BackHands



A lot of people (men, actually) don't know what to do with their hands.  If you're not using them, don't put them in your pockets or behind your back or fold your arms: just let your arms hang loosely by your sides.  Not rigid as though standing at attention; just hanging naturally.  Some men won't be convinced that this looks perfectly natural — it feels odd to them and makes them self-conscious.  But from the outside I assure you it looks perfectly natural.

That's when you're not using them.  But often you do want to use them: turns, stars, circles and so on.  The golden rule is: Give weight.  And look at the person you're turning — even if it's another fellow!  You're not strangers on the tube in the rush hour trying to pretend the crowd around you doesn't exist; you're doing social dancing.  If you were having a conversation with someone you'd look at them, wouldn't you?  Even if you weren't holding hands with them!

I danced for some years with the “Jovial Beggars” — a display team led by a very blunt Yorkshireman called Walt Tingle.  Walt's golden rule (given in a strong Yorkshire accent) is: “Hold your partner's hand whenever you can”.  I think that's excellent advice.  Where else do you get the chance to go up to a strange lady and hold her hand?  But a lot of experienced dancers in England are very antiseptic.  You might give your partner a quick nod — but touch her?!  What an idea!

I like giving hands.  If the ones cast to second place, the twos usually move up.  Scottish dancers do four side steps, in time with the music, which looks very neat — and they look at each other, so even though they're not actually touching they're still dancing together.  English dancers tend to shuffle up apologetically, as if they've suddenly realised they're in the wrong place.  It looks awful.  You weren't in the wrong place at all — you were here, now you need to be there.  So move up with conviction, as if it's part of the dance (which it is) — and I prefer to take my partner's hand and lead her up.  Not only is it friendlier, it also means I'm sure she's going to be there when I need her.

The same in a Grimstock (mirror) hey.  I always prefer to take hands at the end of the set — and it's easier too.  And in cross heys (depending on what preceded the movement) I would give her the other hand so that I can pass her across in front of me.

  Demonstrate both heys.

Some callers say “You shouldn't really give hands in a Grimstock hey — but if it helps you to know where you're going, we don't mind”.  This is guaranteed to stop everybody using hands instantly, and it's a load of rubbish.  Giving hands isn't like kids having stabilisers on their bikes or wearing water-wings when you're learning to swim — it's part of dancing with your partner.

And I think the same goes for “four changes of a circular hey”.  Some older callers will tell you very dogmatically that “You never give hands in a circular hey”.  Don't believe them; it's just the way they were taught forty years ago.  (This is me being dogmatic about not being dogmatic!)  Cecil Sharp invented the term “circular hey”, and he applied it to what I consider to be two different figures: the grand chain (right and left grand) movement you get in squares such as Chelsea Reach, and also the right and left four changes (or three changes) that you get for two couples in a longways set.  He said “handing is the exception rather than the rule”, but this may be simply that (as in a lot of other cases) Playford just didn't say.  If you want a counter-quote, Pat Shaw in his notes on “The Hare's Maggot” (now reprinted in the book “Another look at Playford”) says,

In Playford's time the circular hey (i.e. “Right and left quite round”) was almost certainly done giving hands as in a “Grand chain.”
If you go back to the original sources, you will often find it described as “Right hands and left”.  I looked through John Johnson's “Two hundred favourite country dances” (1730) and found that in these 200 dances the figure “right and left” occurred 173 times.  Of these 63 said “Right hand and left”, 110 just said “Right and left” — and they tended to come in chunks — it's quite obvious that sometimes he put the word in and sometimes he left it out.  Or indeed Playford, 1686, describing “Haphazard”: “…then right and left hands with your own, going round till you come into your places”.  But again there's this attitude of “Real dancers can do it without hands”.  And I particularly dislike people who look down their noses at you as they strut past.  That's not social dancing.

In America there's a distinction made between “Rights and lefts” and “Circular hey”, with one using hands and the other not.  This doesn't come from Playford or Sharp — I believe it's Kitty Keller in “The Playford Ball”.  I don't agree with this.

So my definite opinion is that if it's four changes in sixteen steps (which is how 80% of 18th century dances seem to finish), you give hands, you phrase it to the music, and you look at people as you pass.  If it's three changes in eight steps, such as the progression at the end of “Indian Queen” or “Lilli Burlero”, some people say you haven't got time to take hands.  This isn't true, and I would still give hands, though I don't feel so strongly about it.  The only times I can think of where I don't give hands are those where you have only two steps per change, such as at the end of “Orleans Baffled” (three changes in six steps), at the end of “Parsons' Farewell” (two changes in four steps), and no doubt a few others.

And surely common politeness dictates that if someone gives you a hand you should take it — and take it with conviction rather than giving a touch and immediately freeing yourself with a superior look that says “Oh dear, Colin Hume still needs to give hands”.

To sum up: Don't be embarrassed by your hands; they're here to stay.  And don't be afraid to use them: not in exaggerated flourishes — that's not English Country Dancing — but naturally, to express the fact that you're dancing with your partner and the other members of your set, and you're not ashamed of physical contact.