Swings & Two-Hand Turns

What are Swings and Two-Hand Turns? What is the difference between them? Or are they really just different names for the same move?

Note: I use the historical role names of Man and Lady below, but anyone can dance any role.

A Turn IS a Swing

What is the difference between a Swing and a Turn?

Absolutely nothing!

Sometimes they are just different words used to describe the same action; sometimes the words are used to differentiate between different styles of the same action. The action is for two people to rotate around a shared axis.

Here is a good example from "Cowboy Dances" by Lloyd Shaw, 1939. In a single dance the word "swing" is used to mean a one-hand turn, a two-hand turn and a ballroom-hold swing (which he defines as usually twice around and with "short steps" rather than a buzz-step).

In fact, the interchangeable use of the words "turn" and "swing" goes back centuries, early works using the word "turn" exclusively, but the word "swing" starting to appear in dance manuals towards the end of the 18th century.

In the Appendix below I give lots of examples, across the centuries, of different uses of the two words.

Modern Swing Styles

Modern dancers usually interpret "Turn" as "join both hands in an oval shape and go around once", and "Swing" as "take some closer hold and rotate more than once". This may well be a legacy from Cecil Sharp, who, in
"The Country Dance Book Part 1" (1909), gave those definitions. He actually specifies a Two-Hand Hold for a "Swing", but then goes on to say, "Traditional dancers of the present day engage their partners in waltz fashion, but the older method, which dropped out of fashion owing to the influence of the Waltz and Polka, was to take hands as described in the Turn."

The choice of Swing style varies by genre: Two-Hand Turns are often walked, though in a dance such as Childgrove, where you have to turn your neighbour one and a half times to change places, it is common to skip. Some dancers like to skip all the Two-Hand Turns.

When dancing a Contra Dance with a good partner and a "Partner Balance and Swing", I like to do a different Swing each time through the dance. I know twenty different holds, plus a number of interesting entries and exits.

Here are my Swing Workshop videos that explain all these types of swings, and teach you twenty different ways to swing,

Historical Swings

In the pre-Playford
Lovelace Manuscript, Trenchmore provides some stylistic information, a very rare thing in early documents: "then every man shall turne his mayde as long as he please, on way, and then backe agayine, the other way... Having soundly turned both ways, every man, with his woeman... and then all men and woemen turne round as before as fast as they can".

From this description it seems obvious to me that this was not a sedate Two-Hand Turn once around! They were Swinging. We have no idea what hold they were using. I know 20 different Swing holds; do we really think that the young, energetic, innovative dancers of the 17th century didn’t experiment with different ways to Swing or Turn?

It is possible to interpret the Trenchmore words as a stationary man twirling the lady under his arm, but, in the same document, for The Old Man with a Bed full of bones, it states "if you please, you may turne her arme over her head, and salute her". The twirl is explicitly described, so I assume that the Trenchmore words really do refer to a Swing.

Some people say that you couldn’t do a Swing close together until the second half of the 19th century because ladies' dresses were too wide. I don't believe that all dancers of all classes over the last five hundred years always wore clothing that prevented a Swing!

Energetic Turns were still being danced in the early 19th century; Thomas Wilson in "The Complete System of English Country Dancing" (1820) defines "Turn your partner" (page 9) as "join both hands and turn completely round to their places... with three Chasses Jetté and Assemblé". In simple modern terminology, and without 19th century styling, that would be three polka steps and jump.

And Charles Dickens says, in "Sketches by Boz" (1836):      "As to the gentlemen, they stamp their feet against the ground, every time 'hands four round' begins, go down the middle and up again, with cigars in their mouths, and silk handkerchiefs in their hands, and whirl their partners round, nothing loth, scrambling and falling, and embracing, and knocking up against the other couples, until they are fairly tired out, and can move no longer."

Evolution and Style

I have heard some Americans say that there are no Swings (as opposed to Two-Hand Turns) in English Country Dancing. Sorry, I have to disagree! Sometimes it is a stylistic choice by the dancer or the caller, at other times it is a simple matter of the Folk Process - the continuing evolution as each generation introduces its own ideas. Apart from that, there have been countless dances choreographed in the Country Dance genre over the last 150 years which explicitly include Swings.

A good example of evolution is
La Russe. The 1847 "set and turn" became "balance and swing partners" when it was published in ED&S in 1948, having been collected from the North-East of England earlier in the century; it was still danced there at the village dances despite having been forgotten everywhere else. On the "Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow" DVD you can see scores of dancers performing La Russe in 1950, all using perfect ballroom-hold buzz-step swings.

As for stylistic choice, have a look at this video of Mad Robin from 1695 (the dance, not the video!) The original words are "turn hands" and "turn his Partner". Each couple chooses their own style. In the first swing of the dance the nearer couple takes a Double Allemande Hold, while the other couple takes a Ballroom Hold; both couples use a buzz-step. In the second swing the further couple takes a Two-Hand Hold to dance around twice. In the other set, while one of the couples just walks one turn, the lady in red takes a Two-Hand Hold and uses a buzz-step to get around three times!

Poussette or Swing & Change

Another interesting evolution is the way that the Poussette has turned into a Swing & Change.

In his 1820 work Thomas Wilson defines a "Whole Pousette" as a progressive move, two couples dancing one and a half times around each other to change places.

With the popularity of the Waltz and Polka during the 19th century, the hold for the Poussette changed from a Two-Hand Hold to a Ballroom Hold.

The original 1886 wording of but David Anderson’s
Ladies’ Fancy is "pousette", but his daughter stated that he taught the move as "First and second couples with ballroom hold dance around each other (pas de basque step) and change places (progression)".

This move is now known as Swing & Change and you can see it being danced in this video at 2:39 (they don’t quite complete the move in this example as they are changing formation):

Interestingly the Scottish have stayed with an intermediate version of the move. They still use a Two-Hand Hold and use a pas de basque step, but each couple rotates as they dance around the other couple. as in this example.

Travelling Swings

While the Buzz-Step is one of the most efficient ways of rotating quickly, it is useless if you need to travel. Many dances require you to Swing around the other couple, or to Swing down the set. While the polka is great for doing this (as seen in the Swing & Change above), not everyone can polka. Switching to a more open symmetrical hold and using a Skip-Step or Polka Step means that you can travel easily.

See the
Swing Workshop videos for examples of suitable swings for travelling.


My belief is that people have been having fun doing different styles of Swings and Turns for centuries.

As a dancer I try to do what the caller has asked me to for the first few turns through a dance, but then, if the music tells me to and my partner is willing, I like to experiment and have fun.

As a caller, I think it is important to understand that innovation and improvisation are part of dancing, and if the dancers are having fun and in the right place at the right time then they are doing it correctly.

Appendix - Historical References

From the examples below it is clear that the words "Swing" and "Turn" have been used interchangeably over the centuries, with each Dancing Master defining the terms as they desire. The common factor is that all the moves are for a couple rotating around a shared axis.

The earliest use of the concept that I know is in the pre-Playford
Lovelace Manuscript; the second dance in the manuscript is Noahs Flood: "then the 2nd man shall turn round his mate... and salutes her (if he pleases)... he turneth her round other way".

1651: Blew Cap (This is from a later edition of Playford; the original is just "Blew Cap".): "the 2. man salute his owne and turne her".

1820: Thomas Wilson - "The Complete System of English Country Dancing". The first move, on page 9, is "Turn your partner" defined as "join both hands and turn completely round to their places... with three Chasses Jetté and Assemblé". The next move is "Swing round your partner" which is defined as a right-hand turn with the same footwork. There is a footnote: "The only difference between swinging and turning is, that swinging is always performed with one, and turning with both hands.".

Whether they crossed their hands or not is not clear, but there were references to a style that involved the arms curving downwards, with no pointy elbows, so it seems likely that one style was with the arms uncrossed (Chivers P101; Wilson P256-7).

1845: Some examples from "Rock's Ballroom Handbook": 1876: From a definition of Birling - a term used by the Scottish to describe a Swing:
   BIRL(E), Birrel:
      "To revolve rapidly, whirl round, dance; to make a rattling or whirring noise."
      1876 "He birled me roond like Nannie's wheel."

1889: Some examples from "Call book of modern quadrilles ... Arranged and explained by Herman A. Strassburg", by American Music Co., Detroit, Michigan: 1909: In "The Country Dance Book Part 1" Cecil Sharp says, "To turn, two dancers face, join both hands, and swing once round, clockwise.". This is yet another example of "Swing" and "Turn" being used in the same sentence to mean the same thing.

1918: In "American Country-Dances" Elizabeth Burchenal's "Swing" is a Ballroom-Hold Buzz-Step Swing.

1926: In "Good Morning" Benjamin B. Lovett defines "TURN PARTNERS" as "Lady and gentleman join both hands waist high and turn once around. To swing partners in the waltz position, the weight of the body of each should rest on the ball of the right foot, turning with the toe of the left." But dances also include instructions such as: "All swing partners with the right hand".

1939 In "Cowboy Dances" Lloyd Shaw refers back to Good Morning and Cecil Sharp’s Running Set. He uses "Swing your left hand lady with your left hand" and "Turn the left hand lady with your left hand" interchangeably.

For Swing he say, "each man takes his partner in a modified dance position, her right hand extended in his left, her left hand on his shoulder, and his right arm around her waist... With short steps the couple swings completely around twice in a "right about face" or clockwise direction.".

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