This article describes the named figures in found in the Dancing Master
This is normally assumed to mean link arms, as in the introductions, but see the discussion under “Turn” – it's possible that usage varied and that sometimes a hand turn was used instead.
Back to back
See “Turn back to back” and “Go about not turning your faces”.
This doesn't turn up very often, but it does turn up in the Maurice Dance in Stephens.
Academy of Armory: A Caper, or leap up. Whether anything more specific is intended than simply jumping in the air, I don't know.
Today we would interpret a cast, starting facing across the set, as turning/looping three quarters up, out and down, and then going down the outside of the set. This is based largely on later descriptions of country dances.
At this time did they mean simply go down the outside of the set the easy way? I doubt it:
- In Jog On, final part: The first Cu. cast off and goe on the outside – why say “cast off and goe on the outside” if this simply meant “goe down the outside”?
- In Lord of Carnarvans Jegg, the cast is described from a position where the dancers are already facing in the opposite direction (down before a cast up, and up before a cast down), such that a cast as we know it is the only natural move.
- In Cuckolds all a Row (couple facing couple), the men (next to and improper with partners at this point) are directed to cast off to the right hand, your We. following, come to the same place again. I.e. turn right first, rather than going straight to the left, which allows the dance to flow far better for the women too.
Sometimes the timing can be a little tight, and I recommend that where a couple casts down, the couple being cast around move into new places at the same time to minimise the distance needed to be travelled by the casting couple.
In Whirligig can be found the direction Cast off all, doe thus or Cast off, all doe thus depending on which edition you’re looking at. The jury is out over what exactly that means.
Practice changed over time. Dukes 1752 describes casts thus:
To Cast off & up again in the manner it used to be done formerly, which is here under described: that, is, by turning round to your left hand, & going below yᵉ 2ᵈ Co. into their place, & then turning round to yʳ right hand, & comeing up to your own place: the Wo. turns off first to her right hand, & then up again to the left
As I have shewed on the other side the manner of Casting of & up again, as used formerly, I shall now shew the manner of doing it according to the Modern method, & shall hereafter keep to this last mannʳ of doing it: to Cast off & up again, according to this last method proposed, is to slip or footing it down behind the 2ᵈ Co. to the 2ᵈ Co. place, with out turning round, & slip up again in the same manner to your own place.
A. D. 1764 confirms this change:
So, by the mid-18th century, a cast involves going straight down the outside, without turning “the long way round” first.
Tomlinson 1724 also has a few words on country dancing, and indicates that casts should be accompanied by the inactive couple moving:
[Disagreeableness] will always be occasioned by the Couples below those who lead up the Dance, when they omit moving up into the first Couple's Places, on their casting off, and down again in their casting up to their Places as at first; or the like if ther first or leading Couples cross over and figure in. In a Word, whenever the leading Couples move downwards, the Couples coming up to lead the Dance should move upwards and, when they move up again, the Couples who do not lead the Dance ought to move down again
Whereas modern dance notation style is often to explicitly indicate when inactive dances should move, historically it was very much taken as read that when one couple changes position, other couples should move to the vacant position. The above quote is from the 18th century but the same principle generally applies to earlier dances.
Change places with the other person, finishing where they were and facing where they were. If you keep on going somewhere else then the term "cross" is more normally used.
In pre-resoration dances, often the change places takes two doubles. I've written an article going into more detail on that. I suggest one double to meet and one to either move across and turn round, or to fall back away into the other place.
Sometimes this is a simple, single clap. However, when the clap is meant to take up time and you're facing another dancer, there are some hints toward a standard sequence for clapping.
I'll use the following terminology:
- R: clap right hands with your partner.
- L: clap left hands with your partner.
- B: clap both your hands with your partners.
- T: clap your own hands together.
- X: clap your hands across your chest.
DM1, Row well ye Marriners, gives the sequence TRTLTXB; TLTRTXB.
Clap both your owne hands, then clap each others right hands against one anothers, clap both your owne hands again, then clap left hands, then clap both hands againe, then clap your brests, then meet both your hands against one anothers · the same againe only clap left hands first :
Feuillet contains a number of dances with a simple R,L clapping sequence.
Feuillet also contains La Fanatique, which has the sequence TRTL, and later TRTLTBT (shown below, finishing taking hands with your partner to turn).
Feuillet, La Nouvelle Figure: TRTLTB.
Tomlinson (1724) gives a stronger indication of a TRTL convention:
Beating Time in Contrast, as when Hands are clapped first in Time with their own, and next crosswise with their right Hand against their Partner's, or other again clap their own Hands, and afterwards strike the left in Contrast.
The consequence of this is that if you need to use up several beats clapping, one of the following sequences would seem appropriate depending on the time you've got:
Or something similar. What I wouldn't do is clap your hands multiple times (TTT) – the evidence points against that, and besides, it doesn't involve actually dancing with anyone!
Cross over with someone without turning around. If a simple change of places is required, the term “change places” is invariably used instead.
By the 18th century, “cross over” conventionally carries with it an implicit cast. In early Playford it's usually specified where to finish, but there are still times where the cross carries an implied cast, although the formula is not consistent:
- Have at thy Coat old Woman: First cu. crosse over, and goe between the 2. then crosse over again like the Figure of eight, falling into the 2. place. The cast is implied here – they cross and cast, then cross up and cast.
- The Whish: The 2. Cu. crosse over betweene the first Cu. crosse over againe betweene them, fall to your places. This is describing a figure of 8: cross down, implied cast up, cross down, implied cast up.
More commonly are used words such as and fall into the 2. place. In first edition, the following dances use this wording, giving 2 doubles' worth of music per change:
- Lord of Carnarvans Jig: First Cu. cross over and fall into the 2. place on the out side the 2. Cu the man on the out side of the Wo. and the Wo. on the mens side · Crosse over againe and fall into the third place : . The wording is pretty explicit that it's a cross and cast.
- London Gentlewoman: First Cu Crosse over, fall into the 2 place · Crosse againe, fall into the 3. place. It's clear from La Chaîne in Feuillet that this is cross & cast.
- Amaryllis: Cross over with your own Wo. into the 2. place, the 2 cu. leading up between, the 2. doing as much: this needs to be a cross and cast outside the other couple, rather than inside them, so that the other couple can lead up between.
- Petticoat Wag: ["First Cu. cross between the 2. fall into the 2. place, cross againe fall into the 2 place on your owne side”. Duple minor, starting unprogressed and finishing progressed. Read literally 1C cross down between 2C, turn around, cross back up and cast down. A more flowing move might be to cross down, cast up, cross over the set and cast down. It certainly seems an unconventional move.
The following give 1 double worth of music per change:
- The Night Piece: First Cu. crosse over, fall into the 2. place, crosse againe, fall into the last.
- Daphne: First Cu. crosse over, fall into the 2. place, cross againe, fall into the third place, crosse againe, fall to the lower end.
- Dissembling Love: First Cu. crosse over and fall into the 2. place, crosse againe and fall into last place.
- Jack a Lent: First Cu. crosse over, fall into the 2. place, crosse againe, fall into the last place.
(My) Lady Cullen falls somewhere in between timing wise.
We do appear to have a set of dances where a cross is required in one double, finishing down one place. However it's really challenging to execute that in the time available. An alternative, which works really well, is to cross down between the next couple and stand in their places. A sequence of these can be performed passing right shoulders, and provided you can get the geometry of it, this works really well – especially for Daphne, where there are six in a row. However, I have to admit that it's not consistent with the interpretation of the same phrase where 2 doubles of music are provided, where we are pretty certain either from the instructions or from concordance that a cross and cast is intended.
I'll admit to being unsure of this at the moment. More experimentation required; feedback most welcome.
Cross the room
Go not up or down, but across the room, towards one of the side walls. E.g. Lady Spellor: Go all to the left hand, crosse the roome (see the discussion under Orientation above).
This is a later term. E.g. Orleans Baffled: The first Couple cast off and draw Hands below the third Couple means pousette. In Mad Moll, The 1. cu. take hands and draw into the 2. place could be interpreted as what’s referred to in modern ECD as a “draw pousette”, but in Orleans Baffled that would leave the 2C and 3C improper. It’s more likely a regular pousette.
Probably just what it says – a friendly embrace, much as a greeting, to the person you’re dancing with.
Indicates where a move should finish. e.g. Newcastle Armes all with your owne by the right, men all fall with your left hands into the middle.
The move itself can also be a slip – All a Mode de France First Cu. meet, take both hands, and fall in betweene the 2. Cu. – note that “fall” indicates here is where you finish, not how you get there.
Etymologically “fall” here is probably the same sense as “fall in line”.
This might sometimes be shorthand for “forward and back" in early Playford.
Jamaica: Then fall back from your own is shown in Feuillet (La Bonne Amitié) as going forwards and back, and indeed this fits the music better.
The Merry Merry Milke Maids: Men back and go the S. hey has 12 bars. A hey normally takes 8 bars, leaving 4 bars for the fall back, which would be too many. Backwards and forwards arguably leaves you too close to your partner to do a hey, but forwards and back fits well. Slight conjecture but arguably confirmed by Jamaica.
Figure (of eight)
This became a very popular figure, sufficiently prevalent that it was abbreviated to simply “the figure”. It does turn up in early editions of the Dancing Master but spelled out, e.g. in first edition Whirligig then cross over between them like the figure of 8, and similarly in Have at thy Coat Old Woman.
From 7th edition, the table of terms states: The Figure half round, is the Hay half round. The whole Figure is the Hay all four round. Which is approximately zero help!
This simply means to do some stepping of some sort. The type of stepping is dependent upon the period and “foot it” became more common in later country dances.
There are some fairly early references however. For example, Singleton Slipp, 4th edition, has a “foot it”; this dance is also in the Ward manuscript, where the equivalent bit of the dance is described then rise before her as in a Gigg. The same manuscript uses similar language in the 29th of May, although there is no “foot it” in Playford for this dance. Both tunes are in common time in Playford; normally we think of a jig as being in compound time but the word “jig” is used here to mean a solo step rather than indicating the musical form. I know very little about what steps might have been intended in that time.
Moving on to the Baroque period, there are some dances in Feuillet 1706 which make use of a rigaudon step, more in Feuillet 1708, and quite a few in Dezais 1712. Personally, I'm a little uneasy about using this as a general rule – the tunes which are provided for these dances sound very “French” and have a strong emphasis on the first beat of the bar, which fits the rhythm they used for a rigaudon but doesn't feel at home with the more upbeat-oriented English tunes. Just because the French used French steps for country dancing doesn't mean that it was universal practice in England!
Moving on another 50 years or so, A. D. 1764 says a bit about footwork. It's long-winded but worth reproducing in full:
The Use of the Feet explained.
The first thing to be observed in those, as well as all other dances, is the proper use of the feet in moving, as it cannot othewise be called Dancing (though often slighted by many, who are very ready with the figures.) To attain which, you are to take notice, that though there are tunes of different sorts of time, viz. common time, triple time, &c. yet one method of moving will serve for them all, by doing it faster or slower, which a person's ear will naturally lead him to do; the step of itself being so simple and plain, any one may soon perfect themselves in it, as it is nothing more than a step forwards, and a hop or rather a little slip, of the same foot, by an easy spring along the floor: this done to the time, first with the one foot and then with the other, alternately, beginning with the right, is the method of moving through the figures.
In setting, or footing, there is no other difference but that of moving the foot behind close to the other, instead of stepping forward with it, and hopping as before, being careful to move yourself as little backwards with it as possible. When you have made yourself pretty perfect in these singly, you may then observe, that Country-dance tunes are chiefly divided into eight bars, or times of moving; a step and hop in one complete figure or part of the tune: for example, if you cast off two CU; to do it properly it will require eight movements, of a step and hop each; consequently take up one strain or part of the tune. And again, if you foot a-cross and turn, it must be done by footing four times behind, and turning upon four steps forward, which makes up the eight: for the more ready performance of which, I would advise to pitch upon any Country-dance tune you know, and can sing or hum over, and with it practise about the room four footings and four steps, alternately, till you find that you can shift from one to the other readily, always being sure to begin with the right foot and end with the left, and done with as much ease as possible, without springing too far from the floor: and this will be sufficient to direct any one who is intent upon learning.
Firstly, it describes the basic footwork of the dance, which in simply skipping.
It then conflates setting and footing as being basically the same thing: In setting, or footing.... Usage elsewhere points against complete equivalence I think but it's interesting to note that the distinction might have been flexible.
It then describes footing as a ‘back step’ – with each skip placing the foot behind the one already on the ground. This is really quite satisfying, is a known English step, and I'd recommend giving it a go.
Ultimately though I'd be suspicious of any attempt to define a single true style for footing – the whole point is that it's an opportunity to show off your steps, and individuality is to be encouraged!
Go about not turning your faces
There are two ready possibilities here: what we would now call a gypsy (not turning your faces from each other) or a modern back-to-back/do-si-so (not turning your faces relative to the room). Sharp thought the former but I believe the latter is far more likely.
The Spanish Gypsys describes: Turn all back to back, faces again, go all about your We. not turning your faces. Lovelace describes for the same part of the dance: then they all turne theire backs, both men, and woemen, towards one another, and then turne themselves as they were before, all their faces together, then every man goeth round his woman, then back agayne, not turning of her, but only goeing round her. Let's break this down:
|Turn all back to back, faces again
|they all turne theire backs, both men, and woemen, towards one another, and then turne themselves as they were before, all their faces together
|Turn on the spot to face away, then turn back to face towards each other again.
|go all about your We. not turning your faces
|every man goeth round his woman, then back agayne, not turning of her, but only goeing round her
The wording isn't totally definitive on the latter being a back-to-back, but:
- A gypsy is a turn without hands – but if you’re going to take the path of a turn, why not take hands? Yes, it lets you get closer and flirt more but while that’s fun in modern contra dancing it’s not fitting for the time. It also means you can’t go round each other as quickly.
- We know the back-to-back as we know it is a common move in later Playford, and in Feuillet’s 32 dances (which has very clear diagrams) at least one back-to-back is shown in 7 of them and a gypsy in none. There’s no other set of words that adequately describe a back-to-back in early Playford (other than “turn back to back”, which isn't that) so this leaves this as the most likely.
There are two main possibilities here:
- The gypsy was a reasonably well known move and the back-to-back was unknown, and the gypsy almost entirely fell out of use at the same time as the back-to-back became popular, or
- The back-to-back was there all along and didn't have a proper name until later.
In later dances I believe this becomes called “back to back” but in early Playford that term hasn’t been adopted yet.
John Sweeney has written a long essay on Gypsies, including a list of Sharp interpretations affected by this – which is longer than I thought it was going to be!
Also see "Turn back to back" below.
Go down(/up) on the outside
For individuals going around one person this is obvious, but for a line it's less so. E.g. "men go down on the outside of the women" means the first man goes above 1st woman and down the outside of the women's line, and everyone else follows him.
E.g. in Goddesses, Men goe downe on the outsides of the We means first man leads the men’s line around the top of the women’s line and down the back of them. In this case they return but later they go all the way around. Lovelace has a version of this dance which confirms this.
Hands and go round
Take hands in a circle and go round in that circle.
If in doubt, go around to the left – that was the direction already taken by bransles and would be the default direction of movement. If the circles come in pairs though, separated by e.g. a set and turn single, then the second one is probably led with the right foot to the right, but as two separate parts of a figure they would just as likely both be to the left.
Round dances very often start with with “Hands and 2. D. round”, or variations thereof. So should we take hands in a ring facing the centre and slip sideways, or take two clear double steps facing in the direction of travel? Those words imply the latter, but not necessarily – it’s possible that two doubles here refers to the amount of music – but that’s a bit of a leap of faith. Also these are almost always followed by siding, which is definitely two doubles.
But we have many circles outside of the introductions – are these to be done in doubles too? Take Gathering Peascods, one of said round dances (for as many as will, shown for four couples) which starts with “Go all 2. doubles round”. The middle part is Men hands, and go round in the inside, and come to your places in the time of three doubles. It would just about be possible to go around in three doubles if only four couples, but not very satisfying. Presented with this dance, I would expect evolution to take its course and for people to simply skip round.
Some statistics: In fourth edition, there are 15 round dances starting with a circle left and right, (with various combinations of sets and turn singles interspersed). Of these:
- 11 say to go round two doubles
- 2 say to go round twice (Sellenger’s Round, Pepper’s Black)
- 1 says to go round a double (Millfield – almost certainly a mistake as there’s clearly time for two)
- 1 simply says to go round (Sage Leaf)
That’s quite explicit – 11 out of 15 saying two doubles. I’ve yet to find any dances containing a circle in the main body of the dance (not in the introductions) where the circle is described as going round any number of doubles – and there are very many dances involving circles. I reckon this points to a potential difference in the style of these two types of circle:
- A circle in the introduction is an extension of the formula of the Old Measures, composed of singles and doubles.
- A circle in the body of the dance is not constrained by doubles and is simply skipped or slipped if needed.
It’s not always appropriate to skip or slip the circle though: e.g. Bobbing Joe, which has a circle all the way in 4 bars, as well as a circle halfway in 4 bars. A skip/slip works best for the former, whereas a double to go round and a double to fall back on the other side works better for the latter.
As for choosing between skipping or slipping, these dances were around for a long time, with considerable variation, and there’s no good evidence that a right answer exists – so I’d do whichever you prefer. Both are simple, natural steps that don’t need inventing or teaching. I’ve called many a beginner’s ceilidh at weddings etc. where most people have never danced before, and they rarely have any trouble “inventing” these for themselves!
Star. Invariably for four, hold hands with the person diagonally opposite and all go round in the same direction.
Much as when going round in a circle, the direction is usually not specified. If in doubt, use a right hand star.
A weaving move. In most cases, the dancers all move at the same time in a line, passing alternate shoulders, turning around at the end.
There's lots to consider here and I've described this in more detail in a separate article.
Bow or curtsie. Turns up quite a lot in pre-restoration country dances.
Academy of Armory: An Honour. it is in a Man to Bow the Body, setting the heel of one foot to the side of the other; and the Woman to bend or bow the Knees.
The English in the 17th century were really quite fond of kissing apparently. Other cultures still use a quick sideways kiss as a greeting, which would seem appropriate, or a kiss of the hand.
Academy of Armory: A Salute, a Kiss, or Kiss of the hand with a bow of the Body.
In a modern context a kiss might not be socially acceptable, in which case an honour is a reasonable substitute (potentially an honour to the other side if there was already an honour before the kiss).
Holding closest hands, with partner unless specified otherwise.
Forwards to meet; if with another person, holding closest hands.
Parson’s Farewell, 2nd introduction: Meet all, leade each others Wo. a D. to the left hand · Change hands, meet againe, take your owne We. and to your places : . This only makes sense if the "meets" involve holding hands.
The presence of the word “meet” usually implies a separate move, i.e. a double for those in question to come towards each other. E.g. in The Merry Merry Milke Maids, First and third Cu. meet your own, slip between the other, take hands a cross and go round each four must be done in 12 bars of music. Here I’ve already assumed something is missing (probably a star back in the other direction) to get the meet and slip down to take 4 bars, but still you need the meet as a separate move in order for the timings to add up.
Meet and turn single
This is more prevalent in later Playford longways dances. Meet, then turn single; or meet, turning single as you do so? Especially if the latter, turn the same way as each other, towards, or away?
If the meet was intended to be followed by the turn single, would the word “and” have been used? No reason why not; “set and turn single” is sequential too.
Playford, Mr. Isaac’s Maggot (triple time): All four meet and turn S. is followed by a full figure of eight with very tight timing. In Dezais (Les Folies d’Isac), the phrase is structured as neighbours change places (2 bars), then fall back and meet turning single towards each other (2 bars), followed by figure of 8 (4 bars). Is Playford 2 bars for a fall back and advance turning single, followed by 6 bars for the figure of 8 (somewhat across the music); or 2 bars for a fall back and advance, 2 for the turn single, then 4 for the figure of 8 (tight)? Dezais has an extra move here so something has to be different. Inconclusive save for noting that Dezais combined the fall back and advance with a turn single towards your neighbour (whereas today we more commonly tend to turn away). Turning single towards your partner doesn’t flow very well if you’re holding hands with your partner, but Dezais doesn’t say to hold hands, and this does flow better into the figure of 8 that follows it. Also it seems to be a very small turn at the end of the advance, so maybe it is largely sequential but fitted into the same phrase of music!
Dezais, La Conti has a fall back, advance and turn single towards your neighbour in a single phrase, again without holding hands.
Dezais, La Jeunesse, shows a fall back and advance holding hands with your neighbour, then a turn single away in a separate phrase.
Playford, Lilli Burlero: fall back and meet and turn S.. Colin Hume makes a good argument for this being a fall back, advance and turn single away from your neighbour, finishing facing your neighbour ready for a back-to-back, and indeed Feuillet's Lirbulaire corroborates this. Clearly the meet and turn single are combined here, and the flow really demands a turn away from your neighbour rather than any other direction.
All in all, I don’t think there’s a simple rule here!
Pass, normally by the right shoulder.
Holding two hands with someone, the person doing the putting back pushes while the other goes backwards. If done around another couple this is a pousette. E.g. the Spanyard.
This turns up in Parson’s Farewell. Sharp interpreted this as a nod, but the Sloane manuscript also describes a version of Parson’s Farewell, and in it uses “leap” instead. Indeed, if you’re dancing on the balls of your feet, rising further can only really mean into the air. So I recommend jumping at this point, and indeed that’s what’s always felt right to me as a dancer, since before I was aware of the Sloane manuscript.
The military salute hasn’t been invented yet, so it’s not that. “Salute” in older usage simply means to greet or acknowledge, and is synonymous with “kiss”; see that entry.
A single to each side. If facing someone, this is often coming forwards as you do, as it is followed by a fall back.
After a lead up and back, a set is usually done facing your partner. (See the Queen’s Almaine.)
In Sloane and Lovelace, “sett” is usually used to mean a set and turn single, with the turn single taken as read.
This is probably usually a sideways slip step, as in modern parlance.
E.g. Parson’s Farewell Meet all, foure slips to the left hand: note that “slips” is plural here, probably indicating a step rather than e.g. a direction. There's not time for 4 of anything other than a slip at this point.
Adson’s Saraband is ambiguous: Men go all down while the Wemen go up, men slip to the right hand and We. to the left, fall even on the Co. side in 4 bars (2 doubles) of music. See the discussion under that dance; it’s not clear whether there’s an actual slip step sideways or if “slip” here simply means go sideways as you go forwards and back.
Given that the steps are not described in general, it may be the case that, provided you move in the right direction, whether you achieve it by slips or doubles is not central to the dance. Skips, skipped doubles, and slip steps are cousins of each other, travelling an equivalent difference, and I don't think it significantly changes the character of the dance to interchange them.
Slip down between [...]
This is “first couple slip down between the second couple” or variants.
In Skellemefago: First Cu. slip down betweene the 2. turne each your owne, meaning that after the slip you need to be past the other couple able to turn your partner in progressed places. It’s assumed that the second couple move/slip up the outside at the same time.
In Cast a Bell: First Cu. take both hands, slip downe betweene the 2. Cu. cross and turn each one of them with your right hands, this is really awkward unless the 1C stops between the 2C.
Nonesuch is more explicit: First Cu. slip just between the 2. Cu.. All a Mode de France uses the language First Cu… fall in betweene the 2. Cu..
Turn (between two people)
Does this mean a two-hand turn in the modern sense (left hand to right, right to left)? Or a cross-hand turn (left to left, right to right)? Or even of a single hand, whichever is most convenient?
Kemps Jegg at least only really works if “turn the third” is an uncrossed two-hand turn the conventional way, otherwise the man doesn’t finish in the right place next to his partner facing in.
Sometimes “turn” and “arm” are used interchangeably:
- In the second part of Whirligig is written The 2. man armes with the first Wo. … while the 2. Wo. turns the last man – the moves taking place at each end of the set are probably the same.
- In Mill-field, the significant figure is done three times with each person. First Cu. leade to the man on your right hand, he going under your armes, turne your owne · That again : … The two men take hands and lead to your Wo. she going under your armes, the two men armes · That againe : (my emphasis). It’s then done a third time without mentioning the turning/arming at all! This flows best with a two-hand turn rather than an arm, but terminology appears to be loose.
- Barham down, 11th edition: Arms round with both Arms. That's got to be a two-hand turn, surely? Possibly a cross-hand turn, to distinguish it from a regular turn?
- The Academy of Armory: Arms all. is to take hands, or by the Arms, and so to turn about and change places; or else go in a single, &c.. This is showing that arms could mean to turn by the hands too.
Crossed hands do occasionally happen, with dances such as Jamaica where the right and then left hands are taken sequentially, followed by a half turn. Sloane's version of Parson's Farewell follows this with a full turn.
Feuillet shows many two-hand turns, but his notation system doesn't distinguish crossed or uncrossed hands. Jamaica is shown as La Bonne Amitie, and while it explicitly shows taking first the right and then the left hands, if it wasn't for the hands being taken one at a time you'd not be able to tell that they were crossed.
The direction is never given. Feuillet shows two hand turns in both directions but only shows an anticlockwise turn after a clockwise turn has already happened; most notably there are alternating directions of two-hand turns in La Chasse, essentially a strip the willow dance. Lovelace, Trenchmore includes Having soundly turned both ways. Some dances don't really flow very well if you do a two-hand turn clockwise – e.g. Drive the Cold Winter Away, where the first man turns 3rd woman and then 4th woman; and the Boateman, where figure 1 is quite tight and the turn might work better the other way.
Moving onto much, much later material, The Fandango [Thompson's Compleat Collection 1780], start of the second half: Turn corners & turn your Part: · the same at the other corners : Man whole figure at bottom & Wo. at top the same time ·: . The first couple are in the middle for the start here; the conventional interpretation has all two-hand turns in all the same direction, leading the first man to go up into the figures of eight, not down. Replacing this by right hand turns with corners and left hand with partner fixes this and also improves the timing. It's also what the Scots would do. However, bear in mind this is a completely different period!
I, in common with most people, generally assume a “turn” to be an uncrossed two-hand turn to the left (clockwise), unless there's something explicit to the contrary. This might be a matter of individual preference though, and in particular it’s possible that “arm” and “turn” were synonymous, meaning any form of turn between two people. In modern ceilidh there are multiple swing holds going around – why shouldn't there be different ways to turn your partner?
Turn back to back (, faces again)
The Spanish Jeepsie describes: turn all back to back, faces again, go all about your We not turning your faces. Cuckolds All a Row uses almost identical words. Sharp interpreted this (in “Hey Boys, Up Go We”, his renamed interpretation of Cuckolds All a Row”) as a whole-gyp (or simply “gypsy” in modern country dance parlance) facing outwards, followed by a one facing inwards (as is the norm for a gypsy). I was taught it by the Round as gypsy right shoulders followed by gypsy left. In http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/lod/vol4/spanish_gipsy.html, it’s argued that this is a right shoulder spin, back-to-back right shoulders, left shoulder spin, back-to-back left shoulders. Clearly this has confused people.
It can often be revealing to give unclear instructions to people with no preconceptions or knowledge of modern dance language, and if I’m calling a dance for complete newcomers and tell them “back-to-back”, the most likely thing they’ll do is to turn around on the spot and stand back to back. I think they’re right, and this figure means turn your back to each other on the spot, turn back to face, then a back-to-back in the modern sense.
- The word “turn” implies there’s turning going on, which is precisely the thing that doesn’t happen in a modern back-to-back!
- The dancers are given two directions: turn back to back, and then faces again; a modern back-to-back is a single move.
- It’s also followed by an actual back-to-back: the other alternative is that we’ve misunderstood the second move, which is a gypsy after all (see “Go about not turning your faces”), at which point you’ve got a back-to-back followed by a gypsy, which is pretty weird choreographically.
- My suggestion fits two doubles followed by a longer skipped move, which is a common pattern for these dances and fits the music well.
In the entry "Go about not turning your faces" above I compare the wording for Playford's The Spanish Jeepsie and Lovelace's The Gipsys, and it translates turn back to back, faces again as then they all turne theire backes, both men, and woemen, towards one another, and then turne themselves as they were before, all their faces together. This is pretty explicit. It's unlikely to be two half turns in the same direction because that would be a turn single, albeit a slow one; also, having done a double with one foot, the natural foot to start the next double on is the other foot, taking you back in the other direction.
In Feuillet, l’Epiphanie also shows this move, although Feuillet credits this dance to having been written by Mr. Voisin in Versailles, so this is of limited relevance.
Another example, the Fine Companion (round for eight), third figure: Men meet, turne back to back, the We. go round about, the men to their places. Clearly there’s no do-si-do style move here, the men simply stand in the middle facing out.
This figure feels best if you’re dancing doubles, so as the steps changed this figure might have been dropped from the repertoire. “Go about not turning your faces” was a popular move which needed a shorter name, it involved passing your partner back to back, and so “back to back” was adopted as shorthand.
One double to turn around on the spot. Doesn’t always leave you facing the way you started though!