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about our Group

     The Williamsburg Heritage Dancers were established in the early 1970s by the late Leland (“Lee”) and Gail Ticknor, who had their eyes on the upcoming Bicentennial of American Independence. They wanted to teach people in the Williamsburg area some of the dances that were popular on the eve of the Revolution, known as English Country Dances. The Ticknors made special alterations to their house’s basement on Indian Springs Road so as to accommodate dance classes on Tuesday evenings. The Ticknors instituted an annual George Washington Ball in late February or early March (sometimes attended by as many as 230 dancers from all corners of North America!), and usually a dance workshop led by a top English Country Dance teacher from outside the area in January. The Ticknors, who were exceptionally generous with their time and expertise, assisted several other groups in establishing English Country Dance clubs, including at Norfolk, Richmond, Staunton, and Louisa, Virginia, and also in North Carolina.

Square Dance at time of Williamsburg founding
Square dance at the time of the foundingof Williamsburg in 1699.
(comes from Delft tiles)

As part of their outreach, the Ticknors worked with their best dancers to offer a costumed performance group. This group has successfully danced hundreds of times for special events and conferences, both in Williamsburg and further afield. The performance group has been hired to dance as far away as Blue Ridge GA, the Cumberland Gap, Washington DC, Stratford Hall Plantation, and Virginia Beach VA. The performance group has developed programs of dances reflecting various periods in history, including dances known in 1607 at the founding of Jamestown, the dances of 1699 at the founding of Williamsburg, and the dances of 1776 and the Revolutionary War era.

   When the Ticknors retired and moved to Staunton, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in 1988, the Williamsburg Heritage Dancers moved their weekly Tuesday evening dances to the ballroom at historic Newport House, a Bed & Breakfast at 710 South Henry Street. The post of Dance Master was assumed by Louis Vosteen, assisted by John Millar and others. On a typical Tuesday, from ten to forty or more dancers, including beginners, can be found, ranging in age from six to 86.
Some are locals, some regularly drive up to 90 minutes to be there, and others from great distances are on a vacation in Williamsburg. The dancing attracts college students and graduate students at the College of William and Mary and at other regional universities.

   The Williamsburg Heritage Dancers are a Center of the Country Dance & Song Society (based in Haydenville, Massachusetts), which has coordinated English Country Dance for North America for almost a century (CDSS also coordinates much of the contra-dancing, traditional square dancing, and ritual dancing, such as Morris, Long-Sword, and Rapper Sword). Similar coordination for English Country Dance and the others in the British Isles is offered by the English Folk Dance & Song Society (based in London).

 Tuesday evening dance class
  If you’d like to dance with us, come to 710 South Henry Street any Tuesday evening at 8.00 – no need to telephone in advance. Come alone, come with a friend, come with ten friends; beginners and spectators are welcome. Parking is on Mimosa Drive just south of Newport House; signs there say that parking is reserved for residents, but on Tuesdays we have special permission from the Police to park on Mimosa Drive.

 English Counrty Dancing

  English Country Dancing
is believed to be the oldest form of folk dance still being danced in the world. Its origins can be traced back at least as far as 1480, or many years before Columbus sailed to America (the date of the tune of “Sellenger’s Round,” a circular or maypole dance that uses a variation on the hymn tune “All glory, laud and honor to thee redeemer King”). Many names of English Country Dances appear in sixteenth and early seventeenth century literature (including in Shakespeare), and many of their tunes appear in manuscript and published sources of the period, but the earliest surviving set of dance instructions appears on a 1648 manuscript, and the earliest published source is John Playford’s The English Dancing Master of 1650-1.
John Playford Woodcut
The English Dancing Master cover
Title page of John Playford’s first book of dances.

  The earliest dances seem to have been in the form of large circles, suitable for dancing outdoors. Related to them were circles intended for three couples and four couples (the latter being the ancestors of modern square dances), and petty-squares for two couples. Early dancers also danced nonprogressive longways dances for three or four couples, and progressive longways dances for as many couples as were interested. English great houses of 1560 to 1650 developed long picture galleries to accommodate these longways dances.
Longways Dance around 1607
Longways dance from the period of the founding of Jamestown in 1607. Dancing with swords can be dangerous!

   From the scant surviving information, most of the folk dances of Europe were so simple as to be boring. By contrast, the dances danced at court were so difficult that only the leisure classes could afford the time to learn them. English Country Dance stands in the middle between those extremes. It is simple enough that most people have little trouble learning enough to enjoy themselves, and yet challenging enough to hold the dancers’ interest. As a result, English Country Dance spread rapidly throughout Europe and the European colonies around the world, displacing the indigenous folk dances. For example, a 1770 manuscript from Mexico City, discovered in the late twentieth century, gives both tunes and instructions for many well known English dances.

   English Country Dance was one of the most popular forms of recreation in colonial America, as it was accessible to everyone from the governor and gentry (like George Washington) to slaves. In the winter, many houses with larger rooms danced almost every evening, because the heat of dancers warms a house better than any fireplace. Virginians in particular were described by outsiders as being “immoderately fond of dancing.” A scornful Presbyterian tutor on a Virginia plantation noted that the passage of a hurricane just before a scheduled ball failed to halt the event; “Blow high, blow low,” he wrote, “Virginians are of genuine blood: they will dance or die!”

Square Dance woodcut with Duchess
Square dance or “Cotillon” at the time of the American Revolution. The woman in front is the famous Duchess of Devonshire, as in the movie “The Duchess.”
   By the eighteenth century, most dances in English America were either longways for three couples or “for as many as will.” This was reflected in the longways proportions of the rooms set aside for dancing. However, when the French picked up English dances late in the seventeenth century, they particularly liked the square dances, which they called cotillons -- just at the time that the square form was dying out in English-speaking lands. When French troops came to America during the War of Independence, they taught their cotillons to enthusiastic American dancers, and this is reflected in the square architecture of dance rooms included in many post-Revolutionary mansions.
    When the French Revolution erupted, many of the French aristocracy fled to England and America, where they found they had to work at a job for the first time. They often settled on teaching students to play musical instruments, and supplemented that with teaching dancing. However, they elected to make the dances much more complicated than they had previously been, so English Country Dancing faded from the scene in only a few years, to be replaced by the waltz and the polka. Country Dancing continued at a quieter level in remote areas of northern New England and the Appalachians, and in the West Country in England. British Troops Dancing in 1777
Folk art of British troops dancing
a longways dance in Philadelphia in 1777.
On the eve of the First World War, English folklorist Cecil Sharp rediscovered both the surviving dancing in remote areas and some of the many published dance books of the eighteenth and late seventeenth centuries, and he started the revival of the dance on both sides of the Atlantic. English Country Dance groups are now active from coast to coast in the USA and Canada, and many of these are listed at www.cdss.org. Since about 1950, dancers have written numerous new dances in the style of historic dances. Our own Gail Ticknor, Lou Vosteen, John & Cathy Millar, and Jenna Simpson have written several, some of which have become favorites around the world.

  As a result of extensive research by experts like Kate van Winkle Keller, we know quite a bit about dance in early America. The earliest manuscript (now published) contains [somewhat inaccurate] directions for 27 dances that New York lawyer James Alexander was learning in 1730. We know the names of three dances danced at a Christmas ball at Newport, RI in 1753, The Faithful Shepherd, Arcadian Nuptials, and Pease Straw. The dance The White Cockade is recorded to have been danced at the celebration for the capture of Pittsburgh in 1758, two years before it was published in London. African-born slave Newport Gardner wrote music and dance instructions in Newport, RI; at least two of them, The Seaside (Bride, 1768), and The Bill of Rights (Thompson), were published in London. About the same time, a manuscript book of French-American dances appeared at Trois Rivieres, Quebec. Hezekiah Cantelo published a book in London in 1785 of dances danced in America by British troops. The earliest published book of dances in America was by John Griffiths at New Haven, CT in 1786, but all copies have been lost. An expanded version was published at Providence in 1788, A Collection of the newest and most fashionable Country Dances and Cotillions, the oldest surviving published American dance book; only a single copy is known. The earliest published illustration of a country dance in America (Massachusetts, 1788) shows six boys dancing around a maypole, which shows that this form of dance was still being done some three centuries after it was devised.

Dancing around the May-Pole
Six boys dancing around a maypole, published in Massachusetts in 1788, is the oldest American published illustration of a country dance. It shows that the circular form of dance was still popular three centuries after it had been devised.

The title page of John Griffiths’ second book of country dances, published at Providence, RI in 1788, the oldest surviving published American book of country dances. A single copy is known.

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