Country and Folk Dances

Country dances have always been enjoyed by all classes of people in both formal and informal settings. First refined by the English, country dances arranged people in geometric patterns.  Quadrilles arranged couples in a rectangular formation, a pattern that led to the square dances that became common in the American West.  Folk dances were brought to America by immigrants from varied regions of the world.  In these unceremonious dances, enthusiasm and energy, rather than choreography and etiquette, prevailed.

Winterthur Library, Dance, Col200_63x71 new

Sir Foplings Airs
England; about 1740
Watercolor and iron gall ink
63×71 Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library

This English country dance “in Vogue and performed at Court the year 1710” shows an early, formal version with five couples in rows moving to the tunes of musicians stationed in a gallery above. The written instructions at the bottom describe the proper way to pinch snuff and fix one’s hair during the dance.

Winterthur Library, Dance, 1981.0057

Winterthur Library, Dance, 1981.0057_detailThe Merry Villagers (with detail)
Etched and engraved by William Woollett
London, England: Laurie & Whittle, 1794
Ink on wove paper
1981.57 Museum purchase

Printed textile (fragment)
Winterthur Library, Dance, 1969.8110.002_detailEngland or Scotland; 1780-90
1969.8110.2 Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont

Proper formation and apparel were not considerations for the people seen on these two objects. Differing from the formality of dancers in Sir Fopling’s Airs, they enjoyed the activity outdoors unencumbered by rules and regulations.


An Analysis of Country Dancing
Thomas Wilson
London, England: Printed by W. Calvert, 1808
GV1763 W75S Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Library

Thomas Wilson also authored manuals for other dances besides the waltz like this volume on country dances expanded and reissued several times. His simple diagram explains a reel, a spirited dance popular in the early 1800s, with blue circles standing for gentlemen and red diamonds for women.


Winterthur Library, Dance,Col265_59x9-175aWinterthur Library, Dance,Col265_59x9-175b


Instructions for country dances
Felix Dominy
East Hampton, New York; about 1830
59×9.175 Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library

Even though country dances were easier to learn than round dances, clock and watchmaker Felix Dominy wrote instructions for dancing hornpipes, reels, and morningstars, common examples of the former.

Winterthur Library, Dance, RW77

Down Home Rag
Chicago, Illinois: Will Rossiter, 1913
RW77 Winterthur Archives, Winterthur Library

Many dances were held in informal settings, such as the barn seen here, and at country fairs and quilting parties. Square dances were popular on the western frontier, where a shortage of instructors and manuals led to “callers” who shouted direction to dancers.

Winterthur Library, Dance, Col121_73x319-78_Russian

Winterthur Library, Dance, Col121_73x319-78_SpanishPolly’s Paper Playmates
Boston, Massachusetts: Boston Post, 1911
73×319.78 Maxine Waldron Collection of Children’s Books and Paper Toys, Winterthur Library

Paper dolls showing ethnic dances and costumes from countries worldwide exposed children to diverse cultures. The colorful costumes surely appealed to viewers.

Winterthur Shall We Dance