In 1651 a man named John Playford published a book of English country dances in a book called the "English Dancing Master". After the first editions it was titled simply "The Dancing Master". He passed responsibility for the series to his son, Henry Playford, for the 8th edition in 1690, who in turn eventually passed it on to John Young for the 13th edition in 1706, who expanded it to three volumes, keeping going until 1728.
We also have several manuscripts of country dances in the same era as John Playford, overlapping with dances he published.
John Walsh published a direct copy of the Dancing Master under the title "The Compleat Country Dancing Master" in 1718, a series which continued with many additional dances. Throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century there were publications of country dances by other composers.
In 1911 Cecil Sharp published his first set of interpretations of dances in the Dancing Master series in The Country Dance Book, Part II. In 1932 Marjorie Heffer and William Porter published a book of newly composed dances in the same style as the reinterpreted dances, in the book "Maggot Pie". People have been writing new dances ever since, and the style has evolved considerably – it's generally far more focused on flow and intricate figures and far less on footwork as the modern dances are generally simply walked.
Different people mean different things when they say Playford. It could mean:
- The dances published by John (or Henry) Playford.
- The dances of the period of John (or Henry) Playford (including manuscripts).
- The dances in the Dancing Master.
- Any historical English country dances (potentially covering 2 centuries or so!)
- Any historical English country dances plus any modern dances written in a style derived from that (which, as I said, has evolved considerably).
When I say "Playford dances" I generally don't include modern dances, because I think you have to stop somewhere. My research is most focused on John Playford's stuff and dances of the same period. However, there's an evolution of dance forms throughout The Dancing Master and I, like most people, are happy including the dances of the Dancing Master, plus a bit – up to the mid 18th century or so but not getting into Regency, which has its own devotees.
If you're after a general overview of the history of country dancing, I'd recommend seeing Anne Daye's essay on the subject.