The annotated Speed the Plough

The English Ceilidh dance (as described in the Community Dances Manual, book II) goes something like this, with assorted notes and comments...

Form: Progressive longways contra. Man facing partner (hands four)

    Treat "man" and "lady" as random labels. There'll be people on the left of the couple and people on the right.

  • Longways means that you are in couples, facing your partner in a long line away from the band. Or rather, two long lines rather than one long line and what normally happens is that all the men start off in one line and the women in the other.
  • Hands Four means that the first two couples (nearest the band) nod to each other and say hello, they'll be dancing together. The next two couples do the same, the next two, the next two and so on all down the line. This is all before the dance starts and it just makes sure the couples know which direction they are going. The couple closest to the band in each little group of four will be doing something different to the couple further away and the couple closest to the band are conventionally called the 'first couple' and the others the 'second couple'.
  • Progressive means that during the dance you will be moving either one place up the line or one place down - you'll then dance with a different couple.

The music....

  • The A1, A2, B1 and B2 below mean the parts of the music. The tune is a 32 bar hornpipe, which means you can consider it in 4 sections (8 bars each, or if you want to break it down further, 4 bars getting somewhere and 4 bars getting back....).
  • The words don't say but the music will get your feet doing a step-hop (or maybe a one-two-three-hop), you can travel quite far like this....

A1: First couple visit the second girl, honour and retire.

  • This means the first couple dance across to the lady of the second couple - sort of diagonally. They can nod, bow or put in variations like a quick circle etc etc. Then they go back again and...

... then the same to her partner

  • Same stuff to the other person - sort of diagonally again, still more or less away from the band - and back again.

A2: First couple down the centre and back to places.

  • So, after having visited each of the second couple, the first couple dances down the set (the 'set' means the whole line of people), turns round and back again. It's the step-hop still so, yes, you can move a long way down...

B1: All cross and turn right and cross back and turn left. (Figure 8)
Girl passing above partner each time.

  • You've danced down the set as a couple and back up to where you started - now turn to face each other and dance past each other. You do it and the second couple do it as well, everybody is moving.
  • 'Passing above' means that the lady passes on the side closer to the band - so left shoulders. Makes for a nice movement, you pass with the left shoulder then sweep round to the right, think of it as a big loop round and back towards your place.
  • Don't think of stopping in your place. Carry on! Cross right shoulders with your partner and then sweep round to you left. Another big, big movement.

B2: Couples swing and change.

  • This is the classical way of getting people in a 'longways set' to progress, or to move on to the next people waiting to dance with them. You can polka round each other, normally the two couples arrange not to hit each other by polkaing anticlockwise round each other.

More information: Origins...

  • An early version of the dance, from James Fisin, Ode to May (1799).
  • There is a mention of a Speed the Plough in Thomas Hardy's A Waiting Super, 1887, that does not seem similar to the current dance.
    He also references a Speed the Plough quick-step with a Cross hands, cast off and wheel in The Dance at the Phoenix, published 1898
  • The Country Dance Book (Cecil Sharp, 1909) includes a recognisable Speed the Plough.

The Music...

See also...