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What is English country dance?

Before there was contra dance, there was English country dance. Jane Austen did it. George Washington did it. So can you!

Easy to learn, fun to dance. The primary goal of English country dancing has always been to have fun. A simple walking step will get you through most dances. A caller teaches each dance and then prompts while you dance, just like in contra.

No need to bring a partner. In our dance community, we change partners after each dance, and we make sure everyone who wants to dance gets to dance.

Beautiful music. One of the many joys of English country dance is the beauty and variety of the music. Each dance has its own tune.

Who can dance it?

Almost anybody! In modern English country dancing, the principle step is the walking step. All dances are taught by a caller, who walks the dancers through the dance several times, then prompts as they dance to music. The evening begins with easy dances, and if you arrive at the very beginning of the dance, the caller will happily explain the basics and get you off to a good start.

Do I need to come with a partner?

No, absolutely not. Even in Jane Austen’s time, it was traditional to change partners. We change after every dance instead of every other dance as they did in 18th century England, and we make sure everyone gets to dance. There is very little difference between the man’s and the woman’s role and nothing more romantic than a handhold, so having equal numbers of men and women isn’t essential.

Do I need a costume?

No. Wear lightweight clothing and comfortable shoes that won’t stick or slide on the dance floor.

What should I bring?

Yourself, with or without a partner! Come alone, or come with friends. Generally, contra and English country dancers switch partners at the end of each dance, so there will always be someone new to dance with. We recommend beginners dance a few dances with more experienced dancers.

Comfortable clothing. There is no required clothing for contra or English country dance! We recommend light-weight clothing, because you might get sweaty. Some people bring special dance shoes with suede-soles, other people wear socks or dance barefoot; but you can just wear (clean) sneakers.

Energy! Contra and English country dance are deceptively aerobic. Come well hydrated; you may want to bring a water bottle and/or snacks.

(Supervised) children. Contra and English country dance are family-friendly, and many children will enjoy the music and dancing. However, please make sure you keep an eye on your children at all times.

Dance etiquette

  • Anyone can ask anyone to dance.
  • It is customary to switch partners for each dance, and dance with a variety of people.
  • Please be kind and welcoming to folks you meet on the dance floor.
  • Be gentle and respect other dancers’ bodily autonomy.
  • At the end of each dance, thank your partner and clap to thank the band for the lovely music.
  • Take steps to avoid body odor, but please do not wear fragrances as some people have sensitivities.
  • Do not bring alcohol or dance under the influence.
  • If someone is making you uncomfortable, talk to a dance organizer.

A brief history of English country dance

English country dance was once the primary form of social dancing in England and the English-speaking world. It appears to have arisen in the 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I as an amalgam of English folk dancing and dances from the courts of Europe (primarily Italy). In the 17th century, it spread from the English court to the upper classes, and during the 18th century, it was adopted by the new middle classes throughout England, Scotland, Ireland and the colonies. It was also danced in the courts of Europe, and French refinements were later reimported to the British Isles and the British colonies. However, in the early 19th century, couple dances such as the polka eclipsed country dancing, which survived only in its descendants: village dances, Scottish country dancing, Irish set dancing, and American contra and square dancing. Nevertheless, a late 19th century interest in folk traditions led to its revival, and it survives today in its simplest form, without complicated footwork. Although it has never regained its earlier prominence, English country dancing remains a vital dance form, and new dances and dance tunes are still being composed.

For a not-so-brief history, see PureHistory’s page on English Country Dance or the this documentary from the Library of Congress.

See you on the dance floor!