Is it English Country Dance, Ceilidh or a Barn Dance?

English social dance has something of a nomenclature problem, which comes from its long history and modern misconceptions or assumptions when using historical terms.

Country dance

The longest lived term is Country Dance. It is the term used in the earliest dance manuals or descriptions (16th/17th century), in the diaries of contemporaries like Pepys who described Country Dance at the royal court. It is the term used in dance books and music books throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and by authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

When Cecil Sharpe* published collections of dances he’d collected in the first quarter of the 20th century, he titled them as collections of Country Dances.

Country Dance is a term that was attached early on in an age where the vast majority of the population lived in the countryside, and to be “simple country folk” (rather than the landed gentry) meant to be of lower social classes. The dances originally came from those lower social classes. This probably went along with some upper/middle class idealism about the bucolic peasant life; so “Country Dance” was coined and the name stuck.

I somehow doubt that those original peasant folk would ever have coined “Country Dance” (why would they?). It was the middle/upper classes who invented the term and then conveyed it by printing and buying the books of Country Dances and the Country Dancing instructionals.

I think that for Sharpe the term “Country Dance” was probably a confirmation of his belief that folk song, music and dance was something unique to country or peasant populations. Something wiped out by the advent of towns, cities and industrialisation. However, this ignores the long history of Country Dance in those very towns and cities and the publications of new Country Dances and music for them right into the industrial age.

English ceilidh

In the modern age the term “Country Dance” looks like it is describing an anachronism. People don’t understand where the term comes from, and are often unfamiliar with the dances. They hear “country dance” and make a number of off-putting assumptions.

A similar thing was happened in Scotland with Country Dancing, but they were able to appropriate a word to use instead … the Gaelic word, “ceilidh”.

Sometime in the 1960s, English dancers and dance organisers also began to use the term “ceilidh”. By the 1970s it was commonplace; even more so today.

Ceilidh is a Gaelic word that originally meant a party where singing, story telling and dancing took place. Incidentally, it would be highly unlikely that the dancing would be of the Country Dance type, but step dancing.

btw. There are many in Scotland who stick strongly with “Country Dance” as a term; for example in the “Royal Scottish Country Dance Society” (RSCDS).

There was a subtext to the rising use of the word “ceilidh.” The world of country dancing and folk dancing had come to be seen by many as a bit old fashioned and stuffy. Still linked to the world of Cecil Sharpe and folk dance clubs where people were not encouraged to step the dances in a lively way (as they were meant to be), but tended to walk (pejoratively, to plod) round increasingly complex modern figures. Ceilidh and specifically English ceilidh were a reaction to this with simpler (often older) dances with livelier music and stepping.

English dancers are sometimes accused of appropriating the word ceilidh. However, Scottish dancers can be accused of this too since (as mentioned above) “ceilidh” is not a word from the English language and didn’t originally mean a type of dance, or an evening of country dancing.

Irish country dancing exists too. It has the same origins as English country dancing, however it is now often called Ceili Dancing; with “ceili” being cognate with the Scottish Gaelic “ceilidh.”

Barn dance

Now a quick side-step into the “barn dance.”

Again, “barn dance” is not an English term, it is North American. I’ll not go into the history of the term, but it has mistakenly been attached to English country dance. In the 1950s, Princess Elizabeth visited Canada and was filmed doing square dancing at what they term in Canada a “barn dance.” That meant a rise in popularity for square dancing at “barn dances” in Britain; and English country dancing somehow got stuck with that term too.

If people want to call their dance event a “barn dance”, I will not usually comment, but personally, I try to avoid “barn dance” as it just creates confusion with people thinking we’re doing American squares and then turning up in check shirts and “cowboy” hats (although the Princess actually danced in Canada).

Square dances are in fact Quadrille dances, of which there are still quite a few we dance in England, and Quadrilles are a 19th century development of country dances into small square sets of four couples.

Andrew Wigglesworth
Melodeon and whistle player

Slightly obsessed with playing traditional music.