What are Playford dances?

By Hugh Stewart

In the 1600s English Society got bored with dancing the complicated and difficult-to-learn formal dances (which were very much display dances for couples to show off) and started dancing ‘country dances’ for light relief. Country dances were the dances done by the country folk and had to be easy because country folk didn’t have time to go to lessons, and couldn’t read so they couldn’t look up the dances in a book. The dancing masters rapidly got in on the act and started inventing more complicated ‘country dances’. These compromise dances proved very popular; after all an educated person going to a ball every week or two may well feel a dance simple enough for someone who only goes to a dance once or twice a year is beneath him.

In 1651 a music publisher called John Playford published ‘The English Dancing Master’. This was a book of brief instructions for a hundred-odd such dances. The title was probably just a joke because all the best dancing masters were French (or, maybe, a dig at a rival French book). This book proved to be a success and a second edition was issued the next year, and a third three years later; the later editions dropped the joke and were simply titled ‘The Dancing Master’. Successive editions were published until 1728, with John Playford’s son, Henry taking over in 1684, and then John Young in 1709. Later editions ran to three volumes and over the years dances were added and dropped so that over a thousand distinct dances were published. Various other publishers got in on the act and books of country dances were published at frequent intervals through to about 1850. Throughout this time country dances were regarded as light relief from ‘real dancing’ and we get various letters and journals saying things like “and afterwards we set to and danced country dances till four in the morning” where it was clearly not worth going into details.

In the early 1900s people were trying to collect evidence of the English Folk tradition before the age of industrialisation and mass communication swept it all away. In particular Cecil Sharp published ‘The Country Dance Book’ in 1909 which was a set of country dances he had collected in his travels round the country. A couple of years later he produced ‘The Country Dance Book II’ (the series later went on up to book VI) where he had gone back to the earliest evidence he could find for English Country Dances — John Playford’s 1651 book. The English Folk Dance Society seized on these dances; after all, the middle class educated dancers going to weekly classes had similar taste in dances to Playford’s middle class educated society going to frequent balls.

Nowadays we tend to talk about ‘Playford dances’ and ‘Dances from the Villages’. Dances from the villages are what can be called genuine country dances — dances that can be picked up quickly by someone who only dances once or twice a year who is more interested in socialising than dancing. ‘Playford dances’ is a generic term to describe all dances in that style, whether they were published by John (or Henry) Playford, or their competitors hundreds of years ago, or if they are newly-composed dances in that style.

Most dancers dance Playford dances because they enjoy them, which is a perfectly good reason. Some people dance them because they are trying to recreate historical life. Such people should bear in mind the following points:

  • Playford dances were never dances of the country folk. They were dances of the educated society.
  • The instructions in the Dancing Master were brief notes, so modern interpretations of those notes may well not be what was intended. Indeed we can sometimes be convinced there are misprints so some dance descriptions are clearly wrong.
  • Originally these dances would have been done with a lot of fancy stepping, whereas nowadays we almost always use walking or skipping steps.
  • The dances we call ‘Playford’ were published over a 200 year period, and the fashions in dress varied over that time, and dance styles evolved to account for changes in dress.

1650 or 1651?

There have been arguments as to exactly when ‘The English Dancing Master’ was published. It was registered for copyright in November 1650, but the printed date on the book is 1651 (you had to register your book in advance of publication). The real cause of the confusion is that at some stage people switched from counting the year as starting in March (the Spring Solstice) to starting in January — think about September being the 7th month. Whoever bought the copy of The English Dancing Master now the British Library was an old fuddy-duddy who crossed out the printed 1651 and wrote in 1650. Hence I have described the book as being published in 1651, but if you want to use Old Style years then you could call it 1650, which is a nice round number.

Playford on the Web

Robert Keller has scanned in copies of all editions of the Dancing Master and added an index. If you want to see what Playford published go to https://www.cdss.org/elibrary/dancing-master/Index.htm. If reading scanned-in ancient type is not for you, see http://www-2.cs.cmu.edu/afs/andrew.cmu.edu/org/Medieval/www/src/contributed/pc2d@andrew.cmu.edu/dance/playford.html for a typed-in copy of the first edition, spelling mistakes and all. Alternatively, Scott Pfitzinger has produced a full catalogue and indexes for all 18 editions of Playford’s Dancing Master, with transcriptions of all the dance notations and tunes, available at http://playforddances.com.

See a Playford family tree.

Page maintained by Hugh Stewart