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Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

English Country Dancing
Style and Figures

By Marianne Taylor, 2005

Marianne Taylor



The springy foot, the relaxed knee, and the lead of the body are the most noticeable characteristics of contemporary English country dance style. Arms hang relaxed, moving easily with the motion of the dance – but are firm on turns and extended well and strongly, shoulder-high, on circles. Hands are taken in hand-shake position (fingers forward and down, not up), wrists firm.

NOTE: Steps are not usually specified in the directions written in the 17th and 18th centuries; in practice, however, there are sections in the dances that are done with the usual "dance-walk" and others that employ a skipping step to cover more distance. In the directions given here in the 1984 College of the Pacific (Stockton) Folk Dance Camp, I have tried to specify where skipping is usually done.

Some Basic Figures

  1. Three "preliminary" figures are often included in "Playford Dances" (from collections published by John Playford and his successors [1651 to 1728] and other collections published during that time).

    1. UP A DOUBLE: Move forward three steps (usually R,L,R) and close with the left; fall back three steps (L,R,L) and close with the right. This can also be done with four steps forward and four back, or with a small light balance (three quick steps) instead of the last step and close.
    2. SIDING: Facing partner throughout, pass left shoulders, moving toward partner's place with three steps (R,L,R) and close left (or balance as in "up a double"); reverse, passing right shoulders to move to original place with opposite footwork.
    3. ARMING: Hooking right elbows, turn once around with partner, releasing to fall back into own place (8 steps); repeat with left elbow.

  2. Other typical figures you should know
    1. SETTING: Spring slightly side right; step left next to right; step right in place again; pause one count (in duple time; repeat with opposite footwork. Knees are relaxed, and the step has a "down-up-down" level change.
    2. NOTE: In 6/8 time, the count is S,q,S. In 3/4 time, there is no pause, and there is more sideward motion – or occasionally, backward and forward motion.

    3. TURN SINGLE: Turn toward right shoulder, once around, four steps, making a small circle clockwise. This can also be done to the left, and at such times it is usually specified. The 3/4 time it takes three – or sometimes six – steps.
    4. HEY: This term covers a great many figures, all involving a weaving feeling of passing one person by the right hand or shoulder, the next by the left, et cetera. Sometimes it takes the form of a "rights and lefts" (a "hey" for four with hands of a circular "hey" with hands); sometimes it's a figure of eight for three simultaneously, or a "straight hey" for four (in this case, the ends usually pass by right shoulders, and those passing in the center give left shoulders).
    5. CAST: Move on the outside of the set, down or up, always turning the "long way" to begin.
    6. TURN: Sometimes done with one hand, sometimes with two, this is always specified. Arms are almost fully extended; eye contact is essential!
    7. HANDS ACROSS (STAR): Four dancers make a star of a wheel, each taking the hand of the person diag across from the small set. Usually begins with R hands across, often followed by L. 6 or 8 steps.
    8. GYPSY (GIPSY): Dance around partner, facing partner continually. Usually done in a clockwise direction.
    9. POUSSETTE: A two-couple figure – hands joined with ptr, one M pushes, the other pulls so that the cpls move out of the set, then reverse direction to change places (half poussette). In a full poussette the pattern continues until all are in original places.
    10. BACK TO BACK: Facing dancers move forward passing R shldrs and move bkwd to place plassing L shldrs.
    11. BASKET SWING: Two cpls: M join hands behind W backs, W rest hands on M nearer shldr, free hands around each other's back.
    12. CHANGE PLACES: Designated dancers exchange places passing R shldrs and turning to the R to face each other.
    13. CIRCLE: (Three-hands, four-hands, et cetera.) Dancers form a ring by joining hands (W-pos, a little below shldr level) and dance once around to the L with designated step (usually either Walking or Slipping). If the circle is to the R, the direction is specified. Three-hands involves three dancers, four-hands is four dancers, and so on.

Terms to Know

  1. LONGWAYS SET: Line of men facing a line of women, partners opposite. The head of the set is toward the music, and men have left shoulder to the music, women right shoulder.
  2. PROPER AND IMPROPER: Refers to the side of the set. Dancers are "proper" when on own sides, "improper" when on opposite sides.
  3. DOUBLE: Duple time: Three light springy steps and a close in a specified dir (with wt or no wt), as in "forward a double."
  4. DUPLE AND TRIPLE MINOR: Refers to "minor" groupings of couples in the "major" longways set. Duple means two-couple groups; triple denotes three-couple groups. The figures of the dance will necessitate this number of couples; the first or top couple is usually the "active" couple, who progress down the set during the dance, while twos and threes move up with each time through the pattern.
  5. CORNERS: The first man and second woman are first corners; first woman and second man are second corners. In a triple grouping, the first corner may be the active dancer's right diagonal opposite person, and the second corner the one who is left diagonal opposite.
  6. FALL BACK: Move bkwd as directed.
  7. ROUND: "One round" means once through the pattern of the dance.
  8. SQUARE SET: Four couples, each with backs to one wall. Head couples are facing the music and have backs to music; side couples are the others.
  9. UP THE SET: Toward the music.

  10. DOWN THE SET: Away from the music.

Reprinted from the 1984 University of the Pacific (Stockton) Folk Dance Camp syllabus
and the 2005 Stockton Folk Dance Camp syllabus.