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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.