Traditional Step Dancing
by Dr. Ian Dunmur (© 1984)
[Annotations by Chris Brady (2007)]


This note is a specially expanded version of one written in 1984, for a 'resource package' on various aspects of folk music. It aims to give some of the social and historical background - especially through, the bibliography - rather than to describe steps and technique. The emphasis is on English dance, but there are references to other parts of the British Isles and to North America.

In 'The Morris Book' [1] in 1911, Cecil Sharp refers to Step Dance as "the most popular folk dance at the present time" - "a standing proof of the capacity of the village dancer to create and execute extremely complex and intricate movements".

Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1971) defines it as "A dance in which steps are emphasised rather than gesture or posture; especially: a solo dance characterised by clogging, tapping, brushing or kicking."

Thus, perhaps, the sixteenth century Galliard [2], pre- and post-Restoration (1660) Morris dancing, the Highland Fling, although they require much clever foot and leg work, are not usually thought of as types of step dance. Nevertheless, there may be some overlap of technique.

Strutt offers an Anglo Saxon picture (3) of two men apparently stepping or springing from foot to foot in a crouching posture and clapping their hands. This is very like a simple step still seen today, variously known as the 'Monkey Hornpipe', 'Kibby Hornpipe' [as used to be performed on the cast iron manhole covers in streets in Northern mill towns], 'Cossack Dance', and, in Welsh clog - broom dancing 'Toby.' [The dance is also known in Southern Ireland, and sometimes features as part of a brush or broom dance.]

Some of the sixteenth century Branles [2] had mimic movements, including tapping the floor in the 'Horses Branle' and the 'Branle of the Wooden Shoes' ('sabots'). But this seems to bear no resemblance to our [British] step dancing.

When this emphasis of steps came into solo dancing is not clear, but it was well established by the middle of the 18th century when a list of some hornpipe and jig steps taught by a dancing master in South-West Scotland was published in 1755 [4]. Hornpipes were frequently advertised in theatre posters from 1713 (e.g. in Drury Lane, London) and in the USA after the 1780s (New York, Philadelphia) [4].

In 19th century rural England, floors, furniture and even ceilings were really getting a battering [5] and the women were pulling up their skirts to join in [4]. Strutt [6] relates how a man stood on his head on a porter pot on public house tables (before 1801) and danced a hornpipe on the ceiling - sometimes to the disruption of the latter and the displeasure of the publican. Dancing in clogs is mentioned early in the century [5] and in 1819 in Edinburgh [7]. Children were being sent to lessons by itinerant dancing professors [7, 8, 8a, 9, 10] to learn etiquette, country dances, reels, fancy dances, hornpipes and clog hornpipes as well as the new quadrilles and round dances as they came in. [This has also been extensively documented in Ireland, ref: the so-called travelling dancing masters and so-called 'hedge schools.']

Click to enlarge and print.Meanwhile, in North America, in 1789, John Durang - regarded as America's first native-born professional dancer - appeared as Man Friday in Robinson Crusoe and danced a hornpipe, thus becoming a forerunner of the white minstrels in black-face [11]. By 1840, the Irish Jig and Lancashire Clog Dance as seen in the theatres became blended with African rhythmic ideas to give birth to Jazz Dance including stage Tap Dancing [11]. Back in the mountains, isolated communities kept up the tradition of 'clogging,' [actually flat-footing - rather than dancing in wooden-soled shoes,] which is still alive today in square dancing - with some groups specialising in it - and in the New England Contra dances [10] and in Canada [12]. This clogging, often called 'buck dancing' when done solo, is done in ordinary shoes - not clogs nowadays - sometimes with metal taps fitted.

There was often an element of competition amongst many step dancers, and to hold and win contests became a matter of local pride [13, 14]. Dartmoor still holds a stepping competition and there were until recently well established clog championships at Durham, Fleetwood and elsewhere. These owed their existence to a revival of clog dancing - especially amongst folk enthusiasts during the last thirty years [, well since the 1960s onwards]. In many communities, especially ones isolated from external influence, the competitions tended towards strict rules and stylisation. On the other hand, "go as you pleases" or talent contests, perhaps in more cosmopolitan districts, lead to a more extrovert and creative approach, with more interest in entertainment. [In the 1930s Sammy Bell ex-miner and champion clog dancer used to enter these. They were usually held during the intervals between films at local cinemas such as in Ashington, Northumberland, where Sammy lived for many years.] These also sometimes set amateur performers on the road to the professional stage. The revival competitions have tended towards strict rules, which may have given a false impression of little variety in step dance. As a counter to this, some festival organisers are starting free style competitions. Also there is a growing interest in the less familiar stepping traditions, often associated with the dancing of reels, from such areas as Southern England and the Scottish Islands.

Deliberate teaching of the steps almost died out in the 1920s [and 1930s], but fortunately some of the old timers have been delighted - sometimes after a break of forty years - to recollect their steps and teach them to young revivalists. There are a few magnificent dancers who kept their dancing going all through the decline and are still performing today. In addition to learning their steps, some of the younger generation are, with financial help from many clog dance groups, making films and videotapes of interviews with the old dancers, about their background as well as showing complete step routines [15].

Older and younger experts can be found in specialist clubs, running courses, and at folk festivals all over the country. A newsletter called INSTEP from Newcastle was published in the 1980s [16]. The bibliography gives some publications containing details of steps, but do not, as a beginner, attempt to learn steps from books. Find a good teacher or club.

The clubs often put on shows (as long as there is a good floor) at all sorts of events - international festivals, steam rallies, street fairs, charity concerts etc. Some broaden the interest by including reels and country dances incorporating appropriate steps [, e.g. the now defunct Reading Cloggies that has evolved into Aldbrickham Clog and Step Dancers].


Click to enlarge and print.In some areas of dancing, such as ballet, the dancer attempts to interpret the music or even a mood beyond the music. At the other extreme, the music may be a mere ornament, not always helpful to the dancer's performance. Morris and country dancers tend to use the music just as a guide and be almost oblivious to a change of tune. The step dancer - certainly in the present English revival - is of the latter class. Even so he may be of two types - using the music simply as a metronome (more or less inevitable with a theatre orchestra), or, with a good musician, expecting the music to follow the niceties of his speed and emphasis. In fact, the amateur dancer in the folk scene at present is one of the most fortunate in having willing and understanding musicians available.

Step dancing can be divided into two types. In one, the performer fits a selection of his steps to the music on the spur of the moment. This is found in the Yorkshire Dales, East Anglia [7, 14], with Travellers [Romany Gypsies], Irish jig [and 'sean nos'] dancers, Appalachian 'cloggers' or flat-footers and, sometimes, tap dancers including some of the most famous [11], although many remember groups of steps that fit particular tunes. The other type - much the more popular in the revival - is more structured. It usually fits 8 bar tunes with the last 2 bars occupied by a Finish, Shuffle Off, Cast Off or Break corresponding to the full close of the music. (The term 'break' may also be used for a break in the music when the dancer continues, or for a change of rhythm.) A typical arrangement is for the first 6 bars to contain a pattern of basic step groups on alternate feet - maybe two long ones (2 bars each) followed by two short, related ones (1 bar each), or three long ones, or they may be filled up with repetitions of 1/2 or 1 bar steps.

The best known step dance is surely the Hornpipe. This may use a straight hornpipe tune such as 'Soldier's Joy' - 4/4  (for which you count 1&2&3&4&) which may be brightened up a bit by slightly lengthening of the numbered notes at the expense of the &s. Or, it may use a Schottische or Dotted or Broken Hornpipe - 4/4  (actually played more like 12/8  and so sounding like a Single Jig). The old timers liked 'Woodland Flowers', 'Lily of Laguna', 'Narcissus', etc, whilst the revivalists tend to go for Irish hornpipes. But, in any case, the 8th bar is  corresponding to the three stamps of the shuffle off. The counting may need to be further broken up as 1&a2&a …. or 1an&a23an&a4 …. etc.

Jig steps are sometimes more or less hornpipe steps fitted to jig tunes, or they may be quite different in feel, as in Irish and Lancashire jigs and rapper sword dance stepping, to double jig tunes like 'Father 0' Flynn' - 6/8  ending in . Some, particularly Scottish jigs, have fewer beats and are suited by mixed 6/8 rhythms  etc. 9/8 Slip or Hop Jigs are used, especially in Ireland.

Clog Waltzes are often done as an encore or a novelty number in a fancy "Dutch" costume [13]. They frequently alternate a basic "platform" step with elaborate steps. They are often made into group formation displays.

People often wonder what is the difference between clog and tap dance? In England, people who learned tap as children seem to find clog easy to pick up, whereas clog dancers often find difficulty with tap. But this may just be a matter of age. Those who do both say that they are not so different but that the emphasis comes in different places - tap is more syncopated. The Stearns give many references to American dancers' comments on this difference, and also on the distinctions between Jazz, Flash and Stage dancing [17]. A lot of this seems to have depended on how much of the original Lancashire clog dance remained.


Click to enlarge and print.On the whole there does not seem to be much difference between step dancing in soft shoes, hard shoes, tap shoes or clogs. No doubt kicking toes and heels together and picking the floor with the toe tip is better in clogs or special shoes with metal taps on the sides as well as underneath. Irish dancers sometimes use shoes with extra thicknesses of leather [or glass fibre]. Soft shoe dances rely much more on shuffling or brushing movements using the ball of the foot than do some clog dances which have a lot of heel beats. Sand dances are done in soft shoes with sand sprinkled on the floor to make a swishing sound. [See Wilson, Betty and Kepple's music hall performance in the online archives of British Pathé] Bells are sometimes attached to clogs or a coin is caged into a cavity in the wooden heel - 'jinks' [This last idea was actually patented in the USA, I believe that it was mentioned in an early edition of Scienticic American of the 1870s.] People have danced on skates and short skis. Clogs with iron caulkers make sparks on stone. Some dancers have fixed pieces of plywood to the soles of ordinary shoes.

Clogs. These are an ancient form of footwear [18] which, in the nineteenth century was particularly associated with Lancashire, although used all over the British Isles. [In Lancashire they were worn because they were cheap, and they kept the feet warm in the damp conditions of the cotton mills - dampness being necessary to stop the cotton threads from breaking.] [In the coal mines they were again used because they were cheap and hard wearing in the rough conditions underground and at the pit-head by the 'pit-brow lasses.'] Presumably the wearers found that they could make a good sound when step dancing, and gradually developed a technique, sometimes mimicking the sound of looms and other machinery [19]. [Listen here to the sounds of traditional clog dancing: Gateshead Garden Festival.] The rather loose work clogs - somewhat resembling the present day French sabots or galoshes - gave way to close fitting ones with fine leather uppers cut from the same patterns as ordinary shoes. These were sometimes in two colours such as red and blue or scarlet and purple. Dancers have preferences for various shapes of sole, degree of spring - the upward curve of the toe - and type of wood used. Ash is often recommended for sound, alder was recommended for lightness, but many of the old (and present) hand made dancing clogs were of beech [which unfortunately tends to split easily]. High heels are helpful if toe-heel taps are to be featured. Few, if any, of the old cloggers still working made these step dance clogs, although some will make 'dandy' clogs for the North-Western type morris dancing, which can be very serviceable for step dancing. Accompanying the dance revival, is at least one clog maker [Trefor Owen], and several other young cloggers are producing clogs specially for step dancers [, see:].

Step dancers have often performed with the help, or hindrance, of hardware other than shoes:-

Things held in the hand:-

Skipping Rope. Various steps can be performed during otherwise ordinary skipping. For more complicated steps the rope is swung to the side. Whip The Horse to Newmarket or Jockey Dance [20] includes cracking of the whip. [There are still some excellent skipping rope clog dancers such as Cantwara performing on the folk scene in 2007.]
Whip or stick passing it under the raised leg etc. as is done with a small stick in the Fool's Dance often performed by the morris dancer's fool [21].
The ubiquitous broom dancer may do similar tricks with a broom [or a brush in Ireland - CJB]
Tambourines, Hoops, Garlands can also be used as props. [22].

Things to dance over and amongst:-

Belts, Sticks [23], Broomsticks [24], Swords (in England [25], as well as in the well know Scottish Argyll Broadswords and Gillie Callum) and the long, Churchwarden Bacca Pipes [viz. the morris jig 'Bacca Pipes'], all may be laid on the floor and jumped or stepped over, or the dancer may stand to one side and tap the floor beyond. [Also reference the Irish crossed-stick dance "Yellow-Haired Goat" or "An Gabharín Buí".]
[Dancing a hornpipe in fetters was one popular performance on the Music Hall stage [32].]
The Egg Dance had various forms one of which is for the dancer to be blindfold and then to dance a hornpipe among a dozen or so eggs without disturbing them [26, 27]. It has recently been reconstructed. Lighted candles are sometimes involved (Wales, Suffolk) when the dancer attempts to snuff them by clicking his clog's heels together.

Things to Dance Upon:-

Apart from the floor, dancers might use a table. [John Seymour in "Voyage into England" relates how canal boatmen used to step dance on the tables of canalside pubs with full pints pots on the edge. The idea was to dance and NOT to spill the beer otherwise a forfeit had to be paid.]
[Canal boatmen were expert step dancers and one Bill Gibbons used to dance on the counter (rear platform) of his Leeds and Liverpool canal wideboat. The single cylinder bollinger engine would be ideal for setting a up good rhythm for dancing free-style to - usually in steps of 2 or 4 bars.]
[Stone flags on street corners in mill towns migh be used for impromptu competitions or simply for amusement. The old Lancashire 'Heel and Toe' style might have featured here; this was a style that emulated the sound of the cotton spinning and weaving machinery in local mills. Traditional clog dancer Pat Tracey has made a number of films of this type of dancing.]
[The top of an up-turned beer barrel was also popular in pubs.]
[There have been some recorded instances of step / clog dancers performing a head-stand on a table in a pub and clogging on the ceiling.]
Some publicans will show the flagstone, under the modern carpet, which used to be danced upon (e.g. in Cornwall and also in the Mendips).
[A flat wooden board could easily be carried for impromptu step dancing. There is a report from the late 1800s of a bullock drover in Queensland in Australia carrying his dancing board on the side of his bullock cart on which he could step dance when making camp.]
[Wooden flap-doors to underground storage cellars of pubs were also used to step dance upon to produce a pleasing echo. This has been noted as happening in the late 1800s in The Rocks area of Sydney Harbour in Australia. The dancers there used to finish a performance with the 'Sydney three-crack-whip' or 'stamp, stamp' stamp;' this was to emulate the  expert cracking of a bullock whip. The bars, cellars and flap-doors are still there for the tourists but the dancers have all gone.]
Professionals might have a pedestal as small as 300 mm square and as high as 1m or more [28]. The top might be wood, slate or glass [29]. In the last case a spotlight could shine through [, e.g. Sammy Bell's lighted pedestal].
[Portable 'staircases' have also been known to make ideal dancing props.]
A roll-up mat of wooden slats on straps, maybe 1m by 2 or 3m is useful in case of a bad floor. It also provides a special 'zipping' effect by the sliding of the clog over the joints [, as in one of the steps in Sammy Bells' Waltz routine].
A bass drum [30], [a forté of Mike Cherry of the Reading Cloggies [31] - CJB].
Shoe brushes taped flat together [29], and no doubt, many other things.

Click to enlarge and print.Some performers make a feature of playing their own music whilst dancing. [This used to be normal practice with dancing 'professors' when teaching. These frequently had specially small fiddles that could be played whilst demonstrating steps.]  Some dancers included a bit of acrobatics such as an upstart from a supine position (Salmon Leap). In an old British Pathé film of the Five Sherry Brothers three of them do this whilst playing violins at the same time and then carry on dancing. Indeed many of the performances of some of the American clog or wooden-soled shoe dancers were somewhat acrobatic [11]. [If someone with a fiddle or a melodeon was not available a 'tommy talker' could be used. This was a cardboard tube with greaseproof or newspaper paper stuck over one end; this would be covered with paper tassles. The other end would be left open and also had a hole cut into the side. The player would purse his/her lips and hum a tune across the hole cut in the side a bit like playing a hair-comb and paper.]

You will hear reference to regional styles of dancing and people will altercate - especially when championships are at stake. Many now feel that the style of dancing owes much more to the dancer's teacher than to geographical location. It sometimes turns out that well known traditional performers of a particular regional style actually came from somewhere quite different. The more you get into step dancing the more you find the same step turning up in widely separated places. The bulk of the current revival has been in clog dancing described as Lancashire, North-East England, and more recently Lakeland (although the area covered by this category is Furness - previously in Lancashire - and the adjacent part of Westmoreland). These are the chief areas where dance teaching was pursued well into the present century and also the chief clog wearing areas (although a lot of step dancers in Lakeland never wore clogs).

Other regions with extant or recently defunct step dancing traditions are the Hebrides, generally in Scotland, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex (where they had a 'clog dance' and a 'step dance' both done in clogs), the New Forest, Dartmoor, Cornwall, [Mendips], Wales (where clog dancing is usually associated with dancing to a candle or over a broom), the English Midlands, and Yorkshire.

Some excellent performers are the travelling people [, i.e. Romany Gypsies, some of whom had specially decorated shoes for step dancing] who will step at their social gatherings usually in pubs [, e.g. Tommy Orchard in Zeal, Dartmoor].

Of course there is Irish step dancing with innumerable classes catering for it, albeit in a rather stylised form all over the British Isles and the USA. [Although there has recently been a revival of the nearly lost 'sean nos' freestyle step dancing from Connemara.] Although there is a strong following for the Highland Fling etc, there seems to be relatively little interest in many of the Scottish step dances. [There is a major debate as to whether the recently revived Cape Breton step dancing is of Irish or Scottish origins.]

Some of the present day step dance groups - following particularly the work of the Fletts [7, 8] - feature the use of regional steps in the 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 hand reels still well known in Britain. At the same time, fancy stepping is being put back into country dances and quadrilles - in place of ordinary Setting or Balancing or as a shuffle off to terminate a figure - where it often used to be employed by good dancers. [Reference: the 'Campaign for Real Reels' by the Reading Cloggies in the 1970s to 1990s.]

[Many performances of modern day [1990s/early 2000s] step and clog dancing can be seen at Tony Barrand's: The Digital Video Research Archive of Morris, Sword, and Clog Dancing at Boston University, this especially includes Ian performing his famous 17-step routine of Lakelend steps.]


1. Sharp, C.J. 'The Morris Book IV,' Novello, London (1911), p 10.

2. Arbeau, T. 'Orchesographie' etc, Langres (1589); [English translation - Evans, M. S. (1948) with notes etc ., Dover Edition, New York (1967).]

3. Strutt, J. 'Sports and Pastimes of the People of England,' London, 3rd ed. (Hone, W) (1845), p 172.

4. Emmerson, G.S. 'The Hornpipe', Folk Music Journal 2 (1) pp 12-34 (1970).

5. Gregson, K. 'Lakeland Step Dancing and the Cumberland Bard', English Dance and Song 42 (3), pp 6-7 (1980).

6. Ref 3., p 227.

7. (*) Flett, J.F. & T.M. 'Traditional Step Dancing in Lakeland' EFD&SS, London (1979) ISBN 0 85418 123 7.

8. (*) Flett, J.F. & T.M. 'Traditional Dancing in Scotland', Rout1edge & Kegan Paul, London (1964).

[8a. (*) Flett, J.F. & T.M. 'Traditional Step-Dancing in Scotland' Scottish Cultural Press (Jul 1966) ISBN-10 1898218455 ISBN-13 978-1898218456 - CJB]

9. Breathnach, B. 'Folk Music & Dances of Ireland,' Mercier, Cork & Dublin (revised 1977) ISBN 0 85342 509 4.

10. Nevell, R. 'A Time to Dance - American Country Dancing from Hornpipes to Hot Hash,' St. Martins, New York (1977) ISBN 0 312 80522 5.

11. (*) Stearns, M.& J. 'Jazz Dance,' Macmillan, New York (1968).

12. (*) Rhodes, F. 'Dancing in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia', Appendix to reference 4.

13. (*) Pilling, J. 'The Lancashire Clog Dance', Folk Music Journal 1 (3), p 158-179 (1967). Also 'Buck and Wing' English Dance and Song, January 1959, pp 25-27.

14. (*) Clifton, P. & Hulme, A-M 'Solo Step Dancing Within Living Memory in North Norfolk', Traditional Dance 1 p 29-58 (1982) - proceedings of Traditional Dance Conference, Crewe & Alsager College (1981) - Ed. Buckland, T. See also ref 10, p49.

15. The following films of step dancing are available - mostly for hire: some for sale as video tapes - except as indicated, at Cecil Sharp House, English Folk Dance & Song Society, 2 Regent's Park Road, London NW1 7AY:-

* 'Sam Sherry - Lancashire Clog Dancer'. 25 min. Garland Films (1978).

* 'Bill Gibbons - Canal Boat Clog Dancer'. 12 min. Garland Films (1982).

* 'Sammy Bell - A Northumberland Champion Clog Dancer'. 25 min. Garland Films (1981). See also ref 29.

* 'Dick Hewitt - 'Norfolk Step Dancer" with Percy Brown, melodeon. 17 min. Garland Films (1979).

* 'Patricia Tracey Clog Dancing - the Old Lancashire Toe and Heel Steps' 23 min. Garland Films (1982).

* 'Pat Tracey Lancashire Irish Clog Steps' Garland Films. See also ref 19.

Note that Garland films were made by Barry Callaghan assisted by many others.

* 'Cromer Life Boat Crew' Anglia Films.

* 'Sam Sherry'. Tchalenko, J., Concord Films Council Ltd, 201 Felixstowe Rd, Ipswich IP3 9BJ.

* 'Tune Up at the Ship'. Pegg, C - video (1982), Rivers Video Unit, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RS

* Extracts from Royal Albert Hall festivals - Five Sherry Brothers, Pat Tracey, Jackie Toaduff (1964), Norman Robinson (1969), BBC news film - video transcriptions. [See: British Pathé News online archive.]

16. The quarterly newsletter INSTEP and the 'Newcastle Series' of step descriptions is [was] published by C. Metherell, Newcastle upon Tyne.

17. Ref. 11, pp 216, 288, 190 etc.

18. Vigeon, E. 'Clogs or Wooden Soled Shoes' Costume (Journal of the Costume Society) No 11 (1977) 27 pp.

19. Tracey, P. See ref 15; also book to be published. See also 'The East Lancashire Tradition' English Dance and Song XXIII No 2 (1959), pp 39-41.

20. Ref. 7, pp 9, 92, 94.

21. (*) Ref 1, vol. III, 1st ed. (1910) p 76; 2nd ed. (1924), p 66.

22. Ref. 7, pp 9, 91, 92, 93.

23. (*) Neale, M. 'Over the Sticks' The Esperance Morris Book Part 2, Curwen Edition 5694, London (1912), pp 2, 11-12, 32.

24. (*) 'Bradninch Miller's Broom Dance', English Dance & Song, XVIII No 6 (1954), p 204.

25. (*) Ref. I, vol. II, p34; vol. III, 1st ed., p 84; 2nd ed., pp 69, 105.

26. Ref. 3, p 225.

27 Newell, V. 'The Egg Dance', Folk Music Journal, 2 (1) (1970) pp 35-44.Click to enlarge and print.

28 Ref. 7, p 20.

29. (*) Cherry, M. 'The Steps of Samuel Bell' Originality No 3, Reading (1982).

30. Ref. 11, p 290.

31. (*) Cherry, M. '40 Years of Clogs and a Drum' Originality No 4, Reading. [First published in 2007.]

[32. Bratton, J.S., 'Dancing a Hornpipe in Fetters', Folk Music Journal, vol. 6 no.1 1990. and also Correspondence in Folk Music Journal - Barlow, Jeremy, vo1.6 no.2 1991.]

(*) These contain descriptions of steps.

Steps may also be found in:-

'Lancashire Clog Dancing,' Folk Music Journal p115-126 (1971).

'Hebridean Solo Dances' from McConachie, J., Caber Feidh (1972).

'Four Step Dances from Aberdeenshire,' Cramb, I., Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.

'Clog Steps for Beginners,' Hughes, G., English Folk Dance & Song Society.

'Clog for Beginners - Originality' No 1, Reading, Cherry, M. (1982): see ref 29.

'Clog for Beginners - Originality' No 2, Reading, Cherry, M. (1982): see ref 29.

'The Flowers of Edinburgh,' Robertson. C., Scottish National Dance Co., Reading (1982).

Home # Top

Email: Chris Brady
No. of visitors since 20-10-99: [ 763 ]
Site last modified: May 10, 2010
© Chris Brady

Top # Home