This set of six articles by Bob Brand first appeared in 2005 and 2006 in Set and Turn Single magazine.
You may find them at odds with familiar methods because they are strictly my own approach to dancing. Although I acknowledge the influences of everyone I have met over the years, and especially the teachers, most of it has been the result of observing other dancers, both good and bad. The series' aim is to present a practical approach on how to improve the quality of dancing. Within the six articles I have tried to cover all the main elements, giving an example of an aspect of each which could be applied wider.
Bob and Ann Brand are English and Scottish country dancers from East Sussex, England. Bob has a particular interest in dance technique and interpretation. They are both musicians and members of the Society of Recorder Players.
Of the many articles bemoaning the current standards of Country Dancing very few if any give specific and practical advice to dancers on how things may be improved. The concerns are not new; they have been around for decades and yet I see little change. Mediocrity, is of course inevitable in an amateur pursuit but it need not become an excuse for complacency. Here I offer some flesh to otherwise bare bones.
Compared with some forms of dance, ours lack spectacular steps and generally is not showy. It is therefore especially important that the technique is good and secure. Good technique is founded on solid underpinning principles and is obtained through clear instruction with achievable goals and clear entry points.
For the dancer one underpinning principle is complete integration within the set. This demands first and foremost personal responsibility. Part of that responsibility is poise and the ability to move effectively around the dance; the absence of this skill seems to cause most of the critical comment, (to use ploughman's speech “too much Plod”).
The watchword is “Personal Responsibility”; the objective, developing good stance and motive style. Here is the initial entry point.
Check the way you stand in the set, not just in a straight line, important as it is, but check your personal stance. Have the heels closer together than the toes, arms loosely by the side, not behind the back, folded or on the hips. Now most importantly check your poise: this is the way to do it.
I appreciate that many fine country dancers will be readers of Set and Turn Single but irrespective of your dance standard, beginner or advanced, try the simple check I suggest and be honest with yourself. Remember the watchword is “Personal Responsibility” so don't let country dance and yourself down.
So back to the beginning: if you think that the title is an unintended misquote, let me explain. Once Mediocrity is shown the door Melancholy will follow close on its heels.
With good poise and forward movement, with your weight over the balls of the feet, a new freedom of dance should be developing; it is time to use this to really bring figures to life. Now our Objective is developing a heightened sense of consciousness to dancing figures.
Every figure consists of timing and shape, brought to life with expression. Our way in will be through an 8-step cast downwards; it contains fundamentals that apply to the majority of figures and it conforms to a standard musical phrase. If you believe a cast is simply a means of getting from “A” to “B”, hold on to your hat.
First you must be able to identify musical phrases. These are the equivalent to sentences in speech. As a simple guide, the music for “set and turn single” is an example of a musical phrase, as is “up a double and back”, “back to back” and “siding”. It is also very useful to be able to identify sub-phrases, so “set right and left” is one sub-phrase followed by “turn single” the second sub-phrase. Most figures fit musical phrases and being able to spot them is a prerequisite to dancing, allowing you to dance precisely with the music. It also makes listening to music a lot more enjoyable!
Accurate timing is of course vital. As long as you step to the beat of the music accuracy is not difficult to attain, but it still requires practice and discipline. For figures of 6 steps or more consider counting the steps silently in two groups. In the 8-step cast count them in two groups of 4, then you can check how far you have travelled and whether to shorten or lengthen the step to arrive exactly on time. Take into consideration the tighter the curve you dance the shorter your steps will be. Also consider what happens at the end of a figure. If you are dancing from a cast onwards to a two-hand turn you will want to hit your line on the 8th step i.e. the very end of the musical phrase. If the next figure requires you to fall back or stand then you will need to reach your dance line on the 7th step with a close on the 8th. Finally remember the old dance maxim “If you arrive late it may not be your fault; if you arrive early it definitely is”: the same can apply to starting figures.
Shape is important; it is the opportunity to put your newly found forward movement to great effect. The cast has an unwinding curve. The dancer should visualise the shape to determine the line of travel, and dancing along predetermined lines is far more satisfying than aimlessly wandering about the floor. In the mind's eye see the line of travel on the ground as if it were really there. Notice the sharp curve in towards the centre line of the set as you face up. See how the curve begins to open out as you dance out and through your dance line to a point where you are outside the set, level with your starting point, and facing down. Finally see how the curve relaxes as it approaches the finishing place. Despite changes in the severity of the curve its transition should be seamless; make it the best line imaginable. Practise this away from the dance floor; it is essentially a thinking process. Try moving around the home or workplace in predetermined curved lines as part of your normal movement — nobody will notice. Leaving it to the next club night is definitely too late: this is when you will want to try out the results.
The “icing on the cake” is expression. Dancing, like music and speech, relies on expression to bring it to life. Spoken sentences begin with subtle emphasis and end with a slowing and lowering of the voice; musical phrases do much the same. Danced figures spring to life from similar dynamics. From a standing start your initial step projecting you forward will be in itself emphatic, but since the cast begins with a sharp curve inwards and upwards only moderate forward pressure is needed because of the shorter steps. As you approach the end of the cast reduce your forward pressure to give the figure a sense of closure. A word of warning: expression is easily overdone, resulting in mannerism; avoid this at all costs. Think of expression in normal speech, then think of Mrs Thatcher in full flight!
This may seem a lot of detail to simply cast, but taken one point at a time it will be worth it. The elements will serve you well for most figures; work on them, continuously develop them, and over time they will become second nature; however never ever allow them to become mindlessly automatic. Stop thinking about each element of dance and you are already on the way to stagnation. Remember the watchword, “Personal Responsibility”.
There are few sights more depressing than watching poorly executed two-hand turns and four hands round (circles); it is at worst like a scene from kindergarten. To be direct, if you believe turns and circles are “child's play” then that is what they will look like. So how do you transform “Ring a Ring a Roses” into fine danced figures?
First be clear about the general principles of dancing figures: Accurate timing; Visualise in your mind's eye the track you will dance; Use of expression; Weight over the balls of your feet. These were covered in the last article.
The start of every figure is crucial to its success and with circular figures the start will depend on whether you are entering it from being stationary or moving into it from the end of a previous figure. From a standing start ensure that you step off on your right foot, even though in most instances you will be travelling to your left. This is important, as many figures require “a right foot start” and starting on the left foot will leave you starting the next figure on the left foot (particularly awkward if it is setting right and left). But most importantly starting on the right foot puts your hips squarely facing the line of travel. Starting on the left foot may lead you into a crab-like travelling action, which once started is difficult to adjust. Having the hips squarely facing the line of travel means you have to rotate the upper body at the waist to face the other dancer(s) and this will depend on how supple you are. It can be improved with rotation exercises, but begin quite gently because too much enthusiasm early on will easily strain a back muscle. Possibly some may have settle for only partial rotation.
If you are starting the figure on the move you should automatically be on the correct foot. However from a casting type movement you may find that one dancer is crossing their dance line at an advantageous angle while the other has to broaden out the line during their cast in order to enter the turn or circle at a reasonable angle. This calls for forward planning and will only happen if you have thought about such issues beforehand (away from the dance floor).
Giving hands is the special element in turns and circles, but don't feel you have to take hands before you move into the figure, or even on the first beat. The main thing is to move off exactly at the start of the musical phrase and to start taking hands as you do so. It won't matter if you are already a quarter of the way round before you take hold, in fact a measured action looks far better than a rushed one.
Most dancers appear to take hands for a two-hand turn by lifting their hands to waist height by bending the elbows to about right angle and then jabbing them out towards the other dancer. This is both unsightly and results in the hands being given equal to the width of the dancer's shoulders. A better way is to raise the hands at an angle diagonally forward (between straight out sideways and straight out to the front) to about waist height with only the slightest flexing of the elbows. Then finally raise them to about shoulder height, bending the elbows more so that the hands take hold about 8-12 inches outside the line of the shoulders. Do this in one smooth movement, to match the simplicity and purity of style you should be developing. You will find that having the hands joined outside the width of the shoulders seems to produce a mild gyroscopic effect, making the turn smoother. Just try and see how you find it. Dancers inclined to an historic style will give hands below waist level but otherwise the principles apply.
At the end of the figure don't wait until the last beat of the phrase to release hands. It is better to release hands earlier and use the last one or two steps to dance out to your dance line. This means that half-turns and circles will be very much “touch and release”. One exception to this, which I really like, is the half-right (or left) hand turn, which looks great if the dancers retain hands for as long as possible, with the dancers moving apart and the arms momentarily held outstretched. But for this you need a compliant partner otherwise they will wrestle to get their hand away.
The other circular figures, one-hand turns and hands across (stars), share most of these principles.
Finally, turns, circles and hands across makes the dancers into a single entity so it is vital that they match each other precisely. This can only be achieved if you watch each other throughout the figure: no looking vacantly into space otherwise you will find yourself back in the playground.
It is a strange phenomenon that a poor dancer whose simple cast looks wooden, heavy, plodding seems to improve once into the hey or double figure of eight. Do they suddenly improve? No. The reason is that the more complex the figure, the more you can get away with; that is why the English Country Dance style is so unforgiving. Like all figures heys are often badly danced, so let's take a look at the most familiar example.
The way “Grimstock Hey” is regularly danced lacks shape and drive. This is mostly caused by the dancers, but it is not helped by a caller telling them, “Ends stay together, middles stay wide”. Hands up everyone who has said that. Yes, I am sheepishly raising my own hand. This prompts every dancer to march forward three steps in a straight line, then dodge around someone coming towards them, and then march on. In place of a series of sweeping semi-circles the hey resembles an opened-out paper clip with straight lines and sharp bends.
Before going into the specific details for the hey let's remind ourselves that all figures require the following: Good forward stance with weight over the balls of the feet to produce good forward movement. Well planned line of dance. Measured expression.
Virtually all heys should start on the dancer's dance line and this is true of the Grimstock Hey. The danced figure is a series of four semi-circles, some with modification.
It might be assumed that the three couples, standing on their lines, are ideally spaced for the hey. In fact no couple is in the right place in relation to the other couples! Think of it this way: the hey consists of 16 steps divided evenly between three dancers, therefore the spacing of the dancers should ideally be 5.3 steps. But the hey starts with the bottom and middle dancers 4 steps behind the dancer in front of them while the top dancer, who is following the bottom dancer, is 8 steps behind. This unevenness needs careful consideration but also produces interesting alignments that would not occur in a “Well Tempered” hey.
So the hey begins with all dancers on their dance line: this is the first alignment. Then the “ends” dance in to meet their partners as the “middles” dance up and out (2 walking steps). This immediately produces strong alignments up and down the set made by the end couples moving in and one across the set as the “middles” pass outside the top couple. During the next two steps the top couple has to dance out strongly to finish level with middle place outside their dance line as the bottom couple reduces the curve of their travel (avoiding the temptation to march up the middle hand-in-hand) to finish in middle place inside the line. Notice the alignment across middle place. At the same time the middle couple have finished on the line in top place. During the next two steps it is the bottom couple who have to dance out strongly to an alignment with the middle couple, who are now meeting their partner. At the same time the tops dance down outside the dance line on a reduced curve. The effect of the “strong dance out” first by the “tops” then by the “bottoms” pushes the place where they cross the dance line up above the middle place. This makes the hey feel congested at the top and empty at the bottom. The next two steps moves everyone to their halfway point: the “tops” and “bottoms” are in each other's places and the “middles” are back home but facing down, back to the initial alignment. This has restored the crossing place back to the middle.
The second half of the hey is a mirror reflection of the first half. It is the original “tops” who again have to dance out strongly on the 10th and 11th steps and the original “bottoms” on the 12th and 13th steps. As with the start of the hey this moves the crossing point, but this time downwards; it is then returned to middle place as the hey ends by the “middles” ending in their original place on the 16th step. During the second part of the hey it is the bottom end that feels congested while the top seems empty. All the same alignments occur but at the other end of the hey.
Clearly the hey has to be danced with fluidity; the alignments are fleeting moments allowing the dancers to check their position and to enjoy the dynamics of the figure. Analysing figures in this way makes dancing them into an event to be enjoyed and developed, rather than a mindless reaction to the caller. It also makes it clear what is needed to dance the figure effectively. Even if only one or two of the dancers in the hey make the effort it will be better for it. Of course when it comes to dancing figures, any figures, the more that dance them consciously the better and more enjoyable they will be. Do I hear the call for “Personal Responsibility” again?
There is a device in country dancing that is as neat and versatile as one of those Swiss red-handled pocket-knives. Although hardly ever taught, “Preparing the Step” is widely used by dancers of all capabilities. So what is it and what are its many uses?
“Preparing the step” is two steps backward that dancers may take immediately before moving off from a standing position. Done correctly the steps, right and left, will be quite small involving movement of only the lower half of the body. The upper part stays virtually stationary: it is not a move backwards. The steps are taken on the closing beats of the previous phrase of music.
Its most obvious use is to alert your partner or “opposite” that you are preparing to move off and they should also be doing the same. Likewise it is an excellent way for you and the other dancer to get exactly in time with each other, and for this eye contact is all-important. It is also useful in exaggerating the forward stance so the first step has maximum weight, producing maximum forward momentum. Another use is to employ the two steps to lock yourself onto the beat of the music without moving the body. Musicians will know that “coming in from cold” can present difficulties; the same goes for dancers. This simple movement gives you a helpful “lead in” without moving the body so that your first step forward will be confidently “bang on the beat”. Yet another use is when the join from one dancer finishing their figure and another beginning on the next phrase requires a seamless quality. This is especially effective when dancing to music by bands that keep the sound texture going across the musical phrases: “Bare Necessities” is an obvious example. However most importantly the device lies at the centre of something far larger and that is the art of being totally integrated with the rest of the dancers; it's what a musician call “ensemble”. “Ensemble” involves some of the highest qualities in the art of music-making and a similar place in dancing.
The art of “ensemble” relies on powers of observation and the ability to respond. I have heard it said that the 17th century Flemish composer Jacob van Eyck only wrote music for solo instruments because his blindness prevented him experiencing ensemble playing. While the reliability of this story may be flimsy the point it makes is solid. Seeing is as important as hearing in music groups; the same goes for dancing in groups. It is for this reason that musical trios and quartets sit in a semi-circle, so they have eye contact with each other. Incidentally van Eyck's book “The Flute's Pleasure Garden” contains variations on a tune “The English Nightingale” which turns up in Pat Shaw's “New Wine in Old Bottles” as “Nightingale” (not the more familiar “The Little Nightingale”). Visually observing the person you are dancing with is one of dancing's vital requirements. Not only are you able to start together but you will also be able to mirror the other dancer's style. For instance, do they dance with a highly expressive or relaxed movement? Do they acknowledge the half phrase with a dwell? Is this accompanied with a raise? Do they make their figures full or shallow? These few are the most obvious examples but there will be countless other nuances that are difficult, even impossible, to describe that dancers will instinctively pick up. The differences between dancers each doing their own thing in isolation, without reference or a glance to the other, and dancers working in concert makes the difference between mediocre and great dancing. For the dancer the increased level of satisfaction is quite disproportionate to the little effort expended. So why do so many dance staring into the distance with blank looks? If you have never made a practice of actively dancing with the other dancers, just try; I really recommend it. Immerse yourself in the dance, don't just be one of them, become part of them, and smile!
The need to observe doesn't just apply when you are active. Standing dancers need to observe what is going on. They may have to dance the same figures next and what happens now may need to be echoed later. The active dancer's style will affect the standing dancer if they are dancing together later, even as part of the whole set. The need to watch is also important in order for a dancer to remain in touch with the dance, as well as always being open to different ideas.
So what should you do if every other member of your set is locked in his or her own world? Keep looking at them, because you never know what they may do next! And who knows, they may even get the message.
At this point I feel inclined to use the words “Personal Responsibility” but I'll resist stating the obvious.
Some time ago an office colleague asked me if the dancers followed the musicians or the musicians followed the dancers. What seemed at first a simple question quickly turned into trying to answer the “Chicken and Egg” question. Clearly the dancers follow the music's timing, phrasing and mood, but then the musicians follow the dancers' mood and capability as well as the dance's figures. The relationship between music and dance is obvious and many dancers will know Imogen Holst's words “Dance is music made visible”, so the idea of matching elements of music and musicianship to that of dance style and technique seems to me to a natural one. Here we go!
First think of your stance, your forward movement and the way you move around the dance as the “tone quality” of your dancing. In music “tone quality”, that is the quality of the sound you produce, is a passport to respectability especially for singers, string, wind and brass instrumentalists. Let the way you move around the set be a matter of vital concern. Incidentally, if you have been practising a forward stance, weight over the balls of your feet, over the previous months, you may on brief occasions have had the wonderful feeling of your forward movement being pushed along as if “on the crest of a wave”, seemingly independent of your feet. Congratulations; this is “lift”, the goal of every serious dancer. More practice produces more lift. The shape of the dancer's track during a figure and phrasing can be likened to the way an instrumentalist plays a musical phrase: emphasis at the start, a sense of closure at the end etc. It is the close cousin of good forward movement and together they form the basis of the dancer's art. An intimate understanding of how dance figures work is as important to the dancer as the understanding of musical structure, harmony and rhythm is to the musician. It gives an added insight into possibilities and hazards within the figures. In a dancing set, as in a music group, all should be striving for a whole effect, supporting and encouraging each other, each watching that their individual input is part of the whole ensemble.
Now think of it this way: The minor set as a string quartet. When you have a figure to dance on your own, maybe a cast, think of it as your solo. For this moment the success of the whole dance rests on your shoulders. It is your chance to shine (or fail). When you and another dancer move together it is as a duet. You may be mirroring one another or, in a weaving figure, bringing out its character. A consciousness of your relationship with the other dancer is vital to make the most of the opportunity. Then when the whole set moves, equate this to the whole musical ensemble playing together, a moment when everyone is employed, and maybe a powerful moment in the dance such as the whole set circling round. The elements of musical scholarship are so closely mirrored in dance you could claim “that which makes good music also makes good dance”.
Although country dance has a largely concealed technique it does allows for moments of stillness, brilliance and drama very similar to music: it is all there for the taking. Too little of this is seen on most dance floors, even when observing those with decades of involvement in dance. Many appear moribund and perhaps with reason if they are doing nothing more today than they have been doing for decades. It is a sight that led a dancing acquaintance to remark that country dance seems to attract the inept. Stagnation and complacency are the greatest threats to the standards of the dance; rediscovery and constant reassessment promise it the brightest future.
Mediocrity has reigned virtually unchallenged in country dance for so long that you may be excused for thinking that the “Pills” have over-egged the subject. For this reason allow me to finish with one last comparison between music and dancing. In a television interview the pianist Vladimir Askenazy was asked what he found most difficult in piano playing. His answer was disarmingly simple. “Everything. This is difficult.” at which point he pressed down a single piano key, signifying that for him everything was considered and continually reassessed even, seemingly, the simplest of things. Would you doubt him? Of course not, so if not for music then why for dance? If you remain unconvinced just try it. Individually and corporately, it is up to us; if we don't do it for ourselves then standards in country dancing will continue to attract criticism. There is no one else, just us; it is our Personal Responsibility.
So ends “Pills to Purge Mediocrity”. I look forward to meeting you sometime on the dance floor with forward stance, carefully considered figures, and good ensemble. I wish you happier and happier dancing.