BackDancing in a Set

Chippenham Folk Festival, 2000

If you do Lancashire Clog, disco or line dancing you may well be dancing on your own.  If you do Ballroom, you dance with a partner.  But if you do English or American Folk you're also dancing in a set of other couples — and that's one of the things I really like about this kind of dancing.  You may be working with one other couple at a time, as in “Indian Queen”, or you may be working and interacting with seven other couples, as in “Dutch Crossing”.  Either way, it's important that you're aware of the other people in the set.  Some people are aware of their partner, but the others are just posts to be manoeuvred round.  I think this is a wasted opportunity.  What we're involved in is social dancing — there are people out there!

When it's “First corners cross”, it makes such a difference if you look at the person you're about to cross with.  There are people who will do this, but when it's “Barbarini's Tambourine” which starts “First corners cast behind your neighbour into each other's place” they wouldn't think of looking.  The connection is too tenuous this time — they don't think “I'm dancing with this person”.  But surely you are, even though you start by turning away from each other.  And you may be giving her the hint she needs.  If I think my opposite corner looks hesitant, I cast slightly early, with a very pronounced movement, and often that gives the necessary clue.

In Cecil Sharp's version of “Mr Isaac's Maggot”, the first man starts by right-hand turning the second lady, leaving her in her place, then going up behind the second man.  Some men may look while they're turning, but as soon as the connection is broken they forget her — “I'm not with her any more; I'm going up the outside on my own”.  No, I think you should still be aware of the lady.  You've just escorted her home — now she's looking out of the window as you walk back to your car, wondering if you'll wave goodbye before you get in.

Even if you're dancing round posts you can afford a quick look at them — they're dancers too, even if they're standing still at the moment.  And the reverse is true — if you're the threes and the ones are doing a right-hand turn you should be watching them, not thinking “I'm not dancing at the moment”.  And certainly in a triple minor I find that watching “my” ones rather than the ones who have just gone past me (even though they may be closer) helps me to focus on which minor set I'm actually dancing in, which has been known to confuse some people.

There are dances where the ones get all the action and it's difficult to feel involved with the other people.  There are dances like Fandango where a lot of the action is just for the ones, and a few places where the whole set works together — the circle and the heys.  There are dances (particularly modern ones) where all three couples are moving most of the time and there's a lot of interaction.  But there are very few dances where you have eight couples in a set, with everyone moving all the time, where you really do get involved with everyone else and you all need to work together as a team to produce a satisfying result.  The dance that springs to mind with a description like that is — “Dutch Crossing”.

Alan Davies explains the actual “Dutch Crossing” part in terms of friends, neighbours and buddies.  I think he's taken a good idea and got carried away with it, but it is a good idea — that you picture the dance in terms of who you're dancing with rather than what complicated figures you're executing.  Not only does it bring the dance alive as you realise you're interacting with other dancers, it also makes it much easier to get through the figure and help other people through it.  One thing that bothers me about Modern Western Square Dancing is that it's all patterns; there's usually no time for any social interaction.  I know I write and call complicated dances, but I don't want English dancing to get like that.

Another example of thinking about people rather than patterns is one I learnt from Ruth Allmayer.  The Maggot Pie dance “Queen of Sheba” has a controversial part in the final figure where you do five changes of a straight hey — controversial because many people don't know that in five changes you pass only four people, so frequently the middles pass each other to do a sixth change.  I've known people get into arguments about how many changes they have done!  Ruth solves the problem by not saying how many changes at all.  You face your neighbour — the one you've been doing all the gypsies with — and Ruth says “Remember the face.  Do a straight hey until you pass that face for the second time.”  Since using this approach I've never had any problems with the move.


Scottish dancers are much better than we are at covering, because they're taught it in their classes.  If you're going forward or back in lines you should be aware of the other people in your line, and try to keep level with them.  If you're dancing parallel heys you should be aware of your partner, and keep level.  If you're dancing “Dorset Four-hand Reel” you should be aware of the people in the other sets in the same position as you.  The trick is to observe all this out of the corner of your eye — you don't want to be seen with your head constantly jerking from left to right.  If you're in a display team you probably get reminded about this, but if you're not, you may think “There's no audience; why should I bother with that?”  I suppose my answer is that when I'm dancing I care about the look of the whole dance, not just my little bit.  Maybe that comes from being a caller, I've certainly had partners who told me off for worrying about what was going on in some other set — “It's not your problem — you're not the caller” — but I do want to think that everyone's dancing well and getting their problems sorted out.  If I'm doing a couple dance such as a waltz, I don't feel like that — provided they keep out of my way I don't care what they do!  But with the sort of dances we're doing here — yes, I do care, and I think you should too.