The Dancing Master

Dancing Master Main image - two hands and text on dancing

The Dancing Master

Playford’s Dancing Master was the first published collection of English country dances and their tunes, starting in 1651 and spanning 18 editions over 80 years. It spawned numerous imitations throughout the 18th century. This year is the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Playford.

The music and dances continue to be loved by millions across the world, not least due to their inclusion in film and television, such as Bridgerton, Pride and Prejudice and Poldark. 

This exhibition celebrates not only English country dancing but also the role of the Dancing Master during the 17th and 18th centuries, who would teach steps and choreograph new dances for court and assemblies.

A programme of events to accompany the exhibition includes concerts, workshops for musicians and dancers, and a Playford Ball. 




Dr Alice Little

Alice is a Research Fellow at the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, part of the Music Faculty at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on collectors and collecting, particularly eighteenth-century tunebooks and their compilers, looking at what sources the collections were gathered from and what the selection of music says about the people and cultures that collected and used them. She completed two TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellowships (2019-2021) working with the English Folk Dance and Song Society on the eighteenth-century tunebooks in their collection.

Matthew Coatsworth
Matthew is a significant figure in the world of 17th and 18th century English country dance music. He has performed with groups including Boldwood, The Warleggan Village Band and on screen for BBC’s Poldark and Netflix’s Bridgerton. His research has led to four Boldwood Dancing Master publications. In addition to his musical activities, Matthew is a senior leader at Oxfordshire Teacher Training working with nearly 100 primary, secondary and special schools across the region; he has extensive experience working on musical projects with schools, including Folk Weekend Oxford, Oxfordshire County Music Service, Oxford Lieder Festival and Oxford Opera.



Dancing master history

A dancing master was both a person who taught dance (particularly to the children of the gentry) and a type of book from which one could learn dances and the tunes used to accompany them. John Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651) was the first such collection to be published. It contained the melodies and dance instructions for just over 100 English country dances, with the music and dance instructions printed side by side. Retitled simply The Dancing Master by 1652 and for the remaining 17 editions, these books were published by John and then his son Henry Playford, and spawned numerous imitations throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Our exhibition includes several editions of The Dancing Master from the Bodleian collection.

Playford almost certainly did not write any of the melodies or dances. Some tunes were very old: for example, Mundesse, a round dance, is almost identical to Mon Desir from Susato’s Danserye of 1551. Similarly, Halfe Hannikin was one of the country dances in the masque Time Vindicated performed by the future Charles I, amongst others, on 19 January 1623.

Wood 125 Playford, J. (1652) The Dancing Master, 2nd edition (Bodleian Libaries)

Dance titles often referred to popular ballads, including some that were celebrated cavalier songs that Cromwell’s Parliament tried to suppress. For example, Faine I would if I could, was a ballad also known as ‘The King’s Complaint’ and ‘A Coffin for King Charles’. It was an elaborate dance performed whilst the Royal court was at Oxford.

Playford’s Dancing Master books were incredibly popular. Playford’s introduction to his Dancing Master, entitled ‘To the Ingenious Reader’, refers to dancing in the ‘Courts of Princes’ and by ‘The Gentlemen of the Innes of Court’. It is therefore likely that Playford’s customers would have been educated people. One was Samuel Pepys: in his celebrated diary he wrote, ‘By water down to Greenwich and then walked to Woolwich, all the way reading Playford’s Introduction to Musique wherein are some things very pretty.’

You can find out more about the history of dancing masters by visiting the exhibition (September 2023–January 2024), attending the in-person lecture (24th October), or watching one of our online talks (2nd November, 28th November). See Events tab to register.



The project will showcase Playford’s Dancing Master and associated work by exhibiting original publications held in the Bodleian Library in the Weston Library’s temporary exhibition space in the Blackwell Hall from September 2023 to January 2024. The exhibition is free. Items on display will include:

Dancing Master books, including those of the second edition of Playford’s The Dancing Master, published 1652 (Wood 125), and John Johnson’s A Choice Collection of 200 Favourite Country Dances, Volume 3, 1744 (Douce DD101)