A Brief History of Social Dance

Social dancing has always been popular in Britain because it is fun.  It also provides a safe place for social interactions to take place.  In the past, dances were one of the few places where young people of the opposite sex could meet each other without a chaperone standing beside them; which is why they play such a pivotal role in stories such as Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice or Cinderella.  Today they are still an event where the normal barriers of age, class, gender and ability don’t apply.

Maypole Dancing

Dancing around a maypole is an ancient practice which still exists in much of northern Europe.  It was and is a way of celebrating the summer and of identifying an area which would be used for dancing.  Large indoor spaces are a very modern phenomenon; in the past only the very wealthy would have access to a hall and even these were too small for large gatherings.  Dancing with ribbons is a product of the nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement and the imagination of John Ruskin in particular.  It can therefore be used within the school curriculum as part of a project on the Victorians.

Modern maypole dancing is done all over the world, and is particularly popular in the Caribbean.

A Brief History of Social Dancing in Britain

Very little is known for certain about dancing in the medieval period.  We know that carolling – dances done in a line or circle with singing were popular and many tunes for couple dances have survived.  Unfortunately there are no dance instructions although fragments of very ancient dances still exist in children’s games, such as ‘Here we go round the Mulberry Bush’ and in the Walking Dances still done in the Highlands of Scotland.  From the fifteenth century onwards there are written records although these still require a great deal of interpretation. 

The oldest record of dancing in Britain is the late fifteenth century Gresley manuscript which is a notebook containing brief descriptions of a number of dances and tunes. There is also the Salisbury manuscript, dating from about 1520 which lists the steps to be used for several Basse Dances, a couple dance popular throughout Europe at that time. There are additionally three Italian collections of court dances from which we can guess what might have been done by the upper classes in this country. Dance, like music, has always moved across national boundaries. It is much harder to know what was done by ordinary people.

In the late sixteenth century a detailed dance manual was published in France.  This was Orchésographie by Thoinot Arbeau.  It contains a variety of dances with their accompanying music and for the first time includes dances which would have been done by ordinary people.  These were called branles, a word which was anglicised to brawl.  They are lively dances done in a circle which often involve jumping or miming actions and which, with the addition of alcohol and loud music sometimes got out of control – hence the word brawl nowadays meaning a fight! Brawls are an accessible dance form and a lot of fun.  They were popular throughout Europe including Britain.

The earliest dance manual in England is ‘The Dancing Master’ published by John Playford in 1651.  It is a collection of dances popular at the time and includes several which were already very old and which are mentioned in earlier literature.  All the dances require couples: a man with a female partner.  Some of them are done in circles, some in longways sets, some in square sets and a few where couples have their partner by their side and face another couple.   The Dancing Master was phenomenally successful and went on to be published for many years with dances being added or taken out as fashions changed.  John Playford’s son, Henry, took over the family business in 1690 and another man, John Young in 1706 with the last edition being published in 1728.  However the basic format of the Dancing Master survived and was copied by other manuals over the following century with literally thousands of dances recorded in England, Scotland and Wales.  Of course the style of dancing varies with time as fashions come and go but a surprising number of figures remain the same.

During the Victorian period ladies began to wear enormous crinolines, which prevented them from taking part in country dancing.  Common people did not have the same problem and so although country dancing disappeared from the upper end of society it remained popular amongst ordinary people and was still thriving when serious attention began to be paid to traditional dance and music at the beginning of the twentieth century.