A country dance is a social dance form in which two or more couples dance together in a set. In the course of the dance each dancer dances to his or her partner and each couple dances to the other couples in the set. The longways set in which the men form a line facing the women, who form a second line is the most common formation. However, the English term country dance, first coined in print by John Playford of London in 1651, has always applied not only to dances in the longways formation, but to square dances, "round about the room" sets (not to be confused with "couple" dances) and even triangular sets- for three couples.
Country dancing is generally recognized to be a form of folk dance, that is a traditional dance of the people, it should be clearly understood that it is a dance for participation rather than demonstration. Its participatory nature sets country dancing apart from folk dance forms such as Clogging- which is primarily demonstration dancing. The social concourse implicit in the communal nature of country dancing also distinguishes it from the ballroom dances, couple dances in which dancers dance intimately with their partners but independently of the other couples on the dance floor.
North American Contradance is derived from the English form country dance, though in American usage the term appears to be narrowly applied to the longways set. The Appalachian music associated with American contra-dance is to this day recognisably Anglo-Celtic in form.
Country dance in the western European tradition is believed to originate from pre-16th century folk dances, such as Song dances.
The main forms of country dancing are: longways set, square set and circle dances. By the time of John Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651), it was a dance for everyone. The English term "Country Dance" was taken to France, probably after "Cogadh an Da Righ" 1689-90, which ended the Stuart dynastic rule of England and Scotland. It became corrupted into "Contredanse", before being re-anglicised as contra-dance. Even in modern America, the phrase "contra dance" is used alongside the more familiar term "square dance" or "barn dance".
The longways set was the most popular type of country dance in the first edition of Playford's book. A line of males faced a line of females "for as many as will". "Roger de Coverley" and "The Grand Old Duke of York" are among the most familiar examples of this kind of dance. By the 1820s, it was considered old-fashioned in England, but continued to develop in Scotland.
The square set, or quadrille, was a group of eight people, a couple along each side. "Les Lanciers" and the "Eightsome Reel" are among the most famous examples of this kind of dance. Dancing in square sets still survives in Ireland, under the name "set dancing" or "figure dancing".
Shawms and sackbuts or the bagpipe were popular instruments for outdoor dancing because of their loudness. Every European country, not just Scotland, used their own local variant of the bagpipe for country dancing. From the late 17th century fiddles began to take over, and dancing moved indoors. The main impetus for the development of the concertina, the melodeon and the accordion in the nineteenth century was to satisfy the market for a loud instrument for country dancing. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy all loved country dancing and put detailed descriptions into their novels.
Some country dances are confined to their place of origin: Ballo Liscio in Italy, Strathspeys in Scotland, Mazurkas in Poland. The appeal of country dancing is almost completely confined to Christian countries.
Having said that, klezmer tunes (originally Jewish) are now cropping up in public dances. The Scottish Gaelic word ceilidh (Irish ceili) is sometimes used to mean country dancing, though the original meaning was a gathering for singing and dancing.
Most country dancing is pretty robust in style but in Scotland, from the late nineteenth century, a very smooth and ornate style was cultivated. Soft shoes are worn. This makes Scottish country dancing very close to ballroom dancing, particularly since formal dress (white dresses and genuine kilts) are often de rigueur. Appalachian dancers go to the opposite extreme, with metal caps fitted to the shoes. Couple dances with a highly developed element of display, such as the tango, do not qualify as country dances.
Many types of dance notation exist but none are widely used. Instead dancers follow a caller or an MC (Master of Ceremonies) who shouts out changes in the figures.
- Wilson, Thomas (1808). An Analysis of Country Dancing. London: W. Calvert.