Roots of Square Dancing
found in the 1st edition of John Playford’s English Dancing Master, 1651
An essay by Heiner Fischle, Hannover, Germany

The English Dancing Master, published 1651, is usually regarded as the oldest printed source for contra dancing. But besides the "longways" formation, there are several formations which are direct ancestors to square dancing:

Before going to the descriptions of the dances, here is a short glossary as given by John Playford: (Original text passages are written in italic letters.)
A Double is foure steps forward or back, closing both feet. (i.e. three steps and close)
A Single is two steps, closing both feete. (i.e. step and close)
Set and turne single, is a single to one hand, and a single to the other, and turne single. (Step to the right and close; step to the left and close; with four steps walk a small clockwise circle.)
D. Is for a Double.
S. Is for a Single.
Wo. Stands for woman.
We. Stands for women.
Cu. Stands for Couple.
Co. Stands for Contrary.
2. Stands for second.
3. Stands for third.
4 Stands for fourth.
 .  Stands for a straine playd once.
 :  Stands for a straine playd twice
 . :  Stands for a straine playd thrice, &c.
  These Characters expresse the Figure of the Dance.
man This stands for the Men
woman This for the women.
  Top     Rounds for eight     Longways for eight     For four     Square Dances     End

Rounds for as many as will
These dances derived from the Farandole. The Farandole is an ancient dance where a leader leads a string of dancers (usually, but not necessarily couples) around, weaving to and fro, and sometimes crossing the own path. Now at the end of the 15th century, a lot of new ways were developed: new ways to sail across the sea, new ways to calculate the movements of the stars, a new way to play chess, and new ways of fencing and warfaring too. And I guess that around this time, here and there a daring dance leader tried a new way to dance the Farandole by leading his partner to the following couple, dancing some movements with them, and then going on to the next. Since the Stone Age, in Northern Europe the general direction of dancing followed the sun, that means it went clockwise. Consequently, when the dance leader wanted to face the following couple, he must lead to the right, as it is still done in the visiting couple squares. The "man on your right hand" is mentioned in some of these dances, and I think the rule applies to all of them. As a sample, here is the easiest one:

Up Tailes all       Round for as many as will Round4

UpTailes all
Lead in all a D. and back againe, set and turne S.  .  That againe  : 
First Cu. lead through the 2. Cu. cast off and meet within, clap hands and Armes  .  And so forward to the next, the rest following in order  : 
First Cu. lead through the 2. cast off and meet within, clap hands all foure, hands a crosse all foure, and round to your places, and so forward, &c.
First Cu. lead through the 2. cast off and meet within, clap hands all foure, and hand round all foure to your places, and so forward, &c.

Here is the transcription to modern square dance language:
Introduction: Forward and back (1-8), step-close to the right and to the left (9-12), walk individually in a small clockwise circle (13-16). Repeat.

1st Figure: Active couple lead right, split the next couple, separate, around one (1-8); actives clap hands, hook right elbows, turn once or twice (9-16). Repeat this with the next couple, until you are back home again.

2nd Figure: Active couple lead right, split the next couple, separate, around one (1-8); both couples clap hands, form a right hand star with hands across and turn it once around (9-16). The active couple repeats this with the next couple, etc.

3rd Figure: Active couple lead right, split the next couple, separate, around one (1-8); both couples clap hands and circle left once around (9-16). The active couple repeats this with the next couple, etc.

It is not necessary that the second couple waits until the active couple is back home; it can start its turn as soon as the actives dance with the 4th couple, provided all the couples know that they must stop, when they reached their home position again.

Both the dance and the tune are simple enough to consider this as a folk dance.

Other dances of this kind are:

  • Mill-field
  • Rose is white and Rose is red
  • Peppers Black
  • Chirping of the Nightingale
Gathering Peascods is also a Round for as many as will, but without a leading couple.

  Top     Rounds for as many as will     Longways for eight     For four     Square Dances     End

Rounds for eight
Four couples in a circle dance figures like a square dance break, and sometimes two facing couples dance this and the other two couples dance that, so that the circle is transformed into a square. A dance with only circular figures is

Mage on a Cree       Round for eight       (Mach kein Geschrei!) Round4

Mage on a Cree
Hands and meet a D. back again, set and turn S.  .  That again  :  Men meet in the midst, turn back to back, come to your places and turne the Co. We.  . :  We. meet, turne back to back, come to your places and turne your owne  : : 
Sides all, set and turn S.  .  That again  :  Men go towards the left hand before the Co. We. and behinde the next We. meet and turn S.  . :  That again, to your places  : :  Then the We. as much . : . :
Armes all. Set and turn S.  .  That again  :  Turn all the Co. We. Turn all the next We. Turn all the next, Turn all your own  : : 

Here is my interpretation:

1A) All join hands, dance forward and back, then a Set and Turn (as described in the introduction to Up Tailes All). Repeat. (The melody is played twice through.)
1B) The men walk forward, face the corner lady (and bow), give both hands and turn once around, then square your set. The ladies walk forward, face the partner, give hands as before, turn once around, then square your set. (The melody is played through two more times.)

2A) Face partner, walk forward until your right shoulders are side by side; back again. Set toward your partner and turn single. Walk forward until your left shoulders are side by side; back again. Set and turn single.
2B) The men dance in front of the corner lady and behind the opposite lady to the opposite place, come into the middle, then walk clockwise in a C-shaped pattern back to that place. This is repeated. Then the ladies pass in front of the partner and behind the left hand gent to the opposite place, come into the middle, then roll out clockwise to that place. This is repeated. For 2A & 2B, the melody must be played six times through.

3A) Hook right elbows with partner, dance once around, then Set and Turn. Hook left elbows, dance once around, Set and Turn.
3B) The men give both hands to the corner lady, turn full around, pass her by, give both hands to the opposite lady and turn with her, pass her by, give both hands to the right hand lady, turn with her, pass her by, give both hands to partner, turn once and a half, then square your set. The ladies keep their places, the men must make that extra effort to travel around.

Those who have learned this dance from other sources may note that my interpretation of the 2B part differs a bit from that by the EFDSS. I do believe that Cecil Sharp there fell in a trap which was simply caused by the length of the lines in Playford’s book. If you use canned music which follows this interpretation, you will find the melody played only 4 times through for the second part. In that case, omit 2A, because this is a general part which occurs in several dances, so that the loss may be compensated.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the title refers to a magician at the point of outburst.

In the next dance, every figure differentiates between head and side couples:

If all the World were Paper       Round for eight       Round4

If all the World were Paper
Hands all and meet a D. back again, set and turn S.  .  That again  :  The two men against each other change places, your We. as much, the S, Hey, back to your places  . :  The other 4 as much  : : 
Sides all, set and turn S.  .  That again  :  The first four meet, lead each others Wo. between the Cu. on your left hands, cast off, go to your places and turn your own  . :  The other four as much  : : 
Sides all. Set and turn S.  .  That again  :  The first four change places, then change with your own men, crosse over taking left hands and right with the We. to your places  . :  The other four as much  : : 

Transcribed to modern square dance language, it means:

1A) As Mage on a Cree 1A.
1B) Head men change places with 4 steps, passing right shoulder; head ladies change places similarly. Half square thru without giving hands, then face in. (Or slide thru twice.) Side couples repeat this.

2A) As Mage on a Cree 2A.
2B) Head couples pair off (step forward, face your corner), split the sides, separate, around one, turn your partner with both hands around and square your set. Side couples repeat this.

3A) As Mage on a Cree 3A.
3B) Head couples pass thru, partner trade, left square thru two hands, face in. Side couples repeat this.

Whether the different forms of half square thru in 1B and 3B add variety or merely difficulty, is an issue which in one form or the other still is a burning question in square dancing.

Other dances of this category are:

  • The fine Companion
  • Newcastle
  • Kettle Drum
The latter one offers a real challenge to the interpreter, because Mr. Cecil Sharp himself could not figure it out:

Kettle Drum       A round Dance for eight Round4

Meete all and back  .  That againe  :  We. meete, giving their right hands, men meete, giving their right hands, then turne every man his owne Wo. by the right hand, then men the left hands, We. their left hands, then turne every Wo. her owne man by the left hand  : 
Sides all, back again  .  That againe  :  The 2. Cu. meete and fall back, then the next Cu. meete, and take each others Wo. by the right hand, and fall into the Co. places, then the other Cu. meete and fall back, and the first Cu. the like, then leade in, taking the We. by the right hand, and cast off to your places  : 
Armes all  .  That again  :  All joyne both hands with your We. swing with your hands all inward, then breake off your hands inward, then turn back to back, and kisse the Co. Wo. twice, then swing with the Co. we. all outwards, then breake off your hands outwards, then turne kissing everyone his owne Wo. turne and so end  : 

To explain away the difficulty in the 2B part, you must accept one of these excuses: Either the friend of John Playford who contributed this dance scribbled in a quite illegible handwriting; or the printer had a real bad headache that morning; or these both conditions were met. If so, we may assume that "The 2. Cu." in fact means "The first two couples", and go on from there.

1A) Forward and back, twice
1B) Ladies step forward and form a right hand star; balance twice and step back. Men step forward, form a right hand star, balance twice, then turn partner by the right hand. Men form a left hand star and balance twice, back out. Ladies form a left hand star, balance twice, then turn partner by the left hand. (Some interpreters suggest that you turn those stars halfway around instead of merely balancing.)

2A) Face partner. Dance forward until your right shoulders are side by side, dance back. Dance forward until your left shoulders are side by side, dance back.
2B) Head couples forward and back, side couples forward, box the gnat, back out; head couples forward and back, side couples lead right, split the head couples, face left and promenade single file to your places.

3A) Hook right elbows with partner and turn once around. Hook left elbows and turn once around.
3B) Give your partner both hands, swing them inwards, let go and with the same momentum turn back to back; embrace the corner and kiss her on both cheeks. Give both hands to your corner, swing them outwards, let go and turn back to back; embrace your partner and kiss her on both cheeks. Give both hands to partner, turn once around and bow.

The figure 2B looks a bit strange, especially as the side couples do the major part. Maybe "The 2. Cu." meant the side couples, and they had no fitting term for them in those days? I am afraid nobody can tell now, and I would rather not trouble the witch of Endor to find out.

  Top     Rounds for as many as will     Rounds for eight     For four     Square Dances     End

Longways for eight:
There are several contras for four couples where the first and last couple dance a certain figure, while the center two couples dance something different at right angles. These dances are probably the "missing link" between contra and square dancing. A pretty one of this sort is

Broome  :  The bonny bonny Broome       For eight       (Gelber Ginster) Longways


Lead up all a D. forwards and back, the first foure cast off and come to your places, the last fore doe the like  .  Lead downe and as much  :  First and 3. Cu. meet and goe back, hands and goe round  . :  The other foure as much  : : 
Sides all, set and turne S.  .  That againe  :  The two first men hands and change places, and the last two men change, We. doing the same, set and turne S.  .  All that againe  . : 
Armes all, set and turne S.  .  That againe  :  The 2. and 3. on each side leade to each wall, while the first Cu. lead up and the last downe: change hands and meet; hands all and halfe round  . :  All that againe  : : 

1A) All face up, go forward and back. Then the 1st man dances in a small circle counterclockwise, followed by the 2nd man, while the 1st lady dances in a clockwise circle, followed by the 2nd lady. Couples #3 and #4 dance the same figure at the same time. (Square dancers would call this a zoom-zoom.) Then all turn back to face down, go forward and back, and do the zoom-zoom figure again, only that the men go clockwise, ladies counterclockwise, and #4 and #2 are in the lead.
1B) Couples #2 and #4 back out, couples #1 and #3 go (diagonally) forward and back and circle four once around. Couples #1 and #3 back out, couples #2 and #4 go forward and back and circle once around.

2A) As Mage on a Cree 2A.
2B) Man #1 and man #2, man #3 and man #4, lady #1 and lady #2, lady #3 and lady #4 give both hands and turn halfway to the other one’s place. There they dance a Set and Turn. This is repeated to the original place.

3A) As Mage on a Cree 3A.
3B) Men #2 and #3 face out, as do lady #2 and #3; couple #1 face up, couple #4 face down. All go forward, turn back, come back, and all eight circle left halfway. This is repeated.

In the next dance, the relationship to a square dance is even more obvious, as the second half of the first figure is very similar to a Grand Square:

The Spanyard       Longwayes for eight Longways

Spanyard
Leade up all a D. forwards, foure slips to the right hand, set and turne S.  .  Leade downe and as much  :  First and last Cu. fall back while the other meet and take both hands the 2. Cu. slip up, and the third downe, set and turne S.  . :  All this againe, to your places  : : 
Sides all, set and turne S.  .  That againe  :  First and third put your We. by both hands back the other going the Co. way. fall into each others places, set and turne S.  . :  All that againe the Co. way  : : 
Armes all, set and turne S.  .  That again  :  First man and 2. Wo. and third man and last Wo. meet and goe back, take hands and goe round once and a halfe, changing places  . :  The other four as much  : :  All that again, to your places  . : . : 

1A) All face up, go four steps forward, then four quick side-close steps to the right, and dance a Set and Turn. (Turn once and a half to face down.) Repeat this, starting downwards, and end facing partner.The melody is played twice for this part.
1B) Couple #1 and #4 back away from the partner four steps, then dance four side-close steps, #1 down, #4 up; meanwhile couple #2 and #3 go forward four (small) steps, then dance four side-close steps, #2 up, #3 down. All dance a Set and Turn. Then couple #2 and #3 back away and dance side-close steps toward their original places, while couple #1 and #4 dance forward four steps, then four side-close steps to their original places. All dance a Set and Turn and adjust to lines. The melody is played two more times for this part.

2A) As Mage on a Cree 2A. The Melody is played twice for this part.
2B) Broken Pousette (resp. Wheelbarrow): The odd-numbered men push, the even-numbered men pull their partner out, then steer into the neighbor couple’s place. There all dance a Set and Turn. This is repeted, following the neighbor couple’s path. The melody is played two more times for this part.

3A) As Mage on a Cree 3A. The Melody is played twice for this part.
3B) First contra corners go forward and back, then give both hands and turn once and a half to exchange places. The second contra corners dance this also. Then the first contra corners repeat, and the second contra corners repeat. The melody is played four times for this part.

Other dances with similar features are:

  • The Spanish Jeepsie
  • The Health
  • Aye me, Or the Simphony
  • Cherily and merrily
  Top     Rounds for as many as will     Rounds for eight     Longways for eight     Square Dances     End

For Four:
Two couples face each other. The easiest dance of this kind is

Rufty tufty       For foure       For Four

Meet all a D. backe againe  . 
That again  : 
Set and turne S  .  Lead your owne with the left hand to each wall, change hands, meet again, turne S.  . 
One man lead up, and the other downe, change hands, meet againe and turne S.  : 
Sides all  .  That againe  :  As before  .  As before  : 
Armes all  .  That againe  :  As before  .  As before  : 

This is the interpretation I found in other books:

1A) Forward and back, twice
1B) Set and Turn
1C) Couples join left hands and lead left 4 steps. Everyone turns individually on the last step. Couples join right hands and lead right 4 steps, back to the original place. With 4 more steps, everyone dances a small clockwise circle and ends facing the other couple.
Join right hands with the one in front, and those couples lead right 4 steps, turning back individually on the last step. Join left hands and lead left, back to original places. With 4 steps dance a small circle (this time better counterclockwise) and end facing the partner.

2A) Face partner, walk forward until your right shoulders are side by side; back again. Walk forward until your left shoulders are side by side; back again.
2B) Set and Turn
2C) As 1C

3A) Hook right elbows with partner, dance once around. Hook left elbows, dance once around.
3B) Set and Turn
3C) As 1C

But in the 1C part, where is the "meet again"? If you assume that your partner stands in front of you, and not by your side, then you could interpret this part thus:

With your partner, face the nearest side wall, walk away from the set, turn back, come back and turn single. Turn your back to your partner, with the other lady walk up resp. down, turn back, come back and turn single.

But then, why take your partner by the left hand? You see, some questions remain.

In the next dance, all the parts are different:

Cuckolds all a row       For foure       For Four

Meet all forward and backe  .  That againe  :  Turne back to back to the Co. We. faces againe, goe about the Co. We. not turning your faces  .  Turne back to back to your owne, faces againe, goe about your owne not turning faces  : 
Sides all with your owne  .  Sides with the Co.  :  Men change places We. change places, hands all, goe round  .  We. change places, men change places, hands all and goe round, to your places  : 
Armes all with your own  .  Arms with the Co.  :  Men put the Co. We. back by both hands, fall even on the Co. side men cast off to the right hand, your We. following, come to the same place again  .  put them back again, fall on your own side, men cast off to the left hand, and come to your places, the We. following  : 

1A) Forward and back, twice
1B) Turn your back to the opposite (and bow this way), then face again, and dosado. Turn your back to your partner, face again, and dosado. (There are other interpretations which seem less silly, however this is what I read out of it.)

2A) Sides right shoulder with your partner; sides left shoulder with the opposite.
2B) Men change places (passing right shoulders) with four steps, then the ladies change places with four steps. All join hands and circle left once around. (Keep the circle tight.) Ladies change places, men change places, circle left once around.
The sequence of "Men change places, ladies change places" (or: first corners cross over, second corners cross over) was later named a half chain, and, if repeated immediately, a chain, probably because the paths (two interlinked ovals) resemble two members of a chain.

3A) Hook right elbows with your partner and turn once around; hook left elbows with your opposite and turn once around.
3B) Half Pousette, the men start pushing. All face right and dance on a clockwise circle, the men in front, the partner follows. Half Pousette back to places, men start again pushing. All face left and dance on a counterclockwise circle.

If you dance just for the fun of it, or with a less experienced group, I think it will be still near enough the historical truth to replace the 1B and 3B part with the 2B part.

This dance is alo known under the title of Hey Boys, up go we.

Other dances in this formation are:

  • Parsons farewell
  • Hit and misse
  • Hearts Ease
  • Argeers
  • Saint Martins
  • The Glory of the West
  Top     Rounds for as many as will     Rounds for eight     Longways for eight     For foure     End

Finally there were three dances classified as Square Dances:

  • Faine I would
  • Dull Sir John
  • and
Hide Parke       (Hyde Park)       A Square Dance for eight thus Square

Hide Parke
First and 3. Cu. meet, and fall back  .  the 2. and fourth as much  :  First and third men take their Wo. by both hands, and meet side wayes, the first man take the third Wo. by both hands, and slide through the fourth Cu. and cast off to your places, whilst the first Wo. and the third man doe the like  .  The 2. and 4. Cu. the same.
This as before  :  The second and fourth man change places with their We. holding hands whilst the first man and Wo. crosse over, and going on the outside under their armes, come the man into the Wo. place and Wo. into the mans place, the third Cu. doing the like at the same time  .  Then the other foure doing the like  : 
This as before  :  Men goe on the inside of your owne We. and on the outside of the next and so round to your places  .  Then the Wo. as much  : 

From the diagram you see that the couples were numbered clockwise, not counterclockwise as today. But this has not much to say, as the dance only differentiates between head and side couples. Moreover, the description of the 1B part is at odds with the diagram, as man #1 and lady #3 should sashay out through couple #4. This works only with nowadays way of counting.

1A) Head couples forward and back; side couples forward and back.
1B) Head couples in butterfly position sashay in four steps, then with the opposite sashay out through the nearest side couple; separate and go around one to your places. The side couples repeat this.

2A) As 1A
2B) Side couples turn partner right halfway, then make arches, while the head couples face partner, pass by and go outside around one, then come through the arches to the partner’s place. Immediately, head couples turn partner right halfway, side couples pass by, etc. to original places.

3A) As 1A
3B) Men only weave the ring, then ladies only weave the ring.

This essay was written to celebrate February 29, 2000. According the Gregorian calendar, an intercalary day in an "00"-year occurs only once in 400 years.

It was made possible with the help of the following books:
The English Dancing Master / 1651 / reset and transcribed 1933 / Dance Horizons, New York
The Country Dance Book (1...6), by Cecil J. Sharp / 1909 ... 1922 / reprint 1985 / H. Styles
Elizabethan Country Dances, by John Fitzhugh Millar / 1985 / 13 Colonies Press, Williamsburg, VA
The Playford Ball, by Kate Van Winkle Keller & Genevieve Shimer / 1990 / Dance Books, London

This essay had been published by the Lloyd Shaw Foundation in The American Dance Circle.


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Published 2003-10-16   /   Heiner Fischle, Hannover, Germany