The first edition of “The English Dancing Master, or plaine and easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with the tune to each dance” (104 dances; oblong 4to), is dated 1651, but was entered at Stationers’ Hall in the preceding year.
With an altered title — “The Dancing Master” — and in a slightly different shape — oblong 12mo — a second edition, “enlarged and corrected from many grosse errors which were in the former edition” (112 dances), was issued in 1652. The book went through seventeen editions, the last being issued in three parts, the first (358 dances) in 1721, and the second (360 dances) and the third (200 dances) in 1728. During this period of seventy-eight years the book passed through many changes. Many of the dances and tunes appeared in altered form in successive editions; some dropped out altogether after one or more appearances; while to every edition a varying number of new dances was added.
Of the earlier editions of this incomparable work John Playford was publisher, and, probably, editor as well. That he was not, however, the sole editor may, I think, be inferred from the different styles displayed in the wording of the notations. What precisely was the part which Playford and his assistants played in the compilation of the book, one can but conjecture.
It has already been pointed out (see Part I) that the Country Dance ordinarily consisted of a series of figures arbitrarily chosen to fit a given tune, and that it was only rarely that any one of these became stereotyped by usage and achieved universal acceptance. The mere composition of the dances in “The Dancing Master” would, therefore, present no difficulty to one versed in the technique of the dance and acquainted with the ballad and instrumental airs of the day. We may, then, presume that the bulk of the book consists of dances so put together by Playford and his sub-editors, and the remainder of the older dances that had, perhaps for many generations been danced in the same way and to the same tunes.
Be that as it may, “The English Dancing Master” was the first collection of its kind published in this country; and as it held the field unchallenged for upwards of half a century, it contains all that there is now known respecting the forms and figures of the Country Dance in the latter half of the seventeenth century.
Now this was in fact a critical moment in the history of the Country Dance. It was a transitional period during which two important, though by no means unrelated, developments were in progress. In the first place, it coincided with the decline from popular favour of the older forms of the dance, the Rounds, Squares, Longs-for-four, six or eight performers, and the gradual evolution of that form which eventually superseded them, and was known as the “Longways for as many as will.” This process may be traced in the successive editions of “The Dancing Master.” In the first edition, for instances, out of 104 dances only 38, that is a bare third, are Longways dances; in the seventh edition, which represents chronologically the middle period of the publication, more than half — 116 out of 208 — are of this type; while of the 918 dances contained in the three volumes of the seventeenth edition, all save 14 belong to the Longways species. I believe I am correct in saying that, except in the later editions of “The Dancing Master”, one may search in vain the numerous Country Dance collections of the eighteenth century, published by Walsh, Pippard, Waylett, and others, for a single example of any one of the older forms of the dance. In this unique publication then, we have our only source of information respecting the early and, what were probably, the original forms of the Country Dance.
During this same period, too, the Country Dance of the village green, the farmhouse, and the dancing booths of the annual fairs, was slowly invading the parlours and drawing-rooms of the wealthy, competing in attractiveness with the Minuets, Courantes, Gavottes, and rapidly gaining favour with the upper classes. It is, no doubt, true that the dance had never been the exclusive preserve of any one class; but in the early days of its history, it was regarded by the educated less as a rival than an agreeable alternative, a refreshing contrast to the more formal and conventional dance of polite society. So long as the Country Dance was so regarded, it suffered little or no injury by transference from cottage to castle; but when, as time went on, it challenged, on its own merits, the supremacy of the drawing-room dances, the dance was at once subjected to an enervating influence which, paralysing its powers of resistance, ultimately led to its corruption. The decline was hastened when, as was inevitable, it attracted the notice, and fell into the hands of, the professional dancing master. He, more suo, sought to embroider upon it the fashionable steps of the day, to stifle it with the artificial graces and genteel posings of the drawing room until, in a short time, of the freshness, spontaneity, and “gay simplicity” of the people’s dance very little remained.
This development, moreover seems to have synchronised with the displacement of the older forms of the dance. And this is quite intelligible. For the Rounds, Squares, etc., did not readily lend themselves to drawing-room treatment; and so long, therefore, as dances of this type only were exploited by the upper classes, there was no reason why the Country Dance should not retain unsullied its distinctive character. On the other hand, in the Longways dance the professor of dancing found a form easily adapted to the genteel style which he affected. Attracted, therefore, by this form alone, he forced it into prominence to the exclusion of the earlier and less flexible types.
The two movements cannot be disassociated. The increasing popularity of the Country Dance in the drawing-room led by a natural sequence to the rejection of the old-fashioned dances in favour of the more formal Longways dance. It is significant, too, that whenever the Country Dance is mentioned in early literature, or in connection with the Court functions of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, the reference is invariably to one or other of its older types. It is “Trenchmore” that Selden, for example, mentions as a favourite Court dance in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; it is “Dargason” and “Sellenger’s Round” that are mentioned in old books. There is, moreover, the well-known passage in Pepys’ diary in which he describes a Court dance at which he was present on the last day of the year 1662. The diarist, it will be remembered, tells us that the first dance was the Brantle. “After that”, he continues, “the King led a lady in a single Coranto; and then the rest of the lords, one after another, other ladies; very noble it was, and a 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”. The “old dance of England” is, no doubt, identical with Playford’s “Cuckolds all a row”, and, under its alternative title, “Hey boys, up go we”, is given in the text. It is a dance “for foure”, that is, one of the old forms of the Country Dance, and is pretty certain to have been familiar to Pepys; for on Nov. 22nd, 1662, he records: “This day I bought the book of country dances against my wife’s woman Gosnell comes, who dances finely; and there, meeting Mr. Playford, ..."
It was not, then, until the Longways dance had ousted the Rounds, Squares, etc., that the Country Dance became firmly established in the drawing-rooms and assembly halls. After that, its corruption followed as a matter of course, as we shall now see.
The first scientific, as opposed to popular, work on this subject was written by John Essex — “A Treatise on Chorography, or the art of dancing Country Dances” (1710). It contains an abridged version of Feuillet’s chorography [sic] together with ten Country dances technically described by means of that system. Now these dances differ very materially in character from those edited by Playford. They are one and all of the Longways type, set to derived tunes, and it is made abundantly clear that they were intended to cater for the tastes of those who moved in polite circles.
The enervating tendency, exhibited here in a comparatively mild form, becomes much more strongly marked in Kellom Tomlinson’s “Art of Dancing” (1735), wherein the author blandly apologises for mentioning the Country Dance in a work of which his original design “only to have spoke of genteel Dancing”; yet, he continues, “as Country Dancing is become as it were the Darling or favourite Diversion of all Ranks of People from the Court to the Cottage in their different manners of Dancing, and as the Beauty of this agreeable Exercise (I mean when perform’d in the genteel Character) is very much eclipsed and destroyed by certain Faults, or Omissions, ... I shall, at the Request of some Persons of Figure, my Subscribers, endeavour to point out those Neglects which render this Diversion, to fine Dancers, either altogether disagreeable, or much less pleasant.”
A few years later, 1752, Nicolas Dukes, who, like Tomlinson, was a professional dancing master, published “A Concise and easy method of Learning the Figuring Part of Country Dances”, in which he takes “the liberty to acquaint every Gentleman or Lady who is desirous of performing Country Dances in a Genteel, free and easy manner, the necessity they are under of being first duly Qualified in a Minuet, that beautiful dance being so well calculated and adapted as to give room for every person to display all the Beauties and Graces of the body which becomes a genteel Carriage.” It would, perhaps, be difficult to imagine anything more alien to the spirit of the Country Dance than the ultra-refined, exotic Minuet; and that a man of authority in the dancing world should perceive an affinity between the two, shows the direction in which the evolution of the Country Dance was tending. It should be noticed, also, that the “men” and “women” of Playford have now become “gentlemen” and “ladies” — a very significant change.
It would be wearisome as well as profitless to follow, step by step, the successive stages through which the Country Dance passed in the course of its devolution. The process of corruption continued without a break until the middle of the nineteenth century, soon after which time its popularity waned, ands it was dethroned and superseded by the waltz, polka, etc.
I cannot, however, forbear mentioning Thomas Wilson, a very celebrated professor of dancing who, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, published several books on the subject. His comments upon the earlier collections of Country Dances are very instructive. In one passage he satirises what he is pleased to call their “innovations on the true principles of English Country Dancing”. The “true principles” are, of course, those which he expounds with such unction in his own books; while the “innovations” — a curiously inapt word — refer to the figures described by Playford and his immediate successors which he says “were productive of the ridiculous antics and movements (afterwards particularised) and set to tunes equally absurd, both as to the style of the Music, and the length of the Strains”. He adds that “the steps used in the old Country Dancing were equally absurd with the Figures”, and “the effect they would have at Court, in these more enlightened times, may be better conceived than described”, a remark for which I have no doubt there was plenty of justification.
Unhappily, the injurious effects of its excursion into the drawing-rooms of the upper-classes, reacted, to some extent, upon the dances in the country villages; and it needs no acute critic to detect this in the traditional Country Dances of the present day. The older forms of the dance have entirely disappeared, and the dances now extant belong exclusively to the Longways type.
These considerations materially enhance the value and interest attached to Playford’s book, and we cannot be too thankful for the good fortune which has preserved a volume by means of which we can, if we will, reconstruct and revive the English Country Dance as it was danced in the days of its prime.
But to do this we must first master Playford’s notations and translate them into modern and intelligible language. And to do this is no easy task. This book represents a modest attempt in this direction, made, however, not without a full appreciation of the difficulties involved in the undertaking and the responsibility attached to it.
In order that the reader may understand the nature of the problem, and estimate the value of the tentative solution here offered, I will now explain the scope of “The English Dancing Master”, the character and arrangement of its contents.
The first two pages of the book contain a list of the abbreviations used in the notations, together with the definitions of two movements ("The Single” and "The Double"), and of one figure ("Set and turn Single"). On each of the remaining pages of the book the tune and notation of a single dance are printed, with a diagram showing the positions of the performers at the beginning of the dance (see Plates facing pp.13 and 72). The notation, which is printed immediately below the tune, is divided into Parts by horizontal lines drawn across the page. This division into Parts, all of which are of equal duration in performance, is made for the sake of clearness. The same device was employed by Essex, who likened the Parts to the “several verses of songs upon the same tune”.
The Parts are further subdivided by vertical spaces into sections, each section containing the description of those movements and figures which are to be performed to the particular strain of the tune under which it is printed.
Now, it should be clearly understood that these notations deal with the figures and evolutions only. No instructions whatever are given there or elsewhere (with the single exception noted above) concerning the steps with which the figures are to be executed, the editor judging, no doubt correctly, that to the public he was addressing such directions would be superfluous. Playford’s silence upon this important branch of the subject opens up a very difficult question, which will presently engage our attention.
The next difficulty is to extract their meaning from the notations. These are couched in the colloquial speech of the day, with a sprinkling of technical terms, the whole resulting in a species of quasi-technical jargon not unlike that spoken by expert Morris and Country Dancers of the present day. The editor appears to have used the homely phrases that were current amongst dancers of his day; but these, intelligible enough to his contemporaries, often read to us as though they were written in a foreign tongue. Moreover, apart from their phraseology, the sentences are often ungrammatical, badly punctuated, involved, and ambiguous. Such a passage as the following — and it is a fair sample — looks at first sight as though it must forever remain unintelligible:- “First man and 2 Wo. the 2 man and first Wo. lead out to the wall, and fall back again, while the other four crosse over each with his own, and meeting each other We. lead them under the first and 2 Cu. arms, falling into your places, and turn his own”. Even when the meaning of the abbreviations is known, such a passage needs careful handling. Nevertheless, to give him his due, Playford is sometimes concise, lucid, and even racy. Such directions as “That again”, “Women as much”, “Do this to the last, the rest following and doing the like”, are at once clear in their meaning and refreshing in their terseness.
In dealing with these notations a wide and detailed knowledge of the figures of the Morris, Sword, and Country dances of the present day, and also of the figures described in the dance manuals of the last two centuries is essential. For the rest, all that can be done is patiently to study and analyse the sentences as one would do those of an unknown code, comparing, for instance, the several ways in which the same or similar expressions are used in different contexts, and so forth. On the whole I am inclined to believe that when these notations have attracted the general attention of students accustomed to work of this kind, it will be found quite possible to reconstruct the greater number, if not all of the dances. For my own part I have already deciphered, more or less to my own satisfaction, very nearly all the dances in the first four editions of “The Dancing Master”, upon which I have yet almost exclusively concentrated my attention; and I am bold enough to believe that the notations of the thirty dances given in the text are substantially accurate.
The dances described by Playford are of seven species, viz., the Round; the Square for eight; the Long for four, six or eight performers; the Longways for as many as will; and the dance for an indefinite number of couples standing in a straight line. Of the last variety “Dargason” is the sole example.
The Rounds, which are danced by three, four, or an indefinite number of couples, are the easiest of the Playford dances to interpret, although some of them — “Newcastle”, for example — contain movements far from simple. Occasionally, a progressive figure of an elementary character appears in the Round, but such occurrences are rare. The first edition contains 14 examples of this type of dance; the seventh edition, 25; and the last, 3 only. Five Rounds are noted in the text.
In the Square for eight we have the prototype of the French conterdanse [sic], of which the Quadrille and Lancers still survive. In its construction and figures it is very similar to the Round for eight, as a comparison with “Newcastle” will show. Judging from the few examples of the Square that Playford gives, this particular form of Country Dance was never a very popular one. The first edition, for instance, contains 3 examples only; the seventh, 5; and the seventeenth, 2. Two examples, taken, respectively, from the first and third editions, are noted in the text.
The Longs-for-four are usually somewhat elaborate because, progressive movements being impractical with so small a number of performers, the interest can only be maintained by a continuous series of varied figures. Some of the evolutions in these dances were afterwards utilised in the Longways dances, of which the Long-for-four formed the nucleus — the duple minor-set. Some of the dances, e.g., “Cuckolds all a row” and “The Glory of the West”, although arranged for four performers in the earlier editions, appear later on as dances for eight. Playford gives eight dances of this species in his first edition; nine in the seventh; and one example only in the last. Five examples of varying difficulty are given in the text.
The Longs-for-six are especially interesting, in that they are cast in the same formation as that of the normal Morris dances. Many of the movements and figures are identical with those used in the latter dance, e.g., Corners, Foot-up, Back-to-back, Hey-for-three, etc. One figure, which occurs in “Grimstock”, “Trenchmore”, and other dances, is very similar to the well known sword dance figure “The Roll”. A progressive movement, necessarily very simple and restrained, enters into a few of the dances of this type. For the rest, the Longs-for-six are easy of execution, pleasant to dance, and pretty to watch. These reasons may, perhaps, account for their popularity in the old days; for Playford gives no less than 25 examples in his first edition, and the same number in his seventh. Later on, however, their popularity seems to have decreased, for their number gradually lessened in the following issues, until in the final edition not a single example is printed. Four dances of this species are given in the text.
The Longs-for-eight, in construction and in the arrangement of their figures, are very similar to the Longs-for-six. In some of the dances of both species the disposition of the dancers is irregular, an arrangement which often leads to some pretty and unusual combinations. Most of these abnormal forms, are, however, very difficult to decipher. For this reason I have been unable to give more than one example of this type, viz. “The Ten Pound Lass”. There are eight dances of this class in the first edition; three in the seventh; and eight in the last. Three varieties are given in the text.
An especial interest attaches to the Longways dances in “The Dancing Master”, for they represent the earliest examples of that type which, as we have seen, subsequently superseded all the others. In the seventeen editions we can trace, step by step, the gradual evolution of this type of dance, and especially of the progressive principle which eventually became its dominant feature.
We have already pointed out that in the older types of Country Dance progressive movements were only used vary rarely and tentatively. This is also true of the majority of the Longways dances in the earlier editions. Some of these, e.g., “Goddesses”, contain no progressive movement whatever; in others it is introduced in one or other of the Parts only. In “Staines Morris”, for example, every alternate Part is progressive, and in these progressive Parts two performers only participate, the first man and the last woman. The progressive movement is, moreover, confined to the woman’s side only. Technically, the dance is a poor one, because in the progressive Parts, that is, for half the dance, two only of the performers have anything to do. To the student, however, the dance is full of interest, for in it he can see the progressive principle in embryo. “The Dancing Master” contains other dances of the same kind, but, as these are all more or less unattractive from the dancer’s point of view, I have included this one example only.
In a few of the Longways dances the progressive movement leaves the dancers “improper”, i.e., with the man on the woman’s side, and with the woman on the man’s. This produces a situation of complexity, which is explained — not, however very lucidly — by Essex. The device, never frequently employed, gradually fell into disfavour and, finally, in the course of the eighteenth century, it disappeared altogether.
Nine Longways dances are given in the text. Of these, only one represents the dance in its full development, “The twenty-ninth of May”, and that has been taken from the seventh edition.
The figures which occur in the course of the dances described in “The Dancing Master” are very varied and very numerous. With the exception of the Set, the Side, the Honour, and others of like character, all of which are essentially Country Dance figures, I have been able to connect nearly all of them with similar evolutions in the Morris or Sword dances. The Whole-Pousette and, of course, the Roll, are sword-dance figures, and I believe that all those Country Dance figures, in which an arch is made by the joining of hands, handkerchiefs, or ribbons, were originally derived from the same source. Other evolutions such as Whole-Gip, Back-to-back, Cross-over, Foot-up, Corners, etc., are familiar Morris figures. The Hey, of course, is found in all three dances, in some form or other. This is at once the most engaging and the most varied and intricate of all the figures of the set-dance. There is an interesting passage in Hogarth’s “Analysis of Beauty”, in which he expatiates upon the beauty of this figure, which will perhaps bear quotation: “The lines which a number of people together form in country or figure dancing, make a delightful play upon the eye, especially when the whole figure is to be seen at one view, as at the playhouse from a gallery; the beauty of this kind of mystic dancing, as the poets term it, depends upon moving in a composed variety of lines, chiefly serpentine, governed by the principles of intricacy. The dances of barbarians are often composed of wild skipping, jumping, and turning round, or running backward and forward with convulsive shrugs and distorted gestures. One of the most pleasing movements in country dancing, and which answers to all the principles of varying at once, is what they call the hay. ... There are other dances that entertain merely because they are composed of variety of movements and performed in proper time, but the less they consist of serpentine or waving lines, the lower they are in the estimation of dancing masters."
As already stated, Playford specifically defines two movements and one figure only. He describes the two movements, the Double and the Single, as, respectively, “four steps forward or backward closing both feet”, and “two steps closing both feet"; and the figure, “Set and Turn Single”, as “a Single to one hand, and a single to the other and Turn Single”.
This last expression, “Turn Single”, is to be found upon almost every page of “The Dancing Master”. The description of this movement in the text is founded upon that given by Nicholas Dukes in his “Country Dances” (1752), in which the figure is chorographically [sic] described. This removes all doubt as to the manner of its performance.
The rest of the figures described by Playford are, so far as the majority of them are concerned, fairly easy to interpret. Of those which occur in the dances given in the text, the only about which I feel any doubt is the Side. “Sides all”, “Arms as you Side”, “First man Sides with first woman”, are expressions which recur with great frequency. Although I have consulted all the sources of information at my disposal, I have been unable to find any authoritative definition of this figure. Nor have I been able to find any one of the above expressions, used in precisely the same way, in any of the dance collections subsequent to “The Dancing Master”. I should have preferred to have omitted from the dances noted in this book all those in which this expression was used, but owing to its frequent occurrence, this was quite impossible.
Some solution had, therefore, to be made. The one given in the text was arrived at by comparing the several ways in which the term was used in various dances. This made it quite clear (1) that the figure was a four-bar movement; (2) that it was executed by one dancer to another, or by two dancers, usually partners, to each other simultaneously; (3) that it was a movement of courtesy similar to the Set; (4) and, lastly, that it consisted of two movements of equal duration, half to the right and half to the left. This latter attribute, which is a very important one, was deduced from “Nonesuch” (see p.116), where the figure in question is described as “Side to the right” and “Side to the left”, with a turn Single added after each movement, thus converting the movement into one of eight instead of four bars.
The most that can be said in favour of the solution I have ventured to give, is that it fulfils all the above requirements; and that it is difficult to think of any other movement which will do so. Nevertheless, I am aware that, although the margin of doubt has been materially reduced, I have not succeeded in eliminating it.
Before leaving the discussion of the figures it should be explained that in the seventeenth century it was customary to set several short figures to a single strain of the tune instead of one or, at most two, longer figures as afterwards became the practice. This, while it increased the difficulty of the dance, made the use of elaborate steps impracticable. It added, however, to the brightness and briskness of the dance, and it is in this respect, no doubt, that the seventeenth century Country Dance differs most from that of later days.
Upon the subject of the steps, as I have already pointed out, Playford is silent. Hence the steps as described in this book are not, like the figures and music, authoritative; they are merely those which my researches lead me to believe were actually, or at any rate, very probably, used in the seventeenth Country Dance. I have arrived at this somewhat speculative solution of a very difficult question, (1) by observing the steps used in the traditional Country Dance of the present day; and (2) by examining the evidence bearing upon the subject, contained in the dance manuals of the last two centuries.
All the five steps described in the text are still used by traditional dancers; other steps are also used, e.g., polka, galop [sic], and waltz steps; but these I have rejected, because, like the figures with which they are nearly always associated, they are obviously of more modern derivation.
Nearly all the dance books subsequent to “The Dancing Master” contain directions concerning the steps to be used in country dancing. In most cases, however, the steps recommended are those of the Gavotte, Bourrée, Minuet, Rigadoon, and similar dances; but these were the product of a later development, and are not what we are looking for. Fortunately, information of another and more helpful kind may occasionally be gleaned from the books of the more sagacious writers.
Essex, for instance, tells us that “the most ordinary steps in Country Dances (except those that are upon Minuet airs) are steps of Gavot, drive sideways, Bourrée step and some small jumps forward of either foot in a hopping manner, or little hopps in all round figures ..... One may make little hopps or Bourrée steps but little hopps are more in fashion ..... In all figures that go forwards, or backwards and forwards, always make gavotte steps. In all figures that go sideways drive sideways."
Now, the “drive sideways” is the same as the “slip” (see p.37); “the small jumps forward of either foot in a hopping manner”, I take to be the “skipping step" (see p.36), while the “little hopps in all round figures” is obviously “the double-hop” (see p.38). So that for three of my five steps I can claim the authority of a scientific writer, who lived and wrote during the actual publication of “The Dancing Master.” For the two remaining steps — the “walking” and “running” steps — traditional authority is so strong that I do not think that any reasonable doubt can be raised with respect to their authenticity.
Essex, it is true, also mentions Gavotte, Bourrée, and Rigadoon steps; but these, I think, we must ignore. In recommending them he was following, or maybe initiating a fashion which, as we know, subsequently led to the degeneracy of the Country Dance. Moreover, when offering the alternative of Bourrée steps or “little hopps”, Essex admitted that the latter were “more in fashion”.
As time went on, the practice of substituting the more ornate steps of the Court Dance for those of the Country Dance gradually became universal. Nevertheless, here and there, writers are to be found who warned their readers against this prevailing and undesirable habit. Indeed, as late as 1818, we find a protest of this nature in Barclay Dun’s “Translation of nine of the most fashionable quadrilles ... to which are prefixed a few observations on the style, etc. of the Quadrille, the English Country Dance, and the Scotch Reel.” In this most interesting work, the author quotes with approbation from “a small volume said to be written by a lady of distinction”, to the following effect: “The characteristic of our English country-dance is that of gay simplicity. The steps should be few and easy, and the corresponding motion of the arms and body unaffected, modest, and graceful."
To these wise words Dun himself adds the following comments: “As it is the province of the dance to imitate most scrupulously the accent or expression of the music, and as the English tunes are well known to possess less variety of expression and modulation than those of France, I would recommend the use of the most simple and neatly constructed steps in this kind of dancing; practice will enable the dancer to perform them in that correct, light, and prompt manner which the nature of the music requires."
It would, I think, be difficult to offer the would-be performer of Playford’s dances wiser or more salutary advice than that given by the “lady of distinction”. The dominant characteristic of our traditional Country Dance is, undoubtedly, its “gay simplicity”; and it is precisely because drawing-room steps and mannerisms conflict with this, that they must be ruled out as wholly unsuitable.
We see, then, that although in the nature of things it is impossible to speak dogmatically with regard to the steps which should or should not be used in the Playford dances, it is quite feasible to suggest those which are in harmony with their natural and simple character, and for which at least some semblance of authority can fairly be claimed.
I would add that there is, of course, no authority whatever for the particular steps that are attached to the figures in the notations — I mean, so far as their distribution is concerned. They merely represent the steps which appear to me to be most suitable, taking into consideration the character of each figure and of the dance in which it occurs. This, however, is a matter of minor importance; and dancers are, of course, at liberty to vary them as they please. I would, however, deprecate the introduction of steps other than those described in the text, unless supported by some equally trustworthy authority.
Our aim in reviving these dances should be to keep them fresh and natural and, to this end, to avoid the use of elaborate steps, together with the tricks and mannerisms of the theatre or of the drawing-room; for that way, as history shows, danger lies. The steps that I have ventured to suggest may or may not be historically accurate; but they can, at least, be executed without injury either to the form or spirit of our very beautiful national dance.
I cannot bring this Introduction to a close without saying something about the music. Upon
comparing the same tunes in successive editions of “The Dancing Master”, it will be found
that many were subjected to frequent alteration. Remembering the standpoint from which the
professional musician of those days regarded the music of the people, it is not difficult
to conjecture the nature and purpose of these changes. Their object, of course, was to
bring the tunes into conformity with the musical notions of the day. Indeed, I suspect that
many of the “grosse errors” of the first edition were no more than modal
peculiarities, which, by the suppression or addition of sundry accidentals, were subsequently
“corrected” in the second and later editions. The wonder is, not so much that the changes
of this nature were made, as that the tunes were ever printed in the unedited forms in
which many of them appear in the earlier editions. “Jenny Pluck Pears”, for instance, appears
as a dorian air in the first edition, thus:
In the second edition, the dorian was converted into the minor mode:-
Finally, in the fourth and subsequent editions, by omitting the signature while retaining the
added accidentals, the tune became a major one, and in the seventh edition took the following
In the course of my investigations I have been much struck by the number of beautiful and characteristically English folk-airs that lie buried in “The Dancing Master”. I am satisfied that the larger number of these are quite unknown to the average musician. Even among the few tunes which I have selected for the purpose of this volume, there are several fine and distinctive airs, e.g., “Jenny Pluck Pears”, “New Bo-Peep”, "Ten Pound Lass”, “Oranges and Lemons”, “The Black Nag”, “Rufty Tufty”, “Saint Martin’s”, “Grimstock”, “Putney Ferry”, “Black Jack”, etc., not one of which, so far as I know, has hitherto been published in an accessible form.
The fact is, that the only tunes in “The Dancing Master” at all widely known are those which first appeared in Chappell’s “Popular Music of the Olden Time"; and many of these were unfortunately presented in anything but their best forms. For Chappell — as was, perhaps, natural, remembering the time at which he wrote — very often chose the later and “edited” forms in preference to the earlier and uncorrupted modal ones. This error of judgment has since been corrected by Mr. Wooldridge in the second edition of “Popular Music”. Moreover, the tunes which Chappell selected were chosen quite as much for their historical, literary, or antiquarian associations, as for their artistic qualities. Consequently, a large number of the best and most characteristic of the Playford tunes were omitted from Chappell’s book; and of those included many, e.g., “The Friar in the Well”, “Staines Morris”, “Nonesuch”, etc., were first presented, and have since become popular, in more or less degenerate forms.
Again, it should be understood that the tunes in “The Dancing Master”, are dance-airs, arranged for the “treble violin”. They are instrumental, not vocal tunes. Originally, no doubt, they were ballad airs — their titles show this — but, as printed by Playford, they are derived tunes transformed under the influence of the dance, and of the instrument upon which they have been played. A few, e.g., “Gathering Peascods” and “The Begggar Boy”, are apparently vocal airs, pure and simple, which I suspect had not, before Playford so utilised them, been pressed into service of the dance.
Be this as it may, by far the larger number of the tunes in “The Dancing Master” are genuine instrumental dance-tunes, whatever they may have been originally. To present them as vocal airs wedded to words is to disguise their true nature and beauty, and to deprive them of the appreciation otherwise their due.
In selecting the dances for the purpose of this volume, I have been guided by several and, in some cases, conflicting considerations. My choice was necessarily restricted (1) to those dances, the notations of which I was able to interpret satisfactorily; and (2) to those that from the dancer’s point of view were the most characteristic and interesting. Naturally, I found that many of the best tunes were attached to dances which for one or other of these reasons had to be excluded; while, per contra, dances otherwise free from objection were often allied to poor tunes. My selection had, therefore, to be a compromise. I might, of course, have transferred the good tunes mated to indifferent dances, to the good dances set to bad tunes. And remembering the arbitrary way in which Country Dances were often compounded, I should have had ample justification for adopting such a course. On reflection, however, I have decided so far as this book was concerned, to print for each dance the tune with which it is associated in “The Dancing Master”. In future I may, perhaps, act differently.
The investigations which I have made in connection with this book have convinced me that in Playford’s “Dancing Master” we possess a veritable treasure-house of precious material, the full value of which has yet to win general recognition. For those interested in the revival of folk-dancing, it is the only book in which English Country Dance , in its earliest, purest, and most characteristic forms, is described. Furthermore, “The Dancing Master” contains the largest and, in some respects, the most authoritative collection of seventeenth century instrumental folk-tunes that we possess. For those two reasons alone — and others might easily be adduced — it is to be hoped that this unique work will some day attract from students of dancing, and from those interested in the folk-music of their country, the attention which it undoubtedly deserves but has not yet, I think, received.
Page transcribed by Hugh Stewart