What is a barn dance?

A barn dance is a community dance involving traditional folk music.  English Country Dance is a form of social folk dance which originated in Renaissance England, and was popular until the early 19th century in parts of Europe, the American colonies and the United States. It is the ancestor of several other folk dances, including contra and square dance. English country dance was revived in the early 20th century as a part of the larger English folk revival, and is practiced today primarily in North America and Britain.  Community dances were often held in a barn, and many still are today, although a village hall is more common.

The term ceildih and barn dance are often used interchangeably these days.  While many think of a ceildidh exclusively as a Scottish or Irish social dance, the word is often used today to describe any community dance.  To make matters more confusing when booking a band, many bands describe themselves as a ceilidh band but may equally well perform exclusively Scottish, Irish or English music.

Several descriptions that are quite common may help to differentiate between bands.  A barn dance band is sometimes a more traditional type of band, accordion led, minimal percussion and musicians often seated.  An English ceilidh band is often associated with more rocky music, with an electric line-up including drum and bass, and musicians that play standing.  Scottish or Irish ceilidh bands are most likely to be more traditional, sticking to Scottish or Irish music and dances.  However, there are no rules to this and the best way to find out is to ask the band.

There is much crossover today between dances.  The biggest difference between and English barn dance or ceilidh as that the tunes are generally played a little more slowly, with the emphasis on the on-beat, and with the caller taking an active part to talk dancers through the movements.  In Scottish and Irish ceilidhs it is often assumed that the dancers have been brought up with this type of dancing and know what they are doing.

Types of dance

Most country dances originated in Renaissance England and developed from there.  There was possibly an influence from Morris Dancing.  The dances spread to France and elsewhere in Europe, and eventually to North America.  A French version of an English dance became know in France as contredanse, and eventually moved to New England as New England Contra Dance.

Dances can be grouped as shown below.  There is one rule that applies throughout: the dances on the left of each couple and the woman on the right.


This is the most enduring format.  Couples form two lines with men on one side and women on the other.  The sets can be 2-5 couples long, or continue the length of the room.  For some dances every other couple swaps sides, so that some are on the correct side, with others on the opposite, or contra side, creating a contra dance.


This was once the most popular format in England and has travelled to North America where the square dance is the official dance in several states.  Four couples arrange themselves in a square so that each couple faces another couple across the square.


The name says it all.  Most circle dances expand to fill as much of the hall as possible.  A variation is the Sicilian circle, where each couple faces another couple round the hall.


There are several dances for couples, such as the Gay Gordon.

Dance movements

The idea of a barn dance is to have fun, so the dance movements are fairly simple.  Although there are lots of different steps and movements the most common ones (mostly self-describing) are:

Lines forward and back.

Right hand turn.  Hold your partner by the right hand and go round once.  Left hand turn goes the other way.

Dosido (probably dos à dos = back to back).  Pass your partner with your right shoulder, pass back to back and return.  Usually repeated the other way.

Circle left or right.  Move in the circle to the left or right.

Right hand (or left hand) star.  Two or more couples join right (or left) hands and go once round in a circle.

Cast off.  The lead (or top) couple turns away from each other and goes down the outside of the set, followed by all other couples.

Arch.  Often follows a cast off.  Lead couple forms an arch and everyone goes under.


An English barn dance these days is often led by a folk-rock style band, led by melodeon (diatonic button accordion) and/or fiddle, with a back line of drums, bass, keyboard, saxophone, brass or many other instruments.  The music is louder than a traditional, acoustic band.  The band often plays music for listening in between dances.