BackDancing with a Partner



Chippenham Folk Festival, 2000

If you do Lancashire Clog, disco or line dancing you may well be dancing on your own.  But if you do English or American Folk you dance with a partner.  And I think that's important.  I'm not keen on people who just dance for themselves.  I remember watching some experts dancing salsa a few years ago.  I looked at one man and thought “What a wonderful dancer”.  But then I looked at another man and thought “What a wonderful partner” — he was looking after the woman he was dancing with, not just giving a good lead for her to follow, but also making sure that she was enjoying the dancing, and he was conveying the very strong message that he enjoyed dancing with her.  I suddenly realised that no matter how flashy the first man was, the second man was a better dancer as far as I was concerned.

I'm helping to run an Advanced Playford course for GUSTO later this year, and we'll be evaluating the dancers to decide whether they pass or fail.  We've had a lot of discussion about what makes a “good” dancer.  Yes, of course it's important that the person can move to the music, remember instructions, give weight…  but the one phrase we all thought summed it up was “a pleasure to dance with”.  Do people say that about you?

The tradition is that the man leads and the lady follows, and I generally go along with that, though there have been many occasions when I was floundering and was very grateful for a shove in the right direction from my partner.  But it's probably better if it isn't a shove.  When it's “Ones cast, twos move up” and I'm a first man, a little look at my partner at the right moment says “We're going to cast into second place”.  If I'm a second man, I look at my partner, put my hand out, and lead her up; it's much friendlier, and it guarantees she'll be there when I need her.  In both cases, I feel I'm dancing with my partner; it's not that we just happened to move at the same time.  And sometimes a slight gesture can say “Half figure eight down”, or a squeeze of the hand can say “Cross and cast”.  You can use words too — the idea is to give your partner guidance when she needs it, and not irritate her by telling her things she already knows.  Several of my partners have said “How did you know that I'd gone blank and needed a call?”  I knew because I was watching her and could see the sudden panic in her eyes.  Someone who was dancing for himself probably wouldn't have seen that.

The real trick is to give your partner guidance when he or she needs it — without anybody else noticing.  Then I think you'll be “a pleasure to dance with”.