Playford and The English Dancing Master


Primary Sources

There is really only one primary source for Renaissance country dances and that is The English Dancing Master (renamed The Dancing Master after the second edition), by John Playford. Over 500 country dances are listed in total in the 18 editions that were printed, most of which contain music.

The copy that I am using is the unabridged 1984 reprint of Hugh Mellor’s 1933 publication. According to the note in the book, it was based on the original edition of 1651, with the music edited and put into modern notation by Leslie Bridgewater. There are some notable inconsistencies in the music, which is likely to be due to later interpretation rather than Playford, since time signatures at times do not agree with the indicated measures or the music itself.


Other Sources

The Playford Ball is a selection of reconstructed dances, including several from the various editions of The Dancing Master. Most of these dances were reconstructed by Cecil Sharp around the turn of the 20th century, and a good starting point for some of these dances. However, Sharp was primarily interested in describing dances that were fun and at times took liberties with historical accuracy, partly due to the number of dances that he reconstructed. In addition, he recreated siding without a great deal of information. He actually later disagreed with his original recreation of siding and tried to introduce the one that he thought was correct, but it had already caught on and he was unable to do so. The earliest documented evidence for siding actually describes another method, which is what I present below. Nevertheless, English country dance owes Sharp a great debt for reviving the art and introducing it to a wide audience.


Time and Place



There is quite a bit of discussion going on at the moment about the evolution of English Country Dance. There are certainly steps and floor patterns appearing in the dances that can be traced not only to Arbeau's bransles, but also to the Italian dances of the 15th century, and to a lesser extent the 16th century Italian balli. Although there is no concrete evidence that the Italian dance masters visited England (Guglielmo Ebreo would most certainly not have done so, as Jews were not allowed to enter England during this time), there is certainly some evidence in the dances themselves that the steps migrated from Italy to England. For a good example, see the reconstruction of "Pizochara", given elsewhere in this book.


Time Period

These dances are all out of period for the SCA, as the earliest of the editions of Playford was printed in 1651. Although there are references to some of these dances by name in literature before 1600, there is little evidence to suggest that these dances were done in the same manner as the descriptions in Playford. In fact, there is some evidence to the contrary, suggesting that these early country dances more resembled the bransles and courantes of Arbeau than anything that Playford describes.


Early English Country Dance

We know about English Country Dance from around 1640 or so when a small manuscript was published containing a few dance choreographies. The main source is Playford's manual published in 1651, however.

There are many mentions of English Country Dances (by name only, usually) dating back to about 1589. We don't know a lot about how these possible precursors to English Country Dance were done, however, or in what social setting they occurred.


Social Setting


Civil War

The 1640's and 1650's in England were of course heavily disrupted by the Civil War, and associated events such as the rise of puritanism and the various religious wars between Protestant and Catholics.

The Puritan attitude to dance was very negative, and this caused some fairly severe restrictions on dancing during the time period. For example, dance schools had to be licensed, and operated under such opressive guidelines so that there were only 2 in London at one stage. The change in fortunes of the various factions impacted on this fairly significantly, with the fortunes of dance waxing and waning throughout the period, as Playford himself notes in his introduction.

John Playford was not only a publisher of a book on dance, but was also a noted monarchist. His publishing house produced several anti-commonwelath publications during its time, and it was for these that he was most well known during his time period.


Who danced?

It is almost certain that these dances developed from amongst the common folk, who would have been dancing bransles and circle dances for many years before the development of English Country Dance.

Playford did not appear to be writing for a lower class audience. His book appears to be pitched towards gentlemen, and the presence of dancing schools that taught these dances indicated that the upper levels of society were interested in these dances as well, possibly adopting them and changing them before they became known in the format we now see them in.

There are several textual references in period to nobility and even royalty watching these dances, and joining in on occasion.

In any case, by about 1640 or so, it appears probable that English Country Dance was popular in one form or another amongst both common folk and nobility throughout England.