What is English Country Dancing?

What is English Country Dancing?English country dancing (ECD) is a traditional form of dance that incorporates as many dancers as are willing to join in. There is no fancy footwork needed and the steps are extremely easy: it’s essentially walking through space in patterns or “figures.” Every dance is taught and prompted, and it is not necessary to come with a partner. For those reasons, it is excellent for building community and togetherness, and ECD groups around the world continue the social tradition by welcoming everyone, of all ages and all levels of dance experience. Everyone can join in and it’s easy to learn!

English country dancing, as the name implies, was the social dance of the country folk in England and the Colonies, popular from the mid-1500s up through the 1820s. Dances are culled from the whole spectrum of English dancing, from earliest published dances of the English Renaissance, to wonderful new compositions written today in the traditional style. They run the gamut from elegant to rowdy, stately to silly, simple to complex, and have fun, varied tunes to accompany them.

English country dancing is very similar to American square or contra dancing. It most frequently involves long lines of couples dancing together. Traditionally, couples are comprised of one man (usually the “leader”) and one woman (the “follower”), but any gender is welcome to dance with any gender and it’s very common to see two women dancing together or two men dancing together (the latter is less common, simply because there are usually more women than men in attendance).

In the past, dancing was more than just a popular pastime: it was a way to socialize, to meet new people and hear new gossip. Before television, before radio, and in towns that lacked theaters and racetracks, dancing was the primary form of entertainment. But country dancing wasn’t only for farmers and milkmaids. Henry VIII enjoyed country dances, as did George Washington more than 200 years later. Dancing was a favorite pastime of Jane Austen, as evidenced by her novels where dancing is an important part of the story.

In fact, if you’ve ever watched a Regency-era historical drama, such as any film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novels, then you’ve likely seen some English country dancing. Though there’s some discussion among dance historians about whether some of these dances were still done in Jane Austen’s time, or if they had gone out of fashion and been replaced with new turning dances like the polka, English country dancing is what most people think of for Austen’s time. Some of the film adaptations capture the dances really well, even doing the dances as they are written traditionally (at least to a point). You’ll find a few of our favorites below.

English country dancers often like to recapture the Regency period through local Jane Austen balls or tea dances (see our list of local balls here), but if you don’t have a costume, don’t worry! Period attire is not necessary, especially at CCECD’s regular dances.

More information about English Country Dancing will come soon, but in the meantime,

Here are a few of our favorite film showings of English country dances:

Becoming Jane: “Hole in the Wall” (1721)
The first two times through the dance is how it’s written traditionally (if performed a bit slowly); then it changes for the sake of the story.

Pride and Prejudice (BBC 1995): “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot” (1695)
There are some changes in choreography here, but some of the figures are the same.

Emma (1996) uses the same dance, “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot,” but it’s closer to how the dance was written (the first time through).

Pride and Prejudice (BBC 1995): “Grimstock” (1651)
You can’t see much of the dance, and they’ve changed the set and turn single to look very static and boring, but the dance is similar to how it’s composed traditionally.

Pride and Prejudice (2005):
I don’t believe this is a particular traditional dance, but I love how the film captures the energy and excitement of the dance, especially compared to the more slow and stately versions above.

Pride and Prejudice (2005):
This is one of my favorite dance scenes from a Jane Austen film adaptation. I love how it captures the energy and fun of the dance, and clearly shows how young people in this period partied! Judee Pronovost recently called a dance similar to this one, using the same tune, called Young Widow.