What makes a dance difficult?
In 1993 I edited a small magazine for EFDSS and in the second issue delivered what I thought was a witty aphorism: “There are no difficult dances, just difficult dancers”. Brian Dann, a caller from Kent, thought I was serious and wrote a letter taking me to task for this unwarranted attack. I was joking, but it's an interesting question: What makes a dance difficult? Is it the dance itself, or the dancers' perception of it, or what? In this session I'll start with some suggestions, then throw some dances at you in the hopes that you can tell me whether they're “difficult”, and what makes them so.
Pat Shaw said:
There was a time when it was said that any dance that was difficult was therefore a bad dance. With this I cannot agree. The merits of a dance have nothing to do with its difficulty and it is only when the difficulties have been mastered that we can really judge its quality. There is a certain satisfaction, intellectual perhaps but none the less genuine, in getting to grips with the problems and overcoming them; and this satisfaction becomes total when the dance is so well known that it can be performed as effortlessly as the simplest party dance. Providing the end product justifies the hard work involved and providing the social atmosphere in the learning stages is good, the toil and effort can actually contribute to the pleasure and not become mere drudgery.
I asked the question of the ECD List and got lots of answers. It was also suggested that I should separate the dance itself from other factors.
The dance itself
High piece count or Poor story lineIn his seminal book “Zesty Contras” Larry Jennings introduced the phrase “piece count” which is basically the number of figures, except that figures which frequently occur together — right-hand star and left-hand star, or balance and swing — are considered a single piece. I would class “Hey contrary sides” and “Hey own side” as a single piece even though it's a whole 16 bars.
Often related to this is If a dance is Poor story line. Talking about “Composing your dance”, Larry says,
First strive for a good story line, which means that, with some experience, the dancers will feel what the next figure is without having to think much.
If a dance is very bitty, with no clear logic to it, it's much harder — some modern dances are like this. The dance just doesn't make sense or hang together; the figures seem randomly drawn from a hat. “Why would I want to do this move next, exactly?” But it's not just modern dances: the Playford 2-couple dances “Argeers”, “Parsons Farewell” and “Saint Martin's” fall into this category in many people's minds though I actually like “Parsons Farewell” which I think has much more internal logic than the other two.
Related to that is:
Unexpected combination of figuresCircle left followed by right-hand star will fool some people repeatedly, because they expect the star to go back the other way.
Counter-intuitive movesThis is one to catch out the experienced dancers — the new dancers have no preconceptions so it doesn't bother them at all! “Set left and right” is too much for some experienced dancers — and it's no good telling them that's what they actually did in Playford's day!
DisorientationSt Margaret's Hill is difficult because the orientation changes from up and down to across a couple of times in the dance. It makes it hard (for some people anyway) to remember where their right is, when they have to turn the person on their right.
Parsons Farewell is difficult in the final figure, because at the end of the first B you are at 90º to the original orientation. Suddenly you are doing a similar figure but from different places. Where's your partner? It's confusing.
“Dutch Crossing” is difficult for many reasons, but it's partly that each turn of the dance is rotated through 90º — and even when you've got through the first two turns the third is sufficiently different from the first that again you can be completely lost.
“Waverley Ahoy!” is difficult for many reasons — high piece count, and disorientating, and after a half-star half the dancers have to join a star that is forming slightly behind them rather than where they can see it.
Both of these also rely on everyone being in the right place at the right time — they are “unforgiving” dances.
New figureNo matter how good a dancer you are, if you don't know a figure you'll find it difficult at first. I've called “The Elephant's Stampede” many times for English dancers — a wonderful Scottish square which includes “Schiehallion reels”: This figure is no more difficult than a double figure eight, but I have to take a long time explaining it and maybe joining a set to demonstrate it. Once they've got it, they love it!
Several new figures on a rowMy dance “Colin's Back” has three figures from Modern Western Square Dancing in a row: Swing through, boys run, bend the line. None of them is a difficult move, but the combination is too much for some people.
No recovery timeLots of dances have “zero-movements” which get you nowhere: circle left, lines forward and back, Do-si-do. These give the dancers time to recover, sort out where they are (or should be) and get ready for the next move. Dances where as soon as you get somewhere you're off somewhere else, are inherently difficult.
Too fastSome dances are supposed to be danced to a skip-change step, and you really need that to get where you're going in time. Some dancers won't do the step, or do it half-heartedly, either because they physically can't move fast enough or because they subscribe to the belief (more common in North America) that “all English is slow and gentle” and refuse to consider anything other than a walk.
Too slowThe opposite problem! It takes more control to dance slowly than to dance fast, and some dancers just don't have it.
Change of speedI'm not talking about the tune itself changing speed or rhythm, though there are a few of those, but about the fact that in Playford-style dances one move may have a lot of music and the next move needs you to go much faster. Squares and contras aren't like that — you just move at a steady rate — and some people find it very difficult to adjust their speed of travel.
Any kind of a stepTo most English dancers, any step (except possibly a skip-change) is a major problem. My dance “Cascade” has what I thought was a simple step: for two bars: right, pause, left right, and then for the next two bars: left, pause, right, left, but most people seem incapable of doing this — certainly if they're expected to do any kind of figure at the same time.
Unusual phrasingSome people are so conditioned to 8-bar phrases that they really don't believe it can be anything else. Even an 8-bar phrase may not be split up the way you expect. “Trip to Kilburn” starts: Ones cast to middle place (4 steps); circle left with the threes (8 steps); lead to the bottom. Some people just can't accept that you end the A-music (and the B- and C-music) with the ones facing out, about to cast.
Unusual rhythmReels and jigs are safe; waltz is fairly safe; anything else seems to be highly dangerous. I've written a couple of dances in 5-time — just a walking step, nothing fancy — and the concentration is palpable! I suppose I could generalise this to say that anything unusual is difficult.
People doing different things at the same timeThe main problem with this is that some people just concentrate on their own part and don't take in what the other couples are doing. You can see it in a longways dance like Mr Beveridge's Maggot where the twos work their way up to the top of the set, stand out for one turn and then have no idea how to start again as ones. Is this an inherent difficulty in the dance, or is it the fault of the dancers for not paying attention? Or take a three-couple set where each couple does something different, such as the start of the Scottish dance “Muirland Willie”: Ones lead down to the bottom, cross and cast up to middle place while twos set and cross down to bottom place while threes cast up to top place and cross over. Four bars later you do the same thing from new positions. I suspect English dancers' eyes would just glaze over if I said all that — and it finishes with a Scottish poussette which is quite different from an English one, and it's done to a skip-change step! Maybe I'll set that as the final exam.
Another point about “meanwhile” dances is that you can lose the anchor points provided by the other couple, and your reference points become abstract points in space. A figure eight has two dancers moving in a pattern round two posts. A double figure eight has four dancers moving in a pattern round no-one.
Confusion with a similar move (in this dance or an earlier one)If there are contra corners in one dance with the rule “turn first corner R, partner L, second corner R, partner L” and another dance in the same evening has a different set of rules (e.g. Love and a Bottle, where the actives go directly from first corner to second corner, or Trip to Tunbridge, where the actives pass right shoulders before going from first to second corners) [or indeed an American contra where the ones turn partner R, first corner L, partner R, second corner L], people are going to make mistakes because the moves are too similar. Interference can also be a problem in a dance that has two of the same move followed by something different. (Is this the gypsy after which I turn my partner, or is this the gypsy after which I circle left?)
End-effectsI have a whole workshop on End-effects so I won't say much here. This happens much more in modern American contras than Playford-style dances. When you get to the end of the set it's by no means obvious where to stand, or which figures you should do and which you should leave out.
And of course some would disagree with Pat Shaw's quote at the start.
All too often, I suspect, most of us have worked hard to learn a difficult dance and have felt, at the end, that it wasn't worth it. And some dances are difficult, period. The merits of a dance are related to its difficulty because we invest time in learning dances and some don't feel like good investments…
There is a further complication that you may have very few opportunities actually to get the reward of having learned a difficult dance. I would be delighted to dance “Dutch Crossing” if I happened to be at an event with 31 other dancers who all knew the dance well enough that it would require no more teaching than the average dance — I love the crossing figure — but that has never happened. I hope I get more chances to do “The Amazed Geneticist” and “Kingscombe Rejuvenated” that don't require that they be taught from the beginning, and I don't see that as very likely.
My thanks to members of the ECD List for all their suggestions.