BackThree-time dances

I love three-time dances.  A lot of them have gorgeous tunes, and to me a lot of them have an emotional impact which I don't find so much in jigs and reels.  But some people don't like them, or possibly have never come to terms with them.  I know a woman who simply goes to pieces at the thought of a three-time dance — it really is a phobia and you can't be rational with her about it.

The first thing to say about three-time is that it's not a waltz.  Yes, a waltz is in three-time, but it has quite a different feel to it — it's faster, and there's more emphasis on the first beat.  In a waltz you push forward on the first beat, and the second and third steps are smaller, at least in England — in the States they teach a waltz with all three steps the same length.  In musical terms a waltz is always written in 3:4 time; a three-time dance is normally written in 3:2 time, and the band would (to put it far too crudely) play each bar as “oom-cha oom-cha oom-cha” rather than “oom-cha-cha”.

  Sing “My Bonnie lies over the ocean” and “Orleans Baffled”, and demonstrate both types of dance to each.

So, when you're moving to three-time you have three almost equal steps.  I still tend to emphasise the first step more, but not as much as a waltz.  I sometimes use down-up-up with my feet — it depends on the dance and the music — but I don't believe your head should be bobbing up and down.  The movement needs to be smooth and flowing.

The second thing about three-time is that you have a different number of steps for the movements.  If it's a jig or a reel and the caller says circle left, it's a fair bet that it will take eight steps.  But in three-time it will probably take either six or twelve steps, and I believe the caller should tell you which.  So either it's fewer steps than you're used to, or it's more — and both can present problems.  There are people who are so conditioned to think in fours that they're constantly caught out and take the extra step which should really be the first step of the next movement.  And there are people who do a turn in eight steps and then wait for the band to catch up.  Neither of these counts as good dance style!  The trick is to get where you're going as the music does — neither ahead nor behind.

  Show the different feel of:

             Mr Beveridge's Maggot              When Laura Smiles
  Orleans Baffled  The Pride of Newcastle
  Michael and All Angels  An Enchanted Place

Saint Margaret's Hill

Original wording at
Modern interpretation by Bernard Bentley in Fallibroome 1.
You can also see my interpretation here though I wouldn't dare to call it in the States where Bentley's version is considered a classic!

A beautiful dance and tune, with one or two traps for the unwary.  You're thinking in terms of 6 steps for most of the moves.  The ends need to be ready to receive the ones in those lines across the hall.  Many people tell the ends to move in, ready for the lines to fall back, and maybe in a crowded hall I would agree, but if you've got the room it's much better to use it, otherwise when you've fallen back and moved in again you'll be too close together to make a good circle.  The ones shouldn't have to look for a hand on each side of them as they finish the ¾ turn — they should be there.

Ones, as you turn your neighbour you need to be aware that you're going straight into a turn with your partner — and you've only got 6 steps for each.  As usual, the answer is to give weight rather than scrunch up the turns.  It's tight to go from the turn into the lead down and cast up and fit it into 6 steps, so you need to have finished the turn and be facing down in those six beats, then drive off positively on the first beat.  And it's vital that you finish the half turn knowing where you're going next.  “Left-hand turn your right-hand neighbour” is confusing, so make sure you're ready for it.

The final half turn for everybody should be done in unison — a bit of teamwork to end what is basically a ones' dance.  Six beats means you can take your time and fall back slightly at the end.

This may seem like far too much detail, and I wouldn't say all of this when I called it at an evening dance — but if you want to be a stylish dancer you need to be aware of these points whether the caller mentions them or not.

Up with Aily   Top of page

Original wording at
Cecil Sharp's interpretation at dances/cdb/cdb6/aily

Sharp set this to the tune “The Hare's Maggot” which is in 3:2 time.  The original tune is a slip-jig, which is also three-time but a very different three-time, and the dance feels completely different.  The original also doesn't have as many bars in the A-music, so it's just three steps forward in a line and three steps back to place — no gathering and no placing back.

Lots to think about in this one.  Sometimes you've got three steps to go hardly anywhere; sometimes you've got six steps to go a long way.

I like the first man falling back one step on the diagonal as the other two curve round to meet him in the line; it gives them a little further to go, it gives the man a movement, and it means they can advance three steps without banging into the second lady.  No doubt other callers will tell you that's totally wrong, but that's one of the beauties of English Country Dance — it's not formalised the way some other types of dance are.  But I do find that even though I stress one step, some people then fall back for three steps — I don't understand this!  Again when the ends return to place you could do it in one step — but you've got three beats, so please use them all.

I do the turn singles upwards (men left, ladies right).  Sharp doesn't say this, and most people do them to the right.  I picked up the idea in the States, where the caller referred to it as the egg-beater effect, and I think it makes a lot of sense.  In Playford's day they were more likely to do a turn single to the left anyway, so don't tell me I have no right to change it!

When the B-music starts, the dance changes completely and you're struggling to fit everything in.  You've got to move with conviction, the twos need to keep those turn singles small, and give some weight in the circle — or you just won't get there.  This is one of those cases where the technique isn't just an optional extra, to be slotted in once you've got the dance going well.  Without the technique it never will go well!

The Pride of Newcastle   Top of page

Pat Shaw, 1963.  See the instructions at

When I look out dances that are good for teaching technique, most of them seem to be by Pat Shaw!  Here's another one — this time in 9:8 time.  That's known as a slip-jig — think of it as a bar-and-a-half of jig time, unlike normal three-time which is a bar-and-a-half of reel time.  So instead of two steps to the bar — “one-and-a-two and a-one-and-a-two and a-” you get three: “one-and-a-two and a-three, one-and-a-two and a-three”.  It's another dance to be danced rather than walked — and it really shocks me that people will dance it to a skip-change step.  Why?  Because it doesn't fit the music!  In jig time or reel time, the unit is two bars: “right-two-three and left-two-three”, so you start each unit on the right foot.  A Scottish teacher would insist that you start on the right foot; English isn't laid down so formally, but I'd still start on my right foot unless there was a good reason not to.  Listen to the tune and I'll count out a skip-change step.

Can you hear that it doesn't fit?  Yes of course you can do it, but although you may be dancing to the beat of the music you're not dancing to the phrasing of the music — you're doing what the Western Square Dancers do, which is fine for Western Square, but if you do it here you're not a good dancer as far as I'm concerned.

So what you need is single-skip rather than skip-change.  “English” dancers in the States tend to walk a lot more than even we do, and when they dance it's always a single-skip rather than a skip-change, but in England the single-skip seems quite rare.  Try not to make it lolloppy — don't wave your arms about and don't bring your knees up too high.  Just try it to the music.

Pat specifies that some moves are done to a walk and others are danced — for the skipped parts you really have to go for it, and give plenty of weight in the turns.  If you just walk you won't get there — it's as basic as that!

The only part I do differently from Pat's instructions is that he gives 9 steps for the star promenade and 3 steps to turn as a couple.  I think it works much better with 6 and 6.

Mary K   Top of page

Gary Roodman, 2002.  A great tune by Dave Wiesler, and as usual Gary Roodman comes up with a dance to fit it perfectly.  The dance is dedicated to the memory of Mary Kay Friday from Washington DC — dancer, caller and organiser.

It's a driving tune, but you lose the momentum if the men rush the first part and then do a slow half-turn with their partner.  The idea is that the turn propels the ladies into their cast, and it's just wasted on some people.  Men, make sure you go round the next man half-way through your casting — passing right shoulder with him — and you won't be tempted to get there too soon.  I know I've said it before, but being early in a dance is just as bad as being late.

Don't forget that the circle left half-way and fall back (if time) are only six steps, so you really need to push the circle round and not fall back too far — it's no use still moving backwards when you're supposed to be crossing over.

And the final miniature grand square — to good dancers this is what makes the dance, but some people will never get it!  You must make it square, rather than just drifting vaguely round in a circle, and you have to move with confidence, particularly as there are only three steps per side.  Just remember that both times start with the twos falling back from their partner as the ones lead toward the appropriate twos and then follow them three steps behind.  I don't want to call it all the way through; I want you to dance to this wonderful music!

Well-Hall   Top of page

Henry Playford, 1701.  People have real trouble timing this one, and yet to me it makes all the difference.  You have four bars (12 steps) to do the right-hand turn 1½ and face up.  No, you shouldn't already be casting!  But equally you shouldn't have rushed the turn so that you're standing still facing up at the start of the fourth bar.  At the start of the next four-bar phrase you look at your partner and you both cast for two bars (6 steps) and then do the Hole-in-the-Wall cross for two bars (6 steps).  Surely that's not too much to ask.  For me the hardest part is for the second corners to use the six steps for the clover-leaf turn single without getting there too soon and being forced to stop before the corners cross.

I want a big circle with small steps to go round half-way and yet fill up the music.  And I don't want the ones to deform the circle by pulling it in part-way through so that they can face their partner very close, give a cute little tilt of the head towards their partner and then cast. Ugh! That's not English and it's not good dancing — it's saying “Never mind the twos or the circle: just look at us, aren't we wonderful”!