English ceremonial and social forms
What constitutes traditional dance, or folk dance as it is frequently termed, has been the subject of recent debate in the United Kingdom (see Buckland 1983). Yet whatever the specific historical, cultural and socio-economic factors which have contributed towards its construction, a repertoire of English traditional dance has been recognized and practised as such since the early 1900s.
This canon of English traditional dance was primarily defined by Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) and consists of Morris, Sword and Country Dances. During the twentieth century, the repertoire has been extended, yet the criteria established by Sharp have been principally operative in the inclusion of any new dances.
A loose definition which might identify this repertoire is that its dances may be distinguished from other forms of dance by the fact that they have been handed down from generation to generation without close reference to national or international standards.
Traditional dances may begin their existence in the fashionable ballroom or, indeed, in the theatre. In many cases their origin cannot be discovered. However, the task of the student of the history of traditional dance is not to concentrate solely on origins but to extend present knowledge of the nature of the form, its context and transmission in the past.
Following Sharp’s categorization, the traditional dances of England can be broadly classified into two major groups: those dances which are executed at particular times of the year in a performer/audience context, and those which are not tied to the calendar and are performed mainly for recreational purposes. The former group are referred to here as ceremonial dances and the latter as social dances.
Ceremonial dancing in England at the time of Sharp was traditionally most frequently performed by men, although there were notable exceptions, especially in the north-west region. Morris and Sword dancing (see Cawte et al. 1960) constitute the two most common forms of English ceremonial dancing. Social dancing in England usually involves simultaneous participation by both sexes. The majority of these types of dances, however, have their origin in the fashionable ballroom or, if derived from other sources, at least existed in this context at some time. The characteristics of the two groups described above are not totally distinct as there are several dances which at any one time may display both ceremonial and social features.