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The Colonial Music Institute(tm)
Bringing History to Life Through Music

How to Dance a Country Dance

18th-century dance is a complex subject. Dance technique throughout the period changed frequently as new fashions and fads swept across the land. Usually described as “the latest,” “with the newest methods,” or “the most fashionable,” dancing was an expression of social values.  Among the upper classes it functioned as the presentation and ritualization of their status through grace of body and display of fine clothing and jewels. Among the lower, it could become competitive, enhancing ones reputation in the community. Personal ability, sophistication of taste, and availability of new material as well as social standing, region, and environment all affected dance interpretation and performance.

The dances most frequently performed in 18th-century America were the country dance, the cotillion, the minuet and the reel. The jig, gavotte, and allemande were show-off solo or duo dances that were tailored to specific dancers.

1774 in Virginia: "About Seven the Ladies & Gentlemen begun to dance in the Ball-Room—first Minuets one round; Second Giggs; third Reels; And last of All Country-Dances;  . . . The Music was a French-Horn and two Violins—The Ladies were Dressed Gay, and splendid, & when dancing, their Silks & Brocades rustled & trailed behind them!"  Philip Fithian, Journal and Letters (Colonial Williamsburg, 1957), 57.
There were many variations of the minuet step, dozens of versions of setting or show-off steps, and several ways to “cast off one couple.” Dancers would dance differently depending on where they were, who they were, who was watching and also probably how much liquor they had consumed. In a tavern, dancing would be unconventional and free; in a ballroom, refinement and grace would be the rule.

Everyone seemed to know how to do country dances, from the maids to the masters. The WAY they did them might look different, but the elements of the dance were the same. A country dance consisted of various figures such as hand-turns and circles, performed by dancers standing in longways sets: two lines, partners opposite each other.

This illustration shows a longways set of four couples, dancing in a small but elegant space with seven onlookers. The bottom couple is doing a two-hand turn. The band in the balcony consists of a violin, bassoon, and oboe who have sheets of music spread out on the railing. This picture appeared on the frontispiece of The Dancing Master, vol. 1, 18th edition (London: W. Pearson and John Young, 1728). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Form longways sets of from six to ten couples.

FIRST FIGURE: 16 beats
First two couples at the top do right-hands-across.
       To do this, each of these four dancers take the right hand of the person diagonally opposite, making a “star” or X figure. Sing the tune as they go around, stepping on the beats.

 “Yankee Doodle Went to Town, a-Ridin’ On a Po-Ny” *

Change to left hands and dance back to place.

 “Stuck a Feather In his Hat, and Called it ‘Maca-Ro-Ni.’” 

1st (top) couple lead down the center, turn alone, come back, and cast off.
        To do this, the top couple takes inside hands and dances down middle for 4 beats, then drop hands and turn around towards partner and face up (4 beats). 

 “Yankee Doodle Keep it Up, Yankee Doodle Dan-Dy.”

Dance back to place (4 beats), go outside the set, each on his or her own side, turn down and go behind the 2nd couple and into their place.  As the 1st couple passes them, the 2nd couple move up to the top place.

Mind the Music And the Step, and With the Girls be Han-Dy.”

The couples have changed places in the line of the dance.

Country Dance Set
        This sequence is now repeated with the original 1st couple going through the figures with the next couple in line. At the end of this sequence the 1st couple will be ready to dance with the couple below them and there will be two couples free at the top, who take the numbers 1 and 2 as in the diagram at the left.

        These two couples now begin the dance with the right-hands-across, etc., at the same time the original 1st couple is dancing with the 4th couple down in the original line. There are now four couples active in the set during the dance sequence. Eventually all the dancers become active.  The original first couple dances to the bottom, waits out one turn, and begins again as a 2nd couple. Eventually, they are again at the top and the dance ends.

        Once they reach the top or bottom of the set, couples must wait out one turn of the dance, change their numbers from 2nd to 1st or 1st to 2nd couple, and then join in on the next round.

        Today, country dances are danced with all couples active from the start. As in the diagram at the left, couples number off, 1, 2, 1, 2, and all the 1s begin the dance together. In the eighteenth century, most country dances involved three couples with a neutral fourth standing below them. Dances began at the top, dancers in the line becoming active as the 1st couple came to them.

* The familiar lyric of “Yankee Doodle” is a 20th-century combination of a 19th-century verse and an 18th-century chorus.

These instructions are adapted from Charles Cyril Hendrickson’s Colonial Social Dancing for Children (Sandy Hook, CT: The Hendrickson Group, 1995), pp. 36–38.  The opening paragraph is taken in part from Social Dances from the American Revolution, p. 29.