Dancing master history
A dancing master was both a person who taught dance (particularly to the children of the gentry) and a type of book from which one could learn dances and the tunes used to accompany them. John Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651) was the first such collection to be published. It contained the melodies and dance instructions for just over 100 English country dances, with the music and dance instructions printed side by side. Retitled simply The Dancing Master by 1652 and for the remaining 17 editions, these books were published by John and then his son Henry Playford, and spawned numerous imitations throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Our exhibition includes several editions of The Dancing Master from the Bodleian collection.
Playford almost certainly did not write any of the melodies or dances. Some tunes were very old: for example, Mundesse, a round dance, is almost identical to Mon Desir from Susato’s Danserye of 1551. Similarly, Halfe Hannikin was one of the country dances in the masque Time Vindicated performed by the future Charles I, amongst others, on 19 January 1623.
Wood 125 Playford, J. (1652) The Dancing Master, 2nd edition (Bodleian Libaries)
Dance titles often referred to popular ballads, including some that were celebrated cavalier songs that Cromwell’s Parliament tried to suppress. For example, Faine I would if I could, was a ballad also known as ‘The King’s Complaint’ and ‘A Coffin for King Charles’. It was an elaborate dance performed whilst the Royal court was at Oxford.
Playford’s Dancing Master books were incredibly popular. Playford’s introduction to his Dancing Master, entitled ‘To the Ingenious Reader’, refers to dancing in the ‘Courts of Princes’ and by ‘The Gentlemen of the Innes of Court’. It is therefore likely that Playford’s customers would have been educated people. One was Samuel Pepys: in his celebrated diary he wrote, ‘By water down to Greenwich and then walked to Woolwich, all the way reading Playford’s Introduction to Musique wherein are some things very pretty.’
You can find out more about the history of dancing masters by visiting the exhibition (September 2023–January 2024), attending the in-person lecture (24th October), or watching one of our online talks (2nd November, 28th November). See Events tab to register.