Saturday night rolls around. Your mate Dave from downtown Toronto gives you a shout and asks if you want to go to the pub or hit a club.
“Nah, mate, I’m alright,” you reply. “Do that all the time. I feel like trying something different tonight.
“An activity where I can express myself through dance. Where no one will laugh at my awkward Britishness as I self-consciously waggle my elbows and bob my head to the rhythmic dance floor melodies played by live musicians. If there was a good social scene too, then that would be ideal.
“Hmmm. I wonder if such an activity exists in Toronto?”
Course it does! Let’s all say hello to the Toronto English Country Dancers. English Country Dancing (ECD) is the dance form of Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Napoleon. It is done in groups, with dancers weaving intricate patterns around each other to music ranging from lively jigs and reels to dreamy and hypnotic melodies.
The club has been enjoying this in Toronto for over 20 years, so we caught up with its rep Karen to tell us more …
How did the Toronto ECD group get started and who was responsible for putting it together?
Back in the ’90s a group of dancers were chatting and decided they wanted more social dancing in Toronto. It originally started with the idea of being a rotating variety of English country dance, vintage dance, turning couples’ dances, and other kinds … but after they did some English country dancing, they just couldn’t stop!
How is ECD different from other forms of dancing, and can anyone of all ages/abilities take part?
ECD is different because there is no lead or follow, and no distinction between gender roles. You do have a partner, but you’re dancing as part of a group, forming patterns together, rather like square dance. (Today’s squares actually descend from 17th-century English squares.)
Scottish Country Dancing is a close cousin as well, though there are differences, some of them aesthetic, some structural.
Our music tends to be quite different, though there is overlap; there is a huge variety of tunes, from jigs, reels and slipjigs to dances in 3/4 and 3/2, even the odd one in ragtime or klezmer.
ECD music and choreography offer an enormously satisfying range of dance experiences: in one night you’ll do something exuberant and goofy, then something elegant, something driving and dramatic, something stately, something haunting and melancholy, back to jolly and lively again!
ECD takes you on a really lovely ride. It’s done quite differently here than it is in the UK, where you’ll get English folk dances or ceilidh dances mixed in with maybe some American dances as well. Here we mostly do what is known in Britain as “Playford”-style dances.
As for all ages — pretty much! We’re planning a family dance that will be particularly child-friendly, but our regular social dances are fine for motivated kids age seven or eight and up who can focus and follow the instructions. Typically they love the live music and getting the chance to move to it! They start bouncing right away.
We have regulars in their teens and ’20s, on up to middle-aged and older people, and we all dance together. It’s great.
ECD is a beginner-friendly dance form because you need no formal training, and we all laugh at ourselves if we make mistakes. In addition to there being no lead or follow, there’s no fancy footwork, and it’s mostly low-impact as well. (Once in awhile one of the dances will be a bit rompy, but we always warn people of that first!)
If you can walk and hear the instructions, you can do these dances.
How many members does the Toronto ECD currently have?
We don’t have formal membership, but for special events we’ve had as many as 80 people show up. Usually it’s a lot more intimate than that!
The nice thing about ECD is that it’s fun no matter what numbers you have — it’s not dependent on having a huge room full of people, and our community is friendly, so you get to know them quickly. You don’t need to come with a partner, because everyone will ask new people to dance, for example. It’s not “cliquish” at all.
Do you meet and dance with other ECD groups around the country, or world?
Yes! We travel around to dances all over the place. I’ve danced as far away as Ottawa, the Maritimes, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, England and Italy. But there are groups almost right across Canada, from Halifax to Victoria.
What does a typical ECD night entail?
If there are lots of newcomers, the caller will give a few teaching points to get everyone oriented to the basics and make sure they’re comfortable with what’s going on in the set.
Then each dance is taught by a professional caller, everybody walks it through, then we dance it to live music, with the caller cuing the dancers just before they need to do the next move (again, just like in square dance).
Questions are always welcome if people aren’t sure what they’re meant to do … but we’re pretty laid back, and nobody gets uptight over mistakes — we were all beginners once!
At the break we have snacks provided by the community (it’s a volunteer-run, not-for-profit group) and take a breather, chat and get to know each other. Sometimes there’s a particular theme, such as Halloween or New Year’s Eve, so sometimes we decorate as well.
Then we get back to dancing! We’re incredibly lucky to have live music at every social dance, and a wonderful range of instruments, from traditional fiddle to clarinet, piano, flute, guitar and others.
What social activities happen around the club?
We like going out, so often we’ll go for a drink or some food after the dance. Sometimes we’ve had potluck suppers. In the summer we dance in High Park on Sunday afternoons, and have a pre-dance picnic, then dance, then go for ice cream or beer and dinner on Roncesvalles. We’re a very social bunch!
Are there a lot of Brits in the Toronto ECD?
It’s a dance form that appeals to lots of people, so while we do have British expats we have people of other backgrounds as well. Everybody is welcome.
Anything else you want to tell us about your club?
We dance all year round in various parts of the city, indoors and out, with regular community dances and special events, including themed workshops for dancers of various experience levels.
We are in the process of migrating our mailing list to a new server, so individual e-mails to our website might be the best way to start contacting us.
Thanks Karen! Sounds like a fun way to meet new people. Brits in Toronto found a documentary that briefly explains more about ECD: