The museum village Cloppenburg published in 1984 a book: Tänze und Gebrauchsmusik ... aus dem Artland (Dances and Music from the Artland). It contains among others three manuscripts of a rural dance master J. W. Heine with choreographies from the end of the 18th century. There are 100 dances in the English style. But this style was transmitted via France. The French influence is obvious by the french terms in use, but also by the fact that the dances were shown by drawings with a verbal hint now and then. This way to show dances is a French invention. English dance books from that time relay on verbal descriptions.
To describe the different forms of the Chain, I use the term "Contra-Corner". In a contra lane, your Partner stands opposite from you. To the right of your Partner stands the First Contra-Corner, to the left of your Partner stands the Second Contra-Corner. (Right and left as seen from your position.)
This is the oldest form of the Chain: Four persons stand two by two opposite each other. The first contra-corners change places; the second contra-corners change places. Then the first contra-corners change back, and the second contra-corners change back. Probably this figure was named Chain because the paths - two crossing oblongs - reminded of two links of a chain. This motive is very old and already found in the first edition of Playford's English Dancing Master - there without a name, anyhow.
This Chain was also used in 1784 by the German dancing master Joseph Lanz in his Portefeuille Englischer Tänze (Portfolio of English Dances), as the pertinent drawing shows quite clearly. However, Lanz used only a Demie Chaine (half chain) to the place slant across, and then brought the dancers back to original places with a Demie Ronde (circle halfway).
The dance "Cuckolds all a Row" from the first edition of Playford's Dancing Master has just this motive in the second B-part.
J. W. Heine has drawn a picture of the chain only if it was danced around a passive position, as e.g. in the "Ketten-Ecosaise" (Scottish Dance with a Chain) (loc.cit. page 41). Here the couples #1 and #3 dance "Die Chaine um das 2te Paar" (The Chain around Couple #2).
In the manuscripts by Heine there are 30 more dances with only the remark "Chaine 4" in one field, usually at the eand of a dance sequence. It could mean as well a figure of Rights and Lefts (Circular Hey in Country Dancing, Square Thru in Square Dance): Give right hands across, left hands along the line, right hands to cross back, and left hands to the starting place. This form is exchangeable with the chain as described above.
Moreover there are 10 contra dances which end with a "Chaine a Siess" (Chain of Six) for which no drawing is provided. Luckily there are 3 dances with a half Chain of Six, and you can guess from the first half on the second: In a group of 3 couples, the active couple is in the middle. They give right hands, turn just enough to find the first contra-corner, give left hands, and turn until they can find the partner again. (That far it is the Half Chain of Six.) They turn by the right to find the second contra-corner, turn there by the left, and return to places. This movement is known in American contra dancing as "Turn Contra-Corners".
In two contra dances there is a "Stehende Chaine" (Standing Chain). Here too, the active couple is in the center of a group of three couples. They turn by the right hands that far that they can give left hands to the first contra-corner. In this wavy line all dance balance steps (which are indicated by a "-sign). Then the actives turn to give hands to the second contra-corner, and those four balance. Obviously the name of this figure is derived from her similarity with the Chain of Six.
Generally from the middle of the 18th century on, every movement is named a Chain where you give right and left hands alternatingly.
J. W. Heine has also shown some 4-couple dances (and named some of them Quadrille, some Cottilion, or even Contre-Tanz). In three of them there is a "Franse Chaine Ballanse" that is a French Chain with a Balance, in which two couples change places. (I found this term nowhere else.) I imagine it meant: Give right hand to opposite, balance and change places; give left hand to partner, balance, change places and adjust. Basically this would be a (half) right and left thru. Of course in these 4-couple dances there was also the "Chaine Grande", the Grand Right and Left, once around to original places. And there is a pretty variation in Die Strauß-Quadrille, (The Bouquet Quadrille) loc.cit. page 43; Cottilion mit der Wickel-Chaine, (Cottilion with the Wrapping Chain) loc.cit. page 67: "Viertel Chaine Grande, ohne Handt geben, und mit der überstehenden Dame Rundt; wieder dasselbe." (Quarter of a Grand Chain without giving hands, and with the opposite lady circle; that again.) In modern words: Weave the ring two places, with your opposite two-hand circle once around; repeat to meet your partner. (On this followed France Chaine Ballanse for the head and for the side couples, to bring everybody back to the starting places.)
(If you click on the drawings, you can see them twice as large.)
Published 2006-12-24 / Heiner Fischle, Hannover