Black Dance

We found Black Dance in a manuscript written by Jeremiah Brown of Seabrook, New Hampshire, in 1782.  It was described in several manuscripts in the United States late in the eighteenth century and early in the nineteenth, and various versions appear in English sources (sometimes called “Black Dance”, and sometimes “The Black Dance”). The different versions  of the dance, from different years, illustrate the way dances were changing at the time, with new figures being brought in, and with the dancers preferring to dance faster than they had in the past.  (If you want to skip the discussion of the dance’s history and go straight to how we dance it, go to the bottom of the page.)

Here is one of the earliest versions of the dance, from the 1773 London publication Compleat Collection of 200 Favourite Country Dances (Volume 3) by Charles and Samuel Thompson.  We have seen other publications with versions that are almost identical, word for word.

The Black Dance

Turn Right hands & then Left/lead your Partner down & bring/up the 3d. Wo. then the 1st. and 3d. Cu/turn Right hands and then left lead/the 3d. Wo. down and your Partner/up and cast off.

Here is the version from Two Hundred & four FAVOURITE COUNTRY DANCES Perform’d at Court, Almacks, Pantheon and most Publick Assembly’s, with the newest and best directions for Dancing each.  Vol:I., by Straight & Skillern in 1775:

Black Dance

1st & 2d Cu. hands across half round the/same back again .| 1st Man leads his Part:/down the middle & brings up the 3d Wo./& leaves his Part: in her place :|then the/top Cu. & 3d turns first right hands be_/_hind then left :|. & the 1st Man lead the/ 3d Wo. down to her own place & bring/his Part: up to the top & cast off into/the 2d Cu.s place :|:

Notice that the first set of hand turns has changed into Stars, giving the second couple something to do.  The change to the second set of hand turns is even more interesting, since it is described as, “first right hands behind then left”.  Turning with the “hands behind” sounds like an allemande.  (We admit that other interpretations might be possible, and that the term “allemande” was used to refer to more than one dance movement.  However, since hands are behind backs when dancing one kind of allemande, we suspect that this is an early inclusion of an allemande in a country dance.  We have not seen the term allemande used in a country dance description before 1777, although Paul Cooper of has examples going as far back as 1769.)

This is the way that Jeremiah Brown notated the instructions in 1782:

/black dance/

the first and third/couple alemand lead down and take the third/ lady up to the top alemand first and third/couple led [sic] down and take the third lady up/again cast off one couple right and left

Both sets of hand turns have now become allemandes.  In addition, Rights and Lefts have been added to the end of the dance.  Doing an extra figure in the same amount of music makes the dance quite brisk.

When we first decided to try out the Black Dance, it seemed obvious that there was a problem with the timing of Brown’s version of the dance, and that we would have to experiment with changes to what Brown had written in order to get a version which would be danceable.  We tried out different versions, and found that the version which worked for the dancers was exactly what Jeremiah Brown had written, in spite of the unusual timing.  We enjoy dancing Brown’s Black Dance, the earliest version that we have found notated in the young United States.

This is how the Wayside Inn Steppers have reconstructed this dance:

Black Dance (Triple Minor Longways) 
  • A1     First  and third couples allemande right
  •           First couple chassee down, leave first woman in third woman’s place, first gent chasses up to top with third woman
  •          People in first and third couple’s positions allemande right
  • A2     First gent brings third lady down
  •          First gent brings his partner back to top and cast off
  •          Right and left with second couple

We use a skip-change step for this dance.  Notice that the cast off in A2, which would take at least two bars of music in most dances, is instead sandwiched between a chassee up to the top and the rights and lefts, and is rushed.  The second couple starts the rights and lefts at the usual time, and the first couple hurries to catch up.

Here is information about the tune from The Tune Archive:

Here is the sheet music:
Here is the tune for you to listen to:

One thought on “Black Dance

  1. Paul Cooper

    Very interesting, I hadn’t noticed that “hands behind” reference… I may have to update my research paper. Thanks for the shout-out and keep up the good work!


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