This is an unusual dance: the original Strip the Willow. It has no introductions, and is clearly very freeform, with figures described as being done two or three times. It was fairly well known at the time. It has a different, more free-form feel to the other dances and it's been speculated that it's Irish in origin (I haven't got the means to back that up).
Lead up a double and back two or three times as led by 1C. Cast to the bottom (others following) and lead back again three times or as long as 1C decide. Dip and dive two or three times or as long as 1C decide.
Set around the set: 1M sets forward to 2W, then turns round and sets forward to 1W, then down to 3W, up to 1W again, etc. all the way around the set. 1W does the same, starting again with 2W, going around the set in the same direction.
Strip the willow: 1M arm right with 2W, arm left with 1W, arm right with 3W, etc. round the set. 1W do the same.
Lead up a double and back as many times as led by 1C.
“Backhand” strip the willow: 1M right hand turn with 1W, then left with 2W, right with 1W, etc. around the set. 1W the same.
1C cast to the bottom as the others start the dance again with a lead up a double, and inserting more casts and dip and dives if desired as led by the new top couple.
Continue until all have had a go leading.
The dance also appears in Lovelace. I suggest looking at that version first as it’s more descriptive.
Transcript from 4th edition:
Lead up all a D. forwards and back 3. times, cast off, meet below, and come up, do so 3. times : First Cu. go down under the 2. Gu. arms, the 3. come up under the first do this forward and back twice or thrice.
First man set to the 2. Wo. then to his own, then to the 3. Wo. then to his own, then to the 4. Wo. then to his own, and so to all the We. and men, then your Wo. do the same: then arm them as you set to them, arming your Wo. then your Wo. as much.
Lead up again, then turn your Wo. with your right hand, and the 2.. with your left your Wo. falling as you turn, till you come to your place, then your Wo do the same, you following her, the rest doing these changes.
The dance starts with Lead up all a D. forwards and back 3. times! That's mightily unusual, so you could consider a misprint (a “2” can turn into a “3” in writing if hooked badly at the bottom) if it wasn't for the next bit being specified to be done three times as well, and the final part twice or thrice! In later editions 3. times and twice or thrice is replaced by ·: and : or ·: respectively, which is even more ambigious, so it's good to see the earlier text for this one.
Fortunately the tune is a simple one without strong phrasing (unlike most of the Dancing Master), and could easily be danced unphrased.
Then we have 1M alternately setting to his partner and every other person in the set, with the first set to 2W. We’ve had some extra introductory figures but now it’s looking the same as in Lovelace, although going the other way around the set. There’s no turning involved this time, we’re straight into arming, and this does feel like a strip the willow.
Should the setting start with with the left or right foot? Normally we do left. If you’re moving predominantly right around the set, and setting sideways, it makes sense for 1M to start on the right foot, but if the set is forwards then it doesn’t really matter. And the word “set” might simply be the closest one they had available to describe it – given the different feel for the dance, there's no reason to expect the setting to be the same style as setting in other dances. If we were doing it today in a ceilidh we'd use a kick balance!
Does the 1W go round in the same direction as 1M or the other way? To answer this, let’s look at the arming: 1M arm right with 2W, left with 1W, right with 3W, left with 1W again etc. – a strip the willow down the women’s line and up the men’s line (as in Drops of Brandy). To do a strip the willow back the other way would require swapping arms (right with partner instead of left with partner), otherwise it’s very awkward. So I think the simpler solution is for 1W to follow 1M in the same direction around the set. The Lovelace version goes the other way around but there they’re using turns instead of arms.
We don’t know exactly what step was used here. It’s a fairly boisterous dance, so it could have been more of a balance than a set as we know it; the language of the dance at the time was “set”, which could have covered a variety of interpretations. Remember that a set is simply two singles, which could still be skipped, and can go forwards (see Bobbing Joe and Once I Loved a Maiden Faire), rather than being on the spot.
In the third part, “Lead up again” presumably means all lead up a double and back, since 1C are already at the top; lead up just once, or twice, or thrice, and does any of the rest of the initial introduction follow? Probably not a lot because the first couple are going to be at the bottom very soon ready to start again; I’d go for just leading up twice (or thrice!)
In the final part (which isn’t present in Lovelace) the language has switched from arms to hands: “then turn your Wo. with your right hand, and the 2. with your left your Wo. falling as you turn, till you come to your place, then your Wo do the same, you following her, the rest doing these changes.” “The rest doing these changes” is a standard instruction to repeat the dance until everyone has had a go. What does “till you come to your place” mean though?
It could be describing the full man’s part, dancing with everyone in the set as in the previous figure until you’re right back in 1M place, then 1W does the same. The only major difference between this and the previous arming figure would be the use of hands instead of arms, and it’s the other hand this time. That works, provided that the women does fall down the set as the man is turning, as each turn tries to move him in the wrong direction. With arms it wouldn’t work well but hands just about give you enough space.
It could mean just coming back to where you started the turn; “your Wo do the same” could mean turn partner again, then someone on the other side? 1C turn once and a half by the right, then 1M turn 2W by the left, then 1C turn by the right again, then 1W turn 2M by the left, etc. to the bottom. This is quite nice, gets 1C to the bottom ready to start again, and avoids needing the two lines to be particularly close together as in a modern strip the willow. Sadly I can’t help feeling this is too much of a leap of faith though – “your place” is almost certainly the top.
So I think the third part is simply a repeat of the previous part, with hands instead of arms. And it's really fun to do and a great variation on a strip the willow!
The dance then repeats with a new top couple – so we’ve got to get first couple to the bottom. One solution is the 1C cast to the bottom while the rest lead up to start again, but note La Chasse, where 1C simply gallop to the bottom at the end – that’s even simpler. Or both strip down to the bottom at the same time if you want! However, because nothing is said, I'll go with the standard option of 1C cast to the bottom, for consistency with other dances.
Having seen this and the Lovelace version, which is described quite differently, it feels that this dance might be more of a concept than a prescribed set of moves:
- It starts with a lead up a double and back, and other introductory stuff led by 1C.
- Then 1M sets around the set, followed by his partner.
- Then 1M strips the willow around the set the same way, followed by his partner.
- Then variations if you feel like it.
- Insert extra swings, lead ups etc. for taste.
- Give everyone a go.
So if you want to experiment around the theme, I think it's legitimate to do so. Arguably we've been doing so ever since, although somewhere along the line we stopped setting around the set and started doing a double strip down the middle, although a single-handed strip around the set survives in dances such as Drops of Brandy.
With that ethos in mind I think it's reasonable to substitute the supplied tiny tune fragment for any other jigs you fancy – the musicians will be playing for a while. That said, I did do this in my 2016 Sidmouth workshop series twice (once Lovelace, once Playford) to the supplied tune, and the band (English Rebellion) were actively looking forward to doing it the second time – so if you have the improvisational nouse then it can work well. Avoid slip jigs though – while they might at first look attractive given the strip the willows, they don't work due to the other figures.
It's also worth comparing A Souldiers Life, also in first edition, which is another Strip the Willow dance.
Finally, if you want some more fun on the topic, have a look at this description of Drops of Brandy from 1745 (page 11) – a dance with setting done to a slip jig, contradicting what I've just said!