The Hey or Reel - Origins and Over 25 Variations

Early References to Heys

The term "hey" goes back to at least the 16th century. The earliest reference that I know is in Orchesographie (1589). "Branle de la Montarde" (a version of which is now danced as "The Horse's Branle") has "le premier fait une haye" (the first person dances a hey). In this particular hey, the first person just weaves to the end of the line, passing in front of the ladies and behind the men; no-one else moves.

The next dance in the book is "Branle de la Haye" in which A, B and C dance a three-person hey as we know it today.

Haye, or haie, meant a hedge. Imagine a hedge made by weaving branches horizontally through posts and you can see the weaving concept. It was also used to mean a hedge made of soldiers (e.g. lines of soldiers greeting visiting dignitaries), again, giving the opportunity to weave between them.

William Hogarth: "The Analysis of Beauty" (1753):

"The lines which a number of people together form in country or figure dancing, make a delightful play upon the eye, especially when the whole figure is to be seen at one view, as at the playhouse from the gallery; the beauty of this kind of mystic dancing, as the poets term it, depends upon moving in a composed variety of lines, chiefly serpentine, govern'd by the principles of intricacy, &c. the dances of barbarians are always represented without these movements, being only composed of wild skipping, jumping, and turning round, or running backward and forward, with convulsive shrugs, and distorted gestures.

"One of the most pleasing movements in country dancing, and which answer to all the principles of varying at once, is what they call the hay; the figure of it altogether, is a cypher of S's, or a number of serpentine lines interlacing, or intervolving each other..."


The Scottish created dances based solely on the hey. They called them reels. The scotch reel consisted of alternate heying and stepping (fancy steps danced in place) by a line of three or four dancers. Susan de Guardiola's page on what Jane Austen might have danced gives some more details. The dance is still popular today in forms such as the Dorset Four-Hand Reel. See also Three-Hand Reel and Five-Hand Reel.

These days we use the terms "hey" and "reel" to mean the same thing; which word you tend to use usually depends on which genre of dance you learnt first.

Rules for Heys

Many dancers worry about which shoulder or hand to use. Here are some concepts that might help:

Hey Variations

The chief characteristic of a hey is that it is a weaving figure. But how many people are involved and what formation they are in varies tremendously. Here are over 25 different forms of hey.

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