BackHands



This expanded set of notes was first used at a Technique Workshop for Winchmore Folk Dance Club in 2017.

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 aren't convinced that this looks 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!  A dance is a kind of conversation, like the dialogue of a play.  The lines have been written, but it's up to you how you deliver them, and different actors will give very different interpretations.

Hand-hold for English Country Dancing is a shake-hands hold (I'm talking about a single hand turn, not two-hand) — giving weight but not squeezing — and if you're turning a long way you bend your elbows.  But if you've got the time and the room, use long arms, rather than rushing round for fear of being late.  As I keep saying: Being early is just as bad as being late.

  Form a longways set, take hands four and we'll try a few things.

Let's look at giving weight.  Some callers don't like the term because they say it conveys the wrong impression, and indeed if I'm swinging someone I don't expect them to sink into my arms so that I'm carrying them — that's giving too much weight!  What I want is a firm connection, so that you can feel there's somebody there — nobody wants to dance with a limp lettuce.  If you're in a circle, one person's hand is above, the other below, and they're pressing against each other.  Then you can get the circle moving, because it's well-connected.  I see people twisting their hands into all sorts of strange positions — it looks ridiculous and it doesn't help the dancing at all.  Some people do a perfectly good circle left, but when they go back to the right they twist their hand round — and therefore the hand of the person they're holding.  Don't do that!  In a star, you're giving hands across and again there's the tension between the two of you — that's what enables you to push the star round.  And what about a turn?  When some people do a two-hand turn with their partner they get in close, raise their hands up and scuttle round like that.  Maybe they think that if they get in close they don't have so far to go — but you can't give any weight like that.

  Let's try circle left and circle right, 8 steps each.  That's easy, isn't it.  Some of you didn't get all the way round, but you went the same distance each way so you think that's fine.  But now let's try a circle left 1¼ in 8 steps.  Not so easy!  Now a right-hand star 1¼ in 8 steps.  Now a left-hand star 1¼ in 8 steps.  That's harder, isn't it.  It's because most of us are right-handed, and we're not so good at giving weight with the left.  Now: first the ones, then the twos, a two-hand turn 1½ in 8 steps (both the “hands too high” way and the right way).

Some people may say, “But a two-hand turn is usually once around in 8 steps, and we can do that with our hands above our heads”.  You could, but why would you want to?  I agree that if everyone is doing a two-hand turn it can be crowded (and it wouldn't have happened in Playford's day or Jane Austen's day: it would have been just the ones turning), so then I would indeed get in closer and bend my elbows, but I still wouldn't raise my hands up to head height and I'd still take all eight steps!  Again, being early is as bad as being late.  I was dancing on Monday and everybody was rushing the two-hand turn in 4 or 5 steps and then waiting for 3 or 4 beats before the next move.  You're supposed to be dancing with the music, not competing with it!

Who goes on top?  There's a good general rule that if a man and a woman are holding hands in a circle, or a two-hand turn, or a poussette, the man's hand is underneath, supporting the lady's hand.  If two dancers of the same sex are holding hands, Cecil Sharp suggested that the dancer with the lower number should take the lower position, i.e. palm up.  So if I'm the first lady and it's a two-hand turn with my neighbour I would put out my hands palm up.

Of course there are exceptions.  Some men just can't cope with putting their palms down, so unless I'm feeling particularly dogmatic I'll go with the flow.  If it's a gates movement, it works much better if the person moving backwards is underneath and the person being gated is on top.  In Scottish dancing if lines of three are going forward and back the middle person is underneath.  But it's not something to argue about while you're dancing — just take the other person's hand as they offer it.

  Let's dance Jacob Hall's Jig, published by Henry Playford in 1695.  I'm going to do the Cecil Sharp version, even though I think he got it wrong, because it's a real test of giving weight.  And most callers still call this version, so you might as well know how to cope with it.  (We'll also use the tune that Sharp set it to.)  The secret is that on both occasions the second lady to be turned needs to anticipate the turn with her partner by moving in towards him and giving the correct hand.  If you give weight in the turns and circles you can do it; if you don't you won't be able to — it's as basic as that!  The turns are only about four steps each, but provided you flow directly from one to the next you can do it, and if necessary you can steal a couple of steps from the circle and move that round in only six steps.

Hand-hold for American contras and squares is definitely elbows down, and the two hands are 90º to each other.  Larry Jennings in his book “Zesty Contras” recommends interlocked thumbs, and there I disagree with him — if one of you slips you could both end up with bruised thumbs.  On the other hand, don't go to the other extreme as some urban contra dancers do in the States — a completely flat palm which says “I'm scared you're going to hurt me so I'm not giving you anything to grab onto”.

  Steve Zakon-Anderson is very keen on allemandes, so let's do one of his contras: Chichester House Reel.

Let's have a break — and if you've got any questions, please ask.

What about a three-hand star?  I think there are two options — ignoring the “bunch of bananas” variant.  If it's a three-couple set and the middle couple are going to their own right to make a right-hand star, it's perfectly acceptable for the couple to give the normal “shake hands” hold as for a turn, and the spare person to put their hand on top.  On the other hand, if it's a circle and three men go in to make a right-hand star, I prefer a vertical hand cupped round the hand of the person on your left, though one lady pointed out that long fingernails can be a problem here!

  Let's try a fun dance called Desborough Doddle by Steve Moore where five of you need to make a star, and you also have to do a left-hand turn 1½ so it's good practice at giving weight.

I danced for some years with the “Jovial Beggars” — a display team led by that very blunt Yorkshireman, Walt Tingle.  Walt's golden rule (in a strong Yorkshire accent) was: “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 there, now you need to be here.  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 know 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.

  Once a Night (Thompson, 1770's, Apted Book, 1966) involves cross heys and a couple of slipped circles, so it's a chance to practise using your hands well — and it's a great dance.

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 the same goes for “four changes of a circular hey”.  Some older callers (I was young when I gave an early version of this workshop) will tell you 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) that 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” (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 strong belief 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.  (And I would say you don't finish with a courtesy turn, but other people disagree with me.)  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.  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 some 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”.

  So let's dance “Barbarini's Tambourine” published by Walsh around 1735 which has the four changes and then finishes with a nice two-hand turn for everyone.

  Finally a dance in waltz time: The Bath Waltz which involves some slow turns, looking at people as they go past, and also several half poussettes.

With a poussette, callers may say “Man push, lady pull” — but if you actually do that there's no weight there.  It's more a case of “Lady pull, man resist slightly” — again so that you can feel there's somebody there.

  Try it palm against palm to see whether you're really working as a couple.  (I wouldn't do it like that in a dance.)  Actually I'm not convinced that was a useful exercise!

And if there's some weight there you're less likely to do the commonly-seen “pseudo-poussette” where one person pushes and the other just bends his or her arms rather than actually moving backwards.  I hate that!  Of course the person moving forward has to make sure that the person moving backward doesn't hit someone from the next set, or a chair, but surely that's all part of social dancing — looking out for your partner and other people.  You have to trust the person who is guiding.  I don't want arms ramrod stiff: reasonably long arms with a bit of flexibility is the way to go.

People think they have to rush the “contra corners” move, but you really don't.  Provided you're giving some weight (have I mentioned that before?!) you can do the turns with good long arms and flow smoothly from one to the next.  Just make sure you don't get so lulled that you forget to face the right way for the start of the next turn!

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.