posture, beauty of dress, grace with which the folds of the long drapery fall, the play of light, and change of arrangement of colour. It is a dance full of noble and stately beauty, and has nothing in common with our European ballet, with its extravagance and indelicacy, and—it must be added—inelegance. It is a play without words, and a feast of pure delight to the artistic eye.

Æsthetically, the dance is, or may be, one of the most beautiful creations of man, an art, and an art of no mean order. In it each man and woman has to sustain a part, is one of many, a member of a company, enchained to it by laws which all must obey. And yet each has in his part a certain scope for individual expansion, for the exercise of liberty. It is a figure of the world of men, in which each has a part to perform in relation to all the rest. If the performer uses his freedom to excess, the dancers in the social ball are thrown into disorder, and the beauty and unity of the performance is lost.

Now all this beauty is taken from us. The waltz has invaded our ball-rooms, and drives all other dances out of it. Next to the polka, the waltz is the rudest and most elementary of step and figure-dances; it has extirpated before it the lovely and intricate dances, highly artistic, and of elaborate organization, which were performed a century ago. How is it now in a ball? Even the quadrille and lancers, the sole remnants of an art beautiful to lookers-on, are sat out, or, after having been entered on the list, are omitted, and a waltz substituted for it. "Valse, valse, toujours valse!" A book on dances, published in 1821, speaks of the introduction of the waltz as a new thing, and of the rarity of finding persons at a ball who could dance it.

"The company at balls having no partners who are acquainted with waltzing or quadrilles, generally become spectators of each other in a promenade round the rooms, so that the waltz or quadrille ball ends in country dances, sometimes not one of these dances being performed during the evening." That was a little over sixty years ago. Waltz and quadrille came in hand-in-hand, and displaced the old artistic and picturesque country dances, and then waltz prevailed, and kicked quadrille out at the door. The country dance is the old English dance—the dance of our forefathers—the dance which worked such wonders in the heart of the old father in Steele's paper in the Spectator .

The English have always been a dancing people, only during the Commonwealth did they kick their heels, dancing being unallowed; and at the beginning of this century dancing was discountenanced among the upper classes by the Evangelicals, and among villagers almost completely put down, or driven into low public-houses, by the Dissenters. In 1598 Hentzner describes the English as "excelling in dancing, and in the art of music;" and says that whilst a man might hope to become Lord Chancellor through dancing, without being bred to the law, like Sir Christopher Hatton, it was certainly worth while to endeavour to excel. According to Barnaby Rich, in 1581 the dances in vogue were measures—a grave and stately performance, like the minuet, galliards, jigs, braules, rounds, and hornpipes. In 1602 the Earl of Worcester writes to the Earl of Shrewsbury, "We are frolic here in Court, much dancing in the privy chamber of country dances  before the Queen's Majesty, who is exceedingly pleased therewith." In the reign of James I., Waldon, sneering at Buckingham's kindred, observes that it is easier to put fine clothes on the back than to learn the French dances, and therefore that "none but country dances" must be used at Court. At Christmas, 1622-3, the Prince Charles "did lead the measures with the French ambassador's wife. The measures—braules, corrantoes, and galliards—being ended, the masquers with the ladies did dance two country dances."

In Pepys' Diary  we read how he went to see the King dance in Whitehall. "By and by comes the King and Queen, the Duke (of York) and the Duchess, and all the great ones; and after seating themselves, the King takes out the Duchess of York; and the Duke, the Duchess of Buckingham; the Duke of Monmouth, my Lady Castlemaine; and so other lords other ladies; and they danced the Brantle. After that the King led a lady a single coranto; and then the rest of the lords, one after another, other ladies; very noble it was, and great pleasure to see. Then to country dances, the King leading the first, which he called for, which was, says he, 'Cuckolds all awry ,' the old dance of England. Of the ladies that danced, the Duke of Monmouth's mistress, and my Lady Castlemaine, and a daughter of Sir Harry de Vicke's, were the best. The manner was, when the King dances, all the ladies in the room, and the Queen herself, stand up; and indeed, he dances rarely, and much better than the Duke of York. Having staid here as long as I thought fit, to my infinite content, it being the greatest pleasure I could wish now to see at Court, I went home, leaving them dancing."

All old ballads are set to dance tunes, and derive their name from ballet . Where no instruments were to be had, the dancers sang the ballad, and so gave the time to their feet. The fact of ballad tunes being dance tunes has been the occasion of their preservation; for in The Compleate Dancing Master , a collection of dance tunes, the first edition of which was published in 1650, and which went through eighteen editions to 1728, a great number have been preserved as dance tunes, with the titles of the ballads sung to them. In the old country dances the number of performers was unlimited, but could not consist of less than six.

What is the origin of our title for certain dances—"Country Dances"? I venture to think it has nothing to do with the country, though I have Chappell's weighty opinion against me. The designation was properly given to all those counter-dances, contre-dances, which were performed by the gentlemen standing on one side, and the ladies on the other, in lines, in contra-distinction to all round and square dances. As a general rule, foreign dances are circular or square. In Brittany is La Boulangère, and among the Basques, La Tapageuse, which are set in lines; but with a few exceptions, most continental dances were differentiated from the general type of English dances by being square or round. There were, no doubt, among our peasantry dances in a ring about the May-pole, but this was exceptional. A writer at the beginning of this century says,—"An English country dance differs from any other known dance in form and construction, except Ecossaise  and quadrille country dances, as most others composed of a number of persons are either round, octagon, circular, or angular. The pastoral dances on the stage approximate the nearest to English country dances, being formed longways."

The song and the dance were closely associated; indeed, as already said, the word ballet  is derived from "ballad," or vice-versâ; and all our old dance tunes had appropriate words set to them.

Dargason, a country dance older than the Reformation, found its way into Wales, where it was set to Welsh words; the English ballad to which it was usually sung was—

"It was a maid of my country,
As she came by a hawthorn tree,
As full of flowers as might be seen,
She marvelled to see the tree so green.
At last she asked of this tree
How came this freshness unto thee?
And every branch so fair and clean?
I marvel that you grow so green."

Doubtless half the charm of a country dance consisted in the dancers singing the words of the familiar ballad as they went through the movements of the dance, the burden often occurring at a general joining of hands and united movement.

An English country dance was composed of the putting together of several figures, and it allowed of almost infinite variation, according to the number and arrangement of the figures introduced. Sir Roger de Coverley, which is not quite driven out, consists of seven figures. Some figures are quite elementary, as turning the partner, setting, leading down the middle. Others are more elaborate, as Turn Corners, and Swing Corners; some are called Short Figures, as requiring in their performance a whole strain of short measure, or half a strain of long measure. Long Figures, on the other hand, occupy a strain of eight bars in long measure—a strain being that part of an air which is terminated by a double bar, and usually consists in country dances of four, eight, or sixteen single bars. Country dance tunes usually consist of two strains, though they sometimes extend to three, four, or five, and of eight bars each.

The names and character of the old country dances are quite forgotten.

The following is a list of some of the dances given in The Complete Country Dancing Master , published near the beginning of last century—

  • Whitehall.
  • Ackroyd's Pad.
  • The Whirligig.Amarillis.
  • Buttered Pease.
  • Bravo and Florimel.
  • Pope Joan.
  • Have at thy coat, old woman.
  • The Battle of the Boyne.
  • The Gossip's Frolic.
  • The Intrigue.
  • Prince and Princess.
  • A Health to Betty.
  • Bobbing Joan.
  • Sweet Kate.
  • Granny's Delight.
  • Essex Buildings.
  • Lord Byron's Maggot.
  • Ballamera.
  • The Dumps.
  • Rub her down with straw.
  • Moll Peatley.
  • Cheerily and Merrily.

In Waylet's Collection of Country Dances , published in 1749, we have these—

  • The Lass of Livingstone.
  • Highland Laddie.
  • Down the Burn, Davy.
  • Eltham Assembly.
  • Cephalus and Procris.
  • Joy go with her.
  • Duke of Monmouth's Jig.
  • Bonny Lass.
  • The Grasshopper.
  • The Pallet.
  • Jack Lattin.
  • Fiarnelle's Maggot.
  • Buttered Pease.
  • The Star.

Some of these dances were simplicity itself, consisting of only a very few elementary figures. This is the description of Sweet Kate .

"Lead up all a double and back. That again. Set your right foot to your woman's, then your left, clasp your woman on her right hand, then on the left, wind your hands and hold up your finger, wind your hands again and hold up another finger of the other hand, then single; and all this again."

Bobbing Joan  is no more than this. First couple dance between the second, who then take their places, dance down, hands and all round, first two men snap fingers and change places, first women do the same, these two changes to the last, and the rest follow.

The tune of The Triumph  is still found in collections of dance music, but it is only here and there in country places that it can be performed. I saw some old villagers of sixty and seventy years of age dance it last Christmas, but no young people knew anything about it. It is a slight, easy, but graceful dance—graceful when not danced by old gaffers and grannies.

Our English country dances were carried abroad, and became popular there. "The Italians," writes Horace Walpole from Florence in 1740, "are fond to a degree of our country dances: Cold and raw  they only know by the tune; Blouzy-bella  is almost Italian, and Buttered Peas  is Pizzelli al buro." Indeed, as early as 1669, when the Grand Duke of Tuscany visited England, he was highly taken with the English dances, and probably on his return to Florence introduced them there. Count Lorenzo Magalotti, who attended him on his visit, says that he and theduke attended dancing-schools, "frequented by unmarried and married ladies, who are instructed by the master, and practise with much gracefulness and agility various dances after the English fashion. Dancing is a very common and favourite amusement of the ladies in this country; every evening there are entertainments at different places in the city, at which many ladies and citizens' wives are present, they going to them alone, as they do to the rooms of the dancing-masters, at which there are frequently upwards of forty or fifty ladies. His Highness had an opportunity of seeing several dances in the English style, exceedingly well regulated, and executed in the smartest and genteelest manner by very young ladies, whose beauty and gracefulness were shown off to perfection in this exercise." And again, "he went out to Highgate to see a children's ball, which, being conducted according to the English custom, afforded great pleasure to his Highness, both from the numbers, the manner, and the gracefulness of the dancers."

When our English country dances were carried abroad,—notably to Germany and France,—the tunes to which they were danced were carried with them, were there appropriated, and as these dances died out in their native home, and with them their proper melodies, the tunes have in several instances come back to us from the continent, as German or French airs.

Very probably one reason of the disapproval which country dancing has encountered arises from the fact that it allows no opportunities of conversation, and consequently of flirtation, as the partners stand opposite each other, and in the figures take part with other performers quite as much as with their own proper vis-à-vis. But then is a dance arranged simply to enable a young pair to clasp each other and whisper into each others ears? Are art, beauty, pleasure to the spectators to be left out of count altogether? The wall-fruit are deserving of commiseration, for they now see nothing that can gratify the eye in a ball-room; the waltz has been like the Norwegian rat—it has driven the native out altogether, and the native dance and the native rat were the more beautiful of the two.

It is not often we get a graceful dance on the stage either. Country dancing is banished thence also; distorted antics that are without grace, and of scanty decency, have supplanted it.

It seems incredible that what was regarded as a necessary acquisition of every lady and gentleman sixty or seventy years ago should have gone, and gone utterly—so utterly that probably dancing-masters of the present day would not know how to teach the old country dances. In The Complete System of Country Dancing , by Thomas Wilson, published about 1821 (there is no date on the title-page), the author insists on this being the national dance of the English, of its being in constant practice, of its being a general favourite "in every city and town throughout the United Kingdom;" as constituting "the principal amusement with the greater part of the inhabitants of this country." Not only so, but the English country dance was carried to all the foreign European Courts, where it "was very popular, and became the most favourite species of dancing;" and yet it is gone—gone utterly.

The minuet was, no doubt, a tedious and over-formal dance; it was only tolerable when those engaged wore hoops and powder and knee-breeches; but the English country dance is not stiff at all, and only so far formal as all complications of figures must be formal. It is at the same time infinitely elastic, for it allows of expansion or contraction by the addition or subtraction of figures. There are about a hundred figures in all, and these can be changed in place like the pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope.

Minuet being Danced.

Why, in this age of revivals, when we fill our rooms with Chippendale furniture and rococo mirrors and inlaid Florentine cabinets, and use the subdued colours of our grandmothers, when our books are printed in old type with head and tail pieces of two centuries ago, when the edges are left in the rough—why should we allow the waltz, the foreign waltz, to monopolize our ball-rooms to the exclusion of all beautiful figure-dancing, and let an old English art disappear completely without an attempt to recover it? It will be in these delightful, graceful, old national dances that our girls will, like the daughter of Philipater in the Spectator , dance themselves into our esteem, as it is pretty sure that in the approved fashion of waltzing they will dance themselves out of it.