English / American dancing - a comparison

Why this page?

This page grew out of a number of discussions on the newsgroup rec.folk.dancing and the English Country Dance discussion list. Dancers in the USA were interested in the dance scene in England - particularly the English ceilidh scene, dancers in the UK were interested in the dance scene in the USA. There has been a steadily increasing exchange of dancers across the Atlantic in recent years so I thought I would put together a few notes on what a dancer from one country might expect in the other.

The idea of this page is to briefly compare the different dance scenes, it doesn't attempt to give a full description of any of them. Links are provided to other pages if you want to explore further.

It is impossible to convey the atmosphere and feeling of a dance in words. If you really want to know what a particular dance form feels like there is no substitute for getting yourself to the appropriate country and taking part in a few dances.

What gives me the right to produce this page?

Absolutely nothing. This is the web and vanity publishing at its cheapest :-) I'm not trying to grind any particular axe, just to answer some frequently asked questions.

I would claim that I have a certain amount of experience which qualifies me to write about a number of different dance forms. I have danced, called and played extensively in England and have danced and called in Seattle and Boston. I am very aware that the U.S.A. is a big country and I have only experienced a small fraction of the dancing available. If there is something different happening in your dance community that is not reflected in these pages please email me.


Any document like this will have to make some generalisations and will not therefore apply to all situations. I have tried to give a rough average of what one might expect. Regional differences are legion, both in the UK and the USA. Treat each sentence as though it starts with (at least) one of the phrases "Generally", "Typically", "On average" or "In my opinion".

Many thanks to Karen Anderson, Philippe Callens, Chris Dixon, Dan Pearl, Philip Rowe, Hugh Stewart and Alan Winston for comments and feedback. Any mistakes are mine. Please tell me if you think I have misrepresented any section of the dance world.

Just for the avoidance of doubt, let me say that I do not wish to be rude or offensive to anyone. I have danced and enjoyed all of the dance forms listed here. If you feel that I have failed in this goal, please tell me.

This page does not attempt to cover the Scottish, International, Line Dance or MWSD (modern western square dance, also known as contemporary square dance) scenes. This is partly because I'm not really qualified to write about them and partly because they exist as their own sub-cultures, pretty much completely separate from the English and American dance sub-culture.

This page is also not concerned with the "one night stand" scene. By this I am referring to dances for non-dancers, maybe a wedding, PTA (parent teacher association) or church social event. I am restricted this page to dance scenes for people who do this as a regular hobby rather than as a once a year event.

When reading the descriptions you might well find something that doesn't appeal to you. I know that some people will be horrified at the thought of a dance with alcohol, I also know that some people will be horrified at the thought of a dance without alcohol. I have a pet theory that there are people involved in the dance scene in the U.K. who would not be involved in the nearest equivalent dance scene in the U.S. and vice versa. Although something may not be to your taste the fact that a particular dance scene exists at all means that it is to someone else's taste.


One of the problems with trying to do a comparison between the UK and the US is that the dance scenes are split slightly differently. In the UK it is common to do squares, contras and Playford dances in the same evening. In the US, this happens less frequently - there are separate dance scenes for each type of dance. Although there are people who attend all forms of dance in the US there are also quite a number who only attend one form and do not wish to attend the other forms (search DejaNews for any rec.folk-dancing thread on squares v contras if you wish to see how vehemently some people do not want to do other dance forms).

In the US it is quite possible to dance exclusively contras and never dance squares or Playford. This might just be possible in the UK but would be far more difficult. The easiest way for UK readers to imagine the split is to compare it to the difference between the international and "English" dance scenes in the UK. It is quite possible to only do international dances or to never do international dances.

Linguistic note

In the U.S. the term "English Country Dance" (ECD) is a catch all term encompassing the following:

By and large there is no ceilidh scene in the U.S.

Other similar pages

Webfeet: What is English Ceilidh? A comparison of English ceilidh dancing and other dance forms

Colin Hume's advice to Americans coming to England

England - Dance scene

General comments

I am using the phrase "dance scene" to cover Playford (what Americans would know as ECD) as well as contras and squares. I do not mean to imply that the ceilidh scene (or any other scene) does not count as "dance", the term is in reasonably common use so I am using it as an aid to communication. You often hear reference to "dancer's dances" and "dances for experienced dancers".

The dance scene revolves around dance clubs. These meet regularly, usually weekly although sometime fortnightly or monthly. Most evenings are led by a caller from the club with recorded music. Some clubs have live music regularly or occasionally, some run almost entirely using recorded music. In general a different caller will call at each meeting. Clubs usually have a nucleus of callers who are members of the club, and will sometimes book outside callers.

As well as their regular meetings, many clubs run a number of Saturday night dances. Some run one a month, some run one a year depending on the level of support they can attract. The Saturday night dances usually involve live music and an outside caller.

Clubs usually dance a mixture of dance styles - Playford, American contras and American squares, the exact mixture will be determined by the caller. Some callers have biases in one direction or another, some callers present a mixed program. This is one of the big differences between the English scene and the American scene, far more "mixing" of styles in a single evening. Whilst it's quite possible to dance nothing but Playford in England, and probably just about possible to do nothing but contras or squares it's pretty rare.

I feel that there are advantages and disadvantages to this lack of a split. I like dancing and calling a mixture of styles - I get to pick the 'best' (in my opinion) dances from each style. However, there are times when I'm worried that we are in danger of just creating a mid atlantic 'mush' of American and English dances and music without a clear distinction between each style.

The dances

The dances are usually walked - there is little stepping. One danger of walking dances is that the walk is not a "dance walk" but the dreaded "Playford plod", often accompanied by a po-faced ( "solemn-faced, humourless" - OED ) expression.

Contras tend to be those with fewer swings in. English dancers are less "swing crazy" than American dancers.

Contra dances are usually done 7 to 10 times through. A three couple set dance will be done 3 or 6 times through. Many (although by no means all) callers will call two dances in the same formation, then have a break of four or five minutes before doing the next set of two.

The dancers

Most of the clubs and dances I go to have very few young people dancing at them. This is a vicious circle that shows no signs of being broken at the moment. Most of the under 40s are involved in the ceilidh scene rather than the dance scene.

Many clubs are very couple based. People come along with their partner and dance with their partner all evening. It can be much more difficult for a stranger to come into the club and dance than with dances in the US.

The bands

Bands are often accordion led. A typical three piece line up is accordion, fiddle and guitar. Bands are expected to have a repertoire of tunes including most of the standard Playford dances, a selection of tunes from modern composers ( Pat Shaw, Colin Hume, Fried de Metz Herman etc. ) and also a wide variety of jigs and reels covering English, Scottish, Irish, American and French Canadian styles. This means that the bands usually work from printed music, although the better musicians will use this only as a guide and improvise arrangements on the fly.

Bands are also expected to be able to include new tunes in their repertoire at short notice.

Bands will usually provide their own P.A.

Suggested recordings

Tally Ho - The Cloverleaf Collection

Chris Dewhurst and Sue Stapledon - Playford Pops

Arden Folk - Sounds like Arden Folk (now reissued on CD as Arden Folk Augmented)

The Falconers - The Falconers play for CDM 7

The Ranchers - Regale, Rags to Rituals, Shaw to Shaw, 38 Years On

England - Ceilidh scene

General comments

Probably the nearest equivalent in terms of atmosphere to an English ceilidh would be an American contra dance. This is slightly odd because they are very different in many other ways - most English ceilidhs involve alcohol and the music and dances being performed are very different. Perhaps the major thing they have in common is the age and type of people they attract. This leads to a similar energy level.

There are a few ceilidh series e.g. Wigan, Coventry and the M27 Megabops, and a number of ceilidh clubs. Also several of the festivals have late night ceilidhs - Sidmouth and Chippenham are particularly good in this respect.

The dances

Often traditional or traditional style English dances as found in the early Community Dance Manuals. The number of couple dances depends on the caller and the band, for example Token Women do a lot of continental style bourees.

The dances are usually danced with some sort of stepping - a skip step for the faster dances, polka or hornpipes for the slower dances so that they are still "high energy" dances even if the tempo is down a little. Typically the dances are done without letup. Usually there is one break in the middle of the evening just to let everyone cool off a little. In general anyone who wants a drink will skip a dance and wander off to the bar ( there is almost always a bar ).

Dances that might be done

The dancers

Much more of a mixed age range than for the "dance" scene, and not so couple based. At one point there was a very definite split between the two scenes, however a number of people from the dance scene have started going to ceilidhs as well.

The bands

It is difficult to generalise about ceilidh bands because they are extremely varied. Piano accordions are rare, melodeons are much more common. Many of the bands have a very electric / rock line up including electric guitars, electronic keyboards (in general not being used as piano substitutes) and drum kits.

On the whole the bands tend to work without music and have a smaller repertoire than the average dance band. They also tend to have more members.

Suggested recordings

Peeping Tom - A Sight for Sore Eyes

Banjax - Chaos in One

Tickled Pink

Florida - Splitting the Night

Token Women - The Rhythm Method


Webfeet Information about folk dancing in England with a particular bias towards English ceilidh

The English ceilidh mailing list

U.S.A. - English dance scene

General comments

Often organised as dance series, usually at a regular time and place (e.g. first Friday). Sometimes the same band and caller perform at all events, sometimes there are a mixture of bands and callers.

The dances

Generally 17th and 18th century dances, or modern dances written in that style. Modern composers such as Pat Shaw, Fried de Metz Herman, Gary Roodman and Colin Hume are popular. Most dances will have their own tune.

Although the dances are walked, the recommended American Playford style has the weight forward, stays up on the balls of the feet, and puts a fair amount of energy into the dancing - a far cry from the Playford Plod.

The emphasis is on lyrical flowing dances with very little stepping. CDM style dances crop up occasionally depending on the tastes of the caller.

The dancers

A mixed age range. The dancers do not overlap much with contra dancers. It seems to me that there is a distinct emphasis on keeping contra dancing and ECD very separate and very different dance experiences.

The bands

Usually piano and fiddle based, and often with some sort of wind instrument - flute or recorder. When playing for Playford, my feeling is that US bands go for a more lyrical sound (although without being staid), whereas UK bands have more of a "driving" approach. My feeling is that American dancers and bands also have far more respect for Playford dances and tunes than UK bands. Perhaps because it's "our" tradition we feel we can take more liberties with it.

Suggested recordings

Bare Necessities - Take a Dance, Nightcap

Hold the Mustard - It's Easy ...


ECD mailing list The home page for the English Country Dance mailing list

CDSS The Country Dance and Song Society

U.S.A. - Contra dance scene

General comments

Organised as dance series in much the same way as the ECD scene. As mentioned under the English ceilidh section I think that the US contra dance scene is closest in overall feel to the UK ceilidh dance scene, although the lack of alcohol at most contra dances is a major difference.

The dances

Mostly "longways-for-as-many-as-will" contra dances with a few sicilian circles thrown in. Typically waltzes or hambos will be used to start and finish each half, and may also be used to provide breaks in the evening. Some dance series are tolerant of squares and dances in non-contra formations which use contra dance moves (e.g. triplets). Contras tend to include lots of swings.

Dances are done 18 or 20 times through and the break between dances lasts only long enough to change partners. The norm is for everyone to change partners after every dance - the scene is definitely not couple based. This makes it much easier for a single person to come in and dance, however it can make finding a partner for the next dance something of a rush. In some areas this problems is exacerbated by people "booking ahead", sometimes three or four dances, sometimes by asking one of their corners in one dance to be their partner for the next.

Reels seem to be more popular than jigs. Some of the older contras have set tunes ( e.g. Chorus Jig, Hull's Victory ), most of the modern contras do not have set tunes.

The dancers

There is a wide spread of ages. Perhaps most similar to the English ceilidh scene in this respect. As I have already mentioned, it is far less couple based than the English dance scene. In the U.S. it is more common for a woman to ask a man to dance than in the U.K.

There is some limited overlap with the ECD scene, however the two dance scenes provide very different dance experiences so a lot of people only do one or the other.

The bands

Often fiddle led and often with a piano providing the rhythm. (English bands seem to have most of the accordionists, American bands seem to have most of the pianists). Not usually working from music.

Suggested recordings

Yankee Ingenuity - Kitchen Junket, Heatin' up the Hall

Wild Asparagus - Music From a Little Known Planet, Tone Roads, Call of the Wild, From the Floor Up

Nightingale - Sometimes When the Moon is High

Rodney and Randy Miller - New England Chestnuts

Old New England

Suggested books of dances

Larry Jennings - Zesty Contras

Don Armstrong - Caller Teacher manual


CDSS (The Country Dance and Song Society)

Kiran Wagle's page - almost everything you could ever want to know about contra dancing

NEFFA (The New England Folk Festival Association)

Gary Shapiro's "What is contra dancing" page.

U.S.A. - Square dance scene

General comments

As mentioned at the top of this page I am not going to try and cover the MWSD scene. The intention of this section is to comment on the traditional squares scene.

Unfortunately, I am completely unqualified to write anything about this so I'm not even going to try. If anyone would like to write a section or supply me with a link to another page I'd be very happy to include it.


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This page last modified 16 January 2005