Origins of English Country Dance
Mary Peralta Railing
An Italian Origin for English Country Dance
The origin of English Country Dance (as we think of it) appears to be in the court dances of renaissance Italy. There are a few Playford-like dances documented in the 15th century, such as Colonese (longways for six), Pizochara (longways for eight), Chirintana (longways for as many as will), but aside from their formations these dances don't seem much like what we think of as country dance. It is in the 16th century that one finds Italian dances that seem a lot like Playford dances: Il Villanicco and Bizzaria d'Amore (two couples in a square), Furioso and Dolce Amososo Fuoco (longways for six), Chiaranzana and Caccia d'Amore (longways for as many as will). These dances seems to have a lot more in common with English Country Dance as we know it. Italian dances in general use a lot of fancy footwork, emphasizing steps more than figures, but these “Italian country dances” emphasize figures and for the most part use simple steps: seguito ordinario (three steps and pause), spezzato (a small skip), scorsi (small running steps on the toes), riprese (steps to the side). There are figures that, stripped of their elaborate Italian terminology, stew down to Playford figures: set and turn single (Riprese left and right, turn over the left shoulder), arming with partner and corner (specifying which hand to take and how many ordinary or skipping steps are to be used), heys (with and without taking hands). There are progressive figures: head couple takes hands four with the couple below, dances with them for a bit, then goes under the inactive couple's arms to repeat the figure with the next couple. (I can't imagine anything more 'contra' than that!)
Duple and triple minors? No, but those aren't typical of early Playford either. The progressions in these Italian longways “as many as will” dances are the “snowball” type where the head couple takes the figure down the set, which was typical of early Playford dances. Villanicco is described as a dance for four, but the author adds a comment that if more than two couples want to dance it can be done in this manner — and then describes the head couple dancing a figure with each couple in the circle, similar to the way a number of the circle dances in first edition Playford are described. Even more interesting is Caroso's implication that the head couple could choose figures from a known repertoire larger than that recorded in the dance manuals. In his description of Chiaranzana he states that there are many other figures possible, but he is giving only these in order not to bore the reader.
Why the similarity between some 16th century Italian dances and English Country Dance? As has been noted elsewhere, similarity doesn't prove descent. It could be that a few dances like Chiaranzana were recorded in Italian court dance manuals before longways set dances were described in England simply because the Italians were publishing dance manuals earlier. There may have been a more widespread, undocumented tradition of such dances all over Europe at that time.
Personally, I am inclined to doubt that. Here is where I am really going out on a limb. I believe that the idea of a dance with a series of figures for a fixed set of couples is Italian in origin and spread to England via court and upper class circles. The ancient, traditional dances of Europe were the circle and line dances that exist in one form or another from the middle ages to the present day. (The renaissance description of such dances comes from the French book Orchesography, which also includes a variety of other dance types, but nothing resembling English Country Dance.) There are only two English renaissance dance sources. One (a lawyer's notebook, c. 1500, known as the Gresley Manuscript) contains instructions for dances for couples and trios only. The other is Copeland, “The Maner of dauncynge of bace daunces” (1521). Basse danses were processional dances for couples.
Of the three main 16th century Italian dance manuals, Il Ballarino by Caroso was the most widely known. In this book Caroso often uses a sequence of verses in which a travelling figure is followed by the man and the lady dancing toward each other and retreating (usually as two solos, rather than “siding” together), followed by an arming figure. There may or may not be a repeating chorus between these figures. There may or may not be a “finale” verse. There are always opening honors (reverence with possible sideways steps and/or turns in place). Does this sound familiar? There are lots of dances in Il Ballarino that don't follow this pattern, and there are lots of dances in first edition Playford that don't follow the “double/siding/arming” pattern either, but I don't believe it's coincidence. English writers in the sixteenth century refer to “country dances” and “our English country dance” as if they did not perceive the dance form as an import. They also refer to “the old and new country dances,” as if the form were changing in the late sixteenth century. I think (pure speculation) that the “new country dances” were invented by English dance masters using Il Ballarino as a model, but with less (but perhaps some) of the Italian footwork.
Measures and Country Dances
Another theory of the origin of English Country Dance is that country dances are related to the “old measures” recorded in a number of manuscripts connected to the Inns of Court from circa 1570 to 1675. The measures began in the late 16th century and flourished in the 17th century, contemporary with country dances. They are a dance type that seems to use the same step vocabulary as Playford: just singles, doubles, set & turn single, and occasional slides (slips). The gentlemen of the Inns of Court did make a distinction between measures and country dances — the measures were for the solemn revels, and country dances were for the post revels — but descriptions of the two sound very similar. Consider the opening of The Queens Alman: “A duble forwarde & a duble backe set two singles & face to face & turne a duble round in your owne place a duble forward with the right legge & backe with the left legge set /2/ singles face to face & turne a duble round” This seems to be the same figure as “Leade up all a D. forwards and back, set and turne S. That againe.” (Playford, 1651).
Note that if the Inns of Court dances are related to the country dances, they offer some clarification of how the corresponding Playford figure ought to be done, e.g., turning to face your partner for a set & turn single, and beginning the second double forward with the right leg.
But were the singles and doubles of the measures and/or country dances plain walked steps? Certainly the measures were considered plain, “Plain men dance the measures” (Middleton, 1621). The earliest of the Inns of Court manuscripts (Bodleian Rawl. Poet.108, c. 1570) has a hopped double “A Duble forward hoppe” in some of the measures, but none of the later Inns of Court manuscripts call for hopping in their instructions for the same dances. Could they have simply assumed, without writing it down, that the steps would be ornamented? We can never know for sure, but the Brerewood ms. writing c. 1635 about one of the Inns of Court revels, complains “but nowe their dancing is tourned to bare walking.”
There were some court dances recorded in the Inns of Court manuscripts. They aren't much discussed because the instructions are so opaque. However, without knowing what a “lene” or a “fained mount” is, one can still establish that a more varied step vocabulary existed and was used by the same writers who recorded the old measures. The beginning of The First Corant in the Ashmole ms. (Bodleian, MS. Rawl. D.864, c. 1630) is “2 Fainned mounts a hop and a chase, a hop and a lene forward a winde an a chase back to the left hand sidewaies, a hop and a lene back/” Surely this writer would have said more than “A duble forwarde & a duble backe” in his instructions for the Queen's Alman if something more than a plain double had been called for.
It is impossible to prove that the step vocabulary of the measures and of English country dances in the early 17th century was the same when both are limited to terms like “single” and “double” that have meant different things in different dance types. What they have in common may simply have been a similar lack of detail in their instructions. However, the descriptions of the steps, if not the figures, do seem to be more similar between these two types of dances than between country dances and court dances (until court versions of English country dances are imported from France as contradanse). My theory is that the step vocabulary of early English Country Dance is that of the measures, but that the figures are derived from the Italian-style dances fashionable at court in the late 16th century. The measures are all processional dances for as many as will. One interacts only with one's partner. The concept of a fixed set of dancers interacting with each other in a series of figures that do not move the set around the floor seems to have no precedent other than the Italian renaissance dances that influenced all of Europe during the 16th century. I think that English country dances developed as a hybrid of Italian-inspired figures danced without the elaborate Italian steps by Englishmen trying to “care not to dance loftily” (Pagitt, c. 1628). This lack of fancy footwork may have been the very thing that distinguished country dances (and measures) from court dances.All quotes are from James P. Cunningham, Dancing in the Inns of Court, London: Jordan & Son, Ltd. 1965.