BackDivided by a common language

This is a presentation I gave in July 2016 at the New London Assembly, a week of dance and dance interpretation which is now a regular part of the Amherst Early Music FestivalBrad Foster was the other leader (and organiser of the event) and we don't always see things the same way, so I've included “Brad says…” in comment boxes throughout these notes.  I also showed these notes to Rosemary Lach from Victoria in Canada and I've included some of her comments.  Let me make it clear from the start that these are my opinions and there are people on both sides of the Atlantic who disagree with me!

“England and America are two countries divided by a common language” — a quote usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw, though not found in his published writings.  I've realised the same is true of dancing in the two countries — “American English” and “British English” are two different dance forms, and people who don't realise this can come unstuck.

And the language can certainly cause problems.  I'm fine with the words I don't know, like “docent” which we don't use in England — I ask what it means and they tell me.  The problem is when I'm quite sure what the words mean but in American English they mean something different.  One year I was at Pinewoods in the same cabin as Ted Sannella and he asked me to put his new suspenders on his pants.  Now to Americans that's perfectly fine, but in England “pants” means “underpants” and “suspenders” are what women wear to hold their stockings up, giving our relationship a very different interpretation!  Again at Pinewoods, the notes said something like “For the final dance, some of us like to wear fancy dress”.  And I'd be in no doubt what that meant, and I'd come dressed as Darth Vader or Cinderella, because that's what “fancy dress” means in England, whereas in The States it meant “We like to dress up in our fancy gear”.

Style and Ethos

The first major difference is that in the States there's a strong divide between “English” and “Contra”.  In England that isn't true; I will call a Playford Ball or an American Evening of squares and contras if that's what's wanted, but usually I call a mixed dance — some Playford-style, some traditional English style, some American squares and contras, perhaps a Scottish dance or two — and no-one finds this unusual or any kind of problem.

Brad says… This is quite true now, although it hasn't always been that way, and there are hold-outs to the older American style of mixed E&A including traditional English.  I think the change happened in the early 1980s — certainly when I started dancing in the late 1960s we happily and always did both, and that continued through at least half of if not all of the 1970s.  But these comments are on the CDSS-style or influenced ECD world of that time period; the more hard-core traditional contra scene (which would have been called a square dance where you happened to do many contras) was quite distinct and separate even back then.

The Round
Dancing at The Round in Cambridge, England
The next major difference is that in England many people dance with the same partner all evening.  In North America, whether it's English or Contra, people are expected (and sometimes told) to “thank this partner and find another”.  Many dancers in England would resist and resent this.  “Who's this fellow to tell me who I should dance with?  I came here to dance with my wife, thank you very much!” And although it's true in the CDSS world it's often not true for traditional groups and Modern Western Square Dance clubs who may well stick with the same partner.

I much prefer the American approach, for several reasons:

If you dance in America you probably think this is obvious, but don't assume that everyone in the world thinks the same way.  Ken McFarland used to let the locals join in the dancing on some of his England tours, but he found the American men would ask English women to dance and the English men would resent losing their wives and wouldn't dream of asking some strange American woman to dance.  After a couple of experiences of that he kept the locals out.

Hugh Stewart from Cambridge says he was very happy to have a flood of women keen to dance with him, but his girl-friend Corinna grumbled that those pushy American women were pinching all the men, and since she had provided one of her own she being shy and retiring shouldn't have to dance with women all the time.

On the other hand Hugh used to advise single women to avoid dances at a nearby club because the men always danced with their wives (though he thinks they have improved a bit since then).

And in England it's still mostly the men who ask the women to dance.  I've had women come up to me and say “Are you going to ask me to dance?”  Or they just stand there and look quizzically at me.

The style is very different too.  In the States (and of course all these generalisations have their exceptions) people prefer smooth flowing dances with beautiful tunes, and they're all done to a walking step.  In England there are several other steps — rant, hornpipe, schottische, skip-change — though I admit these are falling out of favour as the dancing population continues to age.  In fact Rosemary Lach was at Lichfield Folk Festival in 2016 expecting to see these steps but didn't, except for some skip-change — and nor did I.  But dancers in England will still tolerate a wider range of tempos than dancers in the States.  I remember one good dancer in Boston saying “Colin, it's impossible to dance that slowly”, but it was the same speed I would use in England.  Equally I've tried calling “ Country Courtship” (Dancing Master c. 1727) in the States a few times, but it doesn't go down well because it's too busy.  I do it as longways duple (it was originally triple) and there are three moves in the time of two: Ones cast (twos move up), half figure eight down through the next twos, half figure eight up through your own twos.  In the next 8 bars the twos do the same.  In the States people want to walk it rather than dance it with a skip or skip-change step, and they simply can't get there in time.  I suspect many dancers there would sum me up as: “Colin Hume is a good caller, but he doesn't understand what English means”.  And of course it's self-perpetuating — a group who dance slow gentle dances will attract more dancers who like slow gentle dances, and the people who prefer something more energetic won't come back.  I've called a step-hop dance in the States and people have said “If I wanted to dance that sort of stuff I'd go to a contra dance” — which is complete nonsense — have you ever seen a step-hop at a contra?  What they meant was “This doesn't fit my definition of English because it's too energetic”.

Brad says… I haven't been to England enough to make generalizations like this, but in my brief time dancing there I'd agree with the statement the English have a wider range of tempo.  I didn't happen to like the slowest tempo — I felt at that tempo the English weren't dancing, they were just plodding through a dance.  Dancing to Charles Bolton once, with a 3 couple set and with one of the figures forward and back (up the hall and back), I felt like the couple behind me couldn't dance at his tempo and kept running into me.  And for many years I deliberately sped things up when I felt the 'dance' had fallen out of the dance.  Then in more recent years (in the last five or ten), I've danced places in the US where callers have chosen tempos I previously thought of as below the threshold, and they worked!  And worked well!  Quite an eye-opener.  And in response I've widened my range of tempos and am more willing to work at a good slow tempo.  On the other extreme, the general lack of interest in faster tempos often seems related to the disinterest in stepping.  There are a number of us who encourage stepping (as teachers) or who dance with stepping (as dancers), but with limited success in encouraging others to join us.  There are also a number of us who will do traditional dancing, again with limited success but it feels possibly easier now than even 10 years ago.  I remember once doing a dance for mostly retired folk and being amazed that they would happily do traditional dancing with stepping.  I want a dance to 'dance', and I'll choose a tempo that I hope will make that work.  But I don't think we all agree on what it means to 'dance'.  I still like dancing to have 'lilt', to use the term one of my teachers used, and I don't like the flat style that all too easily can devolve into plodding around.  I remember Gay, and Genny Shimer, talking about moving one's upper body, not just moving feet up and down.  For me there has been a big change in body weight, from the leaning way forward of when I first started (with one of the points of foot movement and stepping to get you off the ground and keep you there), to the period when body weight was only slightly forward, to the recent past when weight seems almost upright (giving people, in my view, a 50/50 chance of actually 'dancing'), to a growing (but still minority) trend now where for some individuals the weight is back and there is no preparatory lift, with the figure requiring a first step (usually on, sometimes after, the beat) to get the body in motion.  I don't like it!!!  Also the change from feet underneath, the lean that takes you forward (or back) of olden days to the new extended leg that is used to pull one forward.  I feel very old-fashioned.

There's also a difference in intent.  In the States, except at a class at a dance camp, people tend to like well-known dances which they can do well.  In England people tend to like complicated patterns which they can just about get through.  I was calling at Pinewoods English Week one year when Brad was the program director, and twice he had to tell me that my evening programmes were too complicated — he said people want simple well-known dances.  I was very surprised and asked a few dancers whose opinion I trusted, such as Mary Kay Friday, and they agreed with Brad.  I don't think that's true in England.  Of course they don't want an evening dance to be a workshop, but they still want some challenges and some new material.  At Chippenham Folk Festival in both 2003 and 2004 I called the opening Friday night dance in the Town Hall — a beautiful hall but very small — while the main dance was downstairs in the much larger Neeld Hall.  I decided to reduce my numbers by doing complicated stuff — the first year was Pat Shaw dances and the second was Fried Herman dances.  And both times the stewards had to turn a large number of people away.

Brad says… Again, in my own view it is not that we only prefer well-known dances over complicated patterns; this varies a lot by dance community.  I've gone (and continue to go) to many places where people get bored if we do too many old favorites.  But, back at that Pinewoods week, I would have said you did too many that were too hard/complicated for the moment, not that we dislike hard/complicated dances in general.  'We Americans', if I may be so bold to make a generalization, like to do such dances when we have a chance to really work on them.  I say that, and then I remember the many times when I've taught workshops where I despaired of getting enough attention to do a dance to my satisfaction, to the detriment of good dancing.  At one point I would have said Americans don't like to pay as much attention as they/we used to, and then like tempo found myself in situations where people really did pay attention.  Hopefully the pendulum is swinging back on that one!  And now I'm seeking to change my teaching style, to find new ways of getting and keeping attention.  When I get it, I can happily do some harder and wonderfully fussier dances.  When I don't, I often avoid them because the results aren't satisfying.  I disagree with the statement that we don't want challenges and new material in an evening.  It is a question of how much and what kind of challenge.  I remember going to a dance of yours when you brought out a complicated mind-bender late in the evening and thought this is not the right choice for this crowd so late in the dance.  I think of that more as a difference between you and me than one of between the US and England.  When I work with Andrew Shaw, and Philippe Callens, and I think Robert Moir, I felt that their sensibility on such things matches mine more than it matches yours, adding weight to my sense that this is a you/me rather than US/England difference.  And I have similar disagreements with the programming of some American callers (I'd say they, like you, like more complicated things in the evening than I do.)  But I don't really have enough data to make that generalization and could still believe you are right.

And Rosemary says… I think it depends on the event.  Some dances are more social events, e.g. a Friday night dance before a Ball when people come from afar and meet up with friends.  Other dances such as a weekly dance do include more complex dances.  I agree with Brad — it varies in different situations.

And then there's the eye contact!  The first time I danced in The States I found the unblinking stare really intimidating.  I'd be thinking, “Does this woman really fancy me?  How am I supposed to respond?”  Renata agrees that an unblinking stare isn't provocative or anything, it's just someone who has been told “You must look at the person you're dancing with the whole time”.  She says you can look, then look away, then look again — that seems more natural.  I'm used to it now — one time at Sidmouth, Corinna said in a resigned tone, “Oh, I see you're into this eye-contact thing”, and I hadn't been aware I was doing it.

Dancers in England are much more willing to accept a long walkthrough than those in the States.  That may be one reason why longways dances are so much more popular in the States — the ratio of dance time to walkthrough time is much higher.  Most of the set dances published by John Playford have three completely different figures, and they're still done a lot in England.  Americans such as Gary Roodman have written some great set dances but they almost always use the same figure all three times; only the introductions change, and those are standard anyway.  I think “Parsons Farewell” is a fun dance and I was going to call it one evening at Pinewoods but Brad told me not to.

Brad says… In many places in the US I feel people want to dance without paying much attention.  I feel partly to blame — I remember, when I first came in, sometimes being subjected to mind-numbingly long walkthroughs in ECD, then going to a square dance where we got right to dancing quickly.  And I worked at developing a style of ECD calling where I could move things along quickly.  I'm sure I wasn't alone in that; in any case, it has slowly become the norm.  And now I find there are dances I'd like to do that require more of a walkthrough than I and the dancers I call to are used to.  But I'm not done yet — this is like my comment above on getting dancers to pay attention — and after years of essentially training dancers to let the flow of things pull them along I'm now trying to train them to slow down, pay attention, and do some of the beautiful dances that need more concentration.

The Dance Community is a phrase which is used a lot in the States — I've never heard it in England though that's not to say it doesn't exist.  There's a fascinating book by Mary Dart called “Contra Dance Choreography”, published in 1995 and now available on the CDSS website.  It's subtitled “A Reflection of Social Change”, and she says:

Prior to the current revival, social dancing was a leisure time activity within local communities of people whose relationship with one another went far beyond the dance.  The group of people who danced together also worked together, worshipped together, educated their children together, and shared the celebrations and turning points of their lives with one another.

Although there still exist small community dances of this sort, in many urban areas the social dance event has been transformed from a community dance to a dance community, in which the dance provides the major focus for the participants' relationship with one another.  The dance has become the strong thread in the binding of these people's lives…  For many urban participants, contra dance is not a supplement to their social life, but rather the hub of it.

I don't think that's nearly so true in England, though you do find elements of it around.

Serious dancing   Top of page

In the States people can drift into Contra, but I believe that if they're doing English it's a conscious decision, and therefore they want to do it seriously.  Now “serious” is a word with more than one meaning.  I remember when I was living in London, Charles Bolton asked me why I didn't come along to the sessions he ran at Cecil Sharp House.  I said I found them too serious.  He said “Oh, I think of you as a serious dancer, Colin”.  And yes I am a serious dancer, in the sense that I want to get the dances right and do them well, but I'm not in the “No laughing — this is serious stuff” set — and yes, people have told me thay they have been told off for laughing while dancing Playford.  It seems to me (and here I'm on very risky ground) that a lot of people in North America take English dancing too seriously, and as a result their dance style becomes affected if not downright twee.  I look at some YouTube videos — of Americans that I know and get on very well with and are great fun — and I'm horrified at the artificial way they dance.

Rosemary says… I found the English at Lichfield very serious, and very controlled, e.g. “Red-House” and “Dublin Bay”.

An experienced contra caller wrote to me for advice earlier this year:

I've tried English Country Dancing many times throughout the years and have never really enjoyed it.  But when I danced the same dances in England I was totally impressed.  The English know how to have a good time.  We Americans are too serious for my tastes.

He asked me for suggestions of some lively dances.  My reply was that it's not necessarily the dances that are the problem — it's the dancers and the whole ethos.  In England when Douglas Kennedy took over EFDSS after the Second World War he replaced “Classes” and “Teachers” by “Clubs” and “Callers” — a significant difference in approach which hasn't yet caught on in the States.  I then suggested a few dances:

The first two are lively Playford (or should be); the second two are traditional English (which tends to be referred to as “ceilidh-style” these days).  Many Americans wouldn't consider these “English”, yet they're as English as “Newcastle” or “Nonesuch” — they just come from a later period in the development of English Country Dance.  I was booked to call an English dance somewhere in the States, and the woman teaching the newcomers' session told them “All English is slow and gentle”.  You'll be amazed to hear that I didn't leap up and shout out “No it isn't”!  Similarly I've heard people say “There are no swings in English — that's a contra move”.  Nonsense!  There are thousands of English dances with swings in them.  For instance, the Folk Camps Society (whom I'll mention later) published a book in 1981 called “Dance With-in Tent”.  It contains 18 newly composed dances, 13 of which have a swing in them.  But I doubt whether you'd find an English group in the States dancing any of those — it's a different language.

Brad says… Most American dancers I know would consider all of them English, even if some would not consider them part of the English repertoire they prefer.  And some who do like and do traditional dancing nonetheless don't like either of these two traditional dances.  So I don't find your generalizations here very accurate.  You have a point, sort of, in that many will sit out a traditional dance, although I also find many others will happily stay on the floor for a traditional dance.  And although I happen to like The Wood Duck I've noticed a small percentage of people who don't, and exit the floor when they can, so it isn't just traditional dances that cause a reaction.  Newcastle and Nonesuch have also been overdone, in more recent years, and I'm getting a back-lash on both of them.

Rosemary says… Overgeneralisation: There are groups that have more limited repertoire — as in contra groups who refuse to dance squares — but not everyone is like this!

I also find there's no repartee at English dances in the States — the teacher teaches the dance and the dancers politely follow instructions.  I like some feedback from the floor when I'm calling, but I usually don't get it — people think I'm either weird or rude.  I admit I'm an extreme case, but plenty of other callers in England enjoy some banter with the crowd.  At a dance I was calling in England, one American said “I don't know how to deal with your constant stream of abuse”.  I was taken aback, and explained that it was just my way and he shouldn't take any notice of it.  But recently when I've called in the States people seem to have less trouble understanding my (very English) dry sense of humour — some of them even laugh.  I don't know whether I've changed or whether people are getting used to me.  I also like to get the musicians involved, though that means that at Pinewoods and other camps I get comments on the evaluation forms: “Why is Colin Hume so rude to these wonderful musicians?”.  They don't realise that if I didn't get on well with the musicians I wouldn't say a word about them.  I certainly don't pick on nervous or inexperienced musicians, but people like Bill Tomczak and Karen Axelrod can give as good as they get — and they love it.  I was once calling with Yankee Ingenuity at the Concord Scout House and Beth Parkes had introduced me as “one of the best-known callers in England”.  Shortly afterwards I made some crack about the band.  Peter Barnes grabbed his microphone and said: “It's true — he is one of the best-known callers in England — but it's a very small country!”

Brad says… No repartee — well, I think that is something specific to you and your style of repartee.  The last time I saw you in Amherst I arrived quite late, being otherwise engaged at the beginning, and when I walked in I heard people laughing with you.  I thought, 'this is new!'.  And one of the dancers said you had explained your sense of humor, and that they got it and could laugh with it later on.  But I don't think of that as a totally British sense of humor — yes, there are differences between British and American humor — but I think of it as your sense of humor, and I'm not aware that other Brits use it to the same extent you do.  I like to banter with the crowd in my own way, heckle them, make them laugh, nudge them, whatever.  This is more than just humor — this is part of my teaching style.  And I think it is part of yours too.

Here's an example.  In June 2016 Gareth Kiddier, the Sidmouth Folk Week folk dance coordinator, wrote to the ECD List giving a list of what he was looking for in a caller, and his final item was “ Be young”.  Trevor Monson replied: “Looks like I won't be booked for Sidmouth again as I'm now a pensioner”.  And Gareth replied: “… no, you may not be too old, it is not about age, it is about encouraging the young though.  Colin Hume was invaluable last year and you don't get much older than him”.  Now I don't believe Americans would say that — they'd think it was not politically correct or they'd use that catch-all non-description, “inappropriate”.

Dancing at Pinewoods
English Scottish Contra Week at Pinewoods
Photo by Meyer Billmers

Dancers from England going to the States are taken aback by Americans picking a partner for the next dance before the present dance has finished — no time to thank your partner or say a few words to them after the dance.  They are also not keen on their habit of lining up for the next dance before it's been announced, where in England people leave the floor to find a new partner most of the time.  On the other hand Rosemary felt that the gaps at my Playford Ball at Lichfield were too long and sapped her energy, so maybe it's just a question of what you're used to.  Some Playford callers in England used to say “Have a rest” at the end of a dance — Americans would be surprised and think “We came here to dance, not to rest”.

I first danced in the States in 1992, and I reckoned that in English dancing America was 20 years behind England and in Contra dancing it was the other way round.  Both have now somewhat caught up, so maybe I'm talking about the past rather than the present — and as I keep saying, these are just my opinions and observations.  In contra we would do a double kick balance and a 4-bar swing rather than a single forward and back balance and a 6-bar swing.  English in the States seemed to be where Cecil Sharp had left it.  Everyone did Cecil Sharp Siding without questioning it, and if there was ever a dance step it was a single skip whereas in England it's a skip-change.  When I looked into this I was surprised to discover that Sharp never mentions the skip-change step in his Country Dance Books (you might prefer to look at the facsimile archived here) and yet that's what everyone in England now seems to do.  Maybe it's the influence of RSCDS Scottish (though that's pretty strong in North America too) or maybe it's an example of Gene Murrow's rule that strength of adherence to a tradition is proportional to the distance from the source.

Terminology   Top of page

Callers in England use different terms from those in North America.  Remember — it's a different language!

The very phrase “English Country Dance” is not commonly used in England.  We don't say we're going to “an ECD Group”; we say “a Folk Dance Club”.  Our national organisation is “The English Folk Dance and Song Society” whereas yours is “The Country Dance and Song Society”.  (Which I've been a member of since 1991, so after 30 years I'm not a total outsider!)  Don't ask someone in England: “Are there any ECD events round here?” — they'll look at you blankly.  Or they'll Google it and discover that it stands for “Early Childhood Development: a comprehensive approach to policies and programmes for children from birth to eight years of age, their parents and caregivers”.

Another classic example of different terminology is when an English caller says “Dance the figure eight”.  Americans look baffled and say “But we are dancing” as they continue to do a dance walk.  In England it's a shorthand for “Do the figure eight with a skip-change (or occasionally skip) step”.

Contra dancers will tell you confidently that the weaving in and out figure comes from English Country dancing and is called a hey.  Yet most callers in England call it a reel (as Scottish teachers do), though some younger ones use the word “hey”.  Bob Archer says one of his most embarrassing moments was when he was calling to a large room of dancers in the States and said “reel of four”.  For what seemed an eternity they all looked at him blankly, then someone shouted out “hey” and they all moved.

I believe that in North America the term “Rights and Lefts” is used for four changes with hands, and “Circular hey” is used for four changes without hands.  In England most callers would use “Four changes” or “Circular hey” for both, and would then say whether it was with or without hands.  The default in England is “with”; the default in the States is “without”.

I don't know who made this distinction, but I object to it!  The original publishers such as Playford said “Right and left” or “Right hand and left” and having read through a lot of dances I've decided it's totally random whether they put in the word “hand” or not.  Cecil Sharp invented the term “Circular hey”, presumably to emphasise that he regarded it as a form of hey.  See his explanation of both kinds of hey.  I think he's being disingenuous in describing the circular hey in terms of a four couple circle, since most of the time it is a move for two couples in a longways set, as for instance in The Indian Queen.  Agreed, he says that in the Country Dance hey, “handing,” as Playford calls it, is the exception rather than the rule but that could be because Sharp wants to combine “Rights and lefts” and “Straight hey” into one category, and I don't agree with him there.  But he obviously allows the term to be used when hands are given, and I don't think Americans should redefine it to mean “without hands”.

Orly Krasner says… I, personally, use “Rights and Lefts with hands” or “Rights and Lefts no hands.”  I don't love the term “circular hey” — although I certainly understand it, etc., etc., etc.  I got tired of having to clarify the use of hands every time I called that move, so now I just build it in to my call.  I also find that the Right and Left designation is more immediately clear to beginners; circular hey feels more fearsome.

Rosemary says she used to use the American terminology but now does the same as Orly.

Repertoire   Top of page

Let's turn to the repertoire — what we actually dance.  In the States I believe there's the concept of a core repertoire of dances which people all over the country know and love: “Fenterlarick”, “Mad Robin”, “Hambleton's Round O”, “Saint Margaret's Hill”…  (though Rosemary disagrees and says that favorite dances on the east coast are different from dances on the west coast).  Americans are shocked to discover that those dances are hardly known in England, but it's not just that the repertoire is very different.  I don't think there's any core repertoire in England these days; people can dance for several years and never encounter Fandango for instance.  Callers generally want to call new dances, and dancers generally want to dance them, with the result that the classics are no longer well known.

Then there's the formation.  In North America the vast majority of dances are longways for as many as will.  In England we're much keener on set dances; Trevor Monson suggests that the longways dances are just the bread and butter while set dances are the much more interesting filling.  And obviously you can have more interesting figures when you're interacting with two or three (or seven) other couples rather than just one.  (Trevor adds that he would always start and finish the evening with a longways dance to make sure that no-one who wants to dance is sitting out.)  Nikki Herbs tells me that for the Boston English dance the callers are expected to do no more than two set dance; in an evening; the rest should be longways for as many as will.  Charles Bolton was once asked to plan the programme for the New York Playford Ball, and I knew exactly what would happen — the organisers sent it back with the shocked comment that there were far too many set dances.  Charles modified it, sent it back, and again they said there weren't enough longways dances.  Eventually they were happy with it and proudly presented it as “Charles Bolton's program”, which it certainly wasn't.  (Rosemary says that longways dances allow more people to dance — Americans don't want people to be left out — though she would not change someone's programme unless it really didn't fit the event.)

It's interesting how things evolve.  In the first edition of The Dancing Master the set dances greatly outnumbered the longways dances; 80 years later the set dances had disappeared.  It would seem that the English are living in 1651 and the Americans are living in 1728.

Music and Musicians   Top of page

The most common instrument in a band in England isn't a piano or a fiddle, it's a piano-accordion.  Sometimes there are two of them.  This is 3D from Lichfield in the Midlands, a very popular band at festivals and Saturday dances up and down the country: Chris and Julie Dewhurst on accordions and their son Nick on drum kit, trumpet and flugelhorn.  Chris comments that whilst their style is firmly based in the folk tradition, 3D like to incorporate many different influences within their music, including (amongst others) the classics, jazz, rock and baroque, and they relish the variety which is to be found in the folk dance repertoire, and the opportunity it provides for innovation.

I've worked with several bands or duos with two accordions, in fact when I started out in 1978 I was the regular caller with Kafoozalum who had two accordions for many years.  In the States it's very rare for an “English” band to include an accordion.  And because of the divide between English and Contra, a band in the States will usually only play for one form, though most bands in England play for everything.

The style is also very different.  In the States most bands strive to emulate “Bare Necessities” with a fluid style, different instruments taking the lead for each turn through the dance, lots of improvisation and counter-melodies.  In England the style is much more regular and you can always hear the tune; some bands have counter-melodies written out but I would say there's very little improvisation.  And of course many dancers find it easier to dance to music which is regular and predictable.  I wrote a review of one of the early Bare Necessities CDs for “English Dance & Song” magazine, saying how wonderful it was but adding “You have to be a good dancer to dance to it”.  Even further along the scale is Scottish, which has a very solid regular rhythm, often set by a drummer, and a change of tune (often with a change of key) every time through the dance — no danger of losing your place there.  I'm not saying any of these is “right” or “wrong” — just that there are considerable differences.

Brad says… I am seeing growing overlap.  Both with bands and callers, people who'd started in one genre and are now calling or playing in both.  I'm not sure that negates your point, but it is a floating target.  And I agree, our standard band is piano and violin, plus often another melody of the band's choice.  Sometimes this includes one accordion, rarely two.  In the US, for a while at least I was noticing an interesting divide — a greater number of contra piano players preferring to play on a keyboard, and a greater number of ECD piano players preferring a real piano.  I think that is still true on the ECD side; I'm not sure it is still true on the contra side.

I've long heard of English dancers complaining about the American sound, and American dancers complaining of the English sound.  I do personally prefer most American bands over English ones.  Partly I think the recording quality is better — I think Bare Necessities has set a very high bar that few match.  And partly because I like the improvisation.  I've also heard old-timer US dancers complain over the Bare Necessities style sound, feeling it can be too hard to catch the beat or phrase.  I find it interesting though — I think the old English recordings had a great deal of complexity.  I wouldn't call it improv — I assume they are all playing strictly from detailed charts — but complex counter melodies none the less.  And then things got more even.  There was a time when I thought English recordings sounded like poor imitations of Scottish bands — strong on the very wet accordion sound, more traditional style sounding and less like chamber music.  And then we slowly drifted back.  Now I'm very pleased to say that people have moved beyond Bare Necessities.  By that I don't mean they've turned against them, but that the goal is no longer to imitate them, but instead to come up with their own unique sound.  I like Bare Necessities, both for their sound and for the vast changes they have brought, but I also like the growing difference in sounds/styles developed by the various bands in the US.  So I would take issue with your statement 'most bands strive to emulate Bare Necessities'.  We've moved beyond that.  We still have a strong focus on counter melodies, but there is now more than just one style of doing so.

In the States there's a strong conviction that every English dance has its own tune.  I know there are thousands which don't, but it's impossible to convince people of this.  In England the caller will say to the band “32-bar jigs”, and they wouldn't be surprised at the request, whereas bands in the States would look baffled and say “But what tune do you want?”.  I was once working with a band called “Pleasures of the Town” and asked for some hornpipes.  “We don't have any hornpipes” they said in consternation.  I pointed out that “Pleasures of the Town” is a hornpipe.  “Oh, we don't play that”, they explained, “we just thought it was a good name for a band”.

Also in the States callers are very concerned about what key the tunes are in, and plan their programme to give a variety.  This may be the result of Fried de Metz Herman's insistence on it, so it may be more of an East Coast attitude.  I don't know any caller in England who considers this.  When I ask Americans why this matters they say “Well, you wouldn't want several tunes in a minor key together”.  Maybe not, but that's not a key, it's a mode, and anyway not all tunes in the minor are slow and miserable — “Black Nag” Black Nag: Music in PDF, MIDI and ABC format and “Parsons Farewell” Parsons Farewell: Music in PDF, MIDI and ABC format are both very lively.  Of course I want variety in my programme — variety of style, formation, tempo, mood, complexity, energy — but I don't care what key the tunes are in!

In England a band expects to be given a programme in advance (though sometimes the caller will have to change it) and some may complain if there are too many set tunes and not enough opportunities for them to play their favourite reels and jigs.  English musicians in the States are expected to be good sight-readers and instantly play whatever is set in front of them — Gene Murrow says he knows several excellent musicians who aren't booked for English dances because they're not good sight readers.  Brad and Rosemary say this may be true for dance weeks but it's not so true for local dances, so maybe I'm using a non-representative sample.

Now I don't pretend to be an excellent musician — competent is what I aim at — but I sometimes play piano in a band, and sometimes call at the same time.  I'm not a sight reader at all.  People assume that if I write music I must be able to read it, and therefore play it at dance tempo.  That's a fallacy.  Mozart wrote a wonderful clarinet concerto — does that mean he could play the clarinet?  If I'm playing in the band I need to study the music in advance and practise hard.  If I'm playing and calling I choose things I can play — and change the key if necessary.  I'm no Jacqueline Schwab — I can't play in E flat and I'm not happy even in B flat.  If I'm playing “Hole in the Wall” I transpose it from B flat to G — and do you think anyone notices?  (Jacqueline would — but would you?)  I mentioned Kafoozalum earlier, who used to play both English and Scottish.  (Later they switched to playing exclusively for Scottish ceilidhs which is where the money is, but that's another matter.)  Anyway, there's a Scottish tune called “Seton's Ceilidh Band” which is in B major — that's 5 sharps — all the black notes.  I can't imagine why anyone would write a tune in B major.  Kafoozalum transpose it to the more sensible key of A major, and people come up to them and say “You play that much better than the other bands”.

In the States people expect to hear the tune before they start to walk through the dance, and many people will say they can't walk it through properly without it.  That's certainly not true in England, though as a dancer I'm often walking through the dance with the previous tune in my head!  I want to know if the dance is in triple-time or is particularly slow, but provided it's a jig or a reel I don't need to hear it first.  It's all a question of what you're used to.  It's also very common in the States for someone to play bits of the tune to accompany the walkthrough.  As a caller I hate this — I feel I've lost control of the walkthrough — sometimes I'm waiting for the next phrase to be played; sometimes the musician plays too much…  Please don't do that if you're playing for me!  If I want to show how a figure of the dance fits the music I might ask the band to play a bit while I talk it through or do a solo demonstration, or I might sing a bit of the tune, but most of the time it's obvious.  Do you really need the tune during the walkthrough to do a circle left and right?  And sometimes in the States the band ask me what speed I want it at and I say “I don't remember the tune — play me a bit of it” and they look at me in shock — how can this guy claim to be an English caller when he doesn't even know the tune?

One other difference is that in the States the sound system is usually owned by the organisation, who will provide someone to set it up and control it.  In England the band always provides its own PA (Public Address system) and the band leader will control it, though he may ask the caller or someone reliable to go out front and balance the band.

Social dance bands in England have shrunk over the years, probably mostly as an economic effect of shrinking dance club membership.  Kafoozalum was originally a 5-piece band, as was Blue Mountain Band, but I can't think of any 5-piece bands now and even 4-piece bands could be an endangered species.  The ceilidh scene still has the same sort of size bands I remember from ages ago, with half a dozen members not being unusual, plus their own sound engineer.  On the other hand ceilidh bands are paid a lot more than social dance bands, and Scottish bands are paid even more!

But I've been talking about live music, and in England live music is rare.  Most clubs use recorded music for their club nights most or all of the time, though I would expect live music at a Saturday night dance; in the States most groups (except very small ones) have live music all or most of the time.  This may be partly financial: clubs often charge a very low entrance fee and have a rota of club members who aren't paid for their calling, so the only major expense is the hire of the hall.  But I think it's also a difference in attitude.  Groups in the States say “But of course we expect live music”, so they go out and get it.  Clubs in England don't think like this.

I dance at The Round in Cambridge — officially a student organisation, though the number of students attending can be very low.  I usually call there half an evening twice a term, and I have live music which I organise myself — me on piano and two or more musicians most of whom play for Cambridge Contra.  People really seem to appreciate the live music, and yet none of the other callers ask for it; they just take it for granted that they use recorded music.  Of course there's also a fear of live musicians — not personally but as a concept — people feel safe with CDs which don't have to be controlled and will stop after the right number of turns through the dance.  I'm very lucky — I started calling with live music and I'm a musician myself so I'm much happier with a live band and hardly ever call to recorded music.

Events   Top of page

See here for more about Folk Dance Clubs.

Next is a Barn Dance which certainly used to be very popular in England — I stopped calling Barn Dances many years ago so I'm not sure that's still true.  A Barn Dance would be put on by a school PTA, a Scout Group, a Young Farmers group, Singles clubs and many other organisations, often as a way of raising money.  That's where I started my calling career, though I know experienced Club callers who would be totally lost in that scene.  I was calling with the band “Kafoozalum”, and their leader Peter Jenkins told me right from the start: “These people haven't come here to dance.  They've come here to meet their mates, have a few drinks, chat — and maybe do a few dances.  Next month they'll be going bowling or having a meal in a pub.  You're here to give them a good time, not to try and teach them anything”.

Calling a Barn Dance is a very different skill from calling a dancers' dance.  For the first hour and a half the caller's job is to be lively and enthusiastic, and try and persuade a few people to get up and have a go — when they've had enough to drink.  Come the end of the evening they're raring to go on, and I'm exhausted!

For me the worst kind of Barn Dance is a wedding dance.  People aren't there to dance — they're there because they're friends or relations of the bride or groom, occasionally in two armed camps.  And these events always start an hour to an hour and a half late because people don't realise how long the meal and speeches will take.

I once called a wedding dance in the States.  The people there were a mixture of dancers and non-dancers, and the bride said 'Start with simple dances like “The Female Sailor” and move on to more complicated ones later'.  I was stunned.  First of all, the concept of longways duple minor, with progression and change of number at the ends of the set, is far too much for non-dancers to take in.  The only longways duple dance I would call at a Barn Dance is “Nottingham Swing”, and they'd have to be pretty good.  And in “The Female Sailor” the ones are involved with two lots of twos — activity outside the minor set!  It finishes with the progression — ones two-hand turn half-way and cast while the twos turn once, moving up.  Then it starts again with the ones leading up through the couple above (who a moment ago were their own twos) and casting back, then down through their new twos and casting up.  That is horrendously complicated for someone who's never met any of this before.  She said “We find the non-dancers tend to drift off after two or three dances” — I wasn't surprised!

So I gave then the sort of programme I would call at a Barn Dance in England — Virginia Reel, Circle Waltz, Cumberland Square Eight, etc., with some more complicated dances later, and the non-dancers felt they understood what was going on and most of them carried on dancing.  At the end a local English Dance teacher said “That was really good — I must get some of those dances off you” — but she never did.

Rosemary says… There is a resurgence of “community dance” — basically a Barn Dance for a variety of ages — often connected to an “event”.

DanceCupola playing for the LNE (Late Night Extra) at Sidmouth 2013
Then there is the Ceilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”), sometimes referred to as ECeilidh or English Ceilidh to distinguish it from a Scottish ceilidh or an Irish ceili.  Simple energetic dances, stepped rather than walked, with a band probably led by a melodeon rather than an accordion (there's a strong Morris influence), often with a drum kit, sometimes with brass instruments.  Trust me, this is just as “English” as Bare Necessities playing for a Ball — but it's a different kind of English.  Another difference is that unlike dances in the States and England, ceilidhs often have a bar in the dance hall and people may stop for a drink between the (often long and energetic) dances.  In England a dance will have an interval and probably tea and coffee will be available; in the States the break tends to have juice or water.

Another place where you will get a great ceilidh every night, with a couple of hundred young and not-so-young dancers leaping about, is Chippenham Folk Festival — and that brings me on to the next topic — the weekend and week-long events.

Americans ask me if we have Dance Camps in England like those in the States, and my answer is “Yes and No”.  First of all, in England a “Camp” means a gathering where people live in temporary accommodation rather than in permanent cabins.  It used to be tents (and in my case it still is) but nowadays the ageing dance population have motor-homes or caravans.  So yes, there are camping events, run for instance by the Folk Camps Society and the Camping and Caravanning Club, but they're not like what you get at Pinewoods, Timber Ridge, Heydays and so on.  You can read my essay on Folk Camps, and I've been going to them for over 40 years, but the standard of dancing is not particularly high these days.  There is a Dancers' Weekend, which I've led several times, where you'll get some good dancing; otherwise you have to know who the leader is and whether he or she is interested in that sort of thing — some of them aren't and they attract a crowd of people who feel the same way.  I also went to the Caravanning and Camping Club's Easter Meet a couple of times, but decided it wasn't for me.

Halsway Manor
Halsway Manor
Then there is Halsway Manor in Somerset (bottom left corner of England) which is the UK's only residential Folk Centre — a beautiful manor house, partly dating from the 15th century.  In 1965 a group of Folk enthusiasts formed the Halsway Manor Society and gathered together enough money to buy the manor and start running events there.  In 1982 they also bought the Mews (which you can't see in the photo — it's off to the left) for additional accommodation.  There are many Dance, Music and Song events: some a weekend, some a whole week, some organised by dance clubs and other groups, some organised by the manor people themselves.

There are dance weekends and weeks in other venues (usually hotels), run by individuals or groups.  I lead a regular weekend at The Paddocks Hotel in Symonds Yat, Herefordshire (nearly in South Wales) and they have all kinds of dancing there in their excellent ballroom — Playford, Scottish, Ballroom, Sequence and others.  John Turner, Andrew Shaw, Henry & Jacqui Morgenstein and many others run dance weekends in hotels.  Alan Davies used to run dance weeks abroad and I believe these are continuing with a new leader.  There's a lot going on once you find out about it!

Chippenham High Street during the Folk Festival

Next there are the Folk Festivals, which vary tremendously.  Some are just song (mainly concerts and perhaps some singarounds); some have a strong emphasis on Morris, some add in a couple of ceilidhs, some are exclusively for dancers.  My favourite is Chippenham which is on the weekend of the second May Bank Holiday (around May 27th), so it runs from the Friday evening to the Monday evening, and it has everything — a solid dancers' programme, usually with two or three choices, plus song, Morris and other displays, craft stalls, other stalls selling musical instruments, CDs, food etc., children's events…  That's the one I recommend to anyone who hasn't tried a festival in England before, and I've been going there since before I was a dancer — I started off as a singer and guitarist.

You might also find me dancing or calling at May Heydays (formerly Eastbourne, the first May Bank Holiday weekend, around May 1st), Lichfield (mid-June), Sidmouth (the first week in August), Broadstairs (usually the second week in August), Whitby (the week leading up to the August Bank Holiday, though strangely enough it finishes on the Friday evening) and Southam (August Bank Holiday) which is invitation only.

Ceilidh in the Ford
Ceilidh in the Ford, Sidmouth
EFDSS used to run the Sidmouth Folk Festival; several other festivals including Chippenham and Lichfield were affiliated to EFDSS and would give reductions for EFDSS members.  However Sidmouth got a lot of its income from the two major displays a day at the large open-air arena; people came by the coach-load.  There were teams from abroad, teams from England doing both English and International dancing, a folk dance band playing between the acts and doing their own spot — it was an important part of the Festival and it was the part that ordinary people knew about.  But of course if the weather was bad the coach companies took their passengers to a stately home or some other indoor venue.  The Festival had two bad years in a row because of the weather, and there were fears that if the Festival went bust it would bring down EFDSS as well — so EFDSS gave the Festival away and severed links with the other Festivals (some of whom were very upset at being abandoned like that).

Sidmouth Festival nearly collapsed after the 60th year celebrations in 2004, and for the next few years it struggled.  The social dancers felt that they were being marginalised — the big money and venues were for the high-profile concert acts and the dancers were shoved into anywhere that was left.  A lot of regulars stopped going to Sidmouth.  At the moment it's on the up — the Dance Director is now Gareth Kiddier who plays keyboard in the wonderful duo The English Contra Dance Band (click the button above to see and hear them) and has a lot of credibility with the dancers, so while he keeps on I would recommend Sidmouth to anyone.  In his first year (2015) he introduced Tom Hinds and Nic Broadbridge, neither of whom had been to Sidmouth before — in fact Tom had never been to England before.  This year (2016) he introduced Carol Ormond.

IVFDF 2015 Survivors' Ceilidh
People often think that Sidmouth is the longest-running Folk Festival in the country, but they're wrong; that honour goes to IVFDF (pronounced “Iv-Div”), the Inter Varsity Folk Dance Festival which has been going since 1951.  This is run by a different university each year, backed up by a fairly loose central organisation.  There are currently 14 universities on the list of potential locations; this year (2016) Warwick University ran it for the first time (in Coventry, which is where the university really is).  Next year it will be Cambridge where I dance and call.  The website sums it up:

The keyword is FESTIVAL: basically, hundreds of people attending for three days and two nights of intense dancing, playing music and singing, until they are unbelievably exhausted.  A non-stop weekend of music and dance from the British Isles and beyond — there is the option of sleep for those who can bear to miss something.

Who goes to IVFDF?  Anyone with an interest in lively, young, energetic folk music and dance.  Because the festival is aimed in particular at universities it is attended by large numbers of students, ex-students and staff from all around the country — although in some cases ex-student means 30 years or so.  But just because it is aimed at students does not mean that we limit who can attend.  Anyone who is willing to enjoy and participate is welcome.

Another difference at these events is that a festival in England will book named bands whereas a camp in the States tends to book individuals and then allocate them to the various workshops and dances.

Ingestre Ball
Ingestre Ball, Stafford
And what about Balls?  In fact there are far more Balls in the States than there are in England, and they're taken far more seriously.  Balls used to be like Scottish dances — you were sent the programme, you learnt the dances in advance, and there were no walkthroughs and no calling during the dance.  This has gradually changed.  The New York Ball was like that until 1997 when Linda Wolfe wrote a wonderful article about English Country Dancing in the New York Times which resulted in over a hundred new dancers joining the New York City Dance Group CD*NY.  The only group that I know still don't have any calling for their Ball is Boston.  And yet even when every dance is going to be walked through and called, people spend weeks and weeks practising and agonising over the dances.  I don't understand this!

Here for instance is a quote from Carl Friedman in 1998 — maybe things have changed now.

I have no problem with doing a few Ball dances each week, but I think it has gotten way out of hand.  In Baltimore, it has meant that we do the Baltimore Ball dances — a list of about 20 dances — as about half the dances per week for 2-3 months, then as the entire evening for a month. Then we do the same thing, or nearly so, in the spring, for the Washington DC Ball.

This comes from the ECD List archives, and if you look through the previous messages in this thread you'll find quotes from some very knowledgeable people:

But of course other dancers in the States will say that the Ball is the highlight of their dance year.  Mary Kay Friday:

Fearing the charge of elitism, it is with some trepidation that I wade into this particular topic, but I think someone should make the case for unprompted balls.  I hasten to add that there is room for both kinds of balls. I rejoice that balls like the one in Strafford — and particularly that one — have had the salutary effect of introducing a wider population to ECD.

For me the appeal of a ball is not dressing up, having wonderful food, or even dancing in a beautiful hall, though all of those contribute to the pleasure of a delightful evening.  The real appeal for me is a full evening of dancing to beautiful music without the interruption of teaching.  Please understand that, most of the time, I'm quite happy to help teach dances and dancers.  But occasionally it is really wonderful to be able just to dance.

To bring the quotes up to date, Here's a message that April Blum sent to the ECD List this year (2016):

I have heard several dancers say that they are reluctant to register for the Washington Spring Ball because they don't feel they know the dances well enough and don't want to “mess it up” for others.  If as few as 16 people are interested and available, I will gladly organize an extra practice session…

The only similar event in England that I know of was run by Val and Ian McFarlane in Buckinghamshire (to the West of London), starting in September 2000.  Ian used to work regularly in Washington DC and had been very taken with the Balls there, so he wanted to run something similar in England.  I'd already been booked to call a Costumed Ball, but they decided that this sort of event was played out and they would instead have a No Walkthrough Ball consisting of my own dances, though not all Playford-style — there were two squares and a contra as well.  We followed the American pattern where the instructions were sent out in advance and there was an afternoon workshop where I taught some of the harder dances.  And following the American pattern, people were terrified.  One couple turned up at the Ball itself having not looked at the instructions and said “You will call them, won't you?” but the whole idea was that I wouldn't; the programme said something like “Colin will call the minimum necessary to prevent the dances breaking down”.  I think the evening went very well, despite the small numbers, but I found my minimal calling totally exhausting!  The next day (again following the American model) we had a brunch where Ian amazed me by cooking bacon for the meat-eaters — he and Val have been vegetarians for as long as I've known them.  Then I did a few more of my dances with walkthroughs and calling (including two of my most complicated: “Cecil Sharp House” and “Cascade”) — I found that so much easier!

Val and Ian organised a number of similar Balls after that, and the number of participants gradually went up.  Trevor Monson in Yorkshire decided to do the reverse, and he organised a No Call Ball which then alternated with the No Walkthrough Ball — one year down South, the next up North.  His approach is that it's better to have the walkthrough and get comfortable with the dance, and then be able to dance it to the music without a caller's voice getting in the way.  But these events are very much the exception.  What you tend to get at other Balls is people who are more interested in dressing up in costume than in learning how to do the dances.  I've heard it said that dancing ability is inversely proportional to the splendour of the costume, and there is some truth in this — though I do have rather a fine Playford costume myself!

Conclusion   Top of page

So which country is “right”?  That's as pointless a question as asking whether “color” or “colour” is the right spelling; they're two different languages.  Of course since I'm English there's a temptation for me to assume that our way is right and those Americans have got it all wrong, but that's nonsense.  Let's face it. a dancer from 1651 wouldn't recognise either of our inventions as “English Country Dances”.  In those days they were exclusively the province of young people, mainly unmarried, and the purpose was much more to meet and evaluate members of the opposite sex than to walk through complicated patterns or drift through triple-time tunes in a minor key.  They danced energetically the whole time, using a variety of steps, and they certainly didn't start by taking hands four so that everyone was dancing from the start.  Dancing was very important — see Jane Austen's novels for the proof of that — but it was an occasional treat (a real occasion) rather than something that they did every week plus weekend and week-long festivals or camps.

And what of the future?  CDSS started as a branch of EFDSS, and sometimes I wonder whether EFDSS will end up as a branch of CDSS.  In England the dance clubs are ageing and many of them have simply folded.  There are some younger groups, but young people are not likely to stay in a group where most of the dancers are older than their parents.  In the States the contra dancers seem to be younger (and much more energetic); the English dancers may be a little younger than their counterparts in England but that's all.  Both the national organisations face the same problems and are trying to attract younger members, but who knows whether they will succeed?

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