BackFeet



Most English dancing doesn't have much in the way of footwork; as a result, most English dancers are bad at footwork.  English Country Dancing tends to involve figures rather than steps.  Historical Dance (Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society, Nonesuch, etc.) has a lot of footwork and not much in the way of figures.  So does a lot of International Dance.  Scottish has plenty of figures, but if you go to a Scottish Dance class you'll find that you start each evening practicing the steps.  As a result they're a lot more precise than English dancers; a lot more graceful.

In the States there's even less stepping than in England; their view of “English” dancing tends to be a smooth flowing walk to a beautiful dreamy tune, preferably in three time and a minor key.  There's a lot more to English than that!

I'm not going to get you all doing a rant step or a pas de bas for ten minutes.  I'll just mention a few points for you to think about: you've probably heard them all before but you may not have thought about them recently.

  It's no good moving your feet without your body.  Your body must lean in the direction you want to go — this is simple mechanics, not high-powered dance philosophy.  Conversely, if you're not travelling, your body should be above your feet.

  If you want to slip to the left, you need to push with your right foot.  If you're doing a slipped circle, make a nice open ring, with hands a bit below shoulder height — and the way to get the ring moving well is to give a slight pull on the person behind you — so if you're circling left, you pull the person on your right.  It's no use pushing the person in front.

  It's also no use waiting until the circle is moving before deciding that you want to be part of it.  You all need to start moving at the same time…  that's what the music's for!

When you actually start to analyse them, most of the steps we use in English Folk Dancing are variations of the same movement.  If you think in terms of two bars (or measures), in the first measure you do right-left-right and in the second measure you reverse feet and do left-right left.  That's it — English steps in one sentence!  The difference lies in how much of a bounce you do at the beginning, the timing of the three steps, and how far you travel.  My one-line description covers setting, pas de bas, skip-change, schottische, polka, rant, waltz — even Strathspey, if you want to move outside the English area!

  Demonstrate.


Pas de bas

The Scots call it Pas de Basque, but it's basically the same thing.  This is just an ordinary setting step.  John Playford in 1651 defined three things — all the rest is conjecture!

A Double is foure steps forward or back, closing both feet.
A Single is two steps, closing both feete.
Set and turn single, is a single to one hand, and a single to the other, and turne single.

He's actually using the word “single” with two different meanings here — “turn single” means turn on your own rather than turn your partner.  So Playford is saying that a set is just a step to one side and a step to the other.  In English you do it with a little rise and fall, and with a change of weight.  Setting is usually right and then left in English (and always so in Scottish), so if you step right and then close the left foot to it your weight is on your left foot and you need a change of weight to your right foot, leaving the left foot free to move back to the left.  So the move is actually right-left-right, left-right-left, but the third of each is a transfer of weight rather than the feet moving anywhere.

Try it taking hands in a circle.  Then do two on the spot (right, left, right, left — 4 bars) followed by two turning 90° clockwise each step (4 bars) — repeat all this three times (total 32 bars).  Now try the same thing with a partner using ballroom hold.  Now try dancing round another couple.  Unlike a polka round, there's no preliminary spring; it's a much flatter step.  Dance with the whole body, not just the feet.  If you're not rising at the right time, try falling onto the beat; this automatically means you will have risen first.  Don't try and take huge strides.

  Pins and Needles   (CDM 3)

This is a good dance for teaching the pas de bas because it has lots of setting in it, and you can emphasise that it's exactly the same step.  Just before the dance-around, the ones come up the middle with a setting step for four bars, and on the last two I like the twos to move in and up with a setting step, so everyone is already moving in the correct rhythm.  Watch out for the people who immediately switch to a polka step as soon as they get their arms round their partner!

There's a Scottish version of this dance called “Scottish Reform”, but they've missed out the set for the ones before their lead down so it doesn't fit the music properly, and of course they do an RSCDS Scottish poussette rather than the two couples taking a ballroom hold and dancing round each other.  To quote Jean Milligan in her book “Won't you join the dance?”,

Poussette is one of the most common methods of progression.  It is found in the dances of the late 18th and early 19th century chiefly, and seems to have been the forerunner of the waltz.  Its name comes from the French “pousser,” to push, and that to a certain extent describes the movement of the man in this formation.  When the S.C.D.S. was formed, this form of progression had lost its original, dignified shape.  Probably the introduction of the waltz had affected it, for instead of the traditional two-hand hold, partners joined as for a waltz or polka and danced round each other with a kind of hop waltz step.  This led to untidiness and lack of control, and even to jazzing.  The Society returned then to the old form and the poussette is done as described.

For a little more information, see the section on English meets Scottish.

The Scottish pas de basque is recognisably the same step, but much more balletic.  On the upbeat the appropriate leg is kicked out (I'm not using technical terms!) but then brought in again as you land on that foot on the downbeat, so that you're not actually moving from side to side at all.  As in all Scottish, the feet are turned out and the toes are pointed.  If you want to know more about positions of the feet, you need to ask a Scottish Dance teacher or a ballet teacher.

Pas de Basque is used much more in Scottish than in English.  A two-hand turn (other than in a Strathspey) is frequently done in two pas de Basque steps, which takes a lot of practice.


Which Foot?

Scottish is more formalised than English; there's always the right way.  It's always laid down which foot you start on.  English isn't full of rules, which pleases some people and distresses others.  The real answer is: It doesn't matter so long as it feels comfortable and doesn't look awkward — and I'd expect the two to go together.  Watch a display team (performance group) — you won't notice someone out of step if they're dancing any sort of figure.  But you will notice someone who is hesitant or who changes step part-way through.

My rule is simply: Start with the right foot unless there's a good reason to start with the left.  In a slipped circle left you obviously start with the left foot — well, actually you're pushing off with the right foot, so maybe my rule still applies.  But a walked circle left — I'd start by crossing my right foot over my left.  Again, let me stress that this is my approach, not a rule laid down by some authority.  I've had two girl-friends who were in display teams — one was taught to start a circle left with her right foot and the other was taught to start with her left.  The advantage to starting on the right foot is that you finish in open position, ready to circle right.  If you start with the left foot, you're in danger of finishing with your right foot crossed in front — ready to do nothing except fall flat on your face.  You can start on the left foot, but you must finish with feet together — a small step with the right on the eighth beat — immediately ready to go off on the right (or even the left if you want to).

The right foot also has the advantage that we normally set to the right first in Playford, and balance onto the right first in English (and American?).  Actually Playford didn't say which way to set first; Cecil Sharp made the decision for him.


Changing feet

Sometimes you have to change feet.  The first rule is: Be aware that you're going to have to change feet — don't let it creep up on you.  Bring your feet reasonably close, with your weight over both of them.  If you're balanced, you should be able to step off with either foot.

Basically, to change feet you either put in an extra step or leave out a step.  Suppose I'm in a longways set, ranting back up the middle with my partner to second place, and then we're going to take ballroom hold and dance round the other couple.  One of us has to change step; I would expect the man to.  So instead of the final left-right-left, I just do a left-right.

As to which foot each person should start on in a dance around, and exactly which direction each couple should move off in — different people will give you different opinions.  There is no one right way; English dancing isn't that standardised.  Provided the man knows what he's going to do, and leads decisively, his partner will be happy to follow him.