Portsmouth Harbour

Portsmouth Harbour is a lovely dance and tune that was first published in London in Twenty Four Country Dances for the Year 1772  by Charles and Samuel Thompson, and was also included in Thompson’s compleat collection of 200 favorite country dances: perform’d at court [,] Bath [,] Tunbridge & all public assemblies with proper figures or directions to each tune: set for the violin [,] German flute & hautboy. Vollm. 3] circa 1775.  The annual Thompson volumes appear to have come out in the fall of the  year previous to the year mentioned (in this case, 1771) and, as American dancers seem to have really enjoyed learning new dances, were shipped over to America within months.

Portsmouth Harbour is the earliest longways set dance we have yet uncovered that includes the allemande figure.  The Allemande was a late 18th century couple dance, popular in both France and England, which incorporated interlacing arms.  This was a very daring change from the minuet, in which the couple only touched hands at arm’s length from each other.  The allemande figure borrowed dancing with interlaced arms from the couple dance.

This is how the Wayside Inn Steppers have been dancing this dance:

Portsmouth Harbour  (triple minor longways)
  • A1   Circle six left all the way around
  • A2   Return (circle right all the way back)
  • B1   First couple cross by right shoulder and allemande below 1 1/2 times by near shoulder  [First gent allemande (right) with second lady and first lady allemande reverse (left) with second gent.]
  • B2   First couple cross by left shoulder and allemande below 1 1/2 by near shoulder   [First gent allemande reverse (left) with third gent and first lady allemande (right) with third lady. This leaves the active couple at the bottom.]
  • A3   From the bottom, the actives do a mirror image hey with the two couples above them [the active couple begins by moving up the middle of the minor set of six towards the top, the second couple (which is at the top of the three couples) begins by going down the middle of the set, while the third couple (which is in the middle of the set) begins by going down the outside of the set.  All end where they began the hey.  As in all triple minor heys, the dancers are weaving in and out of the set, bulging in the middle.]
  • A4   Repeat the hey
  • B3   First couple dance up the center and cast off one place
  • B4   First couple allemande and allemande reverse with partner

We use pas de bourrees for this dance, which are appropriate for the 1772 publication date.

Here are the Thompson directions for this dance:

Hands 6 round back again 1st Man Allemande with the 2d. Wo. 1st Wo. do the same with the 2d. Man at the same time the same with the 3d. Cu. Hey all round.  head up the mid-dle & cast off Allemande with your Partner

We are very fond of our interpretation of Portsmouth Harbour.  For that reason, we’re a little suspicious of it!  Perhaps our 21st century ideas about dance flow have affected the way we have visualized the dance.  Having said that, here are the possible issues we see with our interpretation, and the reasons that we think it is valid:

  1. Allemandes are usually done once around, not once and a half.  However, it is not uncommon for the published descriptions of 18th century dances to expect the dancers to get themselves to where they need to be in order to perform the next figure, without the details being spelled out in the description.  (For example, in dances that call for the first couple to cross over but do not specify how they are to get proper again.*)  Since the first couple needs to allemande with the third couple after they allemande with the second couple, it makes sense for them to allemande once and a half around.
  2. “Hey all round” might mean something other than a mirror image hey from the bottom.  However, mirror image heys are known to have been done in 18th century country dances (Thomas Wilson, carefully describing country dancing figures, diagrams mirror image heys on pages 69 to 73 of his book An Analysis of Country Dancing , published in London in 1808**), so our interpretation seems the likeliest meaning.  Since the first couple has just done allemandes with the third couple, and since the first couple have to “head up the middle” immediately after the hey, it seems likely they must start and end the hey at the bottom of the set.
  3. Thompson’s directions do not say to do the hey twice.  This is a valid point.  We are interpreting “Hey all round” as implying doing the hey twice because doing so makes once through the dance come out even with twice through the music.
  4. “Allemande with your partner” might mean that all the dancers allemande with their partner, and it might not mean that they do both an allemande and an allemande reverse.  Again, these are valid points, but it seems to us that it fits the dance better for just the first couple to allemande at this point, and for them to do an allemande in both directions.

It may be that someone will someday come up with an historical interpretation of this dance which seems more convincing.  Until then, enjoy this one!

Here is the sheet music for the tune: http://trillian.mit.edu/~jc/cgi/abc/tuneget?F=GIF&U=/~jc/music/book/Thompson/Portsmouth_Harbour.abc&X=1&T=PORTSMOUTHHARBOUR2


*Thompson’s compleat collection of 200 favourite country dances , Volume 5, London: 1780-1790? has some dances with with this configuration. The dance “Rolling Tom” on page 20 includes the wording “Cross over one Cu; Right and left at top”  and “The Forest Hunt” on page 81 ends with “Cross over one Cu. and Right & left”.

**It appears from research done on Thomas Wilson (see link) http://regencydances.org/paper005.php that he was born around 1770 and was probably teaching dance by around 1790.  Thus, his description from 1808 of country dancing would likely be describing what he was seeing and teaching between the late 18th and early 19th centuries and should not be discounted.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *