BackDances for a Small Hall

Chippenham Folk Festival, 2003

What can the caller do?

If you're a caller, you may find yourself calling in all sorts of venues.  Chippenham Festival often uses the Town Hall for dances and dance workshops — a beautiful room, but far too small for the number of people who often want to dance there.  What can you do in this situation?  You can complain bitterly that the other callers (or the singers) get the good halls.  You can do a very challenging programme, or be generally obnoxious, and hope that some people will walk out in disgust.  Or you can decide to make the most of it and choose an appropriate selection of dances.  That's what I've tried to do today — you can tell me as we go along whether you think I've succeeded.

What should you avoid in a small hall?  Circles and Sicilian circles, because they only use the perimeter of the hall — you can try having one inside another, but it may cause confusion particularly at the corners.  (I know circles aren't supposed to have corners, but in a rectangular room they often do.)  Longways for as many as will is probably the best formation, though even here you can have problems — I remember dancing at Sidmouth to Tony Parkes and Yankee Ingenuity in a very crowded Ham Marquee, and half-way down the line I couldn't work out which one was my set.  But you wouldn't normally do a whole evening of longways dances; you still need variety of formation if possible.  Also avoid dances which change shape, such as “The Astronomer” which changes from six couples longways to six couples across the hall, “Square Line Special” which keeps changing from four couples longways to a square and back again, and “Step Stately” which is fine except when the set changes to a line of 6 or 10 people across the hall.

Avoid dances which involve movement outside the set — falling back for 6 steps in “Mr Isaac's Maggot”, for instance, or promenading outside the other couples in a square.  Even the casting out at the start of “Barbarini's Tambourine” can be a perilous move if there's another set just behind you.

Also avoid dances where there's already too much music for the movement anyway.  Something like “Bar a Bar” where the two couples (in a longways set) lead towards each other is impossible to do in a crowded room.  And avoid Scottish dances, indeed all dances with slipped circles — they can be dangerous.

Rather than thinking about what to avoid, it would be more positive to think about what dances are actually better in a confined space — making a virtue of necessity.  Busy American Squares, for instance, where you don't want too much room — when I'm giving people advice on dancing squares I always tell them to keep the set small.  In fact any busy dance, where the emphasis is on constantly shifting patterns rather than going a long way in one direction — you certainly don't want a dance where the ones galop down the middle for eight steps.

What can the dancers do?

Good dancers will also make allowances for crowded conditions.  If you're aware of other people in the set, you can move in such a way as to help them do their figures.  We move about in the first half of “Geud Man of Ballangigh” to allow other people to lead through and cast back.  We move in before trying to fall back six steps in “Mr Isaac's Maggot”.  There are lots of ways in which the inactive dancers can give the active dancers more room.

And what can the active dancers do?  What a lot of people do is simply get there too soon.  Surely it's a better idea to take smaller steps!  But try not to make it mincing little steps — that's not dancing.  And by changing your track slightly, you can often use the music up.  If the ones have eight steps to cast into second place, it makes sense to come in and meet your partner first — it uses up a couple of steps, and it means you can take a longer track.  If you're dancing a Grimstock hey and the set is very short, maybe you can move out a bit wider and use the space up that way.

Another good example is set and turn single followed by a two-hand turn.  Lots of dance teachers tell you to move forward as you set, so that when you do the turn single you've got somewhere to go — you can walk in a little circle rather than just spinning on the spot.  But this seems to scare some people — perhaps thay have a morbid fear of being late — so even if they do move out slightly in the turn single they finish it close to the person they're going to turn.  I would like you to have the courage to finish the turn single well out from the other person.  They won't go away and find someone else to turn — not unless they're even more insecure than you are!  In my opinion it's not necessary to have your hands joined with the other person on the first beat of the phrase of music.  You certainly want to start moving on the first beat, but you can take a couple of steps to move into the turn before you actually take hands.  Surely that's better that what I often see — the man turns the woman round rapidly in five steps and throws her back into place, with an attitude of “Look at that — I got you home three whole beats early”!  Do I really need to spell that out in more detail?

Here's one specific suggestion which works well but as a dancer I can never get other people to do.  “Jack's Maggot” (Playford) starts with the first man and the two ladies dancing a reel of three.  This can be an awful figure if the set is too crowded.  But if as the first man starts the reel his partner moves across to his place, you can do the reel on the diagonal instead of up-and-down, and suddenly there's plenty of room.

To sum up — nobody likes dancing in overcrowded conditions, but you still have the choice of trying to dance well or simply not bothering.  Good dancers still look good even when it's crowded.  Let's see how you get on.

In fact after I had prepared this workshop the venue was changed to Ivy Lane School, which is slightly larger, and when I got to Chippenham I found that it had been changed to the Bridge Centre which is larger still — and this being the final afternoon the numbers had dwindled significantly — so it was all irrelevant!  I still gave them the notes though, since I'd gone to the trouble of writing them.  I also found that some of my choices were badly wrong.  For instance, I finished with my interpretation of “The Twenty-Ninth of May” which has all sorts of movements outside the longways set: the first figure has a whole poussette which doubles the width, the second has pairs of corners falling back a double on the diagonal which more than doubles it, and also everyone simultaneously leading out a double with their neighbour.  The moral is that I need to study the dance more closely.  I was thinking of it as a busy, quick, compact dance, but it would not have worked well in the original scenario!