"In the 1600s English Society got bored with dancing the complicated and difficult-to-learn formal dances (which were very much display dances for couples to show off) and started dancing 'country dances' for light relief. Country dances were the dances done by the country folk and had to be easy because country folk didn't have time to go to lessons, and couldn't read so they couldn't look up the dances in a book. The dancing masters rapidly got in on the act and started inventing more complicated 'country dances'. These compromise dances proved very popular; after all an educated person going to a ball every week or two may well feel a dance simple enough for someone who only goes to a dance once or twice a year is beneath him.
In 1651 a music publisher called John Playford published 'The English Dancing Master'. This was a book of brief instructions for a hundred odd such dances. The title was probably just a joke because all the best dancing masters were French (or, maybe, a dig at a rival French book). This book proved to be a success and a second edition was issued the next year, and a third three years later; the later editions dropped the joke and were simply titled 'The Dancing Master'. Successive editions were published until 1728, with John Playford's son, Henry taking over in 1684, and then John Young in 1709. Later editions ran to three volumes and over the years dances were added and dropped so that over a thousand distinct dances were published. Various other publishers got in on the act and books of country dances were published at frequent intervals through to about 1850. Throughout this time country dances were regarded as light relief from 'real dancing' and we get various letters and journals saying things like "and afterwards we set to and danced country dances till four in the morning" where it was clearly not worth going into details
Most dancers dance Playford dances because they enjoy them, which is a perfectly good reason. Some people dance them because they are trying to recreate historical life. Such people should bear in mind the following points:
- Playford dances were never dances of the country folk. They were dances of the educated society.
- The instructions in the Dancing Master were brief notes, so modern interpretations of those notes may well not be what was intended. Indeed we can sometimes be convinced there are misprints so some dance descriptions are clearly wrong.
- Originally these dances would have been done with a lot of fancy stepping, whereas nowadays we almost always use walking or skipping steps.
- The dances we call 'Playford' were published over a 200 year period, and the fashions in dress varied over that time, and dance styles evolved to account for changes in dress.
1650 or 1651?
There is often an argument as to exactly when "The English Dancing Master" was published. It was registered for copyright in November 1650, but the printed date on the book is 1651 (you had to register your book in advance of publication). The real cause of the confusion is that at some stage people switched from counting the year as starting in March (the Spring Solstice) to starting in January - think about September being the 7th month. Whoever bought the copy of The English Dancing Master now the British Library was an old fuddy-duddy who crossed out the printed 1651 and wrote in 1650. Hence I have described the book as being published in 1651, but if you want to use Old Style years then you could call it 1650, which is a nice round number."
Source: Hugh Stewart see more at http://round.soc.srcf.net/index