English Country Dancing Before Playford

Dances from the Lansdowne Manuscript

Christopher Darras

English country dances are mentioned from the near the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I, yet the first printed sets of dances occur almost a century later. The first published dances came out in a series of editions by John Playford, the first of which appeared in 1651 (1650 Old Style). Subsequent editions appeared in 1652, 1657, 1667, continuing through the eighteenth century(1). Over the course of this period, the dances included in the successive editions show a dramatic change in both form and content. The first edition contains a large variety of dances in a wide range of forms (circles, and longways for 4, 6, 8, or as many as will, as well as squares and other peculiar formations).

Dances added to the later editions do not show the same variety. (For instance, between the fifth and seventh editions, 48 dances were added; of these 47 were longways for as many as will and 1 was a round dance also for as many as will). In view of the changes exhibited in the dances added to The Dancing Master durin ghte latter half of the seventeenth century, doubt exists as to the degree to which the dancing of the sixteenth century may be said to be represented by the dances in the first edition of The Dancing Master. On the other hand, dances which were included in the first edition only rarely show changes over the period of time in which they are published. Thus the question arises as to whether Playford arranged the dances which he published, or merely recorded those dances which were recalled as being popular at some point.

Luckily, we do have some Countrydances recorded in manuscript forma tthe period shortly before the publication of the first edition of Playford. These dances, from Lansdowne manuscript 1115, are transcribed and discussed in James Cunningham, Dancing in the Inns of Court [2], an important source for the English Almain as well. The manuscript, dated by Cunningham as from about 1648, contains 4 dances, all fairly elaborate. Two of the dances are squares, one is a longways for eight, and one is a longways for eight with the third and fourth couples improper. None of the dances have names or music.

Cunningham identifies ttwo of the dances as very closely allied to dances appearing in the third edition of Playford (Hudson House a square, and Spring Garden a longways for eight). In addition, he incorrectly identifies the longways for eight with third and fouth couples improper with a dances in the first edition of Playford. Be that as it may, the appearance of the two dances in Playford in a relatively unchanged state, gives credence to the argument that Playford merely recorded dances, rather than playing an active role in the editing of the dances presented. Thus we may argue for the Playford dances as possibly representing a span of time, containing both earlier and later forms of dances.

Turning to the dances themselves, twho have been reconstructed for this occasion. The first is a square which is similar to Hudson House, which would appear to be an older version of the dance than given in the third edition of Playford. It is therefor presented here as "Old Hunsdon House" with the tune used in Playford. The second dance is the longways for eitht, with third and fourth couples improper. Having reviewed similar dances in Playford without finding significant concordances, I have taken the liberty of naming the dance "Lansdowne" and chosen a country dance by Davis Mell [8] for which the steps are unknown.

[Old Hunsdon House]

Directions as transcribed by J. V. Cunningham [2]

1st & 3rd cu; meet & taking the co w fall back into the second and 4 places whilst the 2nd & 4th fall back each from his owne & meet the con w. in the 1 & 3rd place as much againe

This as before

This as before

1st & 3rd cu: meet and turne s. men cross over the w. cross over the other 4 as much you all this back againe to yr places 1st & 3rd cu: meet turne in back to back hand the back inwards and goe halfe round the other 4 as much // all this againe to their places

Meet and honor to your owne right hand to the co and left to yr owne the other 4 as much all this againe honoring to yr con:w://

Hudson House

Take from the 5th edition of Playford (Cecil Sharp [9] plces the first appearance of this dance in the 3rd edition)

- insert Hudson House from 5th edition of playford page 153-


Directions as transcribed by J. V. Cunningham [2]

2 first cu. Lead up fall back from each other marche down and close / that back to yr places the other 4 doing the same / 2nd cu marche up betweene the first cast of the 1st cu changing places fall 4 abreast downwards lead downe the 2nd cu cast into the first place the 1st cu change places / that back againe the other fower doing the same

change places all and lead to each wall 1st and last meet and going under the other armes their owne in the middle while the other turn single / leade soe up and downe the corners goingunder the middle cu armes to yr places / 1st and last cu open and fall back face to them you meete take both hands and slide into the middle whistle the 2nd & 3rd cu: close lead up and downe and arme with their owne / that back to their places

Cunningham [2] proposes some relationship between this dance and "Lulle me beyond thee" from Playford's first edition. In fact, the only relationship is in the initial position of the dancers, as may be seen in the following:

Lulle me Beyond Thee

Taken from the 1st edition of Playford [4]

- insert 1st edition Lulle me Boyond Thee page 93 -

In examing other editions, it is seen that this initial positioning of the dancers occurs again in a dance taken from the fifth edition:

Ten Pound Lass

Taken from the 5th edition of Playford [6]

- insert Ten Pound Lass from 5th edition page 150 -

Steps and Styling:

Doubles: "foure steps forward or back, closing both feet" from Playford see [4], [5], [6], [7]

Reverence: Bending both knees, as in de Lauze, see in particular the collation of other 17th century sources by Wildeblood [3]

Pace: These dances were in general not danced quickly. Sharp [9], in his discussion of the Hunsdon House calls for the use of the running step. However, while his analysis of the firgures is, as ever superb, in general his reconstructions proceed from a knowledge of 19th century folk dancing and a study of the works subsequent to The Dancing Master. Contemporary comments decry the slowing of dancing at the start of the seventeenth century (see [2] p. 10) and the slowing of dances may also be traced in the music of the time, whereby even the simplest setting contain many more notes per measure (see country dance settings in [8]). In addition, various dances may be compared in the 16th vs the 17th century text as in comparing the description of the branle in Arbeau and de Lauze, or successive descriptions of Almains in Cunningham.

Postture, Hands, etc.: Sharp and Oppe [10] contains a magnificent set of plates showing the dancing of various centuries. (It should be noted that the text is outdated.)


[1] Arbea, Jehan (psedu), Orchesography, 1589 Translation and notes by Mary Stuart Evans, ed. By Julia Sutton, Dover Books New York

[2] Cunningham, James P., Dancing in the Inns of Court, Jordan & Sons Ltd., London, 1965

[3] De Lauze, F. Apologie de la Danse, 1623 ed. By Joan Wildeblood, with a Translation, Introduction and Notes, Frederick Muller Ltd., London 1952

[4] Dean-Smith, Margaret, ed. Playford's ENGLISH DANCING MASTER 1651; A Facsimile Reprint with an Introduction, Bibliography and Notes, Schott & Co. Ltd., London, 1957

[5] Playford, John, The Dancing Master, 2nd edition, London 1652 University Microfilms, STC II 221:14 Ann Arbor, MI

[6] Playford, John, The Dancing Master, 5nd edition, London 1675 University Microfilms, STC II 286:17 Ann Arbor, MI

[7] Playford, John, The Dancing Master, 7nd edition, London 1686 University Microfilms, STC II 364:17 Ann Arbor, MI

[8] Sabol, Andrew J., Four Hundred Songs and Dances from the Stuart Masque, Brown University Press, Providence, 1978

[9] Sharp, Cecil and Butterworth, George, The Country Dance Book Part III, Novello and Co. Ltd., London 1912

[10] Sharp, Cecil and Oppe, A. P., The Dance; An Historical Suvey of Dancing in Europe, republished EP Publishing Ltd. 1972 London

Old Hunsdon House

First phrase 1

1. First and third Couplese meet a doubl, while 2nd and 4th couples fall back each from his own.

2. First and third couples fall back a double with the contrary into the 2nd and 4th couples place, while 2nd and 4th couples meet the contrary in the 1st and 3rd place.

3. And 4. That again with the other couples

Second phrase 1

1. First and third couples meet a double

2. First and third couples turn single.

3. First and third men change into each others original places with a double.

4. First and third women change into each others original places with a double

5.-8. The other couples as much

9.-16. All this again

Fist phrase 2

As before

Second phrase 2

1. First and third couples meet a double

2.&3. First and third couples turn back to back , take hands and go half round

4. [Lead a double into each others places]

5-8. Other couples as much

9-16. That all again

First phrase 3

As before

Second phrase 3

1. First and third couples meet a double

2. Honor your contrary to your own right hand

3. Honor your own

4. [Fall a double back to places]

5-8. Other couples as much

9-16. That all again


First section 1

1. 1st and 2nd couples leaed up a double while the other couples do the like

2. Fall back each from his owne

3. 1st and 2nd couples marche down a double while 3rd and 4th do the like

4. Close with your partner

5-8. That again

Second section 1

1. 2nd couple march up a double between the 1st couple while the 3rd marches between the 4th

2. 2nd couple cast off while the first couple changes places, forming a four abreast, 3rd and 4th do thse like

3. All fall back a double

4. 2nd couple leading down, casts off into 1 place while the couple changes places, 3rd and 4th the like

5-8. That back again with the other couples

First section 2

1.-2. [Sides each with your own]

3-4. [Set and turn single]

5-8. [That again]

Second section 2

1. All change with their and lead to the wall four abreast

2. First and last in each line 91 and 4) meet a double

3. First and last in each line (1 and 4) go under armes of the middle dancers (2 and 3)

4. First and fourth couples arm the others turn single

5-8 That again with the other couples

First section 3

1.-2. [Arms each with your own]

3-4. [Set and turn single]

5-8. [That again]

Second section 3

1. 1st and 4th open and fall back a single, while 2nd and 3rd close and lead a single up

2. 1st and 4th fall a double while 2nd and 3rd lead a double up

3. 1st and 4th face each other and take hands with contrary, 2nd and 3rd lead down a double

4. 1st and 4th slip a double into middle while 2nd and 3rd arm with their owne

5-8. That againe with other couples

1. This discussion is indebted to the excellent introduction to the first edit8ion and bibliography of subsequent editions of Playford by Margaret Dean-Smith. See [4]