BackDancing with People



House Party Weekend, 1998.  Belstead House Playford Weekend, 2009.

Yesterday I tried to make you aware of the music.  Today — perhaps even more revolutionary — I want to make you aware of the people you're dancing with.  That doesn't mean you can ignore the band from now on!

In Dance Technique sessions, the two standard things teacher say are “Give weight” and “Give eye contact”.  But people in England are uncomfortable with eye contact, and often if they do it it's a blank stare rather than a look that say “I enjoy dancing with you”.  What I'm concentrating on in this session isn't specifically eye contact — it's the more general topic of being aware of the other people in your set.  Not only does this make the dancing more enjoyable, it can also help you to get the dance right.  Admittedly, there are people it's best not to be aware of, both as a dancer and as a caller, but they tend not to come to my weekends!

  The Countryman's Hat   (Irene Crew, English Dance & Song)

Instructions here.  First a dance which has interaction all the way, and that's what makes it flow.

  Old Friends and New   (Colin Hume: Dances with a Difference, Volume 4)

Now here's one where you need to know which people you're dancing with at a particular time.  I don't normally refer to Friends, Buddies and other assorted mates — but here's one of mine called “Old Friends and New” — and the title isn't just a gimmick.  At each turn of the dance you need to know who your old friends are, and who your new friends are.

This is a very difficult dance, and when I ran this session at my Playford Weekend at Belstead House in 2009 I had to give it up because people weren't coping with it.

There are plenty of dances where you have a “shadow”, as they say in the States.  They use the word to mean a person other than your partner with whom you always do a particular movement — such as your corner in “Bucksaw Reel”.  In Ted Sannella's dance “Fiddleheads”, if you're a one you always have the same person opposite you in the circles, and that can be a great help.  In Playford's “Fain I Would” you do half the dance with your partner and the other half with the person originally opposite you, and it's vital that you know who you're looking for.  You also do one movement repeatedly with your corner — again it helps if you can identify this as a person rather than just a position.

  Dorset Twelve-Hand Reel   (Based on Traditional: Community Dance Manual)     [Click here for instructions]

Here's a real test of the set working together, and knowing who you're aiming at.  I call this “Dorset Twelve-Hand Reel” — it's a six couple version of “Dorset Four-Hand Reel” that I learnt when I was in the Jovial Beggars display team, as the culmination of their “Rant Sequence”.  And I've never called it at a dance or workshop before.  The final time through, all twelve of you are involved in interlocking reels and stars — and you have to work as a team — if one person is ahead or behind, the whole thing collapses.  As you will see!  In the Jovial Beggars, the ladies would tell their partner who the opposite couple were when it came to the big star.  It can look really impressive, but you have to have confidence and just go for it!

It was fairly chaotic and many of them didn't like it.  I called the dance again at an Advanced Dance workshop at Pinewoods a few years later and it went very well, though I just had to ignore the woman who told me that nobody wanted to do it and they'd all prefer to do “Waverley Ahoy” again.  In fact six couples demonstrated it to the camp on the final afternoon and made a really good job of it.

One of my bits of advice if anyone asks me what makes a good dancer, is “Be aware of the whole picture”.  That's part of dancing with people.  A good caller has to be aware of the whole picture.  Are you?  Or are you one of those people who can only dance “Newcastle” from head position?  Do you look around your set to see what's going on while you're standing still, or even while you're dancing?  If not, why not?  Are you the sort of person who dances a longways five times as a two, stands out at the top, and then falls to pieces because the caller has stopped calling and you've no idea what the ones are supposed to do?

  Star of David   (Colin Hume: Dances with a Difference, Volume 5)

If you can't cope with being aware of the whole set, you can start gradually.  First, be aware of your partner.  Seems obvious, but a lot of people apparently aren't.  It may be a case of familiarity breeding contempt — I don't know.  Many women have said to me: “How did you know I'd just gone blank and needed help?”  Well, because I was watching her and could see the impending panic in her eyes.  Secondly, be aware of the ones.  In a lot of dances, they're moving most of the time, doing things with other people, so if nothing else you should know who they are.  Occasionally some other couple is the active couple, in which case you need to focus more on them.  Here's one of mine specifically designed to put the twos in control — and if you're not a two you really do need to know who the twos are.

  Larry's Nightmare   (Larry Jennings: Zesty Contras)

Here's a totally different three-couple dance, but again with the emphasis on working together, and a crucial moment when two people have to recognise each other instantly.

  Winter Memories   (Colin Hume: Dances with a Difference, Volume 4)

There are hundreds of 18th century dances where the emphasis is on the active couple, and the others are helping them by moving up or down as required.  All too often they don't — they take the word “Inactive” literally and probably don't even notice that the ones can't dance at their best because people are in their way.  Here's another one of mine where that comes in.  Remember that a good dancer has an awareness of the whole set.

  Chicago Challenge

Finally (if there's time) an American contra — triple minor — where it's vital to know who's in your minor set.

I've picked out some dances where it's particularly important to know who is where, but really this workshop has wider application than that.  What we're doing is “Social Dancing”, and if you're not interested in being a part of a group and working together for mutual enjoyment, you're engaged in the wrong hobby.  I remember at one club the leader said something about socialising and I heard one woman say indignantly “I don't come here to socialise — I come here to dance”!