When I was a lad, country dancing was still on the school curriculum and barn dances were all the rage. At some point since then they seemed to fall out of favour. Except they didn’t! They were rebranded ceilidhs and are currently enjoyed by the masses all around the country if not the world.
We can thank one man for this popularity: Cecil Sharp, a musician and teacher who in the early 1900’s travelled the UK and overseas noting down these traditional dances for posterity. For more on Cecil Sharp visit the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
Not surprisingly prior to this, the history of folk dancing quite sketchy but has probably been a form of social entertainment ever since man discovered that his feet tapped in time to a tune he had just made with two sticks!
Folk or country dances are historically linked to the location in which they were danced, each region or even village may have its own local repertoire of dances, for instance Scottish dancing and American square dancing look quite different at first glance but elements of both occur in a modern ceilidh.
The term Ceilidh (or Ceili) comes from Gaelic and literally means ‘party’ but is nowadays used to indicate a folk dance party and is thought of by many as a more funky upbeat version of the rather ‘twee’ country dance although this distinction is academic.
The modern ceilidh is a social dance party incorporating many features of traditional folk dancing from around the world particularly England, Scotland and the USA. Each dance works to a pattern of moves (called ‘figures’) led by a ‘caller’ who saves the dancers having to remember each figure although a hundred years or so ago people were expected to know what to do without a caller – they still are sometimes in Scotland!
The term Barn Dance is a poor description since they rarely occur in barns nowadays. It has the feel of a more raucous rowdy event possibly with an American twist, or is that a Hoedown? American Hoe Downs are predominantly square dances with the caller singing out each figure in time to the music. Hoedowns are also closely related to American Contra dancing.
If this wasn’t enough to contend with history also takes us down other similar but distinct paths including Morris dancing, Sword or Rapper dancing, Clog, Step and Bacca pipes dance.