by David Millstone and Allison Thompson

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David Millstone calls English country dances, contras and squares, and innumerable “one-night stands.” He started contra dancing in New Hampshire in the early 1970s, when the repertoire featured many traditional dances; his articles about the history behind some of these dances appeared in Cracking Chestnuts: The Living Tradition of American Contra Dances, published by Country Dance and Song Society. As a videographer, he created documentaries about Bob McQuillen, Dudley Laufman and Ralph Sweet as well as a film about Shaker dance. David coordinates the Square Dance History Project, an online digital library. He served as CDSS President from 2012-2018.

Allison Thompson is an English country dance caller, musician and dance historian. Her most recent work is May Day Festivals in America, 1830 to the Present. Allison plays concertina, recorders and button accordion with the band Amarillis and has recorded several CDs with them. She is currently finalizing her study of dance tunes in the music collection of Jane Austen.


Over the centuries, the related forms of country dance – Scottish, English, contras, and squares – have been enriched by the accretion of new steps, formations and figures, gradually adding in movements that dancers of previous generations would not recognize. Historically these additions were usually made by the invisible hand of Anonymous and it can be difficult to track the provenance of a figure. However, the swelling of new choreographies since the 1970s with their newly-invented figures printed in booklets has made this kind of investigation easier, and the proliferation both of publishing dances and engaging in social interactions on the internet has made it easier still.

One recent addition to the repertoire, the “dolphin hey,” has a well-documented provenance that begins in the Shetland Islands with stops in England, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Documenting the evolution and transmission of this figure has been a similarly international effort, with discussions on the Scottish strathspey discussion list and on the English country dance discussion list and further developed through email exchanges with choreographers and callers.

There are several variations of the dolphin hey, many of which are discussed below, but the form that is best known in English country dance circles in the United States is a hey/reel-of-three for four dancers, with one couple dancing as a unit, one behind the other. As that paired couple reaches the outer end of the hey, the trailing dancer turns the corner closely to take the lead in the hey and the original leading dancer becomes the follower. This moment of overtaking is the flirtatious, “fun” part of the hey. For a visual, imagine a pas de deux of silvery dolphins cutting through blue waters, the one in the rear leaping playfully ahead of the first only to be overtaken again.

It is important to note that there is not one “correct” dolphin hey/reel: there are many variations and approaches. As the twenty-three dances included in Appendix 2 show, the hey can be danced along the diagonal(s), across the set, up and down the set, around all four corners in a cloverleaf, as a morris hey, within a square set, and other variations. It can involve four dancers (the minimum) or more. It can be initiated with the active couple (the dolphins) cutting through the middle of the other dancers, or starting from the top of the hey – or other variations. It can involve a change of lead at both ends of the hey or at only one. It is a creative and entertaining figure!

The reel in which two or more of those people dancing are moving as a unit (historically with the man following his partner) seems to have originated in the island archipelagoes of Orkney and Shetland, one hundred miles off the north-eastern tip of Scotland in the Norway Sea. The English dance historian and choreographer Pat Shuldham-Shaw (1917-1977) did research in the Shetlands in the late 1940s, collecting songs, fiddle tunes, and dances. He wrote:

The Shetland Reel is still a regular feature of Shetland weddings and is also occasionally danced at ordinary social dances. At a wedding the first set usually consists of the bride and best man, the best maid and bridegroom and the bride’s father and the bridegroom’s mother. . . . The reel is performed in a curious way. The set forms up as for a longways country dance with the middle couple “improper.” The reel is then started by the first woman casting down and the second woman casting up each followed by her partner. The third couple join in, the woman followed by her partner casting up. The figure-of-eight track is continued, each man closely following his partner and each couple acting as one unit, until everyone is back in their original place. [Shuldham-Shaw, Patrick. “Folk Music and Dance in Shetland.” Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, vol. 5, no. 2, 1947, pp. 74-80. JSTOR.]

For their authoritative work, Traditional Dancing in Scotland, J. F. Flett and T. M. Flett interviewed several hundred elderly traditional dancers in the 1950s. They describe this reel as being danced as early as the 1880s (the edge of then-living memory), though it had dropped out of favor on various islands in the early part of the last century, shortly after World War I. They reached similar conclusions:

Until about 1900, the principal dances in Shetland were “Shetland Reels”. . . . A three-couple Reel of one form or another seems to have been known in every district of Shetland, but two-couple and four-couple Reels were more local in their distribution. . . . All these various Shetland Reels are true Reels, consisting of setting steps danced on the spot, alternated with a travelling figure. In all the three-couple and four-couple Reels the setting steps are performed with the dancers in two parallel lines, and in the travelling figures each couple moves as a single unit, with the lady leading and the man following immediately behind her; in the three-couple Reels the track followed by the dancers in the travelling figure is a figure “8”, and in the four-couple Reels it is a figure “8” with a third loop added. [Flett, J.F. and T.M. Traditional Dancing in Scotland. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1966. (UK edition, 1964)]

They describe a similar pattern for the Orkney Sixsome Reel. The Fletts did not give a name to this figure, nor, apparently, did the traditional dancers: it was just the proper way a reel was danced in their part of the world.

For a detailed description of the Shetland Reel and its place in traditional dance, we recommend an informative collection of videotaped interviews and dance footage, both contemporary and archival, created in 2017 by fiddler Maurice Henderson and his colleagues. The material illustrates the traditional stepping that is used in the first part of the dance and then the eponymous reel itself.

Scottish and English country dance choreographies developed on parallel tracks after World War II. In 1977, John Drewry [Drewry was a prolific creator of dances, with more than 800 to his credit. Though born in Leicestershire, England, it was when he began work at the University of Aberdeen that his passion for Scottish country dance developed fully. For decades, the Scottish country dance repertoire had been limited to a small number of figures and dances interpreted by Jean Milligan and her colleagues, in a manner similar in the English country dance world hewing closely to the dance interpretations of Cecil Sharp. Drewry and a few others began the process of expanding that repertoire through a series of new dances, new figures, and using older figures in unusual ways, just as Pat Shaw and subsequent choreographers did in the realm of English country dance (“Obituary: John Drewry, Scottish dance deviser and academic,” retrieved January 26, 2019). Those “few others” included James Cosh (devisor of Mairi’s Wedding) and Hugh Foss.

Foss, another Englishman, was married to a Scot and started Scottish country dancing in the 1930s. He was a member of the first Scottish Country Dance Society team to perform overseas:

As an Englishman he felt he was not entitled to wear a clan tartan so his kilt was the plain grey shepherd’s plaid. With grey beard, grey jacket and waistcoat, grey kilt and grey hose he was in appearance a grey man, but his personality and mind were quite the opposite. … In 1937, he was a member of the first SCDS team to dance overseas – at a Celtic Festival in Brittany, though English Hugh felt he was out of place representing Scotland at such an event. Nor did he accept everything emanating from Society Headquarters. He applied his own thought processes to each ruling and only followed it if it made sense to him. (“Hugh Foss,” reprinted from Scottish Country Dancer (No. 4), The Members’ Magazine of the RSCDS, Spring 2007, retrieved January 27, 2019.)

A brilliant mathematician, Foss was also an eminent codebreaker who achieved fame for breaking Japanese ciphers around the time of World War II. He is credited with encouraging Drewry to create more dances. (Wikipedia: “Hugh Foss,” retrieved January 27, 2019.)

] (1923-2014), the famous deviser of Scottish country dances, put the Shetland Reel figure into his composition, The St. Nicholas Boat. That same year, Pat Shaw incorporated that Shetland Reel figure in his dance, The American Husband or Her Man, and he later used it in his dance Buzzards Bay. In these dances, the three active couples in the sub-set dance a reel for three as units of two, the women in the lead. While Drewry did not name the figure, Shaw termed it a “Shetland reel.” However, Shaw’s dances incorporating this figure and the figure itself did not catch on in the United States at this time.

In 1981, Drewry published a new dance, Ferla Mor, in which he modified this reel by having only the leading couple dance as a unit: thus, the 1s, having moved below the 2s, begin a half reel of three with the first corners (i.e., 2M and 3W) and then the second corners (3M and 2W), the 1M man following behind his partner, with no change of lead.

Falcons turn to Dolphins

The next milestone in the evolution of the figure is pinned to another Scottish country dance, The Flight of the Falcon, written by Barry Priddey (GB) and published in Anniversary Tensome in 1992. US-based Scottish dance teacher Chris Ronald notes that, in this dance, Priddey “further developed the Ferla Mor pattern by having first couple change lead at each corner.” [Ronald, Chris. “A Brief Note on Shadow/Tandem/Dolphin/Falcon Reels,” 12 Scottish Country Dances, pp. 28-29. New York, 2009.] Priddey, a prolific Scottish dance choreographer who danced with the Sutton Coldfield branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS) in the West Midlands of England, prefaced his description of The Flight of the Falcon thus: “[t]he merlin [Eds.: a type of falcon] flies close to the heather following every twist and turn of its quarry’s flight.” It was clearly the “following every turn” image that inspired Priddey’s innovation of the change of lead. Priddey did not name his figure either, merely describing it as follows: “1M, followed by his partner, begins to dance a diagonal reel of 3 with 1st corners. At the end of bar 10, having passed 3W by the right, 1M and 1W each turn right about to continue the reel with 1W leading, then at the end of bar 14, having passed 3W by the left, they each turn left about to complete the reel with 1M leading.”

The next year, in 1993, Barry Priddey published two Scottish country dances that took the concept of a paired reel even further in his dances The Capercaillie and Land of the Heather Hills (both published in his booklet, The Capercaillie). Both dances incorporate half-diagonal heys/reels for four that involve six dancers, four in pairs and two dancing independently. (That is, the 1s, dancing as a unit, and the 4s, dancing as a unit, dance four alternating half-reels of four with 2M and 3M and then 2W and 3W, with the paired units changing leads on the ends of the reel.)

From England, the Falcon dance traveled to New Zealand where Iain Simmonds, a Wellington teacher, introduced it at a weekend school in Auckland and at his Friday night advanced Scottish class. [Strathspey discussion list. “Tandem Reels.” July 8-August 8, 2011.] Rod Downey, another mathematician, used the figure for diagonal heys in his dance The Silkie. The figure also caught the attention of dance deviser Barry Skelton, who started creating his own dances using the figure, which he termed a tandem reel for three. On October 28, 1993, he wrote Dancing Dolphins. Two days later he devised Pelorus Jack, named after a famous dolphin that lived in Admiralty Bay between Wellington and Nelson, New Zealand. (See historical background in Appendix 1.) The dance makes a significant change from The Flight of the Falcon. The earlier dance has two complete diagonal heys, but Pelorus Jack includes four half-reels of three on the diagonal with a change of lead on every corner.

Skelton published The Dolphin Book in 1994. The eleven dances in the book – notably Dancing Dolphins, Opo, Orca, The Playful Porpoise, and Pelorus Jack – include the hey/reel for three with the 1s dancing as a unit and changing the lead on the ends of the heys. The author explained, “All the dances in this book have a type of tandem reel that people thought looked like Dolphins chasing each other through the waves. I was told that this one looks as if they were dancing.” With its 2000 re-publication in the RSCDS Book 41, Pelorus Jack became the best known of the Dolphin Book dances in Scottish country dance groups. In his book, Skelton did not refer to The Flight of the Falcon or to Brian Priddey.

However, Chris Ronald confirmed the direct link from Priddey to Skelton: “I did some research on “tandem/dolphin/falcon” reels and wrote it up in an annex to my book: 12 Scottish Country Dances. Shortly after completing that book, I met Barry Skelton in New Zealand, and he agreed that Barry Priddey was the originator of reels of three where 1st couple dance in tandem and change lead at each end of the reel.” [Ronald, Chris. Posted message to, Aug. 8, 2011, retrieved January 26, 2019.]

Chris Ronald also notes that “[u]p to the time Pelorus Jack was published, in The Dolphin Book, no [Scottish dance] deviser had given a name to the concept whereby a dancer follows his partner in a reel of three. Barry Skelton chose the term ‘tandem’ to describe these reels, and the RSCDS used this terminology when publishing Pelorus Jack in Book 41 in 2000.” While Skelton may have used the word “tandem” in his printed directions, in a video in which he discusses the creation of this dance he suggests that his local dancers in 1994 already referred to the figure as the dolphin reel, at least informally. (This video interview is viewable here and contains footage of dancers performing Pelorus Jack.)

The Dolphins reach North America

By 1994 we have several very popular Scottish country dance devisers experimenting with different types of heys/reels in which at least one couple moves as a paired unit in which the version in which the 1s change lead is called an “alternating-lead tandem” or “dolphin” reel. But how did this figure migrate to the English dance repertoire? It seems to have had several distinct points – or perhaps more accurately, persons – of entry.

The Flight of the Falcon first traveled from England to New Zealand, thence to Australia. Rod Downey, a New Zealand SCD leader explained, “The RSCDS is a fairly monolithic organization and hence the books etc. get all round the world. Of course we can get many books here in New Zealand via the Branch bookshop. ECD seems not so organized. There is always a lot of trans-tasman [Eds.: i.e., across the Tasmanian Sea] movement so a lot of stuff between Australia and New Zealand” (Downey).

Elma See, an RSCDS examiner and dance leader in New South Wales, Australia, recalls that, “I think I first learned them with Iain Boyd at a New Zealand Summer School – Pelorus Jack perhaps” (See). She took the dance figure with her back to Australia and then was hired by the (Scottish) Teachers Association (Canada) to teach at a 1995 meeting in Ottawa, Canada. Among those present at the event was English and Scottish dance leader Bruce Hamilton. He writes:

Makes sense that Elma would have taught Dancing Dolphins then, since it would have been virtually brand new. I loved it, and taught it to the advanced SCD class at the San Francisco Branch’s Asilomar weekend the following November. Time passed, and the dances in the book entered the SCD repertoire. . . .

[Four years later,] I was the caller on Ken McFarland’s “English Country Dancing in English Manors” tour of England in 1999. We were in Dartington Hall on May 5, and I taught Dancing Dolphins then. I didn’t have to anglicize the dance very much, since it’s the standard 3-couple dance done in 4-couple sets. I may have turned it into a triple minor, or I may have left it in lines of 4 couples. At the time I said it was a shame that the ECD community hadn’t picked up on the Dolphin hey.

Mary Devlin, a member of that dancing tour, also remembers that moment:

I took his comment as a challenge and started imagining and visualizing as we traveled about by coach. I knew the dance was to a jig so I kept playing a generic jig in my head, and I knew that I wanted an ABBC structure with a musical punch at the beginning of C part. The dance itself came together fairly easily.

The group spent a couple of days at Halsway Manor and the dance had its first tryout in the hall on the main floor. [May 9, 1999] Everyone liked it a lot. One of our number – Lee Shepherd – suggested the title Halsway Manners and of course that was it. Once I knew the dance was right I had to find a tune and I didn’t know of any that did what I wanted. I asked Liz Donaldson to write one and she did a splendid job. I know it’s hard to write a tune “to order” (Devlin).

Halsway Manners is the first English country dance composed by an American choreographer to utilize the dolphin hey figure. Like Dancing Dolphins, Halsway Manners has the dolphin heys swimming up and down the sides of the dance. Commenting on the path that led to the composition of this dance, Bruce Hamilton said:

It is worth noting that a dance can be English in style without English parentage, Scottish style without Scottish parentage, and so forth. That fact is not new (it’s been true at least since Playford dropped [the word] “English” from “The [English] Dancing Master”), but it sometimes fades in a haze of patriotic enthusiasm.

Halsway Manners is a deliciously extreme example of this phenomenon. The core idea came from Barry Skelton in Auckland, New Zealand. Then Elma See, of New South Wales, Australia, taught Dancing Dolphins in Ottawa, Canada. I (a Californian) learned it from her there and later taught it in South Devon to Mary, who hails from Oregon. She presented her dance in Somerset, a woman from New York chose the name, and a woman from Maryland wrote the tune! It is an English dance, but because of its style rather than its parentage.

Two years after Halsway Manners was composed, Robin Hayden presented it at a program for experienced dancers for the Boston Centre CDS. Boston leader Helene Cornelius in turn taught the dance at Pinewoods Camp in 2003, which is where Christine Robb (“I’m not a Scottish dancer”) was introduced to the figure. Ten years later, Christine started work on a new dance that emerged in final form as Sapphire Sea in May of 2015. Unlike Halsway Manners, in this dance the dolphin heys go across the set rather than along the line.

Halsway Manners similarly caught the attention of St. Louis choreographer Bob Green. His 2012 dance, Waves of Grain, is set to a waltz written by his wife, fiddler Martha Edwards, and appeared in an issue of the CDSS News. He explains, “[Halsway Manners] was Martha’s favorite English dance to call, so it was a natural move to steal for a dance to her tune.” His choreography provides an opportunity for both couples in a duple minor set to dance the featured figure.

With the appearance in 2000 of Pelorus Jack in an official RSCDS publication, the tandem hey figure became more widely known in Scottish country dance groups. Following a different path, English- and Scottish-dance choreographers Brooke Friendly and Chris Sackett (US) have used the dolphin hey in several of their dances, notably in the very popular dance in 9/8 time, The Potter’s Wheel. Although the choreographers live in Oregon, as does Mary Devlin, Friendly notes, “When we created Potter’s Wheel (2009), we had not seen or done or known of Halsway Manners. We had done Dancing Dolphins and Playful Porpoise but hadn’t seen Barry’s book.” They did not give a name to the figure, merely describing its path.

Friendly adds that the first dance that they wrote with the dolphin hey was a Scottish country dance, Orcas Rising (Impropriety 2). “The tandem reel part of the dance was conceived in 1998 but the dance went through several iterations before it was finalized in 2006. We first encountered Mary Devlin’s dance Halsway Manners in 2003.” They have written other dances, Scottish or English in style, using the figure, and at the time using the “tandem reel” wording.

In much the same way as Friendly and Sackett came to the figure through Scottish country dance, so did Jenna Simpson, across the country in Williamsburg, Virginia: “I definitely knew dolphin heys from Scottish country dance, which I took up in 2009. It’s a pretty standard figure in our local SCD group’s repertoire. Before I wrote ‘Under the Influence,’ the only ECD in which I had encountered the figure was Potter’s Wheel. (I’m pretty sure I learned it in Scottish before I first did Potter’s Wheel.)”

That same year, Alan Winston, in California, created his dance, Movement Afoot, set to a fiery waltz by Larry Unger. Winston had encountered Halsway Manners before this, “but it didn’t make that much of an impact on me. During my year and a half of Scottish dancing before I blew my foot out, I encountered both Flight of the Falcon and Pelorus Jack, which did make an impact on me.” He did not encounter Potter’s Wheel (2009) until after writing Movement Afoot (2013): “I remember when I did hit Potter’s Wheel I noticed that something I’d used in an ‘English’ dance was now in use elsewhere.” His dance starts with a dramatic movement, as dancers set forward to a standing (and not retreating) partner. The lead-in to the dolphin hey also begins in an unusual fashion as well, with active men wheeling to their left to pass left shoulder with the neighboring man.

In most cases today, a choreographer starts with a piece of music and works from there. The norm in English country dancing is for each dance to be set to its own tune, though this was far from standard practice several hundred years ago. A new tune, Tom Kruskal’s, was composed by Amelia Mason and Emily Troll to honor that Boston musician and morris dance leader, a 2010 recipient of the CDSS Lifetime Contribution Award. The tune spread widely with performances and a recording by the popular contra dance band Elixir, and Christine Robb and Jenna Simpson each contacted the tune’s authors in 2013 with a request to use the melody for a dance. Each independently created a dance: Sapphire Sea, a longways duple minor by Robb, and Under the Influence, a four-couple set dance by Simpson. Interestingly, both Simpson and Robb used a form of the dolphin hey in their dances as the figure for the start of the B1 music, in which the tune rises, affirming the adage, “The music tells you what to do.”

Simpson’s Scottish dance background shows in multiple ways. She uses Petronella turns – Petronella is the first dance in the first volume of RSCDS’ publications. Her dance specifies a skip-change step at one point. Finally, her directions clearly draw on Scottish sources, as do those of Chris and Brooke: “The figure in B1 is a variation on the ‘alternating tandem reels’ (heys) (also known as ‘dolphin’ reels) found in some Scottish country dances.” Consciously or not, the orientation of the active dancers, where one is not directly behind the other, also harkens back to the position of dancers in Skelton’s original composition, Dancing Dolphins.

The Dolphins return to England

In the last section, we looked at the several routes by which dolphin heys became included in English country dances written in the United States. With an ocean separating us and only a small number of callers working on both sides of the Atlantic, there are many choreographers in England whose work is unknown to most American dancers.

A vital transmission link for the dolphin figure in England was Ron Coxall, an English caller and choreographer. (Among his better-known dances in North America is Turn of the Tide [1999]. He has published extensively, and his 1991 dance The Short and the Tall uses a serpentine figure that inspired a contra dance hit by William Watson, The Devil’s Backbone.) For thirty years, Coxall has had a routine for escaping English winters: “I have been visiting Adelaide in South Australia since 1988 and as I like to dance have supplemented English Country Dance with Scottish while there” (Coxall).The preface to his 2005 dance booklet, Walls, notes: “l first met Dolphin Reels and Barry Skelton’s book The Dolphin Book when in Australia in February 1996 and wondered why Scottish Country Dancers should have them all to themselves. Barry Skelton is a prolific composer of dances from Auckland, New Zealand and these following dances are by him but I have changed them slightly to conform to English country dance style.”

Coxall returned to England in 1996 and led a well-received session of dolphin dances at the Eastbourne Festival. He corresponded with Skelton in 2003 and received permission to include versions of some of Skelton’s dolphin dances. Coxall’s book Walls contains five such adaptations: Orca, Opo, Dancing Dolphins, Sounding the Deep, and Pelorus Jack.

Here it is useful to note that the standard formation for a Scottish country dance is four couples in a longways set, with the 1s generally (but not always – some dances like Capercaillie involve all four couples at once) dancing only with couples 2 and 3, then progressing down one place to dance with couples 3 and 4, then dropping to the foot of the set: this is called “twice and to the bottom” in RSCDS terminology. In some dances, the 1s interact mainly with the 2s, with the 3s acting as posts and the 4s as neutrals. When Ron Coxall adapted Skelton’s Scottish dances, therefore, his principal change was to convert the dances Orca and Opo (which are of the latter type) to duple minor longways formation; Sounding the Deep as a four couple longways; and Pelorus Jack as a three couple longways. Coxall also specifically called the distinctive figure a “dolphin reel,” and it is implied in his introductory comments to Walls that that was how it was referred to in Australia when he met it in 1996. He described the dolphin reel thus:

A Dolphin Reel is danced by a couple acting as a unit and retaining the same orientation to each other throughout the reel. If the lady leads out of the reel, on the way back the man will lead. I sometimes call this a shadow reel: when dancing towards the light the shadow is behind but when dancing away the shadow is in front. If the reel is across the set then an imaginary line joining the couple should always be parallel to a line across the set. The couple’s shoulders should also be parallel to each other.

For example, Skelton’s Orca was a 24-bar dance, arranged as a three-couple dance within a four-couple set. Coxall adapted the dance to a longways set, modified the opening and kept the dolphin reel in the same A2 section. He modified B1, and keeping the dance more in line with the common ECD setting of a 32-bar dance, added a double-figure eight.

There may be one example of dolphins reaching English country dance in England before Coxall. Chris Turner (UK) writes: “I was using that figure in my choreography as early as 1995. Might have assimilated it at Eastbourne but think it was earlier. I remember Ron Coxall at Eastbourne that year. Faint memory of teaching heys in general at a class and Scottish interloper telling me about dolphins and New Zealand. This was very possibly where I learnt about it and it was certainly before 1996.” Turner notes that his dance, Jack’s Dolphin, “started life as a square version of Jack’s Maggot, and goes well to that tune.”

With Coxall’s presentation at the Eastbourne festival and the publication of Walls, the dolphins took flight, as it were. Trevor Monson (UK) comments, “After that dolphin reels started appearing in modern English style dances – even mine!” He notes that after 1996, some English dancers in England were exposed to the dolphin hey in dances that they thought of as purely English country dances. Monson’s dance, Dolphins in the Sound, though created without knowledge of the earlier Pelorus Jack, includes dolphin half-heys on the diagonal. It follows an ABBC pattern for its perky tune, and has a considerably different feel than its Scottish cousin.

Dolphins appear in new forms

Another choreographer inspired by Ron Coxall was Sue Carter: “[He] had just returned from New Zealand where he had danced Pelorus Jack, Dancing Dolphins, etc., so he called them all at that weekend. The figure was very new at the time. English choreographers know a good, interesting figure when they see one and write a dance with one in. I was no exception!”

Her composition, Golden Dolphins, illustrates the common practice of using a figure in ever-more-complex ways. Priddey’s original The Flight of the Falcon took the Shetland Reel figure, adapted it so that just one couple was acting as a unit, added the overtaking feature at either end of the hey, and set the hey on a diagonal. Carter adds yet another new variation: the dance is for five couples and her dolphin hey for three involves five dancers, not four: two end pairs of same-sex neighbors each act as a unit to dance the hey with the middle individuals in each line. As an additional wrinkle, it’s a morris dolphin hey.

Robert Sibthorpe (UK) learned the dolphin hey in Pelorus Jack in 2002, two years after the RSCDS published it, at a Scottish Country Dance Club in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. He incorporated that move into another five-couple dance, Windhover.

As we have seen, the dolphin figure first appeared in three- and four-couple longways set dances. It then moved into four-couple squares and five-couple longways sets. Madeleine Smith first encountered dolphin heys from the calling of Robert Sibthorpe. Her 2008 composition, A Dolphin in Broadstairs, created for a workshop at Broadstairs Folk Week, showcased the figure in yet another formation, a square with an additional couple in the center. Smith based her dance on The Fivepenny Piece (author unknown) and on Chris Turner’s Jack’s Dolphin. Note that in this dance the overtaking only occurs at one end of the hey; in our discussion of terminology that appears towards the end of this article, this could be classified as a “single switchback reel.” Thus, in B1, the middle couple starts the hey by passing right shoulder with the second man. The middle lady overtakes her partner going around the first turn and she remains in the lead around the second end and crossing the set to start the second hey, starting left shoulder with the fourth lady.

As we have seen, choreographers have placed the dolphin hey figure in a variety of formations. They have also started creating variants in the figure itself. Belgian choreographer Philippe Callens’s dance Somerset Square includes what he terms a dolphin gypsy: “The movement is inspired by what English morris dance teacher Laurel Swift had dancers do during her ‘Cotswold Morris: New Perspectives’ class, [at] English-American Week, Pinewoods, August 2007.” In Swift’s whole gyp, dancers moved in pairs, starting with one person in front and the other behind. Callens notes, “Since I used only three-quarters of a gyp in my dance, the person behind, as in a dolphin hey, would become the leader.” Swift herself did not use the term “dolphin” in her teaching – “I wasn’t familiar with the dolphin hey at the time of those Pinewoods morris classes, as I hadn’t done any English or Scottish country dancing before coming to Pinewoods (I’d done lots of ceilidhs, but hadn’t come across the move in that, at least not with that terminology)” – but Callens was familiar with the dolphin terminology and selected it for his figure.

The prolific English choreographer Colin Wallace – more than 1,500 dances to his credit – is perhaps best known in the United States for his dance The Zither Man. Many of his dances are very complex creations and it is not surprising that he, too, has written more than a dozen dances with dolphin figures, starting in 2008. One such composition, Cetacean Creation, was written in 2009, the same year as Somerset Square. In addition to a complicated lead into half dolphin heys on the side, Wallace’s dance also includes a half dolphin gypsy.

From Scottish to English to Contras

Once introduced into a dance community, figures are frequently adapted on the dance floor. For example, in the contra dance world in the United States, standard heys for four became established in the 1980s. As dancers became more familiar with the movement, they started improvising and discovered that they could change the figure by doing a push-back or ricochet with another dancer in the center to change their order. Whether following the lead of the dancers or coming up with a similar idea independently, choreographers started to specify that variation in new compositions. Thus, in the contra world, that led to Adam Carlson’s 1999 dance, The Queen Bee, the first with a push-back hey. In a similar manner, GB choreographer Rob Sibthorpe’s dance Dolphinarium introduces a “dolphin swap” adaptation to let two dancers change places mid-stream.

English caller Rhodri Davies explains the background of his contra dance, Just Skylarking: “It was first danced on 27th May 2007 in the ‘Zesty Contra’ dance at Chippenham Festival, which I was calling with the band Skylark. . . . [The dolphin hey] had appeared on the English country dance scene here and this was a conscious attempt to put a dolphin hey into a contra dance. My memory of it is it just appeared in several dances around the same time, and I suspect like a lot of the authors of those dances, having seen it, I thought it was neat and wanted to use it.”

Talk about borrowed figures! Not only does this contra dance Just Skylarking incorporate the dolphin hey (from Scottish country dance via English country dance), it also includes a Petronella twirl (a figure with Scottish origins, and now an established part of the contemporary contra vocabulary) and a 50-year-old figure from modern square dance, the Dixie Twirl, created in 1959 by Roy Watkins. [Ceder, Vic. Definitions of Old Calls.]

The process of borrowing and adapting figures continues. Nearly ten years later and across an ocean, American contra caller and choreographer Luke Donforth had his first encounter with the dolphin hey: “I was at the ECD at the Memorial Day Dawn Dance (May 29) in 2016 [in Brattleboro, Vermont]. Nikki Herbst called a dance, Orca, with a Dolphin hey. It was such fun I decided to write contra dances with it (when I was lying awake in bed, and should have been resting before calling the 3 -7 AM shift.) I eventually came up with five, of which Kinematic Dolphin Vorticity (which borrows the A1 gate figure from Carol Ormand’s Kinematic Vorticity) is my favorite.”

Within two weeks of that event, Donforth initiated a conversation on the Shared Weight callers’ listserv to share his enthusiasm for this figure. His post drew immediate responses from New York, New Zealand, San Francisco, St. Louis, California, and England. By late January, 2019, the Caller’s Box online database listed 27 contras with a dolphin hey.

What’s in a name?

For two decades, unresolved nomenclature troubled dance choreographers and dancers (and dance editors!): there were too many names for this figure and its relatives. In the beginning, the Scottish country dance world saw lively discussion around the use of the term “tandem reel.” In Dancing Dolphins, Skelton has very specific wording: “First couple in tandem, dance a right shoulder reel of three with second and third lady.” However, the detailed instructions for that dance have that active couple standing side by side, as if they were twins in a perambulator, to begin the reels and they are asked to remain parallel to the set throughout the reels. (Unfortunately, the various online videos of the dance do not show this detail.) Of the remaining Dolphin Book dances, some have the active couple starting side by side to each other and some start with one dancer behind the other, though no other dance directions specify remaining parallel to the set. Skelton uses “tandem” to refer to all of these possibilities, a source of some consternation within the RSCDS community, where precise definition of terms plays a strong role.

Various alternative wordings have been offered: falcon reels, shadow reels, swap-over reels, overtaking reels, and even double switchback tandem reels, which is far too wordy for common usage. (However, the “double switchback” wording is helpful because it illustrates that the figure can involve changing the lead at one or both ends of the hey.) For the first fifteen or twenty years, the various nomenclature could be summarized as follows:

Reel/hey for six people dancing as three paired units

  • No name for figure (Shetland, Orkney)
  • Shetland Reel (Pat Shaw)

Reel/hey for four or more people, at least two of whom dance as a unit with no change in lead

  • Tandem Reel (RSCDS)
  • Shadow Hey (Friendly & Sackett)
  • Shadow Reel (Chris Ronald)

Hey for four or more people, at least one couple dancing as a unit, changing leads on the ends

  • No name for figure (Brian Priddey)
  • Tandem Reel (Barry Skelton, RSCDS)
  • Shadow Reel (Ron Coxall)
  • Merlin Reel (some older New York City dancers as reported by Chris Ronald)
  • Dolphin Hey/Reel (Ron Coxall and Barry Skelton)

There is widespread agreement now that the “tandem reel” designation is properly applied to dances such as the Shetland Reel or other dances where one dancer stays in front the entire time through the figure; this conforms to the widespread understanding of the word “tandem” as in “tandem bicycle.” As many have noted, cyclists don’t get up to change position going around each turn! Skelton’s Pelorus Jack was published by the RSCDS in Book 41 in 2000 using the phrase “tandem reel,” and many lamented that choice of words. New Zealand caller Iain Boyd put it bluntly: “On this occasion the RSCDS got it wrong. We have to live with it, but, we do not have to agree with them.” [Boyd, Iain. Posted message to, July 8, 2011, retrieved January 26, 2019.]

The official RSCDS term now for the figure is “alternating tandem reel,” [Scottish Country Dancing Dictionary. “Alternating Tandem Reel of Three,” retrieved January 29, 2019.] though “dolphin reel” is also commonly used. English country dance groups use either “dolphin hey” (USA) or “dolphin reel” (England), and that wording has also carried into the contra worlds in those two communities. Faced with a multiplicity of options, one caller noted simply that he uses the term that will be familiar to most of the dancers at a particular event.

After a lengthy discussion of terms on the Strathspey listserv, Tim Wilson commented:

I have to laugh though. We’ve got “falcon” reels and “dolphin” reels which must mean that most of our reels are neither fish nor fowl. (And, yes, I am aware that a dolphin is not a fish.) Perhaps we can add “haring reels” – for when at least one dancer goes off on their own [Eds: wandering off alone is called “haring off” in England] – or better yet “red herring reels” when one dancer follows a cue that sends him or her in the wrong direction. [Wilson, Tim. “Dolphin reels revisited,” June 28, 2006.]

Dance instructors know that one of the challenges faced by new dancers is learning what all these specialized terms mean in terms of actual movement. Why must we agree on dance jargon? Why not just tell the dancers what to do?

Country dances in all styles make widespread use of short names to cover a series of multiple connected moves. A lengthy description can be useful for explaining an unfamiliar move, especially a complex series of discrete movements, but having a handy figure name is vital for dances that are prompted. In the contra world, for example, “ladies chain,” a modification of the older “ladies change,” is simply a short form of saying, “Two opposite ladies give right hands to each other to change sides, then with the assistance of the opposite gent, join left hands with him and do a courtesy turn halfway around to face back across the set.” Try calling that out in the middle of a lively contra!

More recently created figures in English country dance follow a similar pattern: a “Chevron” is shorthand for one set of corner dancers trading places on the diagonal, then backing straight back across the set, while the other two dancers wait and then cast to the spot vacated by their neighbor. Even staple figures of the ECD repertoire can be thought of as shorthand: a “hey for three” is an efficient way of describing, for example, the opening move of Jack’s Maggot: “The first man passes right shoulder with the second woman. As he loops to the right, she passes left shoulder with the first woman who in turn passes right shoulder with the first man moving up the set while the second woman loops to her left. . .” and so on. Traditional square dance has “Grand Square” as shorthand for a 16-count figure, usually followed by the equally short command, “Reverse!” to cue another 16 beats of movement. The simple phrase, “Teacup chain!” initiates a full 32-beat figure. Especially as one moves through the different programs in modern square dance – Mainstream, Plus, Advanced, and Challenge – a named figure incorporates ever-more-complex series of individual movements, with calls such as Load the Boat, Relay the Deucy, Ping Pong Circulate, Chain Reaction, Recycle, Scoot and Dodge, Percolate, Shazam, Lateral Substitute, and literally hundreds more.


As the dolphin hey figure has gained in popularity, it has begun to lose its back stories – both to the connections to specific Scottish dances and choreographers and to the question of why the figure is associated with dolphins, and which dolphins in particular. (See Appendix 1 for the rest of that story.) Bruce Hamilton writes that: “[i]nterestingly, I first encountered Skelton’s dance Opo in February 2013 in Somerset, England, as an English country dance in duple minor formation! No one there knew where the dolphin hey came from.”

The dolphin hey/reel originated as a simple hey for three couples dancing as paired units in the Orkney and Shetland Islands at least as early as 1880. In 1977, John Drewry introduced the figure into Scottish country dances, while Pat Shaw experimented with incorporating it into English country dances – the latter did not become popular. Drewry and Scottish country dance writers Barry Priddey and Barry Skelton continued to play with the form of the hey/reel, with Priddey adding the changing lead in 1993 and Skelton giving a successful name to the figure and popularizing it in his Dolphin Dances book of 1994. The figure was encountered by individuals who danced in English, Scottish and American contra communities and in various ways and various times introduced it into their repertoires. As more dancers and choreographers encountered the dolphin hey it is certain that more dances will be devised with this intriguing and popular figure. But the value of this tracing of the evolution and dissemination of the dolphin hey lies in its providing proof that, as we enter the second hundred years of the what is called “the folk revival,” the worlds of English, Scottish and American country dance remain vibrant, innovative, and open to fruitful cross-pollination.

Appendix 1 – About the Dolphins Pelorus Jack and Opo

Pelorus Jack was a famous dolphin that piloted ships in Cook Strait, New Zealand between 1888 and 1912. This channel between the North and South Islands is narrow and dangerous, but, according to legend, no shipwrecks occurred when Jack was present. Many sailors and travelers saw Pelorus Jack and ships would even wait for his escort. Jack, whose sex was never determined, has been identified as a Russo’s dolphin, Grampus griseus, an uncommon species in New Zealand waters. In 1904, someone on board the SS Penguin tried to shoot Pelorus Jack with a rifle; Jack was subsequently protected by an Order of Parliament under the Sea Fisheries Act on September 26, 1904, making him, it is believed, the first sea animal in the world to be so protected. Jack continued to guide ships through the straits but, according to folklore, he never helped the SS Penguin again, and she was subsequently wrecked in Cook Strait in 1909. Pelorus Jack was last seen in April of 1912. There are rumors that he disappeared after Norwegian whalers went through the straits, but it is considered more probable that he died of natural causes. “Pelorus” is the name of a bay or sound on the tip of the South Island, but despite his name Jack (or Jill) apparently never visited the bay. In marine navigation a pelorus is a type of “dumb compass” that permits observation of relative bearings; the instrument was named after Hannibal’s pilot, ca. 203 BC.

Opo was a bottlenose dolphin who became famous throughout New Zealand during the summers of 1955-56 for playing with the children of the small town of Opononi on the northern tip of the north island. She was originally named Opononi Jack, based on Pelorus Jack’s fame, since she was presumed to be male. Opo would play with the children and perform stunts and she became a considerable celebrity. The town requested official protection for Opo; this was made law on March 8, 1956, but the next day she was found dead in a rock crevice. She had either become stranded while fishing or was killed by fishermen fishing with dynamite. Her death made national news, and she was buried with full Maori honors near the Memorial Hall.

Footage of both Pelorus Jack and Opo, including the song “Opo the Crazy Dolphin” – the word “crazy” here used like “wicked good” or “really neat” – is viewable here.

Appendix 2: A Pod of Dolphin Dances

This is not intended to be a complete collection of all dances that feature dolphin heys/reels, but a selection of those mentioned in the context of the article. While we hope that these edited versions of the dances are useful to you, we hope that you will turn as well to the originals for more background, for the tunes, or for the choreographers’ original wording.

Note 1: Many of these dances have video links: if the title is in blue, click on that to view the video. Many of the Scottish dances have links to “mini-cribs,” and some of the English country or contra dances similarly link to choreographers’ websites where directions and tunes can be found. These links are shown just above the beginning of the directions to a specific dance.

Note 2: Some of these dances involve dancing with “corners.” To identify their corners, 1s, standing below the 2s, point both hands at each other, then slightly widen the hands to point to people across the set, on either side of their partners. As the active dancers look across the set from this position, their first corner is on the right diagonal, the second corner is on the left diagonal, their third corner is immediately to their left on their side of the dance, and their fourth corner is to their immediate right.

Note 3: For the “tandem-ness” of the paired unit and the change in lead to be appreciated properly (whether as dancers or spectators), dolphin heys/reels require 1) as much space as possible, and 2) that the paired unit follow each other closely, which can be challenging if dancing with a skip change of step, and finally and most importantly 3) engaging, or “covering” as the Scottish dancers term it, with one’s partner at the change in lead. This covering can be seen very clearly in the video of Pelorus Jack. Without these three considerations, the hey looks like a muddle and the playfulness of the dolphins is suppressed.

The Capercaillie

Barry Priddey
The Capercaillie Book of Scottish Country Dances, 1993
Scottish country dance
Longways for 4 couples: 3s and 4s improper
Tune: 32 bar jigs, 8 times through

A1 1-4 1s and 4s set and cast into middle places: on bars 3 and 4, 2s and 3s step up or down to the ends and become “corners”
  5-8 1s and 4s turn partners by the left 1½ and end with 1W facing her first corner (2M) with her partner behind her and 4W facing the 3M, with her partner behind her.
3M 3W
2W 2M

(First half-reel, women in the lead)

2M 3W
2W 3M

(Second half-reel, men in the lead)

A2 1-4 With 1s and 4s dancing as unit, half-dolphin reel of 4 on the first corner diagonal, starting by passing right shoulder with the first corner dancers; dolphin couples pass by the left to face second corners (2W and 3W)
  5-8 Half-dolphin reel; dolphins pass by the left to face 3rd corners
B1 1-4 Half-dolphin reel; dolphins pass by the left to face 4th corners
  5-8 Half-dolphin reel; at the end, as active couples are passing left shoulder in the center,
1W and 4W pull back their right shoulders to face their partners.
(End 2 – 4 – 1 – 3, with 4s and 3s still improper)
B2 1-2 1s and 4s turn partners by the right hand halfway and retain hands . . .
  3-4 . . . to join the other couple for right hands across halfway
  5-8 2s and 4s left hands across while 1s and 3s the same.
(End 2 – 4 – 1 – 3, with 1s and 3s improper)
[Eds: the half-reels are continuous movements for the dolphin couples.]

The capercaillie, the national bird of Scotland, is the largest of the grouse species with a distinctive coloration and a prominent, fan-shaped tail.

Cetacean Creation

Colin Wallace, 2009
English country dance
Longways for 4 couples
Suggested tune: Temperance Reel (4x)

A1 1-2 All set.
  3-8 First long corners half-gypsy right with middle neighbors (who cast right into this), then follow (as trailers in units) next middle neighbors (who have meanwhile changed places by the right shoulder on the left diagonal to face out) into half Dolphin Heys along their own side but finish in middle of other side (by crossing in and over through the end).
(Men’s side: M4, M3, W4, M2. Women’s side: W3, M1, W2, W1.)
A2 1-8 Repeat A1:1-8. (2-4-1-3, middles improper.)
B1 1-4 Middle 4 (still as units) half Dolphin Gypsy L to opposite places (i.e. file counterclockwise halfway, changing leaders when all on center-line), while ends lead away and single-cast back to face partner. (2-4-1-3, all proper.)
  5-8 Partners back-to-back left shoulder, all to face left along own side.
B2 1-4 All 8 circle left halfway.
  5-8 Partners cross by the right shoulder, “Hole in the Wall” style
End 3 – 1 – 4 – 2

Author’s dance notes: “After the setting in each A phrase, the second long corners should turn single left to flow into the Dolphin Hey. Not the normal turn single right after setting R and L, granted, but simple enough if you concentrate slightly more than normal on style and on getting exactly half your weight on each foot after the set (my phrase for this, and already a dance-title, is “Bifurcate Your Burden”). One can then turn either way with equal ease.

“Title: when one “Dolphin” (A1:3-8) is followed by another (A2:3-8), a little “Dolphin” (B1:1-4) may be created.”

Dancing Dolphins

Barry Skelton, 1993
Published in The Dolphin Book, 1994
Scottish country dance
Longways for 4 couples, 3 couples active
Tune: 32 bar jigs, 8 times through (Barry suggested The Lantern of the North)

A1 1-4 Giving right hand in passing, 1s cross and go below, 2s stepping up on bars 3 and 4
  5-8 1s turn by the left 1 and ¼ to end facing the women’s side, 1W to the right of 1M
A2 1-8 1s dancing as a unit: dolphin reel for 3 on the women’s side (1W begins bypassing 3W by the right shoulder); 1s end on the men’s side of the dance
B1 1-8 1s dancing as a unit: a dolphin reel for 3 (1W begins by passing 3M by the left shoulder); end in promenade hold facing the women’s side
B2 1-6 With hands joined, 1s dance out the women’s side, down around the 3W and up the middle to the top of the set
  7-8 1s drop hands and cast to second place

A Dolphin in Broadstairs

Madeleine Smith, 2006
English country dance
4 couples in a square with a fifth couple in the center
Tune: 48 bar tune; Madeleine likes Dingle Regatta

4C 5C 2C
A1 1-8 Partners balance and swing, ending with middle couple facing up
A2 1-4 5s and 1s right hands across
  5-8 5s and 3s left hands across, ending with the 5M, with 5W behind him, facing the 2s
B1 1-8 With the 5s dancing as a unit, the 5s and 2s dance a dolphin hey for 3, starting with 5M passing 2M by the right. The actives change places going around 2M, but then 5W stays in the lead going around him at the other end of the hey.
End with middle couple approaching the 4s, with 5W in the lead
B2 1-8 With the 5s dancing as a unit, the 5s and 4s dolphin hey for 3 with 5W passing 4W by the left to begin. Again, the 5s change roles only once, so they end with the gent in the lead back in the center of the set facing the 1s
C1 1-4 5s and 1s set right and left and swap places with the 5s making an arch and the 1s diving under, and California twirl, 1s, now in the middle, turning to face the 2s
  5-8 1s and 2s set right and left and dive and California twirl to swap places
C2 1-4 2s (now in the middle) and 3s set and dive and twirl
  5-8 3s (now in the middle) and 4s set and dive and twirl.

The progression moves CCW, with the former 4th couple ending as 5s in the center of the set and facing the former 5th couple who are now 1s.


Robert Sibthorpe, 2007
Nineteen to the Dozen
English country dance.
Square set
Tunes: American style 48 bar reels, 4 times through

A1 1-4 Head couples forward and back
  5-8 Heads do-si-do opposites
A2, B1   [Star The Route] Head couples star right 3/4 (6 steps), star left all the way with nearer Side couple (8 steps, going across the phrase of music); head couples star right halfway in the center (4 steps); star left all the way with the other side couple (8 steps); heads star right 3/4 in the center (6 steps). Heads end facing in the direction they are moving, woman behind her partner: viz, from original position, 1C faces the side couple on their left while 3C faces 2C.
B2 1-16 [Dolphin Swap] Head couples (men leading) go through Side couple on their left to start the “dolphin swap” figure. At its conclusion, head women have changed places with the side women who started on their left.
  2W – 3M  
  1M – 4W  
C1 1-4 New Side women chain halfway (all now with original Corners)
  5-8 Promenade …
C2 1-4 … to men’s home positions (women have moved one place clockwise in the set)
  5-8 Partners swing.

Sequence: Heads lead twice, Sides lead twice.

[Eds: In the video, the dancers skip the final ¾ star in the center before the Dolphin Swap.]
Dolphin Swap

This is a standard dolphin reel with three differences.

ONE: When the two women meet for the first time (this is the third pass in the reel), they quickly do a half-turn with the right hand and take each other’s place in the reel, pulling by.
TWO: After the fourth pass, the original Side woman, followed by the Head man, curls round into Head place.
THREE: Also after the fourth pass, the Side man stays on the right-hand track to turn the original Head woman with the left hand (1½ turns or ½ turn – you choose) and guide her into the next figure.

Dolphins in the Sound (Sound of Iona)

Trevor Monson, 2009
One Candle – and other dances
English country dance
Longways for 3 couples (See note)
Tune: Jordan’s Shore by Elvyn Blomfield
Tune is played ABBC.

A 1-2 1s face down and pass neighbor by right shoulder (2s move up).
  3-8 1W follows 1M who goes left shoulder round the 3s (going on the outside of 3W) to face 2M, with 1W still following her partner
B1, B2   With the 1s dancing as a unit, 4 half-dolphin heys on the diagonals, starting by passing 2M right shoulder, then (with 1W in the lead) passing 3M right shoulder, then passing 2M (in 3W’s place) by right shoulder, then 3M (in 3W’s place), ending with the 1s in 2nd place, proper, facing the men’s side, moving into a . . .
C 1-4 1s and 2s right hands across once around
  5-8 1s and 3s left hands across halfway, then partners turn by the left halfway

Trevor notes that he originally wrote this dance as a triple minor longways with a triple progression, but now prefers it as a three-couple dance. The alternative end for the triple minor, triple progression version is:

C 1-4 1s and 3s left hands across halfway, then partners turn by the left halfway
  5-8 1s with the 2s below them, right hands across halfway, then partners turn by the right halfway

The Flight of the Falcon

Barry Priddey
Anniversary Tensome, 1992
Scottish country dance
Longways for 4 couples; 3 couples active
Tune: 32 bar jigs, 8 times through

A1 1-4 1s set and cast to second places, 2s moving up on bars 3 and 4
  5-8 1s turn by the left 1¼ to end with 1M facing his first corner (3W) with 1W standing behind him
A2 1-8 With 1s dancing as a unit, dance a full dolphin reel of 3 with 1st corners (3W and 2M)
B1 1-8 1M, followed by his partner, face his second corner (2W) and dance a full dolphin reel with 2W and 3M; 1s end each facing their first corner (1W face 2M and 1M face 3W)
B2 1-4 1s turn 1st corners by the right, then pass each other by the right shoulder to face second corners
  5-8 1s turn 2nd corners by the right, then pass each other by the right to end in second places, proper

Golden Dolphins

Sue Carter, 2005
Published online
English country dance
Longways for 5 couples
Tune: Golden Dolphins, by Colin Hume

A1 1-4 All set; top and middle couple cast down one place, 2s and 4s leading up
  5-8 Ends left-hands across while the new middles gypsy left
A2 1-4 All set; bottom and middle couple cast up one place, the couples above them leading down
  5-8 Ends right-hands across while the new middles gypsy right. (End 2 – 4 – 1 – 5 – 3)
B1 1-4 Partners two hand turn, ending with the top three couples facing up, bottom two facing down for a
  5-16 “Morris Dolphin Hey” – end four pairs (working with same-sex neighbor) changing the lead each time they start moving in, middle couple “swim alone” *
B2 1-12 Middle couple cross right, turn right, dance a quick whole figure eight round the entire set while the end couples do four changes of a circular hey starting with partner (4 steps per change), then two-hand turn while middles finish their figure eight.
  13-16 Lines fall back; lead forward.

* In an ordinary morris hey for 3 dancers, both top and bottom dancers cast out while 2 follows 1 up and out. 1 passes 3 by the right, then 3 passes 2 by the left, then 2 passes 1 by the right, etc.

In this “morris dolphin hey,” the paired units (dolphins) are on the sides of the dance. Colin Hume writes that: ” . . . the same-sex dancers, for example 2M and 4M, act as one and they keep the same relationship to each other throughout: 2M is always above 4M. Their cast is an individual turn out of the set so that 4M actually takes the lead at the start. Men 4 and 2 pass left shoulder with man 1 and then right shoulder with men 5 and 3, so essentially there are two heys for three up and down the set.”

Colin adds that for the whole figure eight in B2, “the middle couple cross right and the man goes round the bottom four dancers while the woman goes round the top four dancers, then they cross left and turn left to go round the other four dancers, finishing where they started.”

Halsway Manners

Mary Devlin, 1999
Published online
English country dance
Longways for 3 couples
Tune: Halsway Manor Jig, by Liz Donaldson

A 1-4 Lines of three dance forward a double and fall back
  5-8 End couples back to back while middles right shoulder gypsy once & a bit more
(end with 2W ready to head up the set toward 1M, followed closely by her partner)
B1 1-8 With the 2s dancing as a unit, dolphin hey for three on the men’s side of the set (2W pass right shoulder with 1M to begin); end with 2s heading up the set toward the 1W to . . .
B2 1-8 With the 2s dancing as a unit, dolphin hey for three on the women’s side (2W pass left shoulder with 1W to begin); end with 2s heading up the set proper toward the top couple to . . .
C 1-4 2s split the 1s with a handy hand turn 1½ sending the 1s dancing down the set to . . .
  5-8 1s split bottom couple with a handy hand turn 1½ (to change places); polite turn at the end of the line.

End in 2-3-1 order.

[Eds: skip-change of step recommended for the two heys. Also note that the name of the Manor is pronounced “hall-sey” not “hall-sway.”]

Jack’s Dolphin

Chris Turner, 1999
Ramblings of a London Gentleman
English country dance
Square set
Tune: Jack’s Maggot

A1 1-8 With the heads dancing as a unit and the women in the lead, heads dolphin hey with the nearer side couple (1W passes left shoulder with 2M to begin; 3W passes left with 4M). All end at home.
A2 1-8 With the sides dancing as a unit and the women in the lead, Side women lead a dolphin hey with the nearer head couple. All end at home.
B1 1-2 Heads dance half a RH star (4) while sides dance half a RH turn
  3-6 A full left-hand star on the sides (heads are not in the same star as their partner)
  7-8 Heads dance another half a RH star while sides dance another half a RH turn to get back home
B2 1-6 Men promenade three places CCW to progress while women circle left all the way
  2-8 All turn new partner two hands
  3W – 4M  
  2M – 1W  

Just Skylarking

Rhodri Davies, 2007
Directions online
Duple improper contra

A1 1-4 Balance the Circle (join hands four and balance in and out) (2); Petronella turn (2)
  5-8 That again
A2 1-8 Neighbors balance and swing, ending facing down in a line of 4
B1 1-8 Lines of four down the hall, Dixie Twirl*; Lines of four up the hall end in a line facing 2W, with 1s in the center (4)
B2 1-8 With the 1s dancing as a unit, dolphin hey with 1M passing 2W by the right shoulder to begin. End with 1s looking down the hall for a new couple, 2s looking up the hall

* Dixie Twirl: Never let go! Facing down, 1s (in the middle) make an arch, 2W goes under while 2M leading 1W moves to his right so that 1W turns the arch over her partner.

Rhodri writes: “I have run across a variation from Geoff Cubitt that I am quite happy with. It gives you a swing with your partner as well as your neighbor. The B parts are the same.”

A1 1-4 Petronella twirl to the right
  5-8 Swing partner on the side, face across
A2 1-4 Petronella twirl to the right
  5-8 Swing neighbor, end facing down

Kinematic Dolphin Vorticity

Luke Donforth, 2016
Published online
Duple improper contra

A1 1-4 In long lines, forward and back (4)
  5-8 2s hand cast (“gates”) the 1s down through the middle to a line of 4 (4), ending in a line with 1s in the center, facing 2W
A2 1-4 With 1s dancing as a unit, dolphin hey for 3, 1M passing 2W by the left to begin
B 1-8 Partners gypsy and swing
B2 1-4 Circle left 3/4
  5-8 Neighbors swing

Movement Afoot

Alan Winston, 2013
Longways duple minor
Tune: Steciak’s, by Larry Unger

A1 1-2 Men set forward to women (bourée-ish stamping optional*)
  3-4 Men fall back as women come forward
  5-6 All turn single right (women end at home place)
  7-8 Partners turn right halfway
A2 1-8 As above, with women leading. Keep right hands joined at the end, and . . .
B1 1-4 . . . take left hands as well for half-poussette CW to progressed places
  5-8 A double Mad Robin** with 1W and 2M passing through the middle first
B2 1-8 1s acting as a unit, dolphin hey for three: 1M turns around coming out of the Mad Robin to start passing left shoulder with 2M; all finish progressed and proper.

*Alan writes: “I want the A1-A2 to have the people who aren’t going forward to hold their ground while their partners get right up in their faces.”

[**Eds: Partners face. Moving on an oval track and always remaining facing, 1s dance down and then up while 2s dance up and then down. On the first half, 1W and 2M pass through the middle; on the second half, 2W and 1M pass through the middle.]


Barry Skelton
Published in The Dolphin Book; 11 Scottish Country Dances, 1994
Scottish country dance
Longways for 4C, 3C active
Tune: 32 bar reels X 8 (Barry suggested Isle of Sky; that tune is also known as George Brabazon [II], attributed to O’Carolan.)

A1 1-4 1s cross giving right hand and go below, 2s moving up on bars 3 and 4
  5-6 Joining inner hands, 1s dance up to between 2s
  7-8 1s turn by the right to end with 1W facing 2M and 1M facing 2W
A2 1-8 1s and 2s dance a right-shoulder reel of four across the set. 1W ends by facing 2M while 1M, turning around by the left, ends behind 1W
B1 1-8 With the 1s dancing as a unit, dolphin reel of 3 with the 2s, 1W passing 2M by the right to begin
B2 1-4 1s dance down between 3s, cross over at the bottom, and cast up around them to second places, improper
  5-6 1s cross giving right hand
  7-8 Joining hands on the sides, 2s, 1s and 3s set


Barry Skelton The Dolphin Book; 11 Scottish Country Dances, 1994
Scottish country dance
Longways for 4 couples, 3 couples active
Tune: 24 bar reels, 8 times (Barry suggested Teviot Bridge)

A 1-4 1s turn by the right hand and cast down one place, 2s moving up on bars 3 and 4
  5-8 1s dance down between 3s and cast up to middle place, facing up
B1 9-16 With the 1s dancing as a unit, dolphin hey across the set with the 2s (1W passing right shoulder with the 2W to begin)
B2 17-24 1s dance up between 2s, cast to 2nd place and turn by the right hand


Barry Skelton, adapted by Ron Coxall
Walls, 2005
English country dance
Longways duple minor
32 bar reels

A1 1-4 1s cast down to second place, 2s moving up,
  5-8 1s lead through the next 2s below, cast up to finish between their own 2s and face to the right
A2 1-8 With the 1s dancing as a unit, dolphin reel of 3 across the set (1W passes right shoulder with 2W to begin), ending facing up and holding hands in a line of four, 1s in the center
B1 1-4 Lines up a double, fall back, closing into a circle of four
  5-8 Circle left
B2 1-8 Double figure eight: 1s crossing up to start while 2s cast down.

Pelorus Jack

Barry Skelton, 1993
Published in The Dolphin Book; 11 Scottish Country Dances, 1994
Re-published in RSCDS Book 41, 2000
Scottish country dance
Longways for 4 couples, 3 couples active
Tune: 32 bar jigs, 8 times (Barry suggested The Peterhead Express)

A1 1-4 1s cross giving right hands and dance down one place, 2s moving up on bars 3 and 4
  5-8 1s and 3s right hands across, ending with 1M facing his first corner (3W) with his partner behind him
A2, B1   With the 1s dancing as a unit, four diagonal half-dolphin heys, starting with 1M’s 1st corner, then 1M’s 2nd corner, then 1W’s 1st corner position, then 1W’s 2nd corner position
B2 1-4 1s and 2s left hands across
  5-6 1s left-hand turn halfway
  7-8 2s, 1s, and 3s join hands on the side and set

The Potter’s Wheel

Chris Sackett and Brooke Friendly, 2009
Impropriety III
English country dance
Longways duple minor
Tune: The Snowy Path, by Mark Kelly
9/8 meter

A 1-4 Four changes of rights and lefts (right hand to partner to begin)
  5-8 Ones right-hand turn 1½ to end facing 2W (1M in the lead)
B 1-4 With the 1s dancing as a unit, dolphin hey for 3 across the set with 1M passing left shoulder with 2W to begin
  5-6 2s follow the curve of the hey to make big cast up to 1st place while 1s, with 1M in the lead, dance down the middle of set and curve to own side in 2nd place
  7-8 Partners right-hand turn once round

Sapphire Sea

Christine Robb, 2015
Published online
English country dance
Longways duple minor
Tune: Tom Kruskal’s, by Amelia Mason & Emily Troll

A 1-4 Circle 4 once around
  5-8 1st corners right-hand turn once around
  9-12 2nd corners left-hand turn once around
  13-16 1s cast down into the middle of a line of four while 2s lead up and cast to the ends of the line. (All face 2W: 2W – 1W – 1M – 2M)
B 1-8 With the 1s dancing as a unit, dolphin hey across the set with the 2s (1W passes right shoulders with 2W to begin). End in a line of four facing up.
  9-12 Line leads up a double and falls back
  13-16 2s gate the 1s up and around, letting go early to drift into new circles

Somerset Square

Philippe Callens, 2009
Seasons of Invention, 2011
English country dance
Square set
Tune: A Trip to the Bar, by John Hymas

Part I

Al 1-2 Head couples lead in.
  3-4 Head couples fall back, while side couples lead in.
  5-6 All cloverleaf turn single (men left, women right), heads in place, sides moving back to places.
A2 1-2 Side couples lead in.
  3-4 Side couples fall back, while head couples lead in.
  5-6 All cloverleaf turn single (men left, women right), sides in place, heads moving back to place, head women moving to finish in front of their partners facing in
B 1-4 Head couples right shoulder dolphin gypsy three-quarters * to finish in the center of the set, facing each other across the hall, women on the men’s right.
  5-6 Heads, taking nearer hands with partner, set.
  7-8 Heads cross the set passing right shoulder and face the sides.
  9-10 In fours, left hands across halfway
  11-12 Letting go of hands, head women followed by partner move CCW single file into original place where they turn left to face partner, while sides left-hand turn halfway into original place.
  13-16 Partners set and turn single.

Part II

Repeat Part I, with the sides starting the movement in A1 and B

Part III

Al 1-4 All lead in, change hands and lead out.
  5-6 All cloverleaf turn single, men right, women; end facing out.
A2 1-4 Corners lead out on the diagonal, change hands and lead in.
  5-6 All cloverleaf turn single, men right, women left, finishing facing in.
B 1-4 Women move clockwise halfway around the set, first in front of partner, then behind the next man into opposite woman’s place (skip change step).
  5-8 Men move counter-clockwise halfway around the set, first in front of opposite (now on their right) then behind the next woman into opposite man’s place (skip change step)
  9-12 Partners two-hand turn finishing in a double star facing around counterclockwise, men on the inside, partners nearer hands joined.
  13-16 Double star halfway around (skip change step). Finishing in star formation partners face and honor.

*In a dolphin gypsy two couples dance clockwise around each other, each couple acting as a unit. The movement is begun by the women leading and the men following. Having moved halfway around, the men take the lead and the women follow. Partners should have their shoulders parallel to each other throughout this movement.

Under the Influence

Jenna Simpson 2013
Under the Influence, 2017
English country dance
Longways for 4 couples, 1s & 3s improper
Tune: Tom Kruskal’s, by Amelia Mason and Emily Troll

A1 1-4 In circles of 4 at the ends, all balance and Petronella turn one place to the right.
  5-8 In longways set of 8, all balance and Petronella turn one place to the right to end
  2M 4W 4M 3W
  2W 1M 1W 3M
A2 1-4 In longways set of 8, all balance and 2-hand turn partner once round
  5-8 Circle 8 left halfway to end
  3M 1W 1M 2W
  3W 4M 4W 2M
B1 1-8 Using a skip-change step and with nearer hands joined, the 1s (in the center on the ladies’ side), dancing as a unit with 1M in the lead, initiate a right-shoulder dolphin hey across the set with the couple at the bottom; meanwhile the 4s do likewise with the couple at the top. Then, changing the lead and changing hands, the 1s and 4s pass each other in the middle by the right to switch ends into the second half of the heys across the set. Then, changing the lead and changing hands again, the 1s and 4s dance, respectively, into 2nd place proper and 3rd place improper and face out the ends.
B2 1-4 In groups of 4 at the ends, dance a mirror back to back, middles (1s and 4s) splitting the ends to begin.
  5-8 At the ends, circle 4 to the left once round.

Jenna notes that the figure in B1 is a variation on the dolphin hey/reel. “In this dance, the handhold requires the tandem couple to be offset rather than one behind the other, and as the lead is changed, hands are necessarily changed as well. Also, in this dance the tandem couple only dances half a hey at each end (while the end couples dance full heys across the set). Ultimately, the handhold is an embellishment; groups just learning the figure may find it easier to dance without hands.”

Waves of Grain

Bob Green, 2012
CDSS News, Fall 2015
Longways, duple improper: starts in long wavy lines, men facing out
Tune: Wheat, by Martha Edwards
3/4 meter

Al 1-2 Set down the hall, set up the hall,
  3-4 All take two chassé steps down the hall
  5-6 Set up the hall, down the hall,
  7-8 All take two chassé steps up the hall
A2 1-4 Neighbors turn right once and a half
  5-8 Partners back-to-back
Bl 1-8 With 1s dancing as a unit, dolphin hey across the set with the 2s (1W passing left shoulder with 2M to begin)
B2 1-8 With 2s dancing as a unit, dolphin hey with the 1s (2W passing left shoulder with 1M to begin)


Robert Sibthorpe, 2004
Published online in Inscape
English country dance
Longways for 5 couples: Active couples are 1s & 3s
Tune: Windhover by D. Pattenden, 2004

A1 Active couples cross, giving right hands, and cast to the foot of the set, then dance up the center of the set, in order: 3W, 3M, 1W, 1M. Meanwhile, 2s and 4s move up.
End with 3s facing 2W and 1s facing 4W:
5W     5M


4W     4M
2W     2M
B1 With couples 1 and 3 each dancing as a unit, parallel dolphin reels on the diagonal, 3W passing right shoulder with 2W and 1W the same with 4W; 2M and 5W stand still
B2 The dolphin couples veer to the left to dance parallel dolphin reels on the other diagonal, 3W and 2M passing left shoulders to begin as do 1W and 4M. End with the actives in the center, 3W and 1W turning to face partner in a line up and down the set for . . .
A2 . . . a half-reel of 4 along the center of the set, end facing out at ends; 1s at the top cast (M left, W right) to 3rd place while 3s cast (M left, W right) up to 4th place and cross down to bottom place

Appendix 3: The Migration Routes of the Dolphin Hey

The Migration Routes of the Dolphin Hey


“Halsway Manners” US path

Scottish country path

Via England



Shetland Reel – traditional dance




Pat Shaw visits Shetlands, collects dances



John Drewry: The St. Nicholas Boat with a Shetland Reel

Pat Shaw: The American Husband with Shetland Reel



Drewry: Ferla Mor (Shetland Reel for one tandem couple)




Barry Priddey (UK): The Flight of the Falcon




Barry Priddey: The Capercaillie
Ian Simmonds introduces Falcon in NZ
Barry Skelton (NZ) learns the figure, composes Dancing Dolphins, Pelorus Jack




The Dolphin Book is published.
Elma See (AU) learns Pelorus Jack from Iain Boyd (NZ) at NZ Summer School




Elma See introduces dolphins in Ottawa, Bruce Hamilton (US) learns the figure




Brooke Friendly & Chris Sackett (US) learn Dancing Dolphins

Ron Coxall (UK) learns figure in Australia, teaches it at Eastbourne Festival to Sue Carter, Trevor Monson, et al.



Friendly & Sackett use tandem reels in Orcas Rising (a Scottish dance)



Mary Devlin learns figure from Hamilton, writes Halsway Manners




RSCDS publishes Pelorus Jack



Robin Hayden teaches Halsway in Boston, Helene Cornelius learns it




Rob Sibthorpe (UK) meets Pelorus Jack in Australia



Cornelius teaches at Pinewoods, Christine Robb meets dolphins


Skelton okays Coxall adapting dances

Sue Carter: Golden Dolphins



Sibthorpe: Windhover



Coxall publishes Walls



Madeleine Smith: A Dolphin in Broadstairs



Sibthorpe: Dolphinarium (dolphin swap)
Rhodri Davies: Just Skylarking contra
Laurel Swift teaches new morris figures at Pinewoods; Philippe Callens is there



Friendly & Sackett: The Potter’s Wheel
Jenna Simpson begins SCD, meets dolphins

Trevor Monson: Dolphins in the Sound
Callens: Somerset Square (dolphin gypsy)


Bob Green: Waves of Grain



Christine Robb and Jenna Simpson ask composers about using Tom Kruskal’s
Simpson: Under the Influence
Alan Winston: Movement Afoot



Robb: Sapphire Sea




Luke Donforth meets Orca via Nikki Herbst, writes Kinematic Dolphin Vorticity (contra)


The authors wish to thank the many contributors to a discussion on the English Country Dance discussion list, moderated by Alan Winston, in July, 2014, and the Strathspey discussion list, in 2006 and 2011. We also have drawn on (and gratefully acknowledge) personal e-mails (in 2015 and 2019) from these individuals: Heather Bexon, Philippe Callens, Sue Carter, Ron Coxall, Rhoeri Davies, Mary Devlin, Luke Donforth, Rod Downey, Brooke Friendly, Bob Green, Bruce Hamilton, Nikki Herbst, Colin Hume, Martha Kent, Rosemary Lach, Trevor Monson, Frances Richardson, Christine Robb, Chris Ronald, Chris Sackett, Elma See, Jenna Simpson, Madeleine Smith, Laurel Swift, Colin Wallace, and Dave Wiesler. We specifically want to thank the many choreographers who graciously gave permission to include directions for their dances. Our sometimes brief notes are no substitute for going to the original source, which may also include music notation for specific tunes.

by Mark Matthews

Mark Matthews writes and calls for dances in western Montana. This paper was gleaned from his book Cakewalking out of Slavery: A Study of Racism through Music and Dance, 1619-1910). It is part of the four-volume series called “Swinging through American History.” Other volumes include: Square Your Sets: The Birth of American Social Dance, (1651-1935); Promenading toward Democracy: The Great Square Dance Revival, (1935-2010); and Jitterbugging across the Colorline: Desegregating the Dance Floor, (1910-1980). For more information about these books, contact Mark.

For both black and white Americans, the dance known as the cakewalk—which reached a zenith in popularity from the 1870s to the turn-of-the-century—served as a cultural bridge from plantation/frontier society to the modern industrial age. It was the first African-American dance to achieve national exposure and to saturate white culture both onstage and in the parlor. The dance marked the commencement of the transformation of slave art into modern black American culture. It also paved the way for the acceptance of African-American dance and music in the United States—as well as around the world. The cakewalk was the first step, so to speak, that ultimately led to African traditions dominating American pop culture—which in turn helped to racially integrate this country.

By the 1890s, the manner in which people lived in both Europe and North America was radically changing and so was popular culture. “A society which was more and more ceasing to be society in the old sense could not be fed on stale, warmed-over delicacies from the princely kitchen,” observed Curt Sachs in 1937. Whites on the two continents were switching from merely admiring black dance, Sachs said, to adopting “with disquieting rapidity” (as he put it) a succession of slave dances. [Sachs, Curt. World History of the Dance. New York: W.W. Norton (1937), 444-5.]

The origins of the cakewalk are lost in history, but two apocryphal theories surfaced at the turn of the nineteenth century—with both focusing upon the matrimonial sacrament. One report theorized that the cakewalk started with the French blacks of Louisiana around 1700. Apparently, male slaves in New Orleans at that time entered a cakewalk to claim a mate. “In effect the cake walk was not different from the old Scotch marriage watch which required only public acknowledgment from the contracting parties,” reported a newspaper. The dance itself allegedly resembled several old French country dances. [The Washington Post, “Cake-Walk Strikes London, The.” 4 Apr. 1898: 6.]

Also in 1898, a black entertainer in New York City claimed to have heard a tale from an ex-slave that placed the origin of the cakewalk in early colonial Virginia, where a wealthy planter allegedly ordered a competition between two male house slaves who were wooing the same female slave. “Accordingly [the master] gave all hands a holiday, invited his friends as spectators, and prepared for a grand walking match for the hand of the dusky bride. In order to heighten the rivalry he ordered the cook to prepare a monster cake, which should be carried off as a trophy and foundation for the bridal feast of the successful competitor.” [The Washington Post, “Chat About Stage Folk.” 6 Feb 1898: 22.]

Around 1915, Ethel Urlin proposed this intriguing theory: “negroes borrowed the idea of it from the War Dances of the Seminoles, an almost extinct Indian tribe. The negroes were present as spectators at these dances, which consisted of wild and hilarious jumping and gyrating, alternating with slow processions in which the dancers walked solemnly in couples. The idea grew, and the style in walking came to be practiced among the negroes as an art.” However, Urlin offered no sources to support her theory. [Urlin, Ethel L. Dancing, Ancient and Modern. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent (circa 1915). Web. Open Library. Internet Archive. 29 May 2014: 13.]

With no substantiation, the above three theories cannot be taken too seriously. More modern historians believed that the slaves borrowed the structure of the cakewalk from the grand march—or promenade—with which white couples kicked off a ball by entering the hall in file with pomp and circumstance. In turn, the grand march likely evolved from the procession of the twelfth century, during which couples, or trios, walked in formation through a town or village to the accompaniment of strolling musicians. When royalty took part in a procession, Rules of Precedency evolved that determined the order in which the couples would line up—with the king and queen at the head, of course. By the mid-1800s, the elite class in the United States typically opened their balls with a grand march.

The idea of presenting a cake or other edible prize for a dancing or athletic match also had precedence. Aubanus, a writer of the sixteenth century, noted that “at the Easter season there were foot-courses in the meadows in which the victors carried off each a cake. . . .” A Puritan writer of the same era warned: “All games where there is any hazard of loss are strictly forbidden; not so much as a game of stool-ball for a tansy [herbal plant].” And in 1657, a poet alluded to cake, sugar, wine and a tansy as prizes for winning a round at “stool-ball.” [“Our One Hundred Questions.” Lippincott’s (Jan 1889): 137.] Moreover, as Jamison pointed out, winners of dance contests during the late seventeenth century in County Westmeath, Ireland, often won “cake and apples” for their efforts. [Jamison, Phil. Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance. Urbana, Ill.: U. Illinois P. (2015):123.]

During their version of this pageantry, slaves assumed the classic European dance carriage by keeping their torsos erect, lifting their feet from the ground (not shuffling) and moving vertically. However, of even more significance, they added an African flair by injecting a swing into their movements. Dressed in secondhand finery they performed a high-kicking, prancing and strutting walk-around to a musical accompaniment that gained more swing in rhythm as the decades passed.

During slavery times, to prepare for a walk at a Southern plantation blacks first cleared and swept the lawn in the center of their cabins or some other open area, and then marked out a circular track. Oftentimes, in the center of the loop a cake stood on a stand which might be “profusely decorated with greens and festoons of colored tissue-paper.” A white observer described one trophy cake as resembling “a cart-wheel in its dimensions.” The walkers often drew lots for partners. The judges could include either the plantation owner and his guests, or distinguished individuals from the slave community. A variety of instruments—depending on the availability of local musicians—provided the music. Often, the slaves’ own voices accompanied the musicians. Once the walk commenced, the participants pranced around the track until the judges “were weary” and signaled for a halt. The umpires then presented the cake to the winners, “who were then publicly acknowledged, by reason of their superior grace and taste, to have won or taken the cake.” [“Our One Hundred Questions.” Lippincott’s (Jan 1889).]

In some regions slaves participated in a cakewalk that followed a straight line marked by chalk. This likely occurred in confined indoor spaces. “There was no prancing, just a straight walk on a path made by turns and so forth, along which the dancers made their way with a pail of water on their heads. The couple that was the most erect and spilled the least or no water at all was the winner,” according to Lynn Fauley Emery. Slaves referred to this type of performance as the “chalk line walk.” [“Our One Hundred Questions.” Lippincott’s (Jan 1889): 92.]

Slaves in early cakewalks occasionally caricatured idiosyncrasies of movement and behavior of certain whites who they may have known. One former slave explained: “Us slaves watched white folks’ parties where the guests danced a minuet and then paraded in a grand march . . . Then we’d do it, too, but we used to mock ’em, every step. Sometimes the white folks noticed it, but they seemed to like it. I guess they thought we couldn’t dance any better.” [Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Da Capo (1994): 22.] Consequently, slaves used the performance as a means to vent frustrations resulting from physical and psychological suppression—as well as to simply have fun. Whereas whites stereotyped blacks with the Jim Crow dance, blacks turned the tables when they mocked their white oppressors during the cakewalk.

Servants who worked in intimate contact with whites in the “big house” and who developed more refined manners themselves, likely introduced the cakewalk to the field hands. Consequently, participants in the dance avoided hip gyrations, torso twistings, slouched carriages, jig steps, and the general “wildness” of a typical slave dance. Years after the Civil War, a cakewalker explained: “Fancy steps don’t go with us. We have to walk straight, and the most dignified of the steps are the ones that catches the cake. They judges us by the collar and the pants and the most gracefulness in keeping time to the music.” [The Washington Post, “Here and There.” 2 Mar 1896: 3.]

Fancy steps may have been frowned upon, but individuals often developed their own “little tricks of grace.” For the women these might include subtle movements such as “turning [the] toes a trifle out and then giving them a sudden turn in”; or, lifting one foot, “like a young pullet about to steal upon a forbidden flower-bed where the seed has been newly sown,” and then following it cautiously with the other. Sometimes a female dancer “minced, like an old maid that is afraid of not being graceful” only to switch into a “long, swinging step that was the perfection of grace itself.” [Dromgoole, Will Allen. “Sweet ’Lasses.” Arena 17 1 (Dec. 1896-Jun. 1897: 151.] Another writer noted the fine points to be considered were “the bearing of the men, the precision with which they turned the corners, the grace of the women, and the ease with which they swung around the pivots.” [Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. (1912). Electronic text—no page numbers. Project Gutenberg. Web. 1 Apr 2015.]

Leaders at the Cakewalk

Over time different cakewalk styles developed that would lead to various categories of walkers, including “straight,” “fancy,” “burlesque,” and “rag-time.” One writer also described cakewalkers who had “a jumping step in time to the music,” but did not identify their specific category. However, by the turn of the nineteenth century, the style had apparently changed drastically. Eventually, “fancy and original movements” most influenced the judges when picking the winners. [New York Times, “Harvard Can Play Football.” 8 May 1895: 6.] “Legs were kicked higher, steps became faster and more intricate and spectacular leaps and turns were introduced,” reported Todd Arthur in Dance magazine.

Black minstrel shows first spread the cakewalk culture about the country when they performed a “walk around” in front of audiences composed of whites and black freedmen. [Sherlock, Charles Reginald. “From Breakdown to Rag-time.” Cosmopolitan 31 6 (Oct. 1901): 631.] After the Civil War, the cakewalk took on a life of its own. The term itself eventually attained a generic quality, such as “hoedown,” and many people referred to a cakewalk as a gathering for a black frolic. In 1894 a reporter for the Louisville Commercial described a black dance party that featured an evening of quadrilles. At dawn the caller announced “the company assembled will walk for the cake and the two most graceful pedestrians will be awarded the pastry.” [The Washington Post, “Was a Swell Affair.” 5 Feb 1894: 7.]

Louisville claimed to be the birthing grounds of the commercial, or professional, cakewalk. One writer, when referring to the events, described the city as a place where enterprising theatrical managers catered “to the city’s appetite for the novel” (Peterson). References to the cakewalk as a commercial venture and public performance first appeared in the northern press in the early 1870s when the New York Times reprinted an article from the Pottsville Miner’s Journal in Pennsylvania that described a cakewalk that raised money for the local African Methodist Episcopal Church. The headline in the Times read: A Mystery Explained—with the “mystery” being the cakewalk itself. [New York Times, “Mystery Explained, A.” 13 Dec. 1874: 4.]

Over the years, the prize cake became a symbolic award as sponsors offered a variety of awards such as gold-headed canes, silver watches, silver cups, jewelry, and cash. An Atlantic City tavern came up with one of the more unique prizes: “First prize, one case of beer; second prize, one dozen beer; third prize, six bottles of beer; consolation prize, half-dozen of beer.” The winners were required to dispose of their winnings “before leaving the hall.” [New York Times, “Beer Prizes at a Cakewalk.” 12 Nov. 1897: 2.]

Short video of a cakewalk from 1903, from the Library of Congress.

By the late 1870s, Billy and Cordelia McClain, two black entertainers who had migrated north, introduced the cakewalk to Gotham City. “Mr. McClain and I led one on the stage in the South,” said Cordelia McClain. “Well, we were considered a very graceful couple, and were asked to give the walk in the North. We did, and thus started the regular cakewalk.” [New York Times, “Fun for the Darkies.” 2 Jun. 1895: 16.] At the beginning of the craze during the late 1870s, promoters in New York City sponsored extravagant affairs during the Christmas holiday season, at first affixing the cakewalk onto other established forms of entertainment—such as the Great London Circus that appeared at New York’s Hippodrome on December 23, 1877. That evening, the master-of-ceremonies announced that the judges would look for “the greatest elasticity of limb, combined with the greatest ease of motion” from the ten couples. [New York Times, “Walking for the Cake.” 23 Dec. 1877: 2.]

Unlike their coverage of white cultural events, reporters at cakewalks often described in detail many of the personal physical attributes of the participants—especially the shade of their skin color. The journalist at the Hippodrome that evening reported the couples as “all rather brown as to complexion.” In later articles, other writers would provide even more nuanced descriptions, such as “light colored,” “very black,” “four shades lighter,” “yellow,” “peachblow,” “saffron hued,” “kinky headed,” “wooly head,” “brunnettish, but not decided enough for a type,” “a light mulatto couple with scarcely more than a healthily sunburned complexion,” “as black as the silk in which she was clad, both partners matching well in complexion,” and “a charcoal Chesterfield”—the last likely being a reference to Lord Chesterfield who, in the eighteenth century, wrote letters to his son propounding the manners and styles of proper society. No whites were allowed to compete in the competitions.

All reporters, just as they did when covering elegant white social events, also described in detail the style of clothing worn by the “fashion plates on parade.” At the event at the Hippodrome, a reporter described the dress of Miss Gray as: “white satin, with flowers festooned around the skirt. The trail was anywhere from a yard and a half to . . . two yards and a half long, and a large bouquet of white roses ornamented the space between the shoulders, on the front of the dress. Spotless white kids concealed the fairy fingers, and in the left hand was another large bouquet.” [New York Times, “Walking for the Cake.” 23 Dec. 1877: 2.] The men, many of whom worked as waiters, also dressed formally. Their attire frequently consisted of “swallow tail, white necktie, and snowy shirt front.” [New York Times, “Miscellaneous City News.” 30 Dec. 1877: 7.]

In 1878, the walks occurred more frequently at more venues. With the intensifying competition the walkers started to improvise in order to distinguish themselves. One couple “made an innovation by uncoupling their arms, and walking separately,” a Times reporter said. “By this means the grace and freedom of their carriage were much increased.” [New York Times, “Miscellaneous City News.” 30 Dec. 1877: 7.] Another couple “brought down the house by their backward walking . . . .” [New York Times, “Walking for the Cake.” 23 Dec. 1877: 2.] Sixteen years later, so many cakewalks had been reported in newspapers and magazines that one commentator suggested that they had “been described so often that a description of this one would not be of especial interest.” [The Washington Post, “Was a Swell Affair.” 5 Feb 1894: 7.]

A fair number of blacks apparently became professional cakewalkers. In 1886, Moses Green and Miss Heron were declared “the champion cakewalkers of New-Jersey.” By February that year, Miss Martha Garrison of New York had already won three cakes. New York writers dubbed Ben Butler “one of the most redoubtable cakewalkers in the city.” [New York Times, “Intruding at a Cakewalk.” 26 Feb. 1886: 2.] Dandy Jim was “the champion of Boston and Baltimore,” [New York Times, “Theatrical Gossip.” 26 Apr. 1892: 8.] while Luke Blackburn earned the title of “the present world’s champion.” [New York Times, “‘Polo Jim’s’ Cakewalk.” 15 Oct. 1893: 16.] However, he had some competition from Professor Snow, who was known as “the champion cakewalker of every continent.” [New York Times, “City and Suburban News.” 15 Mar. 1891: 3.] In 1896, promoters staged a cakewalk at the Odd Fellows’ Hall in Washington D.C. in order to determine once and for all “who is the best colored cake-walker.” The nominees included Charley Hodge, Howard Skelton, and Tommie Hawkins. [New York Times, “Raided a Camp of Hobos.” 5 Dec. 1896: 8.] Producers, who charged patrons at least twenty cents at the door, soon began paying couples “two dollars a night” or more to participate. [New York Times, “Miscellaneous City News.” 30 Dec. 1877: 7.]

The larger events often drew thousands of avid fans. The crowds not only included white laborers, office workers and merchants—but also members of the rich sporting crowd. Hecklers often insulted and jeered the performers. At one performance at the Hippodrome, after the stage manager had invited one couple back for an encore, “some laughter was mingled with the cheers, a few evil-minded persons believed the couple were called back to be laughed at.” [New York Times, “Miscellaneous City News.” 30 Dec. 1877: 7.] The volume of verbal abuse seemingly increased along with the popularity of the cakewalk—especially when the events moved into more intimate venues and attracted legions of white “butchers, bakers and produce men.” [New York Times, “Intruding at a Cakewalk.” 26 Feb. 1886: 2.] The aggressive harassment prompted a Times writer to berate the “proud Caucasian” who would “sneer at the institution of the cakewalk.” The writer compared the cakewalker not to an artist, but to “a work of art,” and felt dismayed that members of “a superior race” did not “cheer him on in this effort.” [New York Times, “The Cakewalk.” 18 Feb. 1892: 4.]

The commercialization of the cakewalk didn’t keep ordinary black citizens from participating in the jollity at their own gatherings. In 1896, The Washington Post noted that “every other week cakewalks are held in a hall on Sixth Street northwest, and many of the walkers can give the Primrose & West [Minstrel Show] people all the trumps and then beat them out.” [The Washington Post, “Here and There.” 2 Mar 1896: 3.] Blacks living in Culpeper, Virginia, often assembled to cakewalk at a resort called Cedar Hill Park just outside city limits. [The Washington Post, “Four Shot at Cakewalk.” 6 Sep. 1899: 4.] The cakewalk also joined fairs, festivals and “pound parties” as one of the main fund raisers for black churches. [New York Times, “Discord at a Cakewalk.” 18 Apr. 1896: 3.] One such event at Harlem’s Mount Horeb African Methodist Episcopal Church drew “as many white persons as colored ones,” including New York Governor Samuel H. Crook. [New York Times, “Walking for a Cake.” 23 Jul. 1886: 2.]

Private individuals also organized neighborhood cakewalks. At Fishkill Landing, a village on the Hudson River, local resident George Washington sponsored a cakewalk in honor of his good fortune when his wife gave birth to triplets. [New York Times, “George Washington’s Children.” 2 Jan. 1882: 2.] On April 16, 1898, Washington D.C.’s “colored 400” gathered at Columbia Riding Academy for their annual cakewalk. “Not a lady but was arrayed in an abundance of jewelry, and not a ‘gent’ but wore a sparkler in his immaculate shirt bosom,” said a newspaper report. [The Washington Post, “High Stepping for $25 Cake.” 16 Apr. 1898: 9.]

By the mid-1880s the term cakewalk had become part of American-English vernacular. Newspaper and magazine writers routinely utilized the expression “take the cake” to mean winning a prize; or for being the most outrageous or disappointing. Reporters of horse races by the end of the 1880s regularly used the term as a connotation for an easy victory, while boxing reporters picked up the term to describe a fight without much action. Not long after, political pundits started using “cakewalk” to express an easy victory by a politician or to denote a general election that included a number of candidates.

Some whites, especially university men and their female companions, applied burnt cork to their faces before attending local community cakewalks. Whites apparently enjoyed assuming a black persona in this way. In 1895, members of the Monte Relief Society presented a cakewalk and at Terrace Garden in New York where friends of the society “had hands and faces blackened, and were dressed in gorgeous raiment, befitting the characters that they assumed.” [New York Times, “Grand Cakewalk for Charity.” 29 Mar 1895: 3] In Washington D.C., where the Terpsichorean Club presented their annual masquerade ball in 1899, a group of “gaily attired negro imitators” participated in the “prize cakewalk.” [The Washington Post, “Danced for a Prize.” 17 Dec. 1899: 15.] Black face also penetrated the state of Maine, where the Cony High Minstrel Club of Augusta performed a cakewalk in 1899. [“County News.” Maine Farmer 68 7 (Dec. 1899): 4.]

When rich white families abandoned the cities for summer resort towns, many blacks followed in their wake to serve as waiters, porters and dishwashers. Frequently, the blacks staged cakewalks to entertain the white tourists. At Saratoga, New York, for instance, the waiters at the States Hotel presented their cakewalk at the town hall. The New York Times reported that “several parties of fashionables have been made up to look in upon it.” [New York Times, “Society at Saratoga.” 29 Aug. 1889: 4.] The same events also frequently occurred at the Hotel Shrewsbury at Seabright, New Jersey. [New York Times, “Doings at Seabright.” 25 Aug. 1889: 13.] By the end of the century, professional black minstrels also took their traveling shows directly to resorts such as Newport, R.I., where they presented the cakewalk as the pinnacle of an evening’s entertainment. [New York Times, “What is Doing in Society.” 17 Aug. 1899: 7.]

View a “Comedy” Cakewalk filmed in 1903, from the Library of Congress.

Over time, though, many resorts bypassed their African-American employees to invite their white guests to participate directly in the cakewalks. At Daggers’ Sulphur Springs outside Washington D.C., six white couples competed for the “large and tempting cake.” [The Washington Post, “Society Cakewalk at Daggers’ Springs.” 28 Aug. 1892: 13.] Meanwhile, at Bar Harbor, Maine, the Rockefeller crowd put on a “Deisarie” [sic: term unknown] cakewalk during which participants walked down a track as long as a football field and back. [New York Times, “Society at Bar Harbor.” 4 Sep. 1892: 4.] Not to be outdone, the Tatassit C.C. First Annual Regatta at Lake Quinsigamond in western Massachusetts held a cakewalk in 1892 during a clam bake. [“Tatassit C. C., First Annual Regatta.” Forest and Stream 39 13 (Sep. 29, 1892): 277.]

Cakewalks also routinely cropped up during the winter social season at private residences and public parties. At Kenwood, New York, Erastus Corning and his wife served oysters before a cakewalk at their home, for which they hired a black man as judge. [New York Times, “Gayety at the State Capital.” 10 Feb. 1895: 9.] In Baltimore, Mrs. John Moncure Robinson invited a “party of fashionables” to the Globe Brewery in a remote section of the city for some “bohemian” entertainment, which included a cakewalk. [New York Times, “Cakewalk for Baltimore Society, A.” 26 Nov. 1898: 2.] About four hundred guests attended a cakewalk presented by the Sherwoods of Glenbourne, Virginia, in honor of their son’s birthday. [The Washington Post, “Cakewalk at Glenbourne.” 31 Jul. 1899: 10.] Cakewalks became so common in high society that one Philadelphian pundit quipped that “New York’s Four Hundred have taken up the cakewalk as a refined and delightful social amusement, and the colored brother smiles with unalloyed gratification.” [The Washington Post, “Four Hundred in the Cakewalk, The.” 17 Jan. 1898: 6.]

By the 1890s, up to four thousand spectators routinely crowded into New York’s Madison Square Garden to watch “championship” cakewalks. The playbills for the evening’s entertainment also often featured opera singing, buck dancing, jig dancing, and skirt dancing. Chorales of jubilee singers, numbering one hundred voices by 1895, began the proceedings by delivering an hour of “plantation songs.” Smaller singing groups such as the Alabama Quartet, Morning Star (a double quartet), and Little Pickanniny Quartet also performed. Exotic acts included such performers as Mocking Bird Rube, the “Whistling Coon” and ten banjo players. These acts warmed up the crowd for the grand cakewalk which typically began at eleven o’clock sharp. [New York Times, “Missed a Man and Hit a Boy.” 17 Apr. 1892: 9.] [New York Times, “Wheelmen.” 2 Feb. 1895: 6.] Organizers promoted the first extravagant cakewalks held at the Garden as the The Grand Negro Jubilee. [New York Times, “Theatrical Gossip.” 26 Apr. 1892: 8.]

With its competitive nature, cheering crowds, referees, judges and athletic strutters, the cakewalk had always resembled a sports event. By the mid-1890s, the Ethiopian Amusement Company, which had ties to professional sports teams, promoted many cakewalk spectacles at Madison Square Garden. Pat Powers, who headed the enterprise, also presided over the Eastern Baseball League. Powers soon hired well-known boxing referees and baseball managers to “undertake the arduous and ungrateful task of picking a winning couple out of fifty at the big cakewalk in Madison Square,” the New York Times reported. [New York Times, “Cobwebs Beaten by Newburg Shooters.” 22 Feb. 1895: 6.] In addition, that newspaper began listing cakewalk competitions in its Calendar of Sports. Just like baseball teams, the New York cakewalkers traveled to competitions in many cities and states. [New York Times, “Challenge to a Cakewalk.” 13 Jan. 1898: 1.]

The cakewalk also infiltrated so many operettas and plays that Joseph Grant Ewing, in a satirical article for Puck, proposed to write a “unique” play for the stage in which “there will be no . . . cake-walks . . . ” [Ewing, Joseph Grant. “Modern Fairy Tales.” Puck 45 1149 (15 Mar. 1899): 11.]

The cakewalk stimulated so much curiosity among whites about black culture in general that they thronged to productions of black “spectacles.” In 1894, a full cast of “Ethiopian” entertainers appeared for the first time in a theater on Broadway when the Bijou Theatre staged The South before the War. The scenes were set on a cotton plantation, reported one critic, “and there is no drama to speak of, but, for people who like genuine darkey songs and dances and part singing, the performance will doubtless have some attractiveness.” The evening’s entertainment concluded with a prize cakewalk. [New York Times, “Colored Folks at the Bijou.” 20 Nov. 1894: 5.] The seeds for black theater during the Harlem Renaissance that would flourish from 1918 to the mid-1930s had been planted. The following year, black entertainers set up a living history spectacle called Black America at Ambrose Park in South Brooklyn that depicted life on a Southern plantation. The cast included five hundred people who lived in cabins on the premises. A cakewalk occurred every evening. [New York Times, “Fun for the Darkies.” 2 Jun. 1895: 16.]

The cakewalk also influenced European culture, both as stage entertainment and as a participatory dance. In January of 1898, the Pall Mall Gazette reported that “the interest excited by the novelty of the thing is giving place to an enthusiastic appreciation of the grace and charm of the performance.” [The Washington Post, “Cake-Walk Strikes London, The.” 4 Apr. 1898: 6.] In 1899, the Washington Post confirmed reports that the cakewalk was “tickling London mightily in farces, extravagances, and vaudeville.” [The Washington Post, “Theatrical Notes.” 8 Jan. 1899: 24.] And, in 1912, some Parisian critics referred to the dance as the “acme of poetic motion.” [Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. (1912). Electronic text—no page numbers. Project Gutenberg. Web. 1 Apr 2015.]

Black invention was also heavily influencing popular musical tastes during the later part of the nineteenth century, when genres such as classic blues, jazz, boogie-woogie and urban blues first took root. However, two other musical genres fully blossomed at the turn of the century. The first, the “coon song,” was short-lived, but the other, ragtime, remained a musical force into the next century. By 1900, rag-time “professors” often warmed up the crowds at cakewalks by participating in piano contests. [New York Times, “Grand Central Palace Cakewalk.” 25 Jan. 1900: 10.] Individual singers also crooned ragtime at the competitive cakewalks, quartets harmonized it, and one hundred member-strong jubilee chorales shouted it. At Washington’s Convention Hall in 1900, six hundred spectators watched eighteen couples vie for the cake as the United States Marine Band struck up a rag-time selection. [The Washington Post, “Convention Hall Cakewalk.” 20 Feb. 1903: 8.]

However, by that time, the popular reign of the cakewalk was about to end. Only three years later, another cakewalk at Convention Hall drew only “a small crowd” that made the hall look “deserted.” [The Washington Post, “Convention Hall Cakewalk.” 20 Feb. 1903: 8.] However, by then blacks had moved on to a different form of dancing that was even more grounded in their own heritage—the one-steps, or zoo and barnyard dances, that included the grizzly bear, bunny hop, turkey trot and Texas tommy. And, there was much, much more to come.

The tide had turned. Whites were dancing like blacks. In time, they would share the dance floor with blacks. And finally, members of the two races would even dance together. Racial integration in America began to seem feasible.

The Cakewalk (with sound) from the late 1930s.

by Douglas Allchin

Douglas Allchin has been a morris dancer since 1984. He has danced with 9 different teams, and adapted and written many morris dances. He was a founding member of the longsword team Guyz with Tiez in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2008.

Traditional longsword dances from northern England might easily be susceptible to the unflattering (but not uncommon) stereotype of being overly tedious and stale. Six dancers, linked in a ring holding stylized “swords,” tread ceremoniously, while lowering or raising particular swords, stepping over or passing under them, repeating each move six times (once for each dancer’s sword), maintaining an unrelenting steady pace to a rhythmic but sometimes repetitive tune. However, a few longsword teams have ventured into creative approaches [Barrand, Anthony. 2006. Dancing with swords in the DVRA, Part 1: Longsword. American Morris Newsletter, 26(2).] . Here, in the spirit of further reinvigorating the tradition, I report on another new longsword dance, consisting mostly of original figures and including a series of new locks: those self-supporting arrangements of interwoven swords presented aloft to the audience.

The dance is called “Lock and Dam.” The title refers to an engineering feature of the Mississippi River. Several dams punctuate the river channel, and boats navigate the change in levels through a series of locks. Lock and Dam #1 is situated in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the dance originated. The imagery of the dance evokes the river, with various spinning gestures and undulating waves reminiscent of the twirling turbulence and flow of the river’s water. The second reference is more familiar to sword dancers, and refers to the use of seven different sword locks displayed in the course of the dance.

Lock and Dam dancers
Figure 1 Guyz with Tiez, 2013. The dance received its formal premiere February 17, 2013, at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the 28th Annual Half Moon New York Sword Ale. A video by Jeffrey Bary is available on e. Performing is Guyz with Tiez, founded in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul), Minnesota in 2008. Performers were (from left to right in the opening segment of the video): Douglas Allchin; Marc Scovill, Hassan Saffouri, Andy Kedl, Matt Tillotson, Derek Phillips, and musician Bob Walser.

The dance is unique in being based on a 12-count phrase, rather than an 8- or 16-count phrase. The appropriate music is a 3/2 hornpipe, such as “Three Rusty Swords,” “The Dusty Miller,” or “The Presbyterian” (sample one). To provide for a more dance-like quality, in contrast to mere walking, the 12th beat of the phrase features a modest back step, as a gentle form of kinetic punctuation.

The dance figures in detail are as follows. The opening begins with a simple unlinked ring, with swords resting on the shoulder. At the end of the phrase, the dancers swirl tightly out to the right, and on the 12th beat, step back into two facing lines. The lines cross through, passing right shoulders and clashing swords, then circle clockwise. At the end of the next phrase, the tight twirl out goes to the left and the Cross-and-Clash is repeated, passing left shoulders and turning into a counterclockwise circle. All dancers then make another tight twirl to the right and lower swords to form the sword ring. The first Chorus follows.

The Chorus is a simple ring movement with a flourish of the swords that reverses the direction of the dancers. Swords are generally held with the tip in the center of the circle, forming spokes of a wheel rather than a peripheral ring. The tips are then raised, and in a circular motion, lowered again, followed by the raising of the hilts, which then fold into the center of the set (as the tips move out) and the dancers all pivot (on the 12th-beat back step) and continue stepping briskly in the opposite direction. The gesture is essentially repeated again to resume the original direction. This figure was named Flexagon (referring to the similar folding action of a paper polygon puzzle made popular by Martin Gardner).

The dancers use the 12th-beat back step to reverse direction. Another modified Flexagon is performed. In one fluid motion the hilts (now on the inside) are lifted into a central column, then lowered, slid out, raised, guided in and down (one large circle with the right arm). Meanwhile, the tips (in the left hand) are slid to the center, then swept out, up, in, down, and out again. In all, the arms have made two grand opposing circles. Grips are now overhand. At the beginning of the next phrase, all dancers, still circling clockwise, raise swords, pivot clockwise (turning over right shoulder) and face in. This allows them to form a standard (6-pointed) lock.

The lock is displayed as the dancers open into two facing lines on the 12th-beat back step (as in the Opening). The lines cross, passing right shoulders, then turn right and circle. On the next back step, the lines reform, and cross passing left shoulders. The lock is lowered, swords are drawn through and grabbed by the left hands. The Flexagon Chorus follows.

The first figure is a variant of double-under. The variation is to continue the figure, revolving several times, allowing the revolving horizontal swords to take opposing poles: Paddlewheel.

On a subsequent pass, dancers #3-#6 consolidate in a square. #1 and #2 (holding #1’s sword), rather than leading through the bridge under #4’s sword, pass under all 4 dancers as they jump: a figure called Four-Up. Just for dramatic effect, #1 and #2 carry the sword over the dancers’ heads again and swoop down to pass under the four jumping dancers a second time.

As #1 and #2 return the sword over the other dancers’ heads again, they bring the swords on the inside of the set, collapsing the six swords into three anti-parallel pairs. With modest passing of hilts and tips, the dancers are now divided into three pairs. The dancers separate and begin an Over-Under Hey.

After 2 full passes, the pairs switch, using the 12th-beat back step as a lead-in, into a Horizontal Hey. The 12-beat music allows all six dancers to align on the back step, a small visual punctuation.

The Delta Lock
Figure 2 The Delta Lock. At the end of 2 full heys, the dancers walk forward into a lock, one based on the notation of the Kirkby Malzeard team for their double triangle lock.

  [Allsop, Ivor & Barrand, Anthony (Eds.). 1996. Longsword Dances from Traditional and Manuscript Sources. Brattleboro, VT: Northern Harmony.] . Odds are now on the left of each pair. All raise their right hand (hilt). As the set collapses, Odds will meet a new Even on their left. Odd right hand goes over Even right hand, Odd left hand over Even left hand. The lock virtually forms itself as the swords move in, with a final weaving of the tips on the outside corners by the left hands. On this particular occasion, the dance uses a slight variant of the Kirkby Lock. #1 passes the #1 hilt over the #2 sword to the left hand, while the #2 tip is transferred to the right. The paired (anti-parallel) swords enter the lock as an “X”. The hilts of those 2 swords are now slid further into the lock: the Star Trek Delta Lock (Figure 2). This lock variant was first conceptualized by Andy Kedl, of Guyz with Tiez.

The lock is displayed as the dancers form the two lines which pass through and circle twice. Flexagon Chorus.

The next figure is a variant of the traditional single guard. #1 raises swords and turns back and circles the set: the familiar single guard. Then #1 turns again followed by #6, who raises the trailing sword: “double guard.” On the third phrase, #1 is followed by #6 and also #5: “triple guard”. On the fourth phrase, all the dancers follow, inverting the set: a figure collectively known as Progressive Guard.

The next lock is an adaptation of one that we trace to Rick Mohr. While walking clockwise (inverted), Odds progress one position (past Evens). All turn over their left shoulder to face in. Odds form an interior triangle with their 3 swords. The remaining 3 swords are woven in, forming an exterior triangle rotated 60 degrees to the interior one: the Rick-Mohr Lock. (Forming the lock from an inverted set was my own innovation.)

The lock is shown. Dancers do their standard pass through and rounds, but on this occasion undoing the lock requires a special sequence. Dancers pass through only once, passing left shoulders and then circle counterclockwise. #1 lowers the lock upside-down (accommodating the earlier set inversion). Dancers re-grab and as the phrase ends, Odds step in and allow the Evens to pass outside them, returning to their original position as the lock opens. Flexagon chorus.

The next figure starts as the Odds bring their hilts high and fold their swords inward, stepping in to the center. There are now 3 spokes of paired swords. The wheel rotates, Evens on the outside. On the next phrase, the spokes are inverted: namely, the Odd hilts and Even tips arch up and outward, as the Odds step out. The Evens step in, sweeping under with their own hilts and Odd tips, raising them in the center before settling them again at waist level. This alternation repeats several times: a figure called Odds and Evens.

On the third cycle (say), the Odds pass their tips back and accept the new tips. The set is now separated again into three pairs of anti-parallel swords. As the new phrase begins, each spoke-pair spins as a pair to the outside (clockwise). They spin 360 degrees and reform the spoked wheel. The wheel rotates again. On the new phrase, each pair spins again, but a forceful 540 degrees, reforming the spoked wheel that now rotates in the reverse (clockwise) direction: the figure called Propellor (yet another visual allusion to the turbulent water theme)

The Bill Morelock
Figure 3 The Bill Morelock

As the music begins a new phrase, the pairs spin again to the outside (this time, counterclockwise), spinning 270 degrees to face into the set. Odds cross hilts over to their left hand, tips under to the right hand. The lock is formed using the standard Kirkby Malzeard method (described above): the Bill Morelock (named after a local classical radio personality).

A pass-through, circle and Flexagon Chorus leads to the next figure. #1 begins the basic movements of a single guard (turning out over the right shoulder). However, the other dancers now remain still. At the same time, #4 begins a “reverse” single guard, turning out over the left shoulder rather than the right. #1 and #4 soon meet, #1 passes on the outside, swords high. On the opposite side of the set, #4 passes on the outside. The other dancers adjust their hand heights to accommodate the sword movements. #1 and #4 return to place. The figure is repeated with #2 and #5, and then with #3 and #6: the figure called Helicopter.

The Argyle Lock
Figure 4 The Argyle Lock

As a lead-in to the next lock, Helicopter is performed once again (#4 lead, #1 anti-pole). As they return to position, the set opens, #1 and #4 pass through the set, passing left shoulders and gypsying 180 degrees. All now face in, circling counterclockwise. #1 and #4 form a central diamond with their swords. Without any release, the remaining two swords are woven along the side. Step back and show: the Argyle Lock (Figure 4). I envisioned this new lock myself, and then worked out the mechanism for forming it without breaking the ring.

Again, two pass-throughs, with circling. The lock is undone by reversing the motions, #1 and #4 crossing through, passing right shoulders. Flexagon Chorus.

The next figure draws on familiar elements in a special combination. The sequence is prepped by doing Single Under with #5 starting under #6’s sword, then #6 under #1’s sword. #1 follows the sequence, passing under #2’s sword, turning left. But on this third occasion, each dancer turns to an alternate side (Evens to the right, Odds to the left), lifting their sword and adding it to the raised ensemble. Each set of 3 dancers rotates, and the assemblage of six swords rolls above: Bridge (also called Meat Grinder by others).

The key variation is on exiting the figure. #1 crosses the gap and begins circling on the other side. Other Odds follow, lowering their swords and taking their respective positions in the ring. The set is now inverted: prime position for a lock. However, during the transition, #1 has surreptitiously removed his sword from the ring, bringing the tip of #6’s sword to the left hand of #2.

The (Hennepin Avenue) Bridge Lock
Figure 5 The (Hennepin Avenue) Bridge Lock

The five remaining dancers form the standard 5-sword star lock. #4 shows the lock, #1 the sole stray sword: the 5 + 1 “Lock”. All dancers take note of the mistake: “Damn!” The lock is lowered, the point closest to #1 is opened, and the wayward sword woven in and the new lock shown again: the Bridge Lock (Figure 5). The new lock pattern and the mechanism for forming it were also worked out by me.

Pass-through sequence and Flexagon Chorus.

The final figure sequence again begins with a familiar figure. #6 and #1 pair behind #6’s sword for Double Under (under #3’s sword). The figure progresses by position, next under #1’s sword, then #2’s. Here, there is a reprise of Paddlewheel, with the #2 and #5 swords at opposite sides of the circular sweep.

The transition to the next figure is tricky, but the ultimate effect is quite dramatic: the swords switch from revolving cylindrically around a horizontal axis, to spinning on two vertical axes. After passing under the #5 sword, #4 crosses in front of #3, under #3’s sword (passing by the left shoulders) turns inwards, and brings the #3 sword down next to his own sword. #4-3 pass under the #2 and #5 swords, now joined together, and being rotating right with #5 as a threesome. Symmetrically, #1 passes under his own sword, turning right shoulder, brings it down next to the #6 sword. #1-2 go under #5-#2 swords, turn left with #6. Each line turns twice: the figure called Eggbeater.

The Portcullis Lock
Figure 6 The Portcullis Lock

The final lock flows naturally from this sequence. From Eggbeater, after passing around #5, #3 and 4 pass around each other (gypsy) an extra 360 degrees, while #1-2 pass around #6. All face in, now in a circle. Circling continues counterclockwise while the lock is formed. The swords align in a simple square checkerboard weave, the infamous Portcullis Lock, as shown Figure 6. Note that here, it is easier for #1 to weave his hilt under the tip of #3’s sword, re-grabbing to pull and extend it fully: a small “cheat” that converts an authentic-but-awkward position into a smooth and convenient move. We have not found documentation for making this well-known lock without breaking the ring, or through a mechanism that is as easy as we have discovered.Show the lock and complete the standard cross-through sequence. The elegant challenge of the Portcullis Lock is to also undo this lock smoothly. #1 undoes the final weave-under and re-grabs. Now all the swords slide outward. #1 and #2 gypsy around each other, while #3 and #4 do the same. The circle is restored.

In our closing, the “Cross-and-Clash” sequence of the opening is reprised. The circle breaks and #1 leads the unraveling line to face the audience.

These are the basic notes. As in any dance, dancers need to negotiate and accustom themselves to the nuances of motion and transition at each particular position. Practiced efficiency on the locks is essential if the pace of the dance is not to be compromised. Careful planning and adjustment can also align the end of figures and choruses with the end of long phrases of the music, convenient for changing tunes.

The complete sequence is summarized briefly below. Like the Mississippi River itself, whose eddying water movements provided inspiration, the dance is long—in the range of 10½ minutes. We often perform only one-half at a time, using the opening and closing sequence and three of the figure-lock combinations.

Lock and Dam Sequence of Figures

  • Cross & Clash (Processional)
  • Chorus

  • Hexaflexagon
  • Standard Lock / Chorus

  • Paddle-Wheel
  • 4-Up (Ankle-Biter)
  • Vertical and Horizontal Heys
  • Star Trek Delta Lock / Chorus

  • Progressive Guard
  • Rick Mohr-Lock / Chorus

  • Odds & Evens
  • Propellor
  • Bill MoreLock / Chorus

  • Helicopter
  • Argyle Lock / Chorus

  • Single-Under into Bridge
  • 5+1 Lock
  • Bridge Lock / Chorus

  • Double-Under into Paddle-Wheel
  • Eggbeater
  • Portcullis Lock / Chorus

  • Cross & Clash (Recessional)

A final note on the locks. The Standard Lock, Kirkby Malzeard Lock, and Portcullis Lock are all well known [Allsop, Ivor & Barrand, Anthony (Eds.). 1996. Longsword Dances from Traditional and Manuscript Sources. Brattleboro, VT: Northern Harmony.] . The Bill Morelock and Star Trek Delta Lock are adaptations of the Kirkby Lock, but we have not encountered other teams using or recording them, or forming them with such efficient mechanisms. We are indebted to Rick Mohr for his lock, which we note is a radially symmetrical lock that goes beyond those in Krause’s 1990 review [Krause, Rhett. 1990. Review of rapper and longsword locks. Country Dance and Song, 20: 34-39.] . The Argyle Lock and Bridge Lock are symmetrical also—although bilaterally along a mirror-image line, not radially around a central point. These last two locks have not yet been documented, so far as we know, and seem to open the way to developing other such unfamiliar locks. Presenting them all in this dance, along with the other new figures and adaptations, is an implicit invitation for others to innovate further in the longsword tradition.


All the figures and locks, as well as the sequence, are my own choreography except where noted. The dance was developed as a team effort with Guyz with Tiez, who helped sample, test, explore, tinker, and develop each move leading to its performance.

by Jesse P. Karlsberg, Emory University

Jesse P. Karlsberg is senior digital scholarship strategist at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) at Emory University. Jesse’s research analyzes connections between race, place, folklorization, and American music, focusing on the editions of The Sacred Harp and their attendant music culture. Jesse is editor-in-chief of of Sounding Spirit, a National Endowment for the Humanities–funded collection of digital and print editions of vernacular sacred American music co-published by ECDS and the University of North Carolina Press. An active Sacred Harp singer, teacher, composer, and organizer, Jesse is the vice president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, the non-profit organization that publishes The Sacred Harp, editor of Shape Notes: Journal of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, and research director of the Sacred Harp Museum.


The state of Sacred Harp in 2018 would have been scarcely imaginable to those like folklorist George Pullen Jackson and singer and English scholar Buell Cobb, who questioned in the 1940s and 1970s, respectively, whether the style would survive past the year 2000. Both scholars pointed to its aging participants and a musical style seemingly irreparably out of fashion. [George Pullen Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands: The Story of the Fasola Folk, Their Songs, Singings, and “Buckwheat Notes” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933); George Pullen Jackson, The Story of The Sacred Harp, 1844–1944: A Book of Religious Folk Song as an American Institution (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1944); Buell E. Cobb, The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989).] Even advocates like Georgia singer and clothing plant manager Hugh McGraw, who ceaselessly promoted Sacred Harp singing to new audiences, set their sights on less ambitious targets than Sacred Harp’s current geography, envisioning a national Sacred Harp community stretching across the United States that has since materialized and been exceeded. As recently as 2008, the style was confined to the United States and pockets of England, Australia, and Canada. Today, Sacred Harp is sung on four continents in twenty-five countries. By the time you read this essay, the landscape may have shifted yet again.

Sacred Harp in Europe, Oceania, East Asia, and the Middle East is both a global and local phenomenon. Though vastly expanded in geography and demographic variety, the style is still a “subcultural sound,” a “micromusic,” convening small groups of people with strong community bonds often beneath the level of broad cultural attention [Mark Slobin, Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West (Wesleyan University Press, 1993).] even as it regularly achieves local and even national press coverage. Despite its increasing reach, the new span of Sacred Harp singing is nonetheless limited in certain respects: First, the style has spread only to developed countries where US popular culture and media have a large imprint and garner a comparatively favorable reception. The style continues to attract an overwhelmingly white group of participants, with the exception of singings in East Asia, which have drawn Asian and white American expatriate participants. In each country, for the members of a local singing “class,” Sacred Harp’s reception follows and reacts to a history of economic and cultural relationships with America, and with the southern United States. The outsize presences of these cultural and economic forces far exceed that of Sacred Harp, and differently condition what participation in Sacred Harp means to new singers. Second, participation carries longstanding associations with deep roots in the “revival” of Sacred Harp in the United States. The style spreads abroad through transnational networks emulating practices associated with folk cultures of the southern United States. It also travels along art music and academic networks engaged in the cultivated celebration, performance of, and adaptation of material associated with these folk practices.

Even as economic and cultural relationships with the United States and an association with southern folk culture direct Sacred Harp’s spread, other factors facilitate the style’s international transmission. Features of Sacred Harp music and associated cultural practice have transcultural appeal. Aspects of Sacred Harp singing’s music culture engage participants in a full voiced, participation oriented, deeply spiritual, and accessible yet musically engaging practice and repertoire. Ethnomusicologist Ellen Lueck convincingly describes how the support of US-based Sacred Harp organizations, international singing groups’ “charismatic and enabled leadership,” and the affordances of the contemporary social media landscape have helped bolster Sacred Harp singing abroad. [Ellen Lueck, “Sacred Harp Singing in Europe: Its Pathways, Spaces, and Meanings” (Ph.D. dissertation, Wesleyan University, 2016), vii.]

This essay documents the present scope of Sacred Harp singing outside the United States and examines the eighty-five-year-old folklore genealogies that factor into the style’s recent spread. Although I focus on how what I call folklore’s filter made the expansion of Sacred Harp to new people and places possible, [Jesse P. Karlsberg, “Folklore’s Filter: Race, Place, and Sacred Harp Singing” (Ph.D. dissertation, Emory University, 2015).] I touch briefly on other factors in the dissemination of Sacred Harp beyond North America: the unique musical features and practices that support Sacred Harp’s adoption and the similarities and differences in the histories of transnational political, economic, and cultural exchange affecting the form of participation for many. These factors are critical to an understanding of Sacred Harp singing’s new international reach. First, however, I’ll briefly recount the history and practice of Sacred Harp singing itself.

Sacred Harp Singing

Front cover of The Sacred Harp, 1844. Courtesy of Wade Kotter.
Front cover of The Sacred Harp, 1844. Courtesy of Wade Kotter.

Sacred Harp is a practice of sacred community singing from the tunebook The Sacred Harp. First compiled in 1844 by West Georgians Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha James King, The Sacred Harp has been revised every generation or so by southern singer-teacher-composers. The book articulates a pedagogical system and adopts a bibliographic form, both of which have roots in eighteenth-century New England singing schools, and adopts a shape-note system of music notation dating to an 1801 Philadelphia tunebook called The Easy Instructor. The book features songs in three- and four-part harmony, mostly by American composers, in a variety of styles collectively described as dispersed harmony. The songs are settings of metrical poetry largely drawn from a corpus of English Protestant hymnody also widely incorporated into denominational hymnals.

Shape-notes and the major scale from the rudiments of music of The Sacred Harp, Fourth Edition, 1870
Shape-notes and the major scale from the rudiments of music of The Sacred Harp, Fourth Edition, 1870, and The Sacred Harp: 1991 Edition. Courtesy of the author and the Sacred Harp Publishing Company, respectively.

Since its publication, The Sacred Harp has been connected to group singing institutions called conventions, which spread across the South in the decades after the 1845 establishment of the Southern Musical Convention in West Georgia. Conventions feature voluntary associations of singers seated by voice part in an inward-facing hollow square, at the center of which stand a succession of song leaders directing the group in one or more songs of their choice from the tunebook. The proceedings frequently last from morning to mid-afternoon, punctuated by short breaks for refreshments, announcements, and a sumptuous mid-day “dinner on the grounds.” The book’s compilers envisioned its sacred songs as suitable for worship by any Christian denomination, and its singers spanned the nineteenth century’s rural southern denominational landscape, encompassing men and women, and including black and white southerners. Yet race and gender affected the form of participation. Women rarely led songs in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and black singers were relegated to church balconies during slavery; singings became largely segregated after Reconstruction. The Sacred Harp’s connection to the music culture of singing conventions and its wide array of stakeholders committed to its success—thanks to their conscription in contributing to or revising the book—helping The Sacred Harp achieve wide adoption in a competitive landscape. The Sacred Harp outlasted an array of nineteenth-century competitors, surviving into the twentieth century as other books fell out of print and were supplanted by Sabbath School and gospel singing. By the early twentieth century, newer musical forms far exceeded Sacred Harp singing in popularity. To some, the style seemed outmoded and in need of modernization. Three competing groups revised the book in the wake of the original compilers’ deaths. These revisers adopted different approaches to making The Sacred Harp new while retaining its distinctive qualities that had long endeared the book to devoted followers. In balancing old and new, these editors attempted to redefine participation in a historical tradition as a modern. Embracing the conservative core of the style’s music, the most successful reviser modernized aspects of the book’s design and presentation, charting a path forward while setting the terms of what has remained an ongoing struggle for participants. [Jesse P. Karlsberg, “Joseph Stephen James’s Original Sacred Harp: Introduction to the Centennial Edition,” in Original Sacred Harp: Centennial Edition, ed. Joseph Stephen James and Jesse P. Karlsberg, Emory Texts and Studies in Ecclesial Life 8 (Atlanta, GA: Pitts Theology Library, 2015), v–xvi; Karlsberg, “Folklore’s Filter,” 25–74.] Like Sacred Harp’s early twentieth-century tunebook editors, singers today regard participation in the style as an ongoing, evolving practice, rather than the revival of something from the past, and sometimes struggle to articulate their relationship to this long and complicated history.

Folklore’s Filter

In the early twentieth century, participation in Sacred Harp singing was connected to a sense of local and personal belonging. The style’s depiction as a form of folksong beginning in the 1930s, which also involved the selection of particular local Sacred Harp groups as representative of traditional practice—what I call the style’s passage through folklore’s filter—provided an avenue for people with no personal connection to Sacred Harp’s original settings to imagine their active participation. To understand how Sacred Harp singing became folk music in the twentieth century, it is important to recognize that cultural phenomena do not objectively exist as folk practices. Instead a practice must be characterized as folk, usually by ideologically motivated cultural interveners. To describe a practice as folk entails detaching something occurring in the present and a casting it into what folklorist Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett describes as folklore’s “peculiar temporality.” [Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Folklore’s Crisis,” The Journal of American Folklore 111, no. 441 (July 1, 1998): 281–327, doi:10.2307/541312.] This process is selective, a form of adaptation and rearrangement rather than a neutral transplantation. [David E. Whisnant, “Turning Inward and Outward: Retrospective and Prospective Considerations in the Recording of Vernacular Music in the South,” in Sounds of the South, ed. Daniel W. Patterson (Chapel Hill: Southern Folklife Collection, Manuscripts Department, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, 1991), 165–81.] Relocating present practices in the past also imbues music cultures with a new set of values associated with the folk label, such as oral transmission, cultural isolation, and key aesthetic concerns. [Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Folklore’s Crisis”; David E. Whisnant, All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).]

George Pullen Jackson
George Pullen Jackson leading at Liberty Church, Lawrence, Tennessee, 1942. Courtesy of the grandchildren of George Pullen Jackson.

George Pullen Jackson, a professor of German at Vanderbilt University, first described Sacred Harp singing as a folk culture. Jackson’s scholarly interest in German Romanticism’s elevation of all things Volk led him to wonder why Americans didn’t care about their own folk culture. Despite vast historical and demographic differences between the United States and European nations, Jackson nonetheless “cast about” for a domestic Anglo-Celtic folk culture that might similarly serve as foundation for American national “poetic and musical art-developments.” [George Pullen Jackson, “Some Enemies of Folk-Music in America,” in Papers Read at the International Congress of Musicology Held at New York, September 11th to 16th, 1939 (New York: American Musicological Society, 1939), 77–83.] After stumbling upon Sacred Harp singing in 1926, [George Pullen Jackson, “The Fa-Sol-La Folk,” Musical Courier 93, no. 11 (September 9, 1926): 6–7, 10.] Jackson immediately interpreted the style as a folk culture in need of promotion: under threat by modernity, on the verge of inevitable transformation, and in need of protection and publicity to affect the form of its transformation. Jackson made saving Sacred Harp singing through trumpeting its history to the world his mission. Jackson also apprehended Sacred Harp music as a reservoir of primordial cultural matter of diverse but largely European and Anglo-Celtic origins transplanted and cultivated on American soil. This music, he believed, had matured in the imagined isolated cultural removes of the southern upcountry, and now sat ready for plucking and assimilating into a new national culture rooted in native American (but not Native American or African American) folksong. [On Jackson’s designation of Sacred Harp as an American folk music, see also John Bealle, Public Worship, Private Faith: Sacred Harp and American Folksong (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997); Karlsberg, “Folklore’s Filter.”]

Jackson’s project galls today, and even in its time it was controversial. Inspired by the attention he believed northern philanthropists and a range of commenters on national American culture lavished on black spirituals, Jackson named Sacred Harp and related shape-note music “white spirituals.” Jackson argued that these songs were the source of black spirituals on the mistaken premise that first publication implies prior composition, [George Pullen Jackson, “The Genesis of the Negro Spiritual,” American Mercury 26 (June 1932): 243–55; Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands; George Pullen Jackson, White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship, Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeled Song Making and Singing among Our Country Folk, with 116 Songs As Sung by Both Races (New York: J. J. Augustin, 1943).] a position long since discredited. [William H. Tallmadge, “The Black in Jackson’s White Spirituals,” The Black Perspective in Music 9, no. 2 (October 1, 1981): 139–60, doi:10.2307/1214194; Dena J. Epstein, “A White Origin for the Black Spiritual? An Invalid Theory and How It Grew,” American Music 1, no. 2 (July 1, 1983): 53–59, doi:10.2307/3051499.] He further suggested that these songs should thus be given pride of place over black spirituals in the American cultural and musical landscape. This position aligned Jackson with racial nativists, such as Richard Wallaschek, who drew on claims of originary and derivative styles to depict African and other musics as the product of inferior races of savage capacities. [Jackson himself did not hold such beliefs, and indeed argued that black imitation of white practices was evidence of African Americans’ equal abilities.] Jackson’s positions also placed him in tension with scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who championed black spirituals as important expressions of the trauma of slavery and the middle passage. [W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903), chap. 14.] Despite his bitterness at the lack of attention his “white spirituals” received, Jackson was an advocate for black cultural life in his hometown of Nashville, supporting the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Jackson also championed the art music of the city’s white elite (such as the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, which he founded).

John W. Work III
John W. Work III, March 1934. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Jackson did not achieve his ambitious goal of spawning a national culture rooted in Anglo-Celtic folk music. He did, however, publish widely on Sacred Harp, raising awareness of the style and carving paths along which future generations of scholars, festival promoters, and singers encountered the music, filtered through his folk characterizations. Jackson also presented Sacred Harp programs at numerous folk festivals and scholarly conferences, exposing the style to academics and folk music fans and locating it among other musics labeled as folk traditions. In addition, Jackson corresponded with leading composers such as Virgil Thompson, suggesting tunes to arrange, thereby contributing to the style’s incorporation into other music genres. In so doing, Jackson laid the groundwork for successive generations of musicologists and listeners to encounter the style through art music inspired by the style’s folk melodies.

Jackson’s representation of Sacred Harp as “white spirituals” contrasts with the scholarship of John W. Work III, a black professor of music at Fisk University, who also studied Sacred Harp in the 1930s. Although Work, like Jackson, described Sacred Harp as folksong, he instead wrote about the style as a form of black cultural expression. Work faced racial discrimination and professional pressures that limited his capacity to fund and conduct research on Sacred Harp singing. [John W. Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams, Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University–Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942, ed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), 1–26; Nathan Frazier et al., John Work III: Recording Black Culture, compact disc (Woodbury, TN: Spring Fed Records, 2008); Karlsberg, “Folklore’s Filter,” 127–80.] His lone publication on Sacred Harp, an article on a southeastern Alabama black community of singers, [John W. Work, “Plantation Meistersinger,” The Musical Quarterly 27, no. 1 (January 1, 1941): 97–106.] failed to dislodge Jackson’s misleading depiction of Sacred Harp as white with exceptional black practitioners. Nonetheless, Work’s scholarship did lodge a representation of black Sacred Harp in the scholarly record, which would lead successive generations of folk music scholars and folk festival promoters to the singers he documented.

Folk Festivals, New Audiences

Dewey Williams and Hugh McGraw
Sacred Harp singers Dewey Williams (left) and Hugh McGraw (right) lead at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, National Mall, Washington, DC, 1970. Courtesy of Joe Dan Boyd.

Folk festival promoters ventured through the channels that Jackson and Work carved to conduct fieldwork among black and white Sacred Harp singers during the folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s. These efforts led to a new spate of scholarship, as well as opportunities for black and white singers to perform at folk festivals across the United States. Sacred Harp singers made memorable appearances in Newport in 1964, and at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in 1970 and 1976. Festival promoters like Ralph Rinzler and George Wein were invested in the civil rights movement and regarded integrated programming as a way folk music could help further racial harmony. [Murray Lerner, Festival! (New York: Eagle Rock Entertainment, 2005); George Wein and Nate Chinen, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (Da Capo Press, 2009).] In this context, far removed from the still-segregated spaces where Sacred Harp singers gathered in the southern United States, liberal and largely white festival audiences could associate Sacred Harp singing with idealized race relations and more easily identify with its white practitioners. [Karlsberg, “Folklore’s Filter,” 181–264.] Hugh McGraw, leader of the white group at many of these festivals, drew on his considerable business savvy to reach out to audiences with the hope of attracting new participants to the tradition.

McGraw’s outreach and the recontextualization of Sacred Harp at folk festivals led to increased interest and participation. Many new singers encountered Sacred Harp through folk music, at both large festivals and smaller gatherings. John Feddersen, a fifty-year veteran of Sacred Harp singing in North Carolina, first encountered Sacred Harp at the 1970 Festival of American Folklife. [Dan Kane, “Archaic Sounds of Shape-Note Singing Resound in Raleigh,” News Observer, March 22, 2015.] Others first heard Sacred Harp in participatory folk song circles, such as those held at upstate New York’s Fox Hollow folk festival. The classical contexts in which Sacred Harp melodies could be heard, thanks to Jackson’s earlier efforts, also drew newcomers into the style. Washington, DC, singer Steven Sabol, for example, first heard Sacred Harp melodies at a concert featuring an arrangement of a Sacred Harp tune by Samuel Barber, and later found his way to Sacred Harp singing by perusing scores, recordings, and reissued tunebooks at university libraries.

New England Sacred Harp poster, 1976
Poster advertising “A New England Sacred Harp Singing,” the event that became the first New England Sacred Harp Convention, 1976. Courtesy of the Wesleyan University Special Collections and Archives.

These choral, academic, and folk festival manifestations of Sacred Harp’s rite of passage through folklore’s filter contributed to the earliest institutionalization of Sacred Harp singing outside the southern United States. By the time Alabama and Georgia singers performed at the 1970 Festival of American Folklife, folk music enthusiasts had already begun singing Sacred Harp at the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, leading Rinzler to promote the group’s meetings to attendees from the festival stage. [Sacred Harp Singers, Festival Recordings, 1970: Wade and Fields Ward with Kahle Brewer; Sacred Harp Singers, CD transfer, 1970, fp-1970-rr-0039, Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.] Singings began at the Ark Coffeehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before 1973. There, folk music enthusiasts and academics sang together, embracing the longstanding history of University of Michigan musicology scholarship on American musics related to Sacred Harp. The group instituted an annual all-day singing after later Sacred Harp revision consultant David Warren Steel arrived in 1973 as a musicology graduate student. [David Warren Steel, “Ann Arbor singings, was, Minutes and Question,” Fasola Singings list, April 1, 2015.] These academic, choral, and folk genealogies collided at Wesleyan University in 1976, where a planned concert by Vermont folkie and choral conductor Larry Gordon’s Word of Mouth Chorus became the first annual New England Sacred Harp Convention, with McGraw as chairman and Wesleyan composer and music professor Neely Bruce as vice chairman. At this first Sacred Harp singing convention outside the South these paths, the inheritance of Jackson’s scholarship, converged.

The spread of Sacred Harp singing in the United States intensified through the 1980s and 1990s as southern singers supported new participants in founding singing after singing across the country. [On the geographical contours of this spread, see Jesse P. Karlsberg and Robert A. W. Dunn, “Mapping the ‘Big Minutes’: Visualizing Sacred Harp’s Geographic Coalescence and Expansion, 1995–2014,” Southern Spaces Blog, January 23, 2018.] Southern support for these fledgling conventions frequently arrived in the form of a bus full of singers, chartered by Jacksonville, Alabama, singer and retired schoolteacher Ruth Brown. Ruth Brown’s bus helped forge networks of reciprocal travel that sustained these new singings by connecting singers, old and new. Many members of these burgeoning populations imagined their singings as outposts of a style with a homeland centered in the southern communities that George Pullen Jackson’s scholarship had enduringly marked as “traditional.”

Like the folk festival audiences that heard black and white renditions of what Jackson called “white spirituals,” the late twentieth-century spread of Sacred Harp singing was largely white. However, thanks to folklore’s, classical music’s, and the academy’s secularizing tendencies, Sacred Harp began to include participants of a much wider array of political and religious backgrounds. New participants were also increasingly economically and educationally diverse, but skewed toward higher class and education levels than southern singers thanks to this new population’s overlap with the academy.

Transportable Features

Sacred Harp’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s, and its subsequent international expansion, have been facilitated by the set of practices that have developed around singing from the tunebook. These practices are emotionally and spiritually powerful, conducive to community formation, and particularly transportable. Ethnomusicologist Kiri Miller has argued that the iconicity of Sacred Harp’s hollow square seating formation, the emotional associations singers build around the configuration, and the ease with which it can be set up renders it a kind of “portable homeland.” [Kiri Miller, Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008).] Lueck articulates how a Sacred Harp singing convention “is a space that provides a familiar structure and social order across geographic and cultural distance” with a “shared event choreography which is legitimized through performative keys which rely on that choreography for interpretation, and social codes which police the space” while also affording a context “in which singers can express their belonging to the community-at-large.” [Lueck, “Sacred Harp Singing in Europe,” 46.] Sacred Harp’s participatory orientation, which includes not only the hollow square formation (in which singers sit facing each other rather than an audience) but the rotation of leaders at singings and an openness to all who would wish to sing regardless of identity and singing ability, lends the style to community formation through music making. [Robert T. Kelley, “Harmonious Union: How Sacred Harp Brings People Together,” The Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 2, no. 1 (March 14, 2013).] Finally, for many participants in a variety of political contexts, Sacred Harp’s full-voiced singing and status as a regular opportunity to gather with friends mean it can serve as a powerful source of emotional and spiritual renewal, and as an antidote for perceived lacks in contemporary society.

The result as Sacred Harp continues to spread, Lueck argues, is a transnational community, [Ellen Lueck, “The Old World Seeks the Old Paths: Observing Our Transnationally Expanding Singing Community,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 3, no. 2 (November 12, 2014).] in which singers frequently articulate the style’s capacity to bridge “vast differences” rendering singers akin to “family.” [These tropes, of seemingly unbridgeable differences and of the Sacred Harp network’s status as a “family,” implying greater closeness even than “community,” frequently emerge in memorial lessons, in officers’ remarks at the end of a day of singing, and in private conversations on car rides to and from singings and at social gatherings among singers.] The transcultural appeal of these aspects of Sacred Harp’s music culture are often what singers themselves offer in explaining their participation.

Spread to Europe

The first flowerings of Sacred Harp in Europe grew directly out of the style’s folk-inflected genealogies and histories, in particular the mix of folk music and its performance by choral ensembles, and were fed by the style’s transportable features. Sacred Harp’s “portable homeland” initially arrived beyond North America in the wake of workshops and performances held in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s and led by Northern Harmony, a touring ensemble based in Vermont and directed by Larry Gordon. [Several English performing ensembles had recorded Sacred Harp songs prior to the Northern Harmony tour. Gordon’s presence brought together several English singers interested in Sacred Harp thanks to these earlier performances and introduced additional key early organizers of English Sacred Harp singing to the style. Steve Fletcher, “Two Decades of Shape-Note Singing in the UK: A Personal Perspective” (Presentation, Sing Oxted, Oxted, United Kingdom, November 15, 2014). On Gordon’s particularly influential 1994 tour of the United Kingdom, see also Lueck, “Sacred Harp Singing in Europe,” 95–97.] In the United Kingdom, English revivalists of the nineteenth-century congregational hymn singing practice known as “West Gallery music” learned and taught each other to sing shape-notes, purchasing copies of The Northern Harmony (a shape-note tunebook Gordon had co-edited in which New England and English tunes feature prominently), as well as The Sacred Harp. In 1995, Neely Bruce led a quartet of young singers from Connecticut and Massachusetts on a United Kingdom tour. Like Gordon, Bruce mixed concerts with workshops during his English tour, and encountered singers who recognized Sacred Harp singing as related to a shared legacy of nineteenth-century religious folk song. Those who attended Bruce’s and Gordon’s concerts came together with singers who encountered Sacred Harp in scholarly writing or available recordings to stage the first of what they styled a “singing day” in 1995. The following year, with the participation of New England Sacred Harp singers, English singers organized the first United Kingdom Shape-Note Convention, using The Northern Harmony and The Sacred Harp as tune books. [Fletcher, “Two Decades of Shape-Note Singing in the UK.”] Sacred Harp singing grew steadily in England in subsequent years, largely among a population equally enthusiastic about folksong and folk dancing. Individual singers’ pathways into Sacred Harp in England were diverse from the start, and in the late 1990s and into the 2000s the backgrounds of new English participants grew increasingly varied. But Sacred Harp singing’s twentieth-century passage through folklore’s filter made its journey across the Atlantic possible. Jackson’s early associations between Sacred Harp and Anglo-Celtic folksong, as well as his promotion of the style as material for high status art music performed by classical and elite choral ensembles, made possible the connections that first carried Sacred Harp to England and later fueled its subsequent growth. By 2018, English singers could attend twenty-five annual singings from The Sacred Harp, as well as an expanding list of monthly and weekly gatherings in cities across the country. [“Calendar 2018,” United Kingdom Sacred Harp & Shapenote Singing, accessed February 1, 2018.]

The academic and performing legacy of Sacred Harp’s folklorization also contributed to the establishment of Sacred Harp singing in Ireland, where the rapid growth of a young and enthusiastic population of singers in Cork precipitated increased transatlantic and intra-European travel to singings. As I recounted in 2011, “Sacred Harp singing was introduced to Ireland in 2009 with the founding of a music ensemble at University College Cork (UCC) led by ethnomusicologist Juniper Hill,” a former student of Neely Bruce. “Hill’s students soon established a singing at a community art space in downtown Cork,” and interest in participating quickly outstripped the classroom where Hill had established the singing. [Jesse P. Karlsberg, “Ireland’s First Sacred Harp Convention: ‘To Meet To Part No More,’” Southern Spaces, November 30, 2011. On the establishment of Sacred Harp in Ireland and the first Ireland Convention, see also Robert Wedgbury, “Exploring Voice, Fellowship, and Tradition: The Institutionalised Development of American Sacred Harp Singing in Cork, Ireland and the Emergence of a Grassroots Singing Community” (M.A. thesis, University College Cork, 2011); Alice Maggio, “Regional Report: First Ireland Sacred Harp Convention,” The Trumpet 1, no. 2 (2011): vi; Lueck, “Sacred Harp Singing in Europe,” 119–29.] The first Ireland Sacred Harp Convention, held in March 2011, attracted unusually large contingents of American singers, as did subsequent annual sessions. Ethnomusicologist Jonathon Smith argues that these singers were drawn to Ireland in part because of a perception, more imagined than real, of Sacred Harp’s (and of Sacred Harp singers’) Celtic roots. [Jonathon Smith, “Celtic Imaginaries: The Sacred Harp, Ireland, and the American South” (paper presentation, International Council for Traditional Music, Limerick Ireland, July 17 2017).] Dating to George Pullen Jackson’s articulation of Sacred Harp’s “far southern fasola belt” populated by “Scotch-Irish and German, with a small ingredient of English,” [Jackson, White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, 158–59. Jackson drew both population data about and support for his veneration of the group he identified as whites of the southern uplands from John C. Campbell, The Southern Highlander and His Homeland (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1921).] Sacred Harp singing’s Celtic connection both detracts from equally significant historical influences at odds with Jackson’s political project and lays groundwork for the style’s valorization as tied to the music of the British Isles. Most Irish singers recognized Sacred Harp singing’s capacity for community formation, rather than its imagined Irish roots, as key to its success locally. Yet this geographical dimension of Jackson’s characterization of the style as folksong contributed to the international appeal of early Ireland Sacred Harp conventions, in Ireland and beyond. [Karlsberg, “Ireland’s First Sacred Harp Convention;” Smith, “Celtic Imaginaries.”]

Video recording of the first Ireland Sacred Harp Convention, March 2011. Courtesy of Cork Sacred Harp.

Sacred Harp singing similarly reached Germany via the Northern Harmony tour that introduced Sacred Harp to England. Jutta Pflugmacher, a folk music enthusiast from Bündingen, Germany, had attended one of these early concerts, singing briefly with English Sacred Harp singers. Back in Germany, she organized a stop on the 2010 Northern Harmony tour in her home town. Motivated to bring Sacred Harp singing to Germany, Plugmacher reached out to Keith MacDonald, an English expatriate and Sacred Harp singer. She also arranged for Aldo Ceresa, a New York–based singing school teacher, to present two workshops in her region, accompanied by a traveling group of English singers. [Jesse P. Karlsberg, “New Writing on Sacred Harp in Europe,”, (March 14, 2013); Michael Walker, “German Singing Schools: Sacred Harp Comes to the Land of J. S. Bach,” The Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 1, no. 1 (March 28, 2012).] A fledgling group from Bremen who had discovered Sacred Harp through the Internet traveled to attend these workshops. [Harald Grundner, “Wie Alles Begann,” Sacred Harp Bremen, accessed August 24, 2015.] Young Sacred Harp singers from England and Ireland living temporarily in Germany added to these emergent groups. These singers hosted their first all-day singing in January 2012, followed by Germany’s first convention in June 2014. Echoing Jackson, English singer Michael Walker noted in a report on the early German singing schools that Germany lacks the “natural points of connection with the British/Celtic origins of many of the tunes and with the religious poetry of The Sacred Harp.” [Walker, “German Singing Schools.”] The relatively few American visitors to the first German singings rarely describe their trips using the language of “returning home” that characterize some singers’ motivations for visiting singings in Ireland. No Sacred Harp tour of Germany has materialized to match the 2007 tour of England that included visits to the gravesites of prominent hymn writers whose poetry is included in The Sacred Harp. As singing in Germany has spread to new cities since 2014, the network has become an increasingly self-sufficient regional core accelerating central Europe’s Sacred Harp growth. [Jesse P. Karlsberg, “Regional Roots: Growing Sacred Harp in the Netherlands, Alaska, and British Columbia,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 4, no. 2 (December 31, 2015).] Yet the beginnings of Sacred Harp in Germany nonetheless evince connections to the same folksong-inspired performing ensembles that facilitated the spread of Sacred Harp to England and Ireland.

Video recording of the first Germany Sacred Harp Convention, May 2014. Courtesy of Sacred Harp Bremen.

Poland, like Germany, “is a country with its own rich indigenous linguistic, cultural, musical, and religious heritage.” [Walker, “German Singing Schools.”] Many of Poland’s first Sacred Harp singers encountered the style at events organized by individuals with connections to the spread of Sacred Harp in other parts of Europe, and with roots in the academic study of Sacred Harp and related styles. Sacred Harp singing spread to Poland after a weeklong singing school at the Jarosław Early Music Festival taught by musician and ethnomusicologist Tim Eriksen. (I served as Eriksen’s assistant.) [Eriksen’s Polish wife and manager Magdalena Zapendowska-Eriksen arranged for the workshop. Then an English professor, Zapendowska-Eriksen had learned of Sacred Harp singing in 2003 through studying English hymnist Isaac Watts and first attended singings when visiting Western Massachusetts in the United States to conduct research on Emily Dickinson in 2005. She began hosting a regular gathering to practice Sacred Harp songs at her home in 2006. A video recording of the singing that marked the conclusion of the singing school is at Timothy Eriksen, Sacred Harp Singing in Jaroslaw, Poland, e video (Jarosław, Poland, 2008).] An eclectic musician with roots in punk, grunge, folk, and world music, Eriksen first encountered Sacred Harp singing through the field recordings of folklorist Alan Lomax. [Lomax first encountered Sacred Harp singers during a 1942 recording session in Birmingham, Alabama, in collaboration with George Pullen Jackson.] Eriksen, a former member of the quartet Bruce brought to England in 1995, later entered a doctoral program in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University. Participants in the 2008 Jarosław singing school returned home to establish weekly Sacred Harp singings in Warsaw and Poznan. This growing group of singers collaborated with Alabama Sacred Harp singer and Camp Fasola co-founder David Ivey to arrange for a northern Poland location for a 2012 session of the annual singing school. Ivey organized first session of the then nine-year-old singing school held outside Alabama in response to the growing interest in the style across the continent. [Jesse P. Karlsberg, “‘Come Sound His Praise Abroad’: Sacred Harp Singing across Europe,” Country Dance and Song Society News, Winter 2012, 9–12; Jesse P. Karlsberg, “Sacred Harp, ‘Poland Style,’” blog, Southern Spaces Blog (February 27, 2013); Gosia Perycz, “A Hollow Square in My Homeland: Bringing Camp Fasola to Poland,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 2, no. 1 (March 14, 2013); Fynn Titford-Mock, “Celebrating Sacred Harp in Europe, September, 2012,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 2, no. 1 (March 14, 2013). On Sacred Harp’s arrival in Poland, see also Lueck, “Sacred Harp Singing in Europe,” 108–19.]

Two video recordings of the Sacred Harp singing held to mark the conclusion of Tim Eriksen’s weeklong singing school at the Jarosław Early Music Festival, September 2008.

Sacred Harp singing first reached Poland as “Early Music” rather than “folk music.” Yet the possibility of this characterization also owes a great deal to the framing George Pullen Jackson introduced. Depicting Sacred Harp as “America’s earliest music” was key to Jackson’s hopes for inspiring a new national culture rooted in American Anglo-Celtic folk tradition. Singers and folklorists alike have championed Sacred Harp’s antiquity in describing and promoting the style across the twentieth century. The rationale for including a contemporary music culture practiced across the United States and England in the Jarosław Early Music Festival, an event primarily featuring the music of seventeenth-century and earlier European music, relies on the folklorization of the style. [Jesse P. Karlsberg, “Resonance and Reinvention: Sounding Historical Practice in Sacred Harp’s Global Twenty-First Century” (paper presentation, Stichting voor Muziekhistorische Uitvoeringspraktijk [Foundation for Historical Musical Performance Practice], Utrecht, Netherlands, August 29, 2015).]

Just as European and American singers helped establish Sacred Harp singings in England, Ireland, Germany, and Poland, traveling singers have contributed to the expansion of Sacred Harp singing across Europe and beyond since 2008. An Alabamian stationed in South Korea and a Cork singer there teaching English established shortly lived singings in South Korea in 2012. Sacred Harp’s roots in Australia extend to two Australians’— Shawn Whelan and Natalie Sims—encounter with the style while Sims was completing a postdoctoral fellowship at a New England educational institution in 1998. Plans to hold an all-day singing came together in 2012, after Belfast singer Eimear Craddock, who first sang Sacred Harp in Cork, moved to Sydney. [Steven Levine, “Sacred Harp Down-Under: The First Australian All-Day Singing,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 2, no. 1 (March 14, 2013).] Sacred Harp singing briefly flourished in Hong Kong after American singer, Aaron Kahn, who had begun singing Sacred Harp stateside and briefly ran a singing in Paris, moved to the area. Tim Cook, long-active in Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony singing in Alabama, established the first singing in Japan in 2015 with Peter Evan shortly after moving to the country. Israel’s Sacred Harp singing was founded by Israeli musician, Ophir Ilzewski, who came across the style by chance in Norwich, England, and honed his skills at the fall 2014 second European session of Camp Fasola. As English, Irish, Polish, and American singers moved internationally, they crossed paths with individuals and small groups who first experienced Sacred Harp independently, connecting these singers to an emerging international network of singers, and urging the adoption of practices associated with folksong, its revival, and the filters of its scholarly genealogies.


The places that encompass the contemporary landscape of Sacred Harp singing feature dramatically different social and political contexts, but all are political allies of the United States where American popular culture has a large imprint. Sacred Harp singing operates subculturally, affecting the lives of small numbers of singers in each city or region. The massive commercial enterprises and political and economic ties that encourage adoption of American culture thus have little direct impact on Sacred Harp singing. [An important exception is the 2003 Hollywood film Cold Mountain, which featured two Sacred Harp songs. The film generated considerable publicity for Sacred Harp singing and attracted many new singers to the style. See Jesse P. Karlsberg, Mark T. Godfrey, and Nathan Rees, “The Cold Mountain Bump: Hollywood’s Effect on Sacred Harp Songs and Singers,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 2, no. 3 (December 31, 2013). In my fieldwork in Europe I have encountered several singers who trace their introduction to Sacred Harp singing to the film.] Despite its absence from popular awareness in the countries where singings are held, Sacred Harp’s international reception refracts political and cultural relationships with the United States and its folksong. Each country’s political allegiance with the United States makes possible the reciprocal travel that strengthens emerging singings, and the largely favorable conceptions of American culture form a background context in which Sacred Harp’s “Americanness” does not seriously detract from and may even contribute to the singing’s attraction and positive reception.

In England, perceived historical ties between Sacred Harp and English West Gallery singing intrigue a number of singers, particularly those from England and New England who were active during the period when Sacred Harp singings were initially established in the United Kingdom. Some English Sacred Harp singers are deeply involved in an English revival of West Gallery music. The Northern Harmony tunebook adopted alongside The Sacred Harp at early English singings gained popularity in part because it features arrangements of West Gallery tunes, signifying to some a connection between the English and American genres. Relatedly, several early English Sacred Harp singers preferred New England fuging tunes to other songs in The Sacred Harp, drawing on the genre’s historical relationship to the West Gallery repertoire. One English singer, Chris Brown, has examined music manuscripts to trace the migration of tunes from the United States to the United Kingdom around 1800, shedding light on a historical transatlantic exchange that parallels Sacred Harp’s spread to the United Kingdom in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. [Chris Brown, “American Tunes in West Gallery Sources,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 3, no. 2 (November 12, 2014).] He has also presented on the English roots of Sacred Harp singing, focusing not on the book’s predominantly American tune writers, but on its hymn writers, who are predominantly English. [Chris Brown has taught classes on English hymn writers at sessions of Camp Fasola held in Poland and in Alabama in the United States.]

In Poland, a post–Cold War embrace of American and European cultural, economic, and political models [See Derek E. Mix, “Poland and Its Relations with the United States: In Brief” (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, November 17, 2015). ] introduces a narrative in which Sacred Harp’s presence represents values identified with the United States, such as freedom of expression, as well as the allegiance between the two countries. The location of the first two European sessions of Camp Fasola in Kashubia, a region in the country’s north that is now expressing renewed celebration and revival of local cultural practices as well as ethnic folk traditions, facilitates a logic of cultural exchange with the West as a context for engaging with the presence of Sacred Harp singing in the area. In fall of 2014, with Russia newly embroiled in conflict with Ukraine, tour guides for an American group visiting to participate in Sacred Harp singing placed the current conflict along the Russia-Ukraine border in the context of a centuries-long history of military and political domination of Poland by German and Russian forces. Their geopolitical narrative implicitly conscripted American tourists as Polish allies. [I traveled as a member of the American tour group thanks to support from the Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association and Emory University’s Laney Graduate School’s professional development support funds. On the September 2014 American Sacred Harp trip to Europe, see also Kathy Williams, “A Long Time Traveling: A Sacred Harp Tour to the UK Convention, Camp Fasola Europe, and the Poland Convention,” Sacred Harp Publishing Company Newsletter 4, no. 1 (May 28, 2015).] David Ivey, the camp director, articulated a similar cultural allegiance at the first Camp Fasola Europe in 2012. During a performance by a Kashubian folk music and dance troupe that emphasized the group’s ability to celebrate Kashubian cultural heritage thanks to the absence of Soviet domination, Ivey stated that he never could have imagined Sacred Harp in Poland before the fall of the Iron Curtain. [Karlsberg, “Sacred Harp Singing across Europe.”] Both Polish and American participants in the evening’s cultural exchange pointed to its ability to celebrate and reiterate political ties between the two countries.

David Ivey, Sacred Harp singers, and a group of Kashubian folk dancers
Camp Fasola director David Ivey leading Sacred Harp singers in a song while a group of Kashubian folk dancers look on, Chmielno, Poland, September 2016. Courtesy of the author.

I offer these two examples of Sacred Harp’s embeddedness in national political and cultural relationships with the United States to suggest that understanding folklorization’s impact on the style’s internationalization requires negotiating America’s outsize presence and the effects of that presence on subcultural sound. Different national contexts, as well as the varied positions individual singers and their identity categories occupy with respect to these contexts, affect what Sacred Harp singing means to participants. [Lueck notes that although singers celebrate the national diversity of major singings “as a sign of community growth and cooperation,” actually expressing national identity can garner a mixed reception, as when singers “explicitly reference historical anti-British sentiments” through leading one of the handful of American patriotic songs in The Sacred Harp. See Lueck, “Sacred Harp Singing in Europe,” 188, 190–91.] Understandings of Sacred Harp singing’s practices as democratic and pluralistic also reveal the embeddedness of folksong-inspired rhetoric in geopolitically bounded Western political and cultural values. As Lueck notes, even the transportability of Sacred Harp’s features “relies on the freedom of participants to create their own spaces of identity, and the freedom to pursue their affinity.” [Lueck, “Sacred Harp Singing in Europe,” 278.] Further research might shed light on the ramifications of America’s geopolitical alliances and cultural exports on musical subcultures abroad.


As Sacred Harp singing continues to spread across the globe, the style can seem increasingly unmoored from the nostalgic, elegiac discourse that painted Sacred Harp singing as the dying art of an isolated “lost tonal tribe.” But the roots of this current transformation extend back to the style’s passage through folklore’s filter and to the networks of scholars and singers that flourished in its wake. Folklorization made the style’s expansion beyond its southern and national boundaries possible, and indelibly affected the form and direction of its growth.

Much work—ethnographic, theoretical, and archival—remains to be done to describe the social contexts in which Sacred Harp singing’s ongoing geographical and demographic shifts are taking place. It is important to think about how scholars’ characterization of the style as a folk music and some singers’ depiction of it as a venerable practice rooted in the antebellum southern United States may continue to affect the contours of its spread. It is equally necessary to ask how the style’s association with America affects its reception in countries with varied political and cultural relationships with the United States. Even as many new singers emphasize the transcultural ability of Sacred Harp singings to serve as meaningful cathartic gatherings conducive to community formation, more research might shed light on how singers with different backgrounds in different parts of the globe respond to the style’s practices. As Sacred Harp, now ascendant, travels to new corners of the globe, it is important to be mindful of who and where it does reach, and who and where it does not.


Thanks to Meredith Doster, Alan Pike, Allison Thompson, and an anonymous reader for CD+SO for their suggestions on how to improve earlier drafts of this essay. Thanks to Ellen Lueck, fellow researcher of Sacred Harp singing’s international expansion, for her generosity in sharing ideas and fieldwork. Thanks to the archivists at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Wesleyan University Archives and Special Collections, and the Library of Congress and to individual singers in the United States and Europe for their efforts documenting, preserving, and making accessible images and video recordings documenting Sacred Harp’s history and present expansion. Thanks to my wife, Lauren Bock, for supporting and sometimes accompanying me on my fieldwork trips in Europe and the United States. Thanks, finally, to the Sacred Harp singers who welcomed me into their homes and helped me formulate the ideas in this article over many delightful hours of conversation.

Works Cited

Spring is sprung, and our “old” traditions are looking pretty fresh and verdant! Once again Country Dance + Song Online presents articles that explore how Anglo-American dance and song traditions continue to reinvent and refresh themselves in the age of the internet and the cell phone.

In The Dolphin Hey: The Evolution and Transmission of a Dance Figure, former CDSS President David Millstone and I trace the history and travels of this popular English (and Scottish and contra) dance figure. In sailing out to catch a glimpse of these dolphins we traveled (figuratively only, alas!) from the Shetland Islands of the 1880s to England, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States today. Our collaboration also had us reach out to dance choreographers and leaders from these countries who gave us their insights and knowledge of the transmission of the dolphin hey, and who reminded us that our joy in the traditional arts is shared around the world. This article also includes “A Pod of Dolphin Dances”—not a compendium of all known dances with dolphin heys in them, but a collection of the transformational ones (to date) mentioned in the context of the article. A bonus feature is a link to footage of the key dolphins themselves: Pelorus Jack and Opo.

Sacred Harp singing, so firmly associated in many people’s minds with the folk cultures of the southern United States, is now, as Jesse P. Karlsburg discusses, both a global and local phenomenon. Sacred Harp singing has spread to Europe, Oceania, East Asia, and the Middle East. Jesse observes that, though vastly expanded in geography and demographic variety, the style is still a “subcultural sound,” a “micromusic” that convenes small groups of people with strong community bonds. These groups may live beneath the level of broad cultural attention even while the musical form itself regularly achieves local and even national press coverage. In The Folk Scholarship Roots and Geopolitical Boundaries of Sacred Harp’s Global Twenty-first Century, Jesse explores the unique musical features and practices that support Sacred harp’s adoption and the similarities and differences in the histories of transnational political, economic, and cultural exchange affecting the form of participation for many singers. The numerous audio/video clips included will heighten your understanding of this musical form.

Tradition never stands (pun intended) still—in Lock and Dam: A Longsword Dance for the 21st Century, Douglas Allchin describes an innovative new longsword dance from Minneapolis, Minnesota, on the Mississippi River. The imagery of the dance evokes the river, with various spinning gestures and undulating waves reminiscent of the twirling turbulence and flow of the river’s water, while figures and sword locks are named after various riparian features such as “Paddle-Wheel” or “Bridge Lock,” or local Minneapolis celebrities. The dance is based on a 12-count phrase to hornpipes in 3/2, giving it a pulse not felt in a duple meter, and Douglas provides directions for creating the complicated new sword locks that are a feature of this new dance. Video included!

African-American dance continues to influence popular dance traditions today. In Walking for the Cake, Mark Matthews explores how the cakewalk—popular (in varying ways) in both black and white cultures—served as a cultural bridge from 19th century plantation/frontier society to the modern industrial age. Mark notes that the dance marked the beginning of the acceptance of African-American dance and music in the United States—as well as around the world. The cakewalk was the first step, so to speak, that led to African traditions dominating American pop culture. And, yes, video included!

Happy singing and dancing to all!

Allison Thompson
General Editor
Country Dance + Song Online