Just What Is English Country Dancing?

If you seen any Jane Austen films, you’ve had a glimpse of this graceful dance form that appears in many of her novels including “Pride and Prejudice”. English Country dancing is easy to learn and highly social; you get to dance with a lot of different people and don’t need a regular partner.

You can escape the frenzy of the 21 st century and return to a more civilized and elegant era. The gentle aerobic movements are good for the body and the brain. English Country dance has many different formations - long or short lines, circles, squares, etc. It ranges in mood from light playfulness to delightful elegance, enthusiastically robust to gloriously stately. Dance movements flow in sync with beautiful early classical music from composers such as Purcell and Handel.  

Most English Country dancing is done with informal attire in a relaxed setting to live music with a caller prompting the figures. English Country Balls are special events for experienced dancers only where more formal dress or period attire are required. Dances are rehearsed in advance so that during the ball dancers can maximize their enjoyment of the dances and the music.

In contra and English country dancing, two people form a couple and dance with each other and another couple, then they dance with another couple, and then another, and yet another, repeating the figures many times, until the dance is done. Then you find a new partner, and a new couple, and a new dance begins. By the end of the evening you’ll have smiled at or danced with everyone else in the hall.

Dances are usually done to live music, although recorded music may be used. Dress is casual, although some people like to dress up for balls and special events. No special classes are required, but some groups have sessions before a dance to help beginners with the basics. 

Most contras and English country dances are done in long lines -- called longways sets -- with your partner opposite you. Other formations may include three or four couple sets, circles, or squares. Each dance lasts about10 minutes, maybe more, maybe a little less.

Men ask women to dance, women ask men, and it’s okay to dance with someone of your own gender. The energy flows from the musicians through you and out to your partner, enveloping the other dancers, and going back to the musicians. You dance with -- with the music, with your partner, and with others in your set. It’s community at its best.

The music for contras may be jigs, reels and hornpipes. The same for English country dance though don’t be surprised to realize you’re dancing to an old ballad or a tune by Purcell. Instruments may include fiddle, bass, piano, mandolin, flute, pennywhistle, hammered dulcimer, banjo, concertina, guitar, washboard, or bodhran, but these days you may also hear clarinet, tuba,  oboe and sax.

Figures are simple and are usually done with a walking step, although skipping, slipping, skip change, polka, and clogging steps may also be used. You’ve heard many of these figures’ names -- back to back (do-si-do), star right and left, allemande, sashay, promenade, turn your partner, swing your partner. English country dance has a few special terms: up a double and back, poussette, hey. In a contra dance you’ll often hear: contra corners, buzz step, ladies chain. In square dance: birdie in a cage or box the gnat. All can be done from the beginning, and done well with practice. Knowing where to go can be disorienting at first, but the caller and those in your set will guide you.