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.


These are given at the front of each edition.







2., 3., 4.Second, third, fourth

 · ,  : ,  ·: Strain played once, twice, thrice

Contrary just means "other", so your contrary person is “the one that isn’t your partner”: your corner in a longways duple minor, your opposite in a two couple dance.  Contrary can also be used in other contexts, e.g. Newcastle refers to the "the Co. place" meaning the opposite place from where you started.


The presence is at one end of the room, and is traditionally where the person(s) of highest status would be sitting.

The top of the set is closest to the presence, and the bottom of the set is furthest from it. Up is toward the top and down is toward the bottom.  The ends are the top and bottom of the room.

The walls are the side walls (men’s side and women’s side for a longways set), not the top or bottom of the room.  Cross the room is towards one wall or the other.

Inside / outside of the set are hopefully self-explanatory.

In a square set or round for eight, the couples “against each other” are opposites.

And then we get to “the left/right hand”, which is a bit more complicated...

The left/right hand

The left hand normally means to the left of the person as they stand. The right hand is likewise to the right. E.g. Parson’s Farewell: Meet all, lead each others Wo. a D. to the left hand: you’ve got to do that in opposite directions from each other!  Likewise, Drive the Cold Winter Away involves the men’s line going through a gap in the women’s line twice, first time “goe toward the left hand” and second time “turne towards the right hand”: these are from the point of view of the dancers, i.e. up the first time and down the second.

However, sometimes the "left hand" means to the left side of the room when facing the presence, i.e. the men's wall. Take Lady Spellor: Go all to the left hand, crosse the roome, faces all set and turn single. If everyone had gone to their respective left then they wouldn’t be able to face to set and turn single, and the rest of the figure would make no sense either. Instead if this is interpreted as to left from the position of facing the presence (i.e. the men’s wall) then it all works perfectly.

In Adsons Saraband: 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, set and turn S. If the dancers are to end on the other side as directed, both need to go to their respective left, so again the left hand / right hand reference are from the point of view of the set.  Later in Adsons Saraband, Goe all to the left hand crosse the Roome finishes with you close to your partner, and the remainder of the figure only really works if you've gone towards the left hand (men's) wall.

There doesn't seem to be a hard rule about this so we need to make educated guesses based upon context. There is real ambiguity in some dances. For example, in Stingo: All a D. to the left hand, back again, set and turne single  ·  As much to the right hand  : . There are multiple options here I can think of (if I ignore the question of the directions of the set and turn singles):

  1. The men’s line dance up a double and back while the women dance down a double a back; all set and turn single. Then a double the other way and set and turn single.
  2. The men’s line turns around to face the wall, all dance a double forward and back, the men turn to face their partners again; set and turn single, finishing with the women facing away from their partners. Then a double that way and back, finishing with the women turning to face their partners; set and turn single.
  3. Everyone keep facing their partners: men go back a double and forward while the women forward a double and back; set and turn single. Then women go back a double and forwards while men go forwards and back; set and turn single.
  4. Facing partners, dance a double to the left in a curve, and a double back; set and turn single.  Then the same to the right.

The first alternative is probably the most common interpretation outside of the folk dance world. The second is Sharp’s. The third is my invention; it’s possible but I don’t like it as much because:

  • If that’s what was meant, “men go back a double while the women go forwards” is likely what would have been said.
  • In Stingo, I think that option one feels better: all go to the left and back, set and turn single left; go to the right and back, set and turn single right. The momentum just feels as if it flows better. Also in Maiden Lane I find it the most satisfying interpretation of the (normally omitted) first part of the figure, going into the hey.

The fourth was suggested to me in a workshop at Chippenham in 2017 (apologies I forget who suggested it, please say if it was you).  As it turns out, Graies Inn Maske also includes this figure, and is also in Lovelace, where the corresponding section of the dance is described: The men shall take each his woeman, by both hands, and set them all in a straight line, the man standing all above the woeman, and then back into their places againe, like as they stood at first.  This is effectively a quarter turn one way and then a quarter turn the other way.  It doesn't say to go the other way but unless we're going to take two doubles to turn a quarter and two to go back then it makes sense to do so.  And this is really quite close to option 4 above, just with hands!

I can’t really argue which is right, only which I prefer – and I’m not even sure about that to be honest! I most commonly use option one, although I’ll admit it’s slightly arbitrary.

Set numbering

In longways sets, the couples are numbered downwards from the top of the set.

In square sets (there are only a handful actually described as squares), the first couple is at the top of the set, with the other couples numbered going left, not right as is modern practice.  There's an explicit diagram of the numbering of these, which helps.

Rounds might have any number of couples, and many dances are a “Round for eight”, i.e. square set, but not described as a square. The first couple is assumed to be at the top still.

In first edition dances, where there is a progression around the set and its direction is explicitly given, it’s to the right: Mill-field, Rose is White and Rose is Red, and Chirping of the Nightingale.

Other progressive rounds don’t say which direction the second couple should be found: Peppers Black (for as many as will), Up Tailes All (for as many as will), Mundesse (for six), Jenny Pluck Pears (for six).

  • Jenny Pluck Pears works equally well either way.
  • In Up Tailes All, the second figure and third figure end with a star and circle respectively before moving onto the next couple. If we assume stars and circles in the normal direction (star right and circle left) then these flow nicely if the second couple is to the right of the first, and are truly awkward if not.
  • In Peppers Black the first two figures are unaffected by the direction. The third figure requires the first man to go forward and back with his partner, picking up the second man in his left hand, then Bring your Wo. under your left arms, holding both fast, turne your body halfe round to the left hand  ·  Bring your man under your right arm, turne halfe about to your right hand  : . If you do this as described then the second man finishes coming in front on the first couple. If numbering right, the second man is already on the corner for the forward and back, and he can naturally be deposited back in his place. If numbering left then this is more awkward.
  • Mundesse involves pairs working together in sequence: 1M with 1W, then 1W with 2M, then 2M with 2W, etc. Unless the men and women have suddenly changed places, this is numbering right.

So I believe that when a dance is described as a square, it’s numbered to the left; when described as a round, it’s numbered to the right.

As an aside, the Lansdowne manuscript includes two dances in a square formation, one (dance 1) numbered to the left, and the other (dance 3) numbered to the right. Although neither have any description of the set as a “square” or “round”, so this doesn't really prove anything.

Suns and moons

In first and second edition, Playford says that moons are for men, suns for women. From third edition onwards, this is reversed.

It has been commonly held by Sharp, Dean-Smith etc that first edition got it wrong and it was subsequently corrected. I'm not convinced.

In first edition there are three square set dances where the top of the set is unambiguously marked: first couple is on the left. In these, Faine I would shows moons on the right, but this dance only works as described if the couples are improper. The others put the moons on the left.  In 4th edition the moons are still on the left and suns on the right of all the square sets (Chelsey Reach, Faine I Would, Hunsdon House, Dull Sir John, Oranges and Lemons).  Even 10th edition has the moons on the left for the remaining squares (Hunsdon House, Dull Sir John).  

The longways sets consistently show a line of moons below a line of suns. If top is on the left then this shows the moons to be men.  The square set diagrams in 1st, 4th and 10th editions always have 1st couple on the left, except Hunsdon House in 4th edition which inexplicably has it at the bottom.  I think we can be sure that top isn't meant to be at the right though!

The round dances and squares show the moons facing towards the centre. If the same convention is applied elsewhere, the moons are facing right for the first set of longways dances in first edition, switching to facing left about a third of the way through. In second edition they face left. It's possible that they started printing them the wrong way round, then partway through the printing process Playford intervened and corrected three printing of subsequent pages - but this is conjecture. If we conclude that top is on the left, then once again the men are moons.

The 4 couple rounds are not consistently aligned to any axis, although the 3 couple rounds have a moon at the left, consistent with 1st man being at the top.

Sadly when it gets interesting with 2 couple sets there are all sorts of inconsistencies and errors – e.g. Hit and Misse is shown as a 2-couple longways set in 1st edition rather than couple facing couple, and by 4th edition it becomes a 4-couple longways set!

In third edition, when the meaning of the symbols is reversed in the introduction, the diagrams are generally not changed (although Faine I Would – incorrectly – gets its symbols swapped, but that might simply have been to make it look like the other squares, now they were arranged together by formation). The trend was for new dances to be longways anyway, where the set diagram isn't particularly important.

In fourth edition, there’s an erratum at the front for Confesse, with the men as suns, but I don’t think that’s enough evidence to fundamentally change things.

So my conclusion is that it is more likely that Playford meant what was printed in first edition, and that third edition, far from correcting things, actually introduced a quite significant error, which went uncorrected thereafter.  He generally wasn't correcting the dance descriptions, copying them word for word (whereas the music was edited between editions) – he probably didn't really understand them anyway.

Alignment with music

Where there are multiple phrases of music, the dance descriptions are generally arranged in columns.  Most music is in two phrases; the instructions on the left are for the first phrase of the tune, and the instructions on the right for the second.

The descriptions are interspersed with underlined dots ( · ,  : ,  ·:  etc.), signifying the number of repeats of the phrase of music which have passed up to that point, usually since the beginning of that paragraph of the dance description.  They're not always accurate.

The music doesn't have repeat marks.  Depending on the edition, between phrases is a weird half-height double bar line with dots either side that looks like a repeat mark, but it's just a divider.  Normally both phrases are repeated, but you need to check the context with the dance.  Sometimes the underlined dots in the instructions help.  For example, the very first dance in first edition, Upon a Summer's Day, requires the B phrase to be played three times.  The Night Piece does too, but the B phrase is written out three times as a single phrase, so only a  ·  is present underneath.

Target of instructions


The instructions are talking to the men, with the assumption that the women will do what’s required to fit in. E.g. in Rufty Tufty, a couple-face-couple dance, the main figure of the dance is described as Lead your own with the left hand to each wall, change hands, meet again…. Clearly this means to lead out with the man’s left and women’s right hand (the closest ones at that time) and return with the other hands, rather than leading out left hand in left, and for some reason switching to right in right to return – the latter would be very unnatural!

In the New Vagary: the first man honors the second wo.; in Feuillet, La Nouvelle Figure, this is shown as them both equally honouring each other.

Active couple(s)

Likewise, the instructions are often given to only the active couple, with the inactive couple expected to join in as required. In The Merry Merry Milke Maids First and third Cu. meet your own, slip between the other, take hands a crosse and go round each four  ·  The other four as much  : . Here the couple not slipping down need to move up the outside, presumably also with a slip, otherwise the set will end up moving down the room, but this is taken as obvious.

Sometime the instructions are more explicit. Picking of Sticks, second figure: The first Cu. slip down between the 2. they slipping up, then the 2. slip downe, and the first up.

In other cases it’s less obvious. Each turn of the first figure of Nonesuch finishes turn your own in the 2. place – should this be just the first couple, who are otherwise the target of the instructions, or should the second couple join in too? In Bobbing Joe, third figure, First Cu. change with the 2. on the same side  ·  Then change with your owne  : : does the second couple change places with each other in the second move, or just the first figure? (I’ve assumed yes in the latter).

But in Skellemefago, First Cu. armes once and a halfe between the 2. into the second, place, set each to the 2. Cu. and change places with your owne: the instruction to change places is clearly just to first couple. Later, First Cu. slip down betweene the 2. turne each your owne, “each” is used to indicate that both couples should turn.

In Jog On My Honey (duple minor progressive), The first man take his wo. by both hands, put her back on the outside, the 2. wo. into the 2. place, and there turn her. – this is basically a half pousette, and is going to need the second couple to at least move up to stop the set moving down the room, and preferably to join in with the move to make it easier for the first couple to get around.

There’s no strict rules, and I wouldn't want to tell people off for dancing when there's space to do so, but it seems that if it’s “obvious” that the other couple(s) need to join in, then it is frequently not stated that they need to, otherwise you would normally assume they don't.


The figures themselves are in their own article.