- Era: American, late 1850s-early 1860s
In commemoration of the American Thanksgiving holiday, here’s a seasonally appropriate dance from the American Civil War era, a country dance for a set of six couples.
While I have not done a comprehensive search, I appear to have instructions for "Harvest Home" only in a pair of dance manuals by Elias Howe: Howe's Complete Ballroom Handbook (Boston, 1858) and American Dancing Master and Ball-Room Prompter (Boston, 1862), which include far more country dances than is typical of other dance manuals of the time period. New England to this day retains a stronger country dance tradition, in the form of modern contra dance, than most other parts of the United States.
A different dance appears in a late 18th century collection of country dances published in Boston, The scholars companion: containing a choice collection of cotillons & country-dances, by M.J.C. Fraisier, suggesting that the tune "Harvest Home", an Irish hornpipe, had been known for some time in New England.
Both of Howe's manuals give the same text for the dance:
First couples cross over. Six couples in a set.
First and foot couples balance to partners, first couple down the centre (foot couple up the outside at the same time)--same couples balance again, foot couple down the centre (first couple up the outside at the same time)--first four ladies chain (foot four right and left at the same time) swing four hands half round and back at the head and foot of the set at the same time) the same cross right hands half round, left hands back--first two couples half promenade, first couple down the centre to foot and stop.
The dance is fairly straightforward to reconstruct. The six couples form a longways set, with the first (top) couple changing places to what is known as “improper” sides so that the formation appears as follows:
top of set
1 W M
2 M W
3 M W
4 M W
5 M W
6 M W
bottom of set
(six couple set, starts with first couple improper)
4b First & last couples balance to partners
4b First couple down the center while last couple up the outside, to each others’ places
4b First & last couples (now in each other’s places) balance to partners
4b First couple (now at bottom) up the outside while the last (now at top) down the center
(all are now returned to original places)
8b First two couples ladies chain; last two couples right and left
8b First two couples and last two couples take hands and circle to the left and back to the right
8b First two couples and last two couples cross right hands and go round, then cross left hands and return
4b First two couples promenade halfway
(this leaves the second couple at the top, improper, and the first couple in second place, proper)
4b First couple goes down the center to the bottom and falls into lines on proper sides
The dance is then repeated five more times, allowing each couple to take the first place. The middle two couples each time have nothing to do except watch.
The only oddity in the instructions is that the sequence from the ladies chain/right and left to the cross right hands/left hands back is given as one continuous, unbroken, set of figures. Normally this would imply that this is all done to a single eight-bar strain of music, but that isn’t really possible even if only a half ladies chain/right and left were done -- and that would not work in the context of the other figures. So the ladies chain/right and left takes eight bars. The "cross right hands half round, left hands back" figure takes eight bars in other dances in Howe's manuals, so that leaves the circling figure likewise an eight-bar figure and the dance forty-eight bars in length.
For the four-bar balances to partners by the top and bottom couples, the dancers would most likely go three steps and a close of feet forward and back facing their partners. "Cross right hands half round, left back" means to take hands diagonally across the set in the shape of an "X" and go around in a circle, then turn around, give the other hand, and go back.
The "right and left" would probably have been performed taking right and left hands alternately in a chain around the “square” of the two couples, beginning with right to partners and being careful not to rush the figure -- four steps for each change of hands. This is a different figure from the right and left (chaîne anglaise) used in quadrilles.
The ladies chain would be performed without the modern “courtesy turn”, with the left hand turns consisting of the two dancers taking left hands and simply walking forward around each other and the gentleman turning to face in at the end.
After the promenade half round of the first two couples, the first couple might keep promenade hands (right in right, left in left, in front of them) and merely turn halfway to promenade together down the center of the set.
An American dance of this era would probably have been performed with simple walking steps.
This reconstruction of the dance requires a 48-bar repeat of music six times. The tune “Harvest Home” is 16 bars total in two eight-bar strains, but the repeat structure can be tinkered with (AABAAB or similar) to make a 48-bar dance, or the tune can be simply be played straight through eighteen times.
A list of recordings of “Harvest Home” as well as basic sheet music for the dance may be found on the helpful tune index at The Session. Here’s a short snippet of the tune taken from a medley recording by the band Fiddlers’ Five, which may be downloaded as an MP3 file from Amazon and is not quite long enough to perform the dance six times through, though it could be edited to fit:
The second (1862) Howe manual specifies a different tune for the dance: the “Spinning Wheel Rondo”, adapted from Friedrich von Flotow’s 1847 opera Martha, which was first performed in the United States in 1852. This rondo is mentioned in several advertisements and lists of music in Volumes 15 & 16 of the Dwight’s Journal of Music, edited by John Sullivan Dwight and published in Boston in 1860, and is included in Elias Howe's Improved Edition of the Musician's Omnibus (Boston, 1861), where it is, conveniently, exactly forty-eight bars long and thus fits the dance perfectly.