Playford progressions

This is a discussion on the common forms of progression in the Dancing Master and matters arising.


Let's start with the simplest progression: non-progressive dances.  E.g. couple-facing couple dances such as Parson's Farewell, or whole set dances such as Gathering Peascods: once you've danced it once, you're done.  You can decide you enjoyed it a lot and want to do it again, and in the case of Gathering Peascods you could I suppose have the first couple go to the bottom and start again but I doubt you'd want to, so there are certainly non-progressive dances in the idiom.

Whole-set progressions

Several dances are clearly progressive without saying so.  For example, in Maiden Lane and Millisons Jig, both 3-couple, 3-figure dances, the final figure ends with the first couple at the bottom.  Why would the dance finish with the first couple at the bottom if you didn't plan to do the dance again from these new places?  So progressive dances are also in the idiom.  The full list of 1st edition dances of this type I've spotted are:

  • Stingo
  • Millison's Jig
  • Jack Pudding
  • Maiden Lane
  • Hockley in the Hole
  • Shepherd's Holiday
  • The Slip

Several of the dances are very uneven in favour of one couple. For example, “Drive the Cold Winter Away”, where the first couple turn everyone else. After only three times through the tune, once through the dance, the notation stops. Other uneven dances include:

  • The Chirping of the Lark, where the first man gets to dance with all the women in each figure, while the other men do nothing more than lead up a double and back and set and turn single throughout the dance.
  • Solomons Jig (2nd edition), where the second and third couples do nothing other than introductions.
  • Daphne, where all but the first couple do nothing but introductions.
  • All in a Garden Green, where the first couple have all the fun.
  • An Old Man is a Bed Full of Bones, where the top and bottom couples do all the work.
  • Staines Morris, where the first man dances with all the women.

The Whish is clearly uneven towards the middle couple, but it’s also quite long and repetitive, and having gone through 22 repeats of the tune, most of which involved leading through a couple, casting back and arming the one you led with, I’m not sure you’d really want to do it all again with the other two couples in the middle! And the Old Mole gives everyone a fair turn and is long enough you probably don’t want to do it all three times.

Another formula is found in Whirligig: after each figure is specified cast off all, doe thus / cast off, all doe thus / cast off all doe this change: the body of each figure is done three times, separated by a cast to get the 1st couple to the bottom, although exactly how this cast is meant to be done and where it fits in the music isn’t described. Some extra music is clearly required for the cast – maybe the dance was originally written without this progression and it was added in later?

In Lovelace, the dance The Chirping of the Nightingale is nothing like the Playford dance of the same name, but does appear to concord with The Chirping of the Lark, one of our super-uneven dances listed above!  The language used in Lovelace is really interesting: it describes the dance for 3 or 4 couples, where for 4 couples the first man, having set to or turned all the women "shall leade up the 4th woman as fast as he can"!  The crucial words are at the end however: once everyone is home, it says "and then leade of, and the rest may doe the like if they please".  Note:

  • It doesn't say how the lead off should be done, implying it's a well understood and common thing – a simple cast to the bottom while the others start again works well.
  • "If they please" – it's not always done, it's up to the dancers.

Going back to Millisons Jig and Maiden Lane, it's worth noting that those dances aren't at all uneven, and yet they describe a progression anyway!

In Trenchmore, the 1C finish back at the top (I think), but the dance ends with [“the rest doing these changes”], i.e. 1C need to get to the bottom so that everyone else can have a go. This dance has an echo in Feuillet’s La Chasse (although the tune is different), where 1C simply gallop to the bottom in an extra phrase of music.  I wouldn't read too much into that link though.  I've tried Trenchmore with the top couple going down the middle at the end and I find it doesn't work as well as them casting down the outside to get out of the way.  

I can think of a number of possibilities to how apparently non-progressive but uneven dances were handled:

  • At the time a musician would have played for a single set, so it’s possible that another couple would have come to the top of the set if they wanted a go, with the musician striking up again.  However in Chirping of the Nightingale in Lovelace, it directs the first couple to lead off, implying the music doesn't stop.  And why should it?
  • The first couple cast to the bottom as the rest led up a double and back again, starting the dance again.
  • If the primary purpose of the dances was display, and the dance had been specially learned beforehand, then they might not have known it from other positions and there might have been no purpose to doing again – just see the number of people watching the dance in the plate on the front of the first edition of the English Dancing Master vs the number of people actually dancing! But while you can imagine people dancing Step Stately for performance (indeed, it’s been done by numerous groups in modern times), the Chirping of the Lark is hardly a great vehicle for showing off your dancing ability to spectators, and Trenchmore even less so.
  • The dance really was only done once, but another couple came to the top to lead a different dance that they knew, which might also be uneven.
  • The first couple was the most important in status and just didn’t care whether the others got to dance much!

However, it seems that whole-set progressive dances were common, often repeated for other couples, and it wasn't always mentioned explicitly when this should be done – it was considered obvious that you'd do so, or simply up to you whether you wanted to or not.  Also, if we're going to dance them today, they need to be fun for us!  So I think there is strong justification for the same approach to whole-set dances today: if you want to make them progressive, and it fits the dance, go for it.  

The most common solution I know is for the first couple to cast to the bottom as the others start the dance again with a lead up a double and back. The progression isn’t described directly, but given the variation that clearly existed between different descriptions of the same dance, the different progressive formulas described in the dances, and Lovelace’s encouragement to dancers to dance certain figures “as long as you please”, it seems at least within the spirit of the dance should you wish to do it.

Duple minor progression

Many dances are described as “longways for as many as will” (a term we use to this day, where “will” is in the old sense, i.e. “have the will to” or “want”, as opposed to an indication of future tense).

A very common pattern is for a progressive figure sequence to be described for the first couple and second couple followed by e.g. “doe this change to the last, the rest following”, meaning repeat with each couple in turn, the other couples doing the role of the first couple as they get to the top, continuing until all are home. If we were to use a longways set as long as a large dance hall then this would take far too long, but these dances were probably written for a modest number of couples, and the large assembly rooms haven’t been built yet.

Some dances don't even say that the figure should be repeated for the other couples (e.g. the Country Coll) – it's taken as read – but most do.

There are some rounds for as many as will (Mill-field, Rose is White and Rose is Red, Peppers Black, Chirping of the Nightingale), which appear to take a similar format, progressing round each couple in turn.

Crossing sides

In some duple minor dances, you don’t finish back on the side you started. For example, from Once I Loved a Maiden Faire, part 1, after corners set to and fall back from each other:

The first man change with the 2. Wo. he into her place and she into his  ·  The first Wo. and 2. man as much  ·  Doe thus to all the rest following.

(Ignore the second  ·  – that seems to be a misprint and should be a  : , which is correct on the other parts of the dance).

So we’ve progressed and switched places. It’s pretty unambiguous.

Fortunately this dance is also described in Sloane, which describes it thus:

then the first man, and 2nd woeman shall change places, the first woeman, and second man the like; then the man that was first, shall be in the place, of the 2nd woeman, and shall sett to the 3rd man, and soe thus they shall sett across to each other, and chainge places, like afore; until they come all back agayne to their owne places

So this looks to be a fun way to mix up the sets and get the men dancing together a bit too. In a 4-couple set, each time couples meet in the middle they’ll be on opposite sides from each other. 1st and 3rd couples will always end up meeting this way, as will 2nd and 4th.

Dancers of the time were far less worried about the men ending up dancing together. E.g. in Halfe Hannikin, after 4 changes in a 4-couple set, all the men would be dancing together at one end of the set and all the women at the other!

At its most basic form, this idea also turns up in first figure of Picking Up Sticks, and a few others with the same move.

Note that Sloane’s directions show that at least in this dance, first corners are defined by where first man is, not where his position would be.

Duple minor without introductions

In most dances the three parts are separated by introductions, meaning that the original couples at the top must wait for the bottom couples to get back to their places before continuing with the next introduction. In some (Once I Loved a Maiden Faire, The Irish Lady, My Lady Cullen, Jog On), the introductions have disappeared but while there’s no reason in theory why the top couple need wait for everyone to get back home before starting the next part, I think the safest and most consistent interpretation is to wait for each part to fully complete before starting the next. Reasons for doing this include:

  • Overlapping is only possible for a fairly small number of dances, because most have introductions.
  • Overlapping the end of one part with the beginning of the next doesn’t always tesselate particularly well. I attempted to call “Jog On” this way at Chippenham Folk Festival in 2015 and it wasn’t very satisfactory, particularly in the transition to the final part, where the first couple go down the outside of the set beyond second couple and then come back into their place.
  • It can confuse the inactive couples coming in the other direction, and prevents the couples not in the top two positions from watching the dance before they need to participate in it.
  • Essex states when describing the progression ...till every Body be arriv’d to the same place from whence they begun, and then the whole part will be intierely finish’d, and there every Couple make their Honour as they finish. But if there be a second part, you must instead of making your Honour, goe on in the same order, as you have done in the first, and putt off making your Honour till you come to the end of the last part. This seems to direct against overlapping the parts, and it’s unlikely that people would have stopped overlapping them in the early 18th century if they were being overlapped in the mid 17th century.

“Hands four from the top?”

While both Playford an Feuillet describe a snowball-style longways progression, with couples coming in one by one from the top, Lorin 1685 has an interesting slant:

if one should wish the dances not to become too tedious, however one should double up the figures to four and four in country dances for four, and to six and six in the country dances for six. The English fashion, however, is that he who leads the dance requests those country dances he pleases, and dances them with his lady, while having them [the other dancers] in turn. Note that there is a long wait until everyone is dancing, and also while waiting [for the dance to end]; this will often bore the dancers and spectators, who would be delighted to double up the figures in whatever way seems best.

I.e. the English do indeed do a snowball-style progression, but that leads to lots of standing around; better to start with everyone dancing. Which is exactly what we do today!

He’s right of course. A snowball-style progression leads to everyone waiting out one third of the time in a duple minor set, and one quarter of the time in a triple minor set.

Anyone dancing at the French court would probably have learned the dances beforehand so there would be no reason not to start with everyone dancing; however in England the snowball progression served the purpose of teaching the dance to those present. When these dances were revived in the 20th century, they were first taught in lessons, and then by a caller in public dances, so the need for a snowball progression was eliminated, thus we can start with everyone dancing: “hands four from the top”!

“Longways circular” progression

Another form of progression which turns up from time to time is where each person progresses independently of their partner around the set. 1C dance with each other and change places; then 1M and 2W dance with each other as 1W and 2M dance with each other and change places; then 1M with 3W, 1W with 3M and 2C together, etc. until all have returned to places.  There's only one such dance in first edition (Row Well ye Marriners), but more turn up in later editions.  They often involve clapping as there's not a lot you can do figure-wise when there's only two of you!

It's possible that these were adaptations of circle dances – there are no circle mixers described in Playford that I've spotted.  If dancing them today I'd normally do them in a circle.

Triple minor progression

There are no triple minor dances in 1st edition (unless you count Step Stately, whose second figure is technically triple minor double-progression). However they do become the dominant form in late editions of the Dancing Master.

The amount of standing around at the ends, coupled with the fact that progression takes place at half the speed of a longways duple minor, is perhaps why these dances are less popular today, and have been converted to standalone 3-couple dances where possible. The RSCDS took a different approach and dance them in 4-couple short sets, which is also a reasonable compromise of dancing time.

The progression when it was first taught to me went something along the lines of:

  • Couples are numbered 1,2,3,1,2,3 etc from the top.
  • 1C move down one place each time through the dance.
  • 2C and 3C switch numbers each time through the dance.
  • When you get to the top, wait for a whole set to become available before starting again.
  • When there are just two couples left at the bottom, 1C go right to the bottom, otherwise the bottom couple never come in again. Or if you’re feeling adventurous you can attempt to do the dance for two couples but only if you don’t confuse everyone else.

Lorin 1685 states that: “when there are no more couples to [dance] round, one must imagine yet another to be there.”

Those two dots at the bottom are ghosts.

At least in Lorin’s view, dancing around an imaginary couple was not only reasonable but the normal thing to do. Note that in most triple minor dances, 3C don’t do a lot anyway so making them ghosts isn't hard. In Lorin 1685, there are only two longways triple minor dances (Cupid’s Garden and Vienna), and in both cases the 3C act primarily as posts for the 1C to dance around.

Doing this extra dance around the imaginary 3C is quite important: if you do this, the proportion of time everyone spends dancing is actually the same as for a duple minor progression (ignoring the fact that the 3C are probably doing less “dancing” than everyone else, even if they are technically in). If you don’t then it works out that everyone spends one third more time waiting out.

If we start a triple minor dance with 6 couples, with everyone starting dancing, until all are home, with the imaginary couple at the bottom, it lasts 18 times through, with everyone dancing 5 times out of every 6 – which is achievable, although a bit long for modern tastes.

Round progression

Some rounds are progressive. The first couple dances with the second couple, then moves onto the third, etc; when the first has moved onto the fourth couple, the second couple can start, dancing with the third couple.

This is effectively a form of duple minor set adapted for the round. It has interesting parallels with old-time square dancing, often known as Kentucky Running Set in the UK.

A variant, found in Mill-field, and Rose is White and Rose is Red, is for the active couple to dance with the man to their right, then the women, then the next, such that in each turn there are three people dancing. Again, once the first couple has moved onto the fourth couple, the second couple can start with the third couple (or in this case third man); it’s possible for second couple to start with 3M as 1C are still dancing with 3W but they get in each others’ way.