English Country Dance Glossary

English Country Dance in Toronto
December, 1999


English country dance has a special language for talking about its features. The beginning dancer often finds this language confusing, but soon understands that it is necessary for learning and communication. We hope this glossary will help.

At first glance, the Glossary is overwhelming; it's so wordy. Just remember that it's much easier to do a dance than to talk about it.

We believe we are presenting the sections of this document in a useful order. We suggest you read the General Terms section all at once and skim the Figures and Steps section, then use it as a reference when needed.

If you come upon an unfamiliar term, it's probably defined in the General Terms section or has its own definition in the Figures and Steps section.

General Terms

The Set

A group of people dancing together. Most often the set is longways: couples standing one behind another in a row, men on the left side and women on the right.

The end of the longways set closest to the music is the top of the set; the other end is the bottom. The space between the partners is inside the set; that the rest of the space is outside the set.

The direction away from the set from the men's side is toward the men's wall. The direction away from the set on the women's side is toward the women's wall.

When all the men start the dance on the left side of the set and all the women on the right, the set is proper. In some dances, designated couples start improper, man on the right side, woman on the left.

In most English country dances, the set is divided into small groups who perform the dance and then progress, moving up toward the top or down toward the bottom of the set, to dance it again with another small group. Each small group is a minor set.

When the minor set consists of two couples, the couples number off from the top
1 - 2 - 1 - 2... The number one couple in each minor set are the active couple and will progress down; the number two couple is the inactive couple and will progress up the set.

When a couple progresses to the top or bottom of the set, they are out for one repetition of the dance and then come back into the dance as the opposite number. That is, when a number two couple progresses to the top of the set they will become a number one couple. Similarly, a number one couple will progress to the bottom and then become a number two couple.

Most often, instead of counting off the set takes hands in groups of four people starting from the top. The couples at the top of each group are the number ones and those at the bottom are the number twos. The call is usually: take hands four from the top.

A dance with a two-couple minor set is called a duple minor dance.

When the minor set consists of three couples, the couples number off from the top
1 - 2 - 3 - 1 - 2 - 3... In three couple dances the number one couple progresses down the set while the number two and three couples progress up.

When a couple progresses to the top or bottom of the set, they are out for two repetitions of the dance and then come back in as a number one at the top of the set or a number two or three at the bottom. (This sounds very complicated, but when you're actually dancing it's obvious.)

Most often, instead of counting off, the set takes hands in groups of six people starting from the top. The couples at the top of each group are the number ones, those in the middle the number twos, and those at the bottom the number threes. The call is usually: take hands six from the top.

A dance with a three-couple minor set is called a triple minor dance.

A major dance is a dance for 2, 3, 4, ... couples only, but it is just called something like a three couple set, or a dance for three couples.

Partner, Neighbour, Corner

These are the people with whom you will do most of your dancing. Your partner is the person with whom you agreed to dance. In a longways set, your neighbour is the person next to you in the set.

In a proper duple minor formation, yourcorner is the persondiagonally across from you. The first corners are the number oneman and number two woman; the second corners are the number one woman and number two man. In square or circular formations, the corner is the person on the man's left or the woman's right.

Holding Hands

English country dancers frequently hold hands, one person with palm facing up and the other with palm facing down. There's a lot of confusion about who should be on top and who on the bottom. Different groups have their own conventions, but here's a simple rule that works most places.

The person with palm up is supporting the person with palm down. In general, men support women and the active couple indicate their preference by offering a hand with their palm up or palm down.

Inside Hand

The hand closest to the person with whom you are dancing. For example, the inside hands of a couple facing up the set and proper are the man's right and woman's left.


Most English country dances today use a simple, even walking step. It is good to remember that you are dancing, not striding down the street. You can turn your normal walk into a dance step by carrying your weight forward, taking a slightly shorter than normal step, and letting your knees flex.

Occasionally the dance will call for a different step. These are included by name in the Figures and Steps section.

Musical Time

If you count the beats in the music, you'll find yourself counting in either fours and eights (duple time) or threes and sixes (triple time).

Figures and Steps

Note that the versions described below are just the most common ones. If there are others, they would will be explained by the caller.


A one-hand turn using the right or left hand as called. See Turns .


Dancers link arms at the elbow and circle around each other. Arming right involves linking right arms and circling clockwise; arming left involves linking left arms and circling counter-clockwise.

Back to Back

Two dancers face each other, move forward a double passing right shoulders and then fall back a double passing left shoulders. To make this work, each dancer must move to the right after passing the other. Also known as a do-si-do.


One single step moving either forward or backward. The caller will tell you to balance forward, balance back, or balance forward and back which would require two single steps.


Turn away from your partner and move along the outside of the set. Turn up when moving down and turn down when moving up. The caller will tell you which direction to move and how far: cast down one place; cast down to the end of the set; cast up two places.


Three or more dancers hold hands forming a ring and move around their common centre, left or right, half-way, three-quarters, all the way around. The caller will tell you which direction and how far. Sometimes the call is: circle such-and-such and back, which means do the circle and then reverse back to your original place.

If the caller does not otherwise specify, the circle is all the way around moving to the left.

The size of the circle is often called in terms of the number of dancers involved, but traditionally the call includes the word "hands". Circle left four hands means four dancers join hands and move to the left, which actually involves eight hands.


Bring the feet together. Closing is used to end a single or double step.

Clover Leaf Turn

A figure in which four dancers individually turn single in different directions. The top couple turns up the hall and then to the outside of the set; the bottom couple turns down the hall and then to the outside of the set. All end up back in place. Looking down at the foursome, the dancers' paths make the shape of a four-leaf clover.

Cross - Partners and Corners

To cross is to changes places with a dancer on the opposite side of the set, passing right shoulders unless otherwise called. Partners cross directly across the set. Corners cross diagonally, usually first corners, then second corners. See General Terms - Partner, Neighbour, Corner .

Fall Back

To perform one or more steps moving backward, usually one double step backwards.

Figure Eight

Each member of the couple dancing the figure moves between a stationary couple, around his or her corner, between them again, and around his or her neighbour. This brings the dancer back to place. The woman goes first, the man right behind her. Looking down at the foursome, each dancer's path makes an 8. This is the full figure eight.

A half figure eight is exactly the same, but the dancers stop after circling their corners, ending in their partner's place.

The caller will tell you whether to perform the figure around the couple above you in the set or the one below.

There's a wonderful variation called a double figure eight. Ask some experienced dancers to show you.


Two dancers take inside hands. One, the gatepost, turns in a tight circle moving backwards; the other, the gate door, moves in a larger circle forward around the gatepost. The gate figure usually ends as you started, with the gate door person in the set next to the gatepost person.

The gatepost always supports the gate door person by offering his or her hand palm up.


Two dancers walk around each other, facing in. The dancers do not touch. The caller will tell you to right shoulder gypsy, which means the dancers circle clockwise, right shoulders pointing slightly in, or left shoulder gypsy, which means circle counter-clockwise, left shoulders slightly in. The gypsy has been described as a two-hand turn without hands.

Hands Across

See Star .


A hey, or reel, is a weaving figure. Heys are popular figures and there are more kinds than we can deal with here. The caller will tell you what kind of hey to perform and with how many people. Heys in a line are usually done with 3 or 4 people, although there is no upper limit. Heys in a circle are done with at least 4 people.

If the caller simply calls a hey, a whole hey is implied. The dancers involved pass each other, weaving in and out, until everyone returns to place. If the call is for a half hey, the dancers involved will end up in the opposite position from where they started, half way through a whole hey.

A circular hey is done around the perimeter of the minor set, usually starting with the partners passing right shoulders. The caller may specify less than a whole circular hey by calling the number of changes. For example, three changes of a circular hey means passing three other dancers. A circular hey has been described as dancing a right-and-left without taking hands.

Heys in a line are often performed by both sides of the set at the same time. Usually, both sides execute the hey in the same way. Alternatively, the call may be for a mirror hey, in which case the dancers on opposite sides mirror each other's movements.

Imagine yourself in the top couple in a hey. You and your partner are, facing down the set and the other dancers are facing up. In a normal hey, both you and your partner start the hey by passing right shoulders with the next person down the set; the man moving inside the set and the woman outside. In a mirror hey, however, both dancers start by moving inside the set, the man passing right shoulders with the person below and the woman passing leftshoulders.


A courteous acknowledgment of another dancer. Men bow. Women curtsey. It is polite to honor your partner at the beginning and end of each dance.


Partners take inside hands and move together. The call will tell you which way to go: lead up, lead down, lead away from the set, etc. The caller will usually tell you how many steps: lead up a double, lead down four double steps.

A lead is often followed by a return to place. This can be accomplished either by turning around and leading back, by falling back, or by casting back. The caller will specify.


Two couples change places as follows: Couples face partners and take hands. The lower number man goes forward a double, pushing his partner, and then back a double, pulling his partner, altogether travelling in a V shape. At the same time, the higher number man goes back a double, pulling his partner and then forward a double, pushing his partner, also travelling in a V shape.

In short, moving with their partners, the lower number man and higher number woman do a back-to-back.

In a full poussette the couples do two poussettes as a single figure. The first as described above and the second reversed, the lower numbered man going back a double and forward a double while the higher numbered man goes forward a double and then back a double. At the end of a full poussette, everyone is back to place.


Four dancers begin by doing a right one-hand turn with partners about half way around, then a left one-hand turn with neighbours, then partners again, etc. Normally, a right-and-left involves four changes, which takes you back to your original place. The caller may specify a different number of changes: right-and-left half-way, three changes of right-and-left.

If a right-and-left is to be done by more than four dancers, it is often called as a grand chain.


A step moving sideways, either as a single step or as a single step with an extra close or weight shift (step-close-close). Sets are usually done in pairs, first to the right then to the left. Sometimes the dance calls for setting forward or backward, or setting up or down the hall. Setting up the hall means you and your partner are mirroring each other, the man setting left while the woman sets right to start. Setting is frequently followed by a turn single.


Two dancers face, move forward a double bringing right shoulder to right shoulder, fall back a double, and repeat with left shoulders. The call tells you with whom to side: your partner, neighbour, or corner. Some dances call for a single side right or left.

Sharp Siding

Two dancers face, then change places using one double step passing left shoulders, keeping eye contact the whole time. Repeat to go back to place, passing right shoulders.

Slip Step

A sideways step consisting of a step to the side and then a close as the last step. The call will be slip right or slip left, sometimes specifying a number of slip steps: slip left eight steps. Often used in circling, especially when the music is fast.

Slow Set

A set that takes twice as long as normal. A slow set is frequently followed by an honor.


A turn for four people. Opposites take hands, forming an X and the four dancers circle around the intersecting four hands. The caller will say star right (or right hand star), which means the dancers take right hands and circle clockwise, or star left (or left hand star), which means take left hands and circle counter-clockwise. This figure is also called Hands Across.

Steps - Single and Double

To perform a single step in duple time, use two beats to take one step forward and then close.

To perform a double step in duple time, use four beats to take three steps forward and then close.

There's only one kind of step in triple time, use three beats to take two steps forward and then close. You can think of it as either a single or a double step, depending on context.

Incidentally, triple time music sounds an awful lot to contemporary dancers like a waltz and there's a strong tendency to use a long-short-short waltz step. Try to resist this. The triple time step is the even walking step.

Turn Single

Turn around by yourself, usually to the right. Use four beats (three in triple time) to walk in a small circle.

Turns -- One-Hand and Two-Hand

Two dancers take one or both hands and circle around each other. The caller will specify which hands: turn your partner by the right hand (clockwise), by the left hand (counter-clockwise) or both hands (clockwise, unless otherwise specified).

The one-hand turn is also known as an allemande.

Turns may be half-way, three-quarters of the way, or all the way around. The caller will tell you how far to go.

If the call is simply to turn your partner, a two-hand turn clockwise all the way around is always meant.

© 1999 ECD-TO, All Rights Reserved