If you've no idea what English Country Dance is, and you live in Ottawa, why don't you just drop in to any Friday dance at the Mlacak Centre no charge! If you decide to give it a try we recommend that you plan to join one of our Dance Classes starting either in September or January at the Mlacak Centre in Kanata. The classes run for six weeks and if you join in September you will be ready for the annual Trip to Ottawa Dance Weekend held in November. There is no additional charge for the class.

Want to know more about the history of English Country Dance? here it is.

Frequently Asked Questions
click/tap a question

  • Right here at the club. Starting September and January, during the first half of certain Friday dances we break into two groups. We have a Dance Class for beginners, or anyone who would like to brush up partiular figures. At the same time there is a regular dance for those with more experience.

  • No, the first evening lessons and dance are free to newcomers. After that you pay for each Friday you dance until you have paid the membership fee, after that you dance the remainder of the year free. See Callendar page for more detail.

  • For most dances dress is casual. Layers may be a good idea, you might get quite warm in some of the more energetic dances! For occasional special events, such as the annual "Trip To Ottawa" Ball, we prefer period costume, but this is optional.

  • Any soft, light shoes will be fine to start. If you dance regularly you may wish to buy dance shoes, for example Jazz Oxford's, your dance instructor or most club members will help you with this.

  • All dances are first taught with a walk through and then a Caller will call each figure as the dance progresses. In ECD you always dance with a partner. We endeavor to pair inexperienced dancers with someone having more experience who will assist as necessary.

  • The most common English Country Dances are characterized by dancers first lining up in two facing rows. This is known as a longways set. "Minor" sets are identified, typically of two couples, the caller will say ("hands four").

    The caller will then instruct dancers to execute certain figures within your minor set. If the figure is uncommon then the caller will teach the figure first before teaching the entire dance.

    After each verse of music couples will have "progressed" ready to move into a new minor set with a new couple next to them.

  • You are welcome with or without a partner. It is traditional in English Country Dance to change partners after each dance.

  • Our club is primarily geared to adults. However, families with children able and willing to follow dance instructions are welcome.

    Children either not able or not willing to dance must be supervised for both the enjoyment and the safety of dancers. You and your partner or friend may choose to sit out alternate dances to supervise your child.

  • Some women, or men!, occasionally dance in the role of the opposite gender to even up the set. At most there will only be one person without a partner; often the caller will dance with that person after a verse or two. To avoid confusion thoes dancing in the role of the opposite gender will wear an identifying, as it is known, "gender bender" band.

  • No problem, you'll fit right in with experienced dancers also having similar problems differentiating left from right. Callers will help out by emphasizing, say, right shoulder whilst pointing to their left.

  • English Country Dancing and Contra Dancing are similar in many respects. Contra is arguably easier to learn and a lot more aerobic. We will occasionally dance a Contra dance. Gary Shapiro's definition

  • English Country Dancing and Scottish Country Dancing are similar in many respects. In English footwork tends to be less difficult and each dance is first taught before dancing.

Some Dance Basics

The picture below shows the start of a typical dance, actually a moment after it started, captured from a video of the Sun Assembly English Country Dancers's 2007 Spring DanceFest, Durham, North Carolina, led by Bruce Hamilton.

They are dancing Jack's Health, an Ottawa club favorite. The configuration is known as a duple minor longways set, probably the most common English Country Dance configuration. In a longways set dancers form a line of couples, any length, partners face each other. The top of the set is usually the end of the line where the band is and caller stands. Duple minor means that for each verse of the music two couples will dance together as a group. Such a group is known as a minor set. The longways set is divided into as many minor sets as possible, in this case four are visible. It is possible at the start one couple at the bottom (& top on the second verse) may be temporarily out and does not dance that verse (but read on to find out what you should do when you are out).

Annotated picture of longways set

All this and more will be covered in the Class.

The caller, who in a formal dance stands at the top, will address dancers using certain terms based on which position within their minor set they were at when the dance verse started. In the picture annotation is shown in different minor sets for clarity, but each position applies to each minor set.

Within each minor set the first man is nearest the top with the top to his left. Similarly his partner, the first woman, is nearest the top with the top to her right. They are the first couple The second couple, the second man and his partner, the second woman, stand just below the first man & woman respectively.

Within each minor set dancers on the same side of the set, i.e. facing the same way, are neighbors.

Dancers in opposite corners are referred to as follows: first corner means the first man and second woman; second corner means the second man and first woman.

What to Expect at a Dance

Each dance will first be taught. This is always the case, not just in the class. The teaching phase of a typical dance starts when the caller says "hands four". Pairs of couples join hands in fours strarting at the top. This allows each couple in the set to know whether they are first couple or second couple. Each verse of the dance comprises a sequence of figures. For example the caller may say "first couple back to back" or "second couple turn by the right hand". Some basic figures are listed in the box on the right.

Basic Figures

  • Arming
  • Back to Back
  • Cast
  • Circles
  • Corners Cross
  • Figure Eight
  • Gating
  • Gypsy
  • Heys
  • Lead down and back
  • Poussette
  • Set
  • Siding
  • Turn
  • Turn Single
  • Up a Double and Back

The best way to learn these basic figures is to come to one of our classes. These one hour classes are usually held over six weeks starting in September and January. The classes break out from our regular Friday Dance at the Mlacak Centre. After the class you will join other dancers for the rest of the evening.

In the classes you will learn most of the figures listed in the box culminating in some basic Heys - arguably the trickiest of all dance figures you are likely to come across. In addition to these 15 or so basic figures there are many more less common figures. Unlike the basics these unusual figures will be taught by the caller as a routine if they are needed for a particular dance. This will be the case even in the most formal events like our Trip-to-Ottawa Ball. Here is a fairly comprehensive list of figures (elements).

At the end of each verse of music dancers will have progressed meaning that each couple will now be next to a new couple with whom they form a new minor set. This may be easiest to understand by watching specific couples in the video.

For example, if you watch the first couple at the top (first man dressed in pale green & first woman dressed in pale yellow) you will see they move down away from the top as the dance progresses. If you watch a second couple, say the couple man in red, women in violet, you will see that they move up the set toward the top as the dance progresses. By the third verse these particular two couples have progressed so that they are dancing together in the same minor set.

On alternate verses there will be one couple out at the top and, or, at the bottom. When you are out at the top you will change from dancing in first couple position to second couple position. Vice versa at the bottom. In the video the you will see a couple out at the top during the second verse. In the first verse they danced in second position in their set, in the third verse they start to dance in first couple position.

Dance instructions for first and second couples are slightly different, so while you are out it is important to watch the couple next to you who are dancing the steps you will be dancing in the next verse. In simple dances there is not much difference between first and second couple instructions, but in complex dances you need to pay attention to this point.

That is more or less it, the rest is practice.

You may have noticed that the first "man" and second "man" in the video look a lot like women! It is often the case that the numbers of men and women dancing are not equal. In such cases some women will dance in the dance positions of men, or vice versa. The evening this video was shot it must have been ladies night since it appears that everyone dancing is in fact a women, however I like the video because of the view point which makes it easy to follow all dancers.

Common Variations

Improper Dance

In an improper dance, don't panic it's not what you think, the first couple (usually) in each minor set changes place before the dance starts. Position names remain the same so in an improper dance neighbors are now opposite gender and corners are same gender. A very important point, when you as a couple are out in and improper dance you must change places as well as paying attention to the couple ahead of you.

Triple Minor Dance

A triple minor dance is similar in most respects to a duple minor except that each minor set comprises three couples referred to as first couple, second couple & third couple. Corners refers to the extreme corners e.g. first man and third woman. To refer to the first man and second woman in this case the caller may say the person on your right diagonal.

Other Dance Formations

The dances described above are sometimes referred to as longways (for as many as will). Other Set dances are specifically for two couples, or three couples etc. up to five of more. In these there is no progression between sets only within the set (although this does not mean sets do not interact, read on). Other formations which may crop up every few weeks are Four couple square and Sicilian circle (any size).

This video shot at Sun Assembly English Country Dancers English Country Dance workshop session in Durham, North Carolina. They are dancing Trip to the Manors for a two couple set. You will see that the couples at which the camera is pointed never progress, they always dance together. Notice also how other sets on the floor are alternately oriented at right angles so that they do not bump when they lead out.

Trip to the Manors, is a type of dance often referred to as a USA dance. These dances have a 6 part structure as follows: Up-a-double; chorus; Siding; chorus; Arming; chorus. The three chorus parts are all the same, but this is not the case in all USA dances. Not all USA dances are so tricky so don't rush to sit out when the caller says the next dance is a USA dance. Rough timing of the parts in the video is: Starts with up-a-double; 1st chorus starts (set to partner) at 0:09, siding at 0:36; 2nd chorus at 0:42; arming at 1:06; and final chorus at 1:14.

Expect Almost Anything

There are many less common variations but the caller will emphasize these so again, no need to panic.

Right Diagonal

For example in Duke of Kent's Waltz you will turn, by right hand, the person on your right diagonal (see illustration to the left) who may be in an adjacent set. Or, in Sun Assembly (the dance not the club), mid verse, you will dance a star figure with folks in an adjacent minor set before finishing up the verse.

A Short History of English Country Dance

In the 16th century, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the court dances were complex and physically demanding. Desiring a more relaxing recreation, some court ladies adopted a few simple country dances from the common folk. Soon these dances were winning favour with the English court.

The English aristocracy continued to develop country dance, adding complexity, footwork and mannerisms. They elevated it to a refined social art form that thrived for over 250 years. Each generation of the 17th, 18th and early 19th century changed the dance to serve their social needs. By the end of the 18th century, the dance was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy, having been enthusiastically taken up by the growing middle class, including Jane Austen's family.

In her time, balls and assembly hall dances were essential for young unmarried people to meet and mingle. At these events, minuets and cotillions were also popular, but country dances were favoured because they were lively, relatively relaxed, and more sociable than other contemporary dance forms. It's these qualities that still make them enjoyable.

English country dance today

While there are groups that strive for historical accuracy, the majority of English country dance groups teach the revival style, which focuses on accessibility and sociability, without complex footwork or mannerisms. Ottawa English Country Dance Club practices the revival style. We enjoy English country dance from all eras, including an ever-growing body of contemporary dances. This creative new repertoire is proof that English country dance continues to be a living, changing social art form.