Country Dance, a traditional form of folk and aristocratic dance of the British Isles, from which many variations developed. Flirtatious and social, it is danced by a “set”, or group of couples, who execute various patterns or figures with one another. A set can have various formations. In longways set partners face each other in parallel lines of men and women. A Sicilian circle is a circle of foursomes, a couple facing couple. Miscellaneous groupings of two, three, and four couples also exist, the most common being a square of four couples. A few old rounds (couples in a simple circle) also survive. Most country dances subdivide the set into “minor sets” of two or three couples, for whom the figures are designed. By the end of the overall pattern, each leading couple has exchanged places with another couple, and the dance repeats until all couples have had a chance to be leaders.
Country dances, although known earlier, were first printed in The English Dancing Master (1650; 18th and lasted., 1728) by the English musician John Playford. By 1700 English dancing had become a European fashion, and continental forms acquired a French name, contredanse, and more intricate footwork. One French dance in square formation, the cotillion, gave rise to the quadrille, which, like other contredanses, became the vogue in England and America.
In Scotland, longways dances, usually for four or five couples, remained popular, gaining prescribed footwork and styling. Similar set dances flourished in Ireland, but in Wales religious reforms largely eradicated traditional dance. In the United States, longways dances, called contra dances or contras, persisted in New England. One more widespread contra, the Virginia reel, is the United States version of Sir Roger de Coverley, one of the few older English dances to survive the onslaught of the contredanse. In Appalachia, a circular, fast-paced, progressive dance for an indefinite number of couples developed, called a running set or Appalachian square. In the West and in Canada the quadrille absorbed other influences and evolved into the square dance. All three American forms survived into the 21st century.