Social dancing has been an important element of interpersonal activity throughout human history. The Middle Ages and Renaissance saw the beginning of book publishing and therefore the beginning of the publishing of dance manuals.
John Playford’s English Dancing Master was published in 1651 and was an attempt to collect popular English Country Dances of the day into a book, complete with printed melodies and instructions for dancing each one, most likely reflecting the most common practice of each dance. While there were certainly local variations in the details and figures in each dance, Playford sought to gather common versions of each dance into a published book. John Playford was likely not a dancer or a musician, judging from the numerous mistakes that can be found, but he clearly cared about music and dance and used his publishing business to help spread the joy of dance.
There were 18 editions published over the next 77 years, plus several supplementary works. While there were other volumes published later, these 18 editions were the ones published by John Playford, his son Henry, and finally John Young, making up what most consider to be “Playford’s Dancing Master.” The later volumes were still called “The Dancing Master,” but were not by Playford. I am currently working on those other volumes, to add them to this collection. Over the years, most of these tunes have been arranged and recorded because, misprints and changing preferences aside, playing the melodies is straightforward. The dance instructions for each of these tunes, however, are less straightforward. While they were usually consistent from one edition to the next, the instructions themselves were not always clear. Our modern way of thinking focuses on details and we tend to prefer to spell everything out, but back in the 17th and 18th centuries it was acceptable to gloss over things that dancers and musicians at the time would assume or understand without explaining every detail. Also, “when looking in detail at 17th century documents it is important to understand that the dances were almost certainly submitted by different Dancing Masters, who were not necessarily using the same conventions as each other for the meanings of words.”1 This is one of the reasons the dance instructions are not as widespread today as the tunes are. In fact, for some of the dances in this collection, there may not have been published instructions since the 18th century, apart from straight transcriptions from the originals.
Many of the dances that Playford and his successors published have been analyzed, updated, modernized, and revived by more recent English Country Dance (ECD) proponents, such as Cecil Sharp, Pat Shaw, Margaret Dean-Smith, John Walsh, Bernard Bentley, and Colin Hume. Often, these authors used what was clear in the dance instructions and built on it to fill in gaps in the instructions or to make the dances more fitting with the tastes of the day. There is nothing at all wrong with that. Dances should be fun and enjoyable to the dancers, and have always evolved through the years.
ECD is a revival tradition with multiple social origins on which the twentieth-century folk dancer can draw: the tradition is rooted in the recovery of dances done variously by villagers and the gentry from the medieval era and seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and ECD in its modern revival became associated with the gentry as much as, if not more than, village folk.2
As a composer and member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, it was my desire to re-create the dances as close to the original as possible, even if some might seem to flow better if I made some small changes. I did change the wording at times to make it more understandable to modern dancers, and to fill in the gaps when something might have been assumed by the original audience, but would not be today. It was also my desire to bring together all of the dances into one comprehensive collection, so that all the Playford dances – the melodies and the instructions – could be easily accessed and used.
One of the strengths of this website is its collection of indexes. Each dance’s metadata – publication information, musical aspects, dancer grouping, and even each type of dance figure – has been analyzed and organized to help anyone who wants to learn more about these dances. For example, one index contains a list of every dance step used in all of the 18 editions, with sublists of every dance that used that step. Anyone looking to teach these dances and wanting to emphasize a particular dance figure can easily see which dances used it and plan their teaching accordingly.
There are many resources in print and online that provide copies of a couple editions of the original Dancing Master editions published by John Playford between 1651 and 1728. The purpose of this website is to provide a comprehensive dancing guide for all the tunes published in any of the 18 editions, using modern music notation and mostly modern wording for the dance steps. The tunes included are the most standard accepted variations based on error corrections in later editions and on analysis by Jeremy Barlow in his book The Complete Country Dance Tunes from Playford’s Dancing Master (1651-ca.1728), whose thorough and diligent research has greatly aided everyone who chooses to research the dances that Playford published. Some of the tunes, however, were only included in a supplement to an edition and did not have any dance instructions. Those tunes have been omitted. Other tunes had two names that eventually became two different dances, so both have been included in this collection, since the dance instructions are different. The same is true of tunes that stayed the same but for which the dance totally changed. This often happened between the 16th and 17th editions.
The tunes in several cases are obviously composed tunes of the period; not less beautiful than the peasant tunes, for England’s music in the 17th century was at the same high-water mark as her dancing. The English Country Dance was not only popular in England but was danced considerably abroad.3
Over the almost 80 years that the Dancing Master was published, titles changed and alternate titles were added or removed (e.g., “The Ladies Delight or Mulberry Garden”). Even the spelling changed. To facilitate this collection’s simplest use, I have chosen to standardize the titles with the version most frequently used through the publication of each dance. The first index contains all of the alternate titles with their matching standardized title as used in this website.
Throughout this website, the dance instructions are as close as possible to what was written when the dances were first published, but there are numerous misprints and mistakes throughout the 18 editions. Also, to this date no complete explanations of all the dance steps have been discovered, so modern dancers are forced to re-create the dances based on the steps fitting the timing and wording of the instructions. We do not always know what some of the figures specifically mean, and there have been articles written in recent years to attempt to clarify some of the details. For example, “siding” may mean going toward your partner until your shoulders (sides) line up, or it may mean going past on the sides to change places. Some modern dancers do it one way, some the other, with going past generally being the more modern interpretation. Occasionally the written instructions are unintelligible or vague enough to confuse the reader. Other times the dance figures do not fit the allotted time as far as modern interpretations of the instructions allow. In these cases, I have provided instructions that fit the music and take as much of the original text and feel of the dance into account as possible. Each dance has been carefully reviewed to match the dance figures to the timing of the music.
1. Sweeney, John. “Gypsy – Whole Gip – Walk Around: The Move & the Name.” Contrafusion. http://contrafusion.co.uk/Gypsy.html
2. Walkowitz, Daniel J. “Patrolling the Boundaries.” Radical History Review, vol. 84, 2002, pp. 119-122.
3. Shaw, Winifred Shuldham. “Cecil Sharp and Folk Dancing.” Music & Letters, vol. 2, no. 1, 1921, pp. 4–9.