English Country Dance

We are once again pleased to offer a series of English Country Dances during our 2016-2017 dance season, thanks in part to funding from the City of Columbia Office of Cultural Affairs.  If you have not tried this form of dance, you are in for a treat! Jim Thaxter will be teaching the moves, many of which will be familiar to contra dancers or square dancers.  As always, we will be dancing to live music.

Location for English Country Dance:  English Country dances are held at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 1600 Rollins, Rd, in Columbia. Click here for a map showing the location.

Check out this article by MMTD member Krishna Fogle for a taste of English Country. Then come join us for an evening of dance and live music.  Click here for our dance schedule.

Some photos celebrating Johanna’s birthday!

What is English Country Dancing?

The earliest references to English Country dancing go back as far as the 1400s, but the first published set of dances was the Playford collection, printed in 1651. Many dances were written to folk tunes, popular ballads, and stage music. Composers also wrote music specifically for dance. A number of dances, including some that we will be dancing this Friday night, used music by Henry Purcell. Each dance was written to be danced to a specific piece of music,  so the dance and the music fit together beautifully.

Country dance was popular throughout Europe for several centuries and went to North America with the colonists, where it remained popular until the mid 1880s. However, fashionable urban areas increasingly turned to the new dance crazes of the polka and ballroom dancing, leaving country dancing to — well, the country. Essentially, English Country dance was dead by the beginning of the 20th century, while American contras and squares were still alive, although hidden for the most part in New England villages and in isolated areas of Appalachia. Cecil Sharp, an English musicologist and teacher, is credited as the primary re-discoverer of the country dance.

How is English Country dancing (ECD) similar to contra dancing?

ECD is easy to learn. If you can walk and know the difference between left and right, you already have much of the basic knowledge you’ll need. As we do it in the United States, most of the movements are based simply on a walking or skipping step. Dancers move in a number of specific figures, sometimes holding hands, sometimes by themselves. Each dance is prompted by a caller, so that each figure and movement is called in time to the music; you don’t need to rely on your memory alone to know what to do.

Beginners are always welcome. Partners are not necessary; you can come by yourself and be assured of dancing throughout the evening, since our tradition is to change partners for each dance. Local dances are social and friendly, and the atmosphere is informal. No special clothing is needed, other than clean, soft-soled shoes or sneakers. Interested in coming to try a bit of dancing, or simply to watch before you take the plunge?

We always dance to live music. ECD music features tremendous variety of music—sometimes sweet and melodic, sometimes melancholy, and sometimes absolutely driven with a pulsating beat. Through it all, there’s an indefinable quality to ECD that makes it energizing, mesmerizing, and just plain fun.

English Country dancing is accessible for children, as long as they are old enough to pay attention to the leader and follow instructions (approximately age 8 and over)

English Country dancing is community dancing. It’s a tradition in this type of dancing for everyone to change dance partners after every dance.  So, whether you are coupled or single, it’s likely that you will be dancing all evening, with many different dance partners.

English Country dancing is for everyone who loves music and loves to move. 

How is English Country dancing different from contra dancing?

English dances are written to go with specific tunes—Modern contra dances are usually done to jigs and reels, chosen by the band. The same dance can be danced to different tunes on different evenings (or even within the same evening, if the band is playing a medley). Tempos are usually pretty consistent throughout the evening, generally pretty fast (about 120 beats per minute).

English dances are usually written to go with specific tunes, so every time you do a particular dance, you get the same tune. There’s also more variety in meter than in contras or squares; some dances are in waltz time, polka time, minuet time, or other options. The tempo may vary widely from dance to dance, from very slow to very fast.

ECD has a wider variety of formations—Contras are usually done with partners across from each other in long lines. While many English dances use this formation, you will also see other formations, including circles, squares, and sets of three, four, or five couples.

ECD uses a wider variety of figures—English generally uses a wider variety of figures than contra dance does, but the caller will teach each one and cue the dancers throughout the dance. Some figures are the same as in contras, but they go by different names. For example, the do-si-do is called back-to-back in ECD. You’ll see heys-for-three more often than heys-for-four, and two-hand turns are more frequent than partner swings. There’s a lot more emphasis on eye contact than on physical contact, which makes flirting a bit subtler, but just as much fun.

(Based on information by Alan Winston on the history of English Country Dance.)


Here is a brief documentary that expresses the joy in this form of dancing. (Don’t worry. No costumes expected at our dances.)

Here are links to some of the dances we did in February 2012.