Contrary to popular misperception, barn dances in the UK are actually British, not American. The origins of dance are as old as the human race itself. Rooted in the ancient ceremonies of hunting, seed-time and harvest, dance was at first the privileged domain of the tribal priests, used as a means of worshipping the local gods and inviting blessings on the tribe. Dance soon became associated with family celebrations of weddings and birthdays, and because folk dance formations are based on the duple (couple) unit as the building block of each “set”, they were (and still are…..!) a great way to meet potential life partners.
The earliest dances were circles, hands joined together in an unbroken ring to represent the indivisibility of the tribe. Indeed, our English word “carol” comes from the older word carole, meaning a circle dance. So yes, it’s true, lots of our oldest carol tunes are actually dances, with words added later.
Folk dancing (“country dancing”) in earlier times wasn’t particularly genteel, since it was often accompanied by copious drinking, both by the assembled throng and also by the band who were providing the music. We know that dances occasionally ended in drunken fights because our English word “brawl” has its origin in the French word bransle (pronounced “brawl”), a rustic circle dance. In Medieval times, all classes of society enjoyed the lively estampie and bransle together, but by Tudor times, dancing styles had gradually diverged along class lines, with the aristocratic elite mastering the lively galliard and the elegant pavane as part of their education, whilst the common folk stuck to their simpler circle dances.
However, within those simpler dances of the common folk lurked a hoard of wonderful dance tunes and some complex and beautiful “figures” (movements within the dance set). Dance callers like me owe a huge debt of gratitude to a French priest by the name of Jehan Tabourot, who in 1589 published Orchésographie, the very first collection of traditional dances and their associated music.
That was followed in England in 1651 by the publication of The English Dancing Master by John Playford, the first collection of English traditional dances and their music. This was a sellout success, and further editions were published annually. Interestingly, its publication and huge popularity during the “Roundhead” government of Oliver Cromwell neatly disproves the idea that all Puritans were killjoys: indeed, Cromwell himself joined in the barn dance at the wedding feast of his daughter Frances in 1657!
During the twentieth century, the revival of interest in traditional dance and music, led by, amongst others, Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams, unearthed many hidden gems as an intrepid band of song and dance collectors travelled around England and the USA, carefully notating the music and the figures in each dance. It was largely through their efforts that the ancient English dance form known as morris dance, traditionally only ever danced by men, was preserved for future generations. Since the 1930s, under the auspices of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), based at Cecil Sharp House in London, a huge library of traditional dance was gradually assembled as a resource for the revival of local folk dance clubs between the 1950s and the present day.
American traditional dance was strongly rooted in the cultures of the migrants who first made their way to its eastern seaboard, so the British tradition of dance in America, most strongly embedded within the rural communities of the Appalachian Mountains, was influenced in other parts of the USA by dance forms from other European countries, the Caribbean and Latin America. Square dancing, originally a European invention, was put to good use in the freezing winters of the American continental interior: it required relatively little space and was a great way to keep warm! Line Dancing is an evolution from earlier European folk dance, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the individualised form of line dancing we know today was developed in the USA and spread to the UK. In that sense, line dancing isn’t strictly folk dancing.
In the twentieth century, children in most UK primary schools were taught “country dancing” as part of their school curriculum, sometimes as part of the PE syllabus and often as a lunchtime or after-school club. Schools would often join together in the summer term to organise Country Dance Festivals in their local area, devoting intensive practice to make sure that little Johnny in 5B really did know the difference between his left and right!
The benefits to children of learning country dancing were clearly evident to those teachers who were involved. Noticeable gains in physical co-ordination and general fitness went hand in hand (literally) with improvements in social skills and the small courtesies which underpin social interactions. Most intriguingly to those who observed the process were the step-changes in children’s confidence and alertness which flowed from their listening to the pulse of traditional dance music and following set sequences of movement in harmony with the other dancers, and yes, the observable gains in their ability to concentrate better on reading and writing. Needless to say, no research was done, and none of that anecdotal evidence counted for anything when the educational establishment imposed the National Curriculum in the late 1980s and music, dance, art and creativity slowly began to be squeezed out of the school day.
With the gradual relaxation of the National Curriculum in recent years, some primary and preparatory schools have begun to reintroduce country dancing as a school activity, but many have now lost the few remaining teachers still able to teach it. That’s one of the reasons why Barn Dances for Everyone is helping schools to re-establish Country Dance Clubs, training teachers to pass on the knowledge and delight of traditional folk dance to the next generations.