BackChallenging English Country



Winter Dance Week, 2008 — John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, North Carolina

Let's just start by looking at the words of the title: Challenging — English — Country.  They all mean different things to different people, so let's decide what we're talking about.

English — I know what it means, but Americans have a very different idea — some of them even claim to speak it!  Of course English dancing has been influenced from all over, just like the English language, but I went to a session in the States called “English” and there was only one dance that I considered English in style.  I'm not saying that Gary Roodman and Fried Herman don't write English dances, or I'd have to say I don't write American Squares, but some other people haven't quite got it.

Country — people have been arguing over that one for ages.  When Playford published The English Dancing Master in 1651, was he publishing the dances of the country people?  No, he was publishing dances of the court.  Some of them may have come from the country originally, but they were smartened up for their new job.  And yet there were and still are dances of the people.  Cecil Sharp collected “traditional” dances (another mine-field of a word) which were passed on by doing them, not by learning them from a book or dancing master.  Some of these were derived from 19th century quadrilles, which I'll be talking about in my “200 Years of American” sessions.  Many were very simple and quite energetic, and when I started dancing we did plenty of them.  Now the dancers in England are much older, and the traditional dances with stepping — rant, hornpipe, polka, even skip-change — have fallen out of favour.  In the States they hardly exist at all — when dancers in the States say English Country they mean Playford-style, smooth and gentle, no swings, preferably longways in triple-time with a beautiful tune that you can just drift through.  Yes these are English Country, but so are Morpeth Rant, La Russe, Cumberland Square Eight and many many more — and these don't get a look-in over here.

Challenging — once again it means different things to different people.  If people are new to a dance form, everything is challenging at first.  Once they've learnt more, some challenging dances become easy, but some remain challenging.  Why is this?  I'm going to suggest a few reasons, and for the rest of the week we'll be doing plenty of dances and I'll be really interested to know whether you find them challenging or not.

I'm leaving out other reasons such as they don't speak English, or they're drunk, or the caller's incompetent — I don't think they're likely to apply here.  Let me know if you come up with any other reasons.

Here's something Victoria Bestock from Seattle wrote in December 2008:

I may have written about one night when I was calling, and a lot of newcomers showed up to the beginning workshop.  They didn't dance in time to the music.  Once they'd learned the dance pattern, I stopped the band and said something like “Here's the idea.  You want to have your foot touch the ground when you hear the beat of the music, and you want to fill the music with movement, arriving at your destination exactly in time to do the next move without rushing or stopping.”  I told them it would take a bit of practice to figure out how big a loop to make on a cast off or figure eight to do that, but I was wrong.  As soon as they knew that was what they were supposed to do, they could all do it!  They just didn't know that moving to the music was part of the deal.

It's that matter of attention again.  They were busy learning the patterns, using the music as background music as they do when they have music on in the car or house.  They don't vaccuum or type in time to the music they listen to.  They didn't know they were supposed to dance to it until I told them.