Playford interpretation guildelines

This article looks into some general guidelines when interpreting Playford dances.

Questions to ask

Is it idiomatic?

There are two slightly different questions to ask regarding matching the text with an interpretation:

  • Does this match the text?
  • If your interpretation was intended, is it likely that this is how it would have been described?

The latter requires idiom to be take into account.  Just because, if you squint hard enough, you can make the thing you've invented fit the words doesn't make it likely if it's out of character – you end up running into a scenario reminiscent of Russell's teapot.  Put simply, unusual moves should expect explicit description, because the readers wouldn't be expecting it.  Conversely, if the move is common then it can be taken as read with little explanation, because it's something that the reader would be reasonably expected to understand already.

When looking for idiom, also note that it's no good looking at 18th century dances to prove something was idiomatic in 1651 – look for things in the same period.

Is it a reasonable result of the folk process?

Many of the early Playford dances underwent the "folk process", in that they were passed around and evolved, changing as they went, before ending up in the Dancing Master.  The impact of this is that, if there's not a good reason to the contrary, you'd expect unnecessarily awkward bits to be smoothed out.

So, it's worth asking, would it have survived that, or is the thing you've created sufficiently awkward without reward that it would have been simplified?

Is it no more complex than necessary?

In a similar vein, we generally like "sophisticated" dances and look to interpret the more complex ones.  Most weren't that complex.  I try to look for the simplest possible explanation – if you're adding in a load of detail that just isn't there in an effort to improve the dance, then are you moving from interpretation to adaptation?  That may be your goal in which case, go for it, but be clear that that's what you're doing.

Does it form a coherent dance?

Multi-part dances normally have figures of approximately equivalent complexity, and often have general theme that builds up during the dance.  It's worth looking for common themes between the figures.

E.g. Grimstock has a mirror hey, then the same hey with arches, then the original hey with first couples crossing sides.  There are many ways to interpret the third figure, but I'm not believing of ones which don't at least continue some form of the mirror hey pattern – because it wouldn't really "belong" in the dance.

If one figure is massively more complex than the others, is it really likely?  Ok, if all the figures are complex, then that's the dance, fair enough – but if one figure takes longer to teach than the rest of the dance put together, be suspicious.

Should we expect a convention to even exist?

Almost without fail, where we have multiple surviving explanations for the same dance, they differ, sometimes in major ways.  Even in Playford, where one dance is described twice (Nonesuch and All a Mode de France), they differ.

Lovelace's descriptions give license to a quite free style of interpretation.  E.g. Greenwood, and then they shall dance their hays, all ways as you may 3: or 4: or 5 times. and then all into you places after you have dancd it as many ways as you can.  There was often more than one way to do it, and there was no central authority defining how these dances should be done.

So when getting down to really fine points, it's possible that there was no uniform "right" way to do it.  However, if you, as a choreographer, are recommending a specific way, that way should be one that would have at least been idiomatic!

Direction of figures

Which gets us on to the biggest major idiomatic theme, which is the direction of figures.  The direction of figures is not generally specified, and so needs working out.


In most dances there are three parts, each preceded by an introduction. The introductions are usually:

  1. Lead up a double and back (in longways sets) or circle (in rounds)
  2. Siding
  3. Arming

They might also include some combination of setting and/or turning single.

Note that not all introductions are of this form: Parson’s Farewell has introductions without any siding or arming involved!

The introductions are usually led first with the left foot (circling left, siding right shoulder, arming right, setting to the left, turning single to the left) and then repeated to the right in the other direction. The second repetition is usually described simply as “that againe” but there are times where the change in direction is explicitly described, e.g. Gathering Peascods: Goe all two Dubles round, turn S.  ·  That back againe  : . Also All a Mode de France: Sides all to the right and left, Then armes all with your owne by the right and left. The convention of changing direction will have been so ingrained that everyone will have known that “that againe” means to come back the other way, and indeed if you’re on the other foot at this point then it’ll arguably be automatic.

See Colin Hume’s page on siding:

Hugh Stewart ( points out that Feuillet includes a dance “la Jalousie” which starts with side right and side left).

Other dances in Feuillet with side right and left include Le Pistolet, Le Prince George, Jeanne Qui Saute (which incidentally also includes a lot of jumping on the spot, alternately facing right and left, 8 jumps at a time!), La Coquette, and La Fanatique. La Coquette follows this with a longer sidestep right and left, then left and right. La Fanatique follows it with a clapping pattern of together, right, together, left, together, both, together, and then take hands ready for a two-hand turn.

Incidentally, All a Mode de France says Sides all to the right and left, set and turne S. this againe, and this was the origin of Sharp’s interpretation of siding. In the Country Dance Book Part 2, he concludes:

it consisted of two movements of equal duration, half to the right and half to the left. This [...] was deduced from "Nonesuch" [...], where the figure in question is described as "Side to the right" and "Side to the left," with a turn Single added after each movement, thus converting the movement into one of eight instead of four bars.”

Actually Nonesuch doesn’t say that, he’s referring to All a Mode de France, which he’s called Nonesuch. I think he thought that this was directing a side right and left, set and turn single, followed by another side right and left, set and turn single; as opposed to side right and left, then set and turn single twice. He took “side right” to mean “to the right” (i.e. left shoulder) – in CDB2, he instructs the dancers to “move forward a double obliquely to the right, i.e., passing by the left”. Although the interpretation for this move he then used in Nonesuch was different again, for reasons that still baffle me.


The figures after the introduction do not necessarily automatically “change direction” in the same way. For example, Greenwood uses leading for the introductions and leaves siding and arming as the base of two of the figures – done three times each! And do you carry this logic to turns, or to the shoulder you change places by? The rules could get very complex indeed very quickly, becoming an impediment to anyone other than a display team being able to do the dances, regardless of what was “correct”, if there is such a thing.

Overall the competing drivers for the direction of a figure are I think:

  1. Symmetry between figures. If a figure is done one way, the repeat is often done the other way. E.g. Cuckolds All a Row, Lovelace describes then the 2 men shall change places, the woemen also allmost at the same time, then joyne all hands, and goe round, till you come to your places, then the woemen shall crosse over first; and then the men and joyne hands like before, and turne round the other way till you come to your places.  Playford just says hands goe round both times, but obviously there's a reversal going on here, and indeed the flow is significantly better if the return change places are done by the left shoulder rather than the right. That said, Shepherds Holiday includes the instruction then all six turne round about for the left hand into their places which looks like a pretty explicit turn single to left in context; it doesn't say to turn the other way in the repeat, simply then the last Cu. doe as the first, and first as the last.
  2. Where the men are. Modern views on feminism hadn’t taken hold in 17th century England, and the men lead the women in most moves. This normally leads to a circle to the left, a right hand star, etc., but if the man is on the right then the circle is likely to be to the right – Faine I Would and My Lady Cullen both direct a circle right where the men are on the right.
  3. Predictability. If the rules are too complicated then people won't know which way to go.  This applied both then and now – you need to be able to teach it!
  4. Flow. The direction should if possible flow naturally - although this is less of a consideration than in modern English country dance choreography, because the figures in early country dances are punctuated by jumps of both feet together, which make it easy to change direction if required. E.g. in The Bath, after chasing places with your partner you circle right - which is a change of direction but avoids getting too dizzy.
  5. Anarchy. One of the principal attractions of early English country dancing was that it wasn’t overly prescriptive and there was room to have fun – so it’s within the spirit of the dance to give a bit of licence to the dancers to decide how they will do e.g. some turn singles.

For early dances up to 5th edition or so (generally those with introductions) my recommendation is to dance the introductions in alternate directions as above, but during the figures to start on the left foot, side right, arm right, and set and turn single left unless there’s a good reason not to, for example because of the direction of travel.

The style changed later – see Anne Daye's essay on the subject.  Longways dances with a single part are normally a right foot lead.