English Country Dance for Square Dancers

The history of English Country Dance is intertwined with the history of what is now Modern American (Western) Square Dance, but quite a lot is different. Still, your Square Dance background will help you in learning English Country Dance. Also, unlike in Square (or Scottish), studying is not usually required.

Calling

In ECD the dance is fixed, more like Old Time than Modern Square Dance. The caller is not improvising, nor do they typically devise the choreography.

Before dancing a dance, we first learn the dance, by walking through the dance with instruction from the caller. If some particular bits are more difficult, we might practise them more than once.

Then we are ready to dance, but the caller will still prompt the dance figures as we dance, at least at first. But unlike in Modern Square Dance, these are reminders, not new information. Therefore, as people get familiar with the dance, the caller generally will start calling in less detail, or sometimes stop calling altogether. This is a good thing: it is more satisfying to dance the dance if you are doing it without prompting. On the other hand, if people are having difficulty remembering the dance, the caller will resume calling, or increase the detail of the calls, as needed so that we can keep dancing successfully.

Figures

You will find some figures to be similar to those you know from Square Dance, although always under different names. A list of familiar or semi-familiar figures follows. (Some other figures you will find to be entirely new, but that's fine; most of them are straightforward, more like the square dance figures which can be described in several words, as opposed to the longer figures like Grand Square or Teacup Chain.)

However, there are a few fundamental differences in how this all works:

For one, the whole idea in Modern Square Dance about how the semantics of a call includes saying which way you end up facing, and then the semantics of the next call are based on that and who is beside you and so on, has no analogue in English Country Dance. Rather, all of the ECD figures are more like just a few figures in Modern Square Dance such as "promenade" or "allemande left your corner", in which it doesn't matter which way you are facing or what you were just doing, you drop everything and turn to the appropriate person and do the next figure with them. Still, well-devised dances provide for graceful transitions from one figure to the next. But it's not part of the basic rules.

The fact that the dance is fixed rather than called dynamically also has an effect on the relationship between the dancer and the figures. In Modern Square Dance, you are expected to know a list of figures for the particular level of dance (Basic, Mainstream, Plus, etc). In ECD, there is no such list of figures or levels, although of course it's still the case that some dances are much harder or easier than others. But no matter what the level of difficulty of a particular dance, in most situations (such as in our weekly dances) the dancers are not expected to know the dance beforehand, and they often haven't even heard of it. We learn the dance by walking through it with instruction from the caller. This means that if there is some figure in the dance which you don't know, that's ok; during the walkthrough, we will take the required time to explain the figure and practise it.

Some specific figures:

Rights and lefts:
"Rights and lefts" is basically "square through". It is called with respect to a group of four people, and you pass one person by pulling by with right hands, the next around the square pulling by left, and so on. The dance instructions will say how many "changes" of rights and lefts are to be done, which is the same as the number in "square through". The number of changes is always specified (it's most commonly four or two).
The number of steps for each change varies depending on the dance, but the commonest is four steps per change, which is more leisurely than in Square, but on the other hand you are generally farther apart.
Up a double and back:
There are various variations on "forward and back" which you will encounter. One you will hear is "up a double and back", which involves facing up (towards the music), taking hands with your partner, and walking four steps "up" and then backing down to where you started.
Bend the line:
"Bend the line" occurs to some extent in ECD, e.g. after we make a line of four across the dance and go up a double, sometimes as we go back we bend the line so as to get back to facing our partners across the dance.
Circling:
Another common figure which you already know is to circle to the left or to the right, taking hands.
Hands across:
"Hands across" is similar to a star. We say "right hands across" or "left hands across". However, rather than just generally putting your hand in the middle, you specifically take the hand of the person diagonally across from you. This is true even if the caller decides to use the American dance term "star" for this figure.
Ladies chain:
Not as common in ECD as in Square, but still seen from time to time, the figure called "ladies chain" is quite similar to the one you know. One difference is that the turn on the side of the set is generally a hand turn, with distance between the two people as they walk around the central point (see "Handing", below). Another difference is that "ladies chain" traditionally means to go over and back, i.e. two square-dance-style ladies chains, although due to the square dance influence it increasingly commonly means just half, like in square. (All of this is settled during the walkthrough.)
Back-to-back:
When the figure "back to back" occurred when members of the Louis XIV court danced "contredanse anglaise", they called it "dos à dos". In French, the first 's' is generally pronounced because of the following vowel, but the last 's' isn't pronounced. So when this call is used in American Square Dance it's sometimes spelled "dosado", and you know it under that name. It's pretty much the same in ECD as in Square Dance, except that it's not automatically with whomever you're facing, it's with whomever the dance instructions tell you it's with. There's also "left-shoulder back-to-back", in which you pass on the other side.
California Twirl:
California Twirl occurs in ECD, and it's just the same as in Square except that you drop hands at the end of it unless otherwise specified. Less common but still seen is Box the Gnat, in which case the caller will have to clarify whether or not you retain hands at the end. (And did you know that a left-handed Box the Gnat is called "Swat the Flea"? There are two dances I know which have Swat the Flea.)
Grand square:
Grand square occurs in at least one old dance in square set formation, and is the same as in Square Dance except that we don't slap hands when we meet.

Set formation

There are some English Country Dances which are danced in square set formation, but they're a small minority. The majority of English Country Dances are danced in a formation which the old books call "longways for as many as will". You form two lines, such that from the point of view of someone at the bottom of the hall looking up to the music, the women are on the right and the men are on the left. You face your partner across the dance. Alternately put, the women's right shoulders are pointing towards the music, and the men's left shoulders are pointing towards the music.
(Note: "women" and "men" are just dance roles; whether you're dancing as a man or as a woman doesn't have to be the same as what you actually are. And men dance with men just as women dance with women. And anyway we are all dancing together. However, as a newcomer you're best at first to pick one role or the other and stick with it to start, so long as numbers allow.)

The couple at the top is couple number one. The numbering after that depends on the particular dance, but the commonest scheme alternates "ones" and "twos". You dance in your group of two couples, and at the end of once through the dance the ones and twos are interchanged -- the twos are now closer to the music, and the ones are below the twos. Then, the dance starts again, with the ones now dancing with new twos below them, and the twos now dancing with new ones above them.

You can wait to understand this until you come to a dance and experience it in real life. Actually, that sentence applies to this entire document -- people are welcome at our ECD group without any dance experience at all.

There are other more complex set formations too. On the other hand, there is also a simpler set formation: Some dances are three-couple dances, in which we form a longways set of three couples, again with everyone opposite their partner, with the women on one side and the men on the other.

You do not take hands with those near you when you are at rest, even in home position in a square set.

Handing

Most of the time that you approach someone and take hands, it is a "shake hand" hold, like you would take if shaking hands with the person. Forearm turns are just about unheard of; elbow turns do happen, called "arming", but they are not the default.

A basic right hand turn (e.g. of your partner) all the way around is done by veering slightly left as you raise your right hand from the resting position, taking hands at a comfortable distance, and each walking in a circle around the pivot point, which is where your hands meet. It's a very elegant way to do a turn.

As in square dance, you need to remember to let go of the handhold far enough in advance that you can get to where you need to go.

Music

We dance mostly to "early music", or more recently-composed music in the Renaissance (early music) style. This is my favourite kind of music.

The music is more central to ECD than it is to Square Dance. The dance is precisely timed to the music, and we talk about how many steps a particular figure should take. Dances are devised to fit specific pieces of music. There are hundreds of pieces of music from the 1600s and 1700s which we know today only because they were published in dance books, alongside the dance instructions. Here is an example from 1651, of the dance "Upon a Summer's Day", which we have danced more than once at YRECD (and undoubtedly will again in future).

We dance to music of different "time signatures", which have different feelings and different rhythms of steps. You may have experienced the difference between a march, a jig, and a waltz. We also have dances of all different speeds. Sometimes dancing slowly is the most difficult!

Sometimes the teacher plays the music a bit before we start walking through the dance; when this happens it's good to lilt back and forth to the music to get the hang of the timing.

Social dance

The social aspect of English Country Dance is emphasized. You are dancing with other people, you are delighted to be dancing with them, and you show it! When you do a figure with someone, you make eye contact, and can't help but to smile at them.

At the end of a dance, you bow or curtsy to your partner (your choice), and thank them before you leave the dance floor or find another partner.

Changing partners every dance is obligatory. It is acceptable to decline an invitation to dance, but if you are intending to dance this dance, please consider accepting all invitations. There is no rule about whether it's the man or the woman who asks the other person to dance. (If men are uncomfortable dancing with men as partners, they are free to decline an invitation on this basis, although personally I would urge you to get over it; it's just a dance, and you are dancing with them anyway.)

When turning someone, circling with them, or anything involving taking hands, you "give weight" to the hand hold. This is similar to the idea of a "firm handshake" but minus the machismo -- rather than squeezing, you pull on the handhold a bit to give some feeling of connection, without pressing at all. This is something I would recommend that you request a demonstration of from the teacher, and think about. Giving weight also helps you to complete the figure, especially when it's fast; but that's not the main reason we do it -- it's much more satisfying to turn someone when they are giving you weight in return, rather than being limp.

Videos

The video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8AHhmnu-ME may give you more of an idea about what ECD looks like.
If you're looking for a particular dance, http://www.lambertvillecountrydancers.org/videolist.php is a great index of videos.

Groups

Some nearby English Country Dance groups, most of which meet weekly as social dance groups: