Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

“All hands to dance and skylark!” – Shipboard dancing in the British Navy

Richard de Grijs
Sydney, Australia

Figure 1. Warspite cadets dancing the Hornpipe, 1928. National Maritime Museum Reproduction ID H6381. Associated Press on Flickr. Via Wikimedia.

“We were all hearty seamen, no cold did we fear;
And we have from all sickness entirely kept clear;
Thanks be to the Captain he has proved so good;
Amongst all the Islands to give us fresh food.”1,2
– William Perry, surgeon’s mate on H.M.S. Resolution, 1775

Lieutenant James Cook (1728–1779) is known as a popular and considerate commander, unusually obsessed with preserving the health of his crew. He is credited with leading the first long-distance sea voyages without any deaths from scurvy. Less well known, however, is his preoccupation with daily exercise. In his late twenties, Cook had served as a junior warrant officer on H.M.S. Eagle in Admiral Edward Boscawen’s (1711–1761) fleet, where he astutely observed the positive health impacts of a daily routine of dancing to the music of the fiddle, fife (an instrument resembling a piccolo), and drum.3 Those life lessons ultimately shaped his leadership style.

“Captain Cook wisely thought that dancing was of special use to sailors. This famous navigator, wishing to counteract disease on board his vessels as much as possible, took particular care, in calm weather, to make his sailors and marines dance to the sound of a violin, and it was to this practice that he mainly ascribed the sound health which his crew enjoyed during voyages of several years’ continuance.”4

Shipboard dancing—as recreation or entertainment, to reinvigorate listless sailors on long voyages, to calm nerves before battle, or as an early fitness routine—already had a long history in the British Navy. The practice dates back to at least 1585, when John Davis (Davys; ca. 1550–1605), the English navigator famous for his search for the Northwest Passage, had his crew dance to music, both on board and in cultural exchanges with the Inuit inhabitants of Greenland’s east coast.5,6 Dance as a vehicle of intercultural communication was also successfully deployed by Cook on his voyages to the Pacific.7

During the Georgian era (1714 – ca. 1837), dancing during the “dog watch,” once the day’s work had been completed, became popular both above and below deck—among officers and sailors alike. Admiral Edward Pellew (1757–1833) even had an enslaved violinist of African origin abducted in Lisbon “to furnish music for the sailors’ dancing in their evening leisure, a recreation highly favourable to the preservation of their good spirits and contentment.”8,9 The most accomplished dancers among the crew were held in high esteem in the informal shipboard hierarchy. They would often be found climbing the rigging to the highest sails.10

Daily dance routines offer benefits to both body and mind, firing off neurons in the brain and, hence, boosting morale and wellbeing. Regular dance practice supports the development of one’s agility, spatial awareness, joint and muscular tone and flexibility, balance, and endurance—strengthening core muscles and bones through anaerobic exercise11,12 while also improving one’s heart resilience and lung capacity.13

Cook was a trailblazer in maintaining a healthy lifestyle on board. His implementation of dancing as an exercise routine was enthusiastically embraced by his successors, including William Bligh (1754–1817) on H.M.S. Bounty and Matthew Flinders (1774–1814) on H.M.S. Investigator, and also by a number of ship’s surgeons during the era of convict transportation from England to Australia.

Historically, almost all British Navy ships included musicians among their crews—sailors who could play the fiddle, flute, fife, trumpet, or drum—although they were hardly ever registered as such on muster lists. On his first voyage to the Pacific on H.M. Bark Endeavour (1768–1771), Cook’s crew included the drummer and fiddler Thomas Rossiter (1750–1788). Later voyages often included official musicians, enough to form a band of French horns, flutes, violins, “hautboys” (oboes), highland pipes (bagpipes), trumpets, and drums.14

Carlo Blasis (1797–1878), the Italian dancer, choreographer, and historian, wrote:

“The dance they generally indulged in, is called by the English the Hornpipe; it is of a most exhilarating character, and perhaps more animated even than the Tarantella [a rapid, whirling dance from southern Italy].”15

Cook is often credited with elevating the Hornpipe to England’s national dance, although its use at sea dates back to at least the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.16 As a sailor’s dance, the music’s score was first published in 1797 or 1798, but the basic melody—also known as the College Hornpipe, the Jig of the Ship, or Jack’s the Lad—predates that publication by several decades. By 1829, one would have been hard-pressed to find any sailor who was unfamiliar with the tune. After all, “a sailor who could not dance a hornpipe was no sailor at all.”17

The Hornpipe gained enormously in popularity among sailors in the 1740s, when the rhythm was adjusted from the original 3/2 triple time to the now common 4/4 time. The dance is particularly suitable to depict shipboard life and duties, with movements mimicking hitching one’s pants, climbing the rigging, the hauling and coiling of ropes, bilge pumping, and looking out to sea.

The New Zealand Academy of Highland and National Dancing rightly highlights that the Hornpipe revealed some desirable traits of the sailor at work, including “a serious countenance, steps confined to a small space owing to the inadequacy of the deck space, the movements of the body, arms and feet showing vigour and precision and the whole performance presented in a nautical manner.”18 It was easy to dance the Hornpipe alone or in groups, at a tempo that was in tune with the daily rhythm of shipboard life.

But the Hornpipe was not just a shipboard dance. Sailors often continued the practice on a run ashore, not least to attract female attention or simply for reasons of alcohol-fuelled bravado.19 Indeed, “the sailor’s hornpipe [became] one of the glories of the English Navy.”20 Over time, it became less common to include dedicated fiddlers among ships’ crews, and so dancing the Hornpipe gradually fell out of vogue.

Nevertheless, the practice persisted in numerous plays featuring British “Tars” on stage, including the pantomime Omai, or, a trip round the world and The Death of Captain Cook, a “grand serious pantomimic ballet.” It was particularly popularized by the English actor Thomas Potter Cooke (1786–1864), “an inimitable seaman, dances a hornpipe to perfection, swears sailors’ oaths unprofanely and twitches up his expressible with an air very amusing to land-lubbers.”21 Eventually, the Hornpipe’s popularity culminated in its adoption as the theme music for the cartoon Popeye the Sailor Man in 1933.

Yet, the call for “All hands to dance and skylark!” (racing up and down the rigging) persisted for some time in the British Navy in its original meaning. Even today, it is still in use in preparation for a dance on board when the French chalk on the “ballroom” deck needs to be rubbed in.


  1. Cook, J., Beaglehole, J.C. (ed.), 1961. The Journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery. II. The voyage of the Resolution and Adventure, 1772–1775. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Kodicek, E.H., Young, F.G., 1969. Captain Cook and scurvy. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 24, 43–63.
  3. Blasdale Clark, H.E., 2014a. Captain Cook’s Country Dance. Australian Folklore, 29, 71–86.
  4. Blasis, C., Barton, R. (transl.), 1830. The Code of Terpsichore. London: Edward Bull. Pp. 26–27.
  5. Parrott-Sheffer, C., and the Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. John Davis. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Davis [Accessed 1 February 2022].
  6. Gordon, W.J., 1907. Round about the North Pole. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company. Pp. 224–225. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52462/52462-h/52462-h.htm [Accessed 1 February 2022].
  7. Rickman, J., 1781. Journal of Captain Cook’s last voyage to the Pacific Ocean, on Discovery: performed in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779. London: Printed for E. Newbery.
  8. The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 1855. “The Timbers of Australia,” p. 8. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/12973404 [Accessed 1 February 2022].
  9. Blasdale Clark, H.E., 2014b. Boscawen’s Frolick. Australian Colonial Dance. https://www.colonialdance.com.au/boscawens-frolick-1767.html [Accessed 1 February 2022].
  10. Blasdale Clarke, 2014a. Op. cit.
  11. Blasdale Clarke, H.E., 2020. 9 Benefits Of Dancing (And Why The Convicts Danced Too). Australian Colonial Dance. https://www.colonialdance.com.au/9-benefits-of-dancing-and-why-the-convicts-danced-too-3989.html [Accessed 1 February 2022].
  12. Karkou, V., Oliver, S., Lycouris, S. (eds), 2017. The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Wellbeing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  13. Arts Council England, 2006. Dance and health. ISBN 0-7287-1244-X.
  14. Blasdale Clarke, H.E., 2019. Dancing with Cook. Australian Colonial Dance. https://www.colonialdance.com.au/dancing-with-cook [Accessed 1 February 2022].
  15. Blasis, C., 1847. Notes upon Dancing, Historical and Practical. London: M. Delaporte. P. 45.
  16. Royal Museums Greenwich, 2022. The sailor’s hornpipe dance. https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/sailors-hornpipe-dance [Accessed 1 February 2022].
  17. Blessington, Countess, and Reynolds, F.M. (ed.), 1843. The Keepsake. London: D. Bogue. P. 194.
  18. The New Zealand Academy of Highland and National Dancing, 2022. The sailor’s hornpipe. https://www.nzahnd.org.nz/pages/13-25/Sailor-s-Hornpipe [Accessed 1 February 2022].
  19. Ellis, S., 1920. George Meredith: His Life and Friends in Relation to His Work. London: Grant Richards. P. 27.
  20. Blessington, 1848. Op. cit.
  21. The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Letters, Arts and Sciences, 1830. Covent Garden. P. 692.

RICHARD DE GRIJS, PhD, is a professor of astrophysics at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He has a keen interest in the history of science and navigation. Richard is also a volunteer guide on Captain Cook’s H.M. Bark Endeavour replica at the Australian National Maritime Museum, where he additionally consults on matters related to the longitude problem. He undertakes regular speaking engagements on behalf of the Museum.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 15, Issue 1 – Winter 2023

Fall 2022



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