English Country Dance (ECD) is a form of folk dance with origins which date back to at least the 16th century. If you've ever seen a period production of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice or Sense & Sensibility, you probably know what English Country Dance looks like. The dance form is well known for being both sprightly and majestic, with dancers performing to a wide assortment of music and using a variety of dance styles. Although English Country Dance might look intimidating, it is actually quite easy (and fun) to learn.
The roots of English Country Dance lie in the court dances of 16th century England. These dances, in turn, were influenced by French court dances, and by earlier versions of gentrified dance in England. The dances and music would have trickled down, first to gentry who attended court dances and slowly out into the countryside, where they would have been performed in rural manors and later at festivals. English Country Dance was practiced all the way through the Regency era, when Jane Austen wrote her famous and oft-adapted novels.
In order to perform English Country Dance, a group of people is required. Depending on the dance, the group may form lines, circles, or squares. Once the music begins, the group is off on a dance. Some dances are individually “called,” with a caller indicated which step should be taken next. Other dances follow an established set of calls, allowing people to focus on enjoying the dance and the music without needing a caller.
Many people consider English Country Dance a social dance, because it encourages interactions with a wide number of people. As the dance progresses, people rotate partners, and conversation is conventional. The dance was also associated with social events during its heyday, and modern English Country Dance tends to accompany festive occasions and conferences, with some participants dressing up in period costume and engaging in other reenactment activities. It is also interesting to watch English Country Dance, although there is a danger of being pulled in by exuberant dancers.
If you are interested in learning English Country Dance, many communities offer lessons as well as group gatherings and festivals. Since the dance is easy to learn, many English Country Dance societies encourage people to just show up at a regular meeting. A small fee may be requested to cover the rental of a space and for live music, and typically any type of casual dress is acceptable, although people are certainly welcome to dress up. People of all ages can enjoy English Country Dance, along with offshoots like square dancing and morris dancing.