Up to the Renaissance in Britain the dances took the form of line dances, the farandole, or lines of couples, such as the Allemande, or circles like the Branle met with on the continent. During the Renaissance Dances arrived from the courts of Europe including ‘La Volta’ which is said to have originated in Italy. It was a vigorous dance in which the man lifted his partner by the skirt of her girdle to help her jump that little bit higher. It was of course open to abuse and it is from this salacious dance that dance as a whole got a bad name. It is said to have been a favourite of Queen Elizabeth the First.
Elizabeth was a Protestant and for the next two hundred years rivalry between the two religions, Catholicism and Protestantism, tore Britain apart. In an attempt at modernism and reconstruction of a divided society the strict codes of morals that developed under the influence of the low church expressions made their influence felt.
The effect on dance was to forbid partners to hold hands with one another. Instead flirtation was limited to the eyes and ‘making eyes’ at one’s partner. As a result many of the country dances developed as couples dances where the couples faced one another and without holding hands or otherwise touching one another, crossed back and forth between the lines. Patterns were drawn on the dance floor by the walking of the partners.
These similar patterns are found in Scottish country dancing also. Some derive the name country dances from contra dances, meaning partners face one another. I think this is a fanciful derivation and that the name is simply to distinguish it from courtly dances.
Many English country dances are done in sets, or pairs of dancers, two or four couples. Invariably couples. Rarely one finds dances for 3 couples. Some, like Hole in the Wall, are done in lines with partners facing one another and crossing dos si dos or passing shoulder to shoulder, possibly rounding another couple in the process. There is usually no step involved, just a walking or skipping step according to the delight of the individual.
It is likely that the Hey, that is found in English dances, is older than this puritanical movement in dance. The Hey consists of walking or skipping past your partner taking their hand and greeting the next partner with the opposite hand and passing them, either to turn around and return to one’s original partner to pass on the other side to the next partner, or proceeding around the circle until meeting ones partner again. The effect is of a weaving pattern or a figure of 8 type of loop.