In triple minor dances the ones are very much the active couples; the twos and threes are just there to help the ones as needed. Sometimes the twos and threes are literally just posts for the ones to dance round. So only one couple in the room needed to know the dance: the others learnt it as twos and threes before they became active. But they all danced as ones all the way down the set and as twos and threes all the way up; everyone was active the same number of times. Susan de Guardiola, a historical dance expert from the States, says, “The evidence for staggered starts [just the first couple starting] is fairly consistent from first-edition Playford to the beginning of the 20th century, though from the mid-1810's a parallel tradition of simultaneous starts for quadrille-influenced country dances (couple facing couple, usually in circular form [Sicilian circle]) appeared as well. Applying that to standard country dances appears to me to be a modern invention.” And also, “There is some indication that another way of doing it was for the couple who called the dance (original top couple) and only that couple to be allowed to restart, which means they would get more dancing in than the last couple in the set. This has the virtue of keeping more people dancing longer and of putting that couple conveniently near the bottom of the set, which is where they would stand for the next dance. For practical purposes, it means you need to have a second couple who know that they do not restart, or the dance will never end.”
It was quite a different mind-set. It was the one time young people could be together without a chaperone — and only young people danced in those days. Just before she turned 33 in December of 1808 Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra:
Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected… The room was tolerably full, and there were, perhaps, thirty couple of dancers. The melancholy part was, to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders. It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago. I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then… You will not expect to hear that I was asked to dance, but I was — by the gentleman we met that Sunday with Captain D'Auvergne. We have always kept up a bowing acquaintance since, and being pleased with his black eyes, I spoke to him at the ball, which brought on this civility; I do not know his name, and he seems so little at home in the English language, that I believe his black eyes may be the best of him…
These days we'd say “why can't the twos and threes do the two-hand turn as well as the ones?” but they would have said “the ones don't need them to”. And secondly, being active was a chance to show off — and what's the point of showing off if the “inactives” are so busy doing things that they don't have time to watch you!? Susan says, “The only time you are really dancing is when you are an active couple. The rest of the time you are either standing out or helping the active couple. It's all about going down the set.” She quotes John Essex in “For the Further Improvement of Dancing” (translation of Feuillet, 1710): “…and so to come down from Couple to Couple till you arrive to the last Couple, where then all ye repetitions of ye last Couple are at an end, & that Couple Dances no more but when other Couples coming down in their turn they move up.” Jane Austen says the same thing: “She was not yet dancing; she was working her way up from the bottom, and had therefore leisure to look around…” (Emma, chapter 38). Susan also says, “I dislike meanwhile figures. Clutters the dance up and (from a historical perspective) detracts from the starring role of the active couple.” And yet another interesting quote: “People keep comparing this to modern circumstances where the goal is to keep everyone dancing as constantly as possible. That's backwards. The relevant comparison is to the formal introductory minuet of the 18th century when only one couple danced at a time. Compared to that, country dances done in historical style are a marvel of busyness while still allowing for plenty of showing off.”
George Williams from The States wrote in 2021 to ask me when England had changed from a staggered start to taking hands four from the top.
In the US all the non-Scottish Country/Contra dances I've been to start with all minor sets at once, not with just the top minor set (as I gather is the traditional way)… I gather from your interpretations page that this old style of starting is no longer common in the UK either. Do you know when the change happened on your side of the Atlantic?
He's implying that there's an unbroken tradition of country dancing from Playford to today. No there isn't. The country dance died out and was replaced by the Cotillion and Quadrille, then by couple dances like the Waltz and the Polka. A few country dances were kept alive by country folk, but polite society forgot about them until Cecil Sharp revived them. And polite society has now forgotten about them again!
There is conflicting evidence in Sharp's Country Dance books. round.soc.srcf.net/dances/cdb/cdb2/progressive quotes from The Country Dance Book Part 2:
The minor-set dance is one in which the Complete Figure in each Round is performed simultaneously by subsidiary sets or groups of two (duple) or three (triple) adjacent couples.
But when I pointed George to this, he pointed me to round.soc.srcf.net/dances/cdb/cdb1/minor which quotes from The Country Dance Book Part 1 a description of how a duple minor dance starts:
The top minor-set, headed by the leading couple, opens the dance by performing the complete figure, the rest of the couples being neutral. This results in the exchange of positions between the leading and second couple.
The second round is now danced by the minor-set composed of the second and third couples, of which the second one is the leading couple. The rest of the dancers, including the top one, remain neutral. This brings the leading couple down to third place from the top of the General Set.
In the third round two minor-sets will now participate, namely those consisting, respectively, of the two couples at the top (the second and third of the original set), and of the third and fourth couples (originally the first and fourth).
The dance proceeds in this way, the leading couple gradually moving down the General Set and bringing into action after each round one new couple, and after every second round a fresh minor-set. When, therefore, the leading couple has reached the second place from the bottom of the General Set, all the couples (with the possible exception of the top one) will be actively engaged, and will continue to do so until the dance is concluded.
That certainly is a clear description of a staggered start, and Sharp gives a diagram of the first 9 turns of the dance to make sure there is no mistaking his intention. He isn't describing exactly what happened in Playford's day, since at that time the dance would have gradually petered out from the top until the bottom minor set concluded it. I also noticed the final paragraph:
Expert dancers will sometimes constitute themselves into minor-sets for the performance of the first round, and thus avoid the gradual and somewhat tedious opening as above described; that is to say, they will omit the first six rounds in our first illustration and begin with the seventh round.
When I looked in my copy of The Country Dance Book Part 1 I found a very much shorter version of this section, which didn't mention staggered starts (tedious or otherwise) except to say at the end:
Amongst traditional dancers it is customary for the dance, whether duple minor or triple minor, to be started by the top minor-set only, and for the rest of the dancers to remain neutral until the leading couple reaches them.
I read that as saying “Traditional dancers did this, but we revival dancers don't”. Dancers in the villages probably had a lot more respect for their traditions than the gentry in the big cities who were only interested in doing “the latest thing”. And I think Cecil Sharp changed his mind.
I asked Hugh Stewart, who has been dancing with The Round for a long time, as were his parents before him. The Round was very much a Cecil Sharp Playford club for most of its existence. He said he has never encountered a staggered start, nor has he ever noticed any implications that it existed in revival times — for example in Elsie Oxenham's books. He assumes that revival dancers would consider themselves “expert” and always have everybody start together. Hugh's CDB1 transcription on The Round website comes from a single-volume copy dated 1909; mine comes from the Maud Karpeles revision of 1934.
One difference I've noticed between dancers in England and dancers in the States: in England as soon as the ones have only one couple below them they stop dancing and move to the bottom. In the States they keep dancing, with an imaginary third couple. This works well in almost all dances, and the ones end up progressed without having to think about it. It's even what Cecil Sharp originally recommended. In The Country Dance Book, Part 1, he says,
When the leading couple reaches the couple at the bottom of the set, the two couples together may perform as much of the Complete Figure as is practicable, and they must in any case change places. After this last change the leading couple will remain neutral for one round at the bottom of the Set, after which it will proceed to move up the dance as, alternately, third and second couple.
These days we take hands six from the top, but we still find it boring for the twos and threes. Modern American contras have gone even further — the dancers expect everyone to be active all the time, so not only are triple minors seldom danced, but nor are figures like “ones lead down the centre, lead back and cast off” — it's always “lead down in a line of four”. And if that's the situation, what can callers do about it?
Don't do the dance. Hundreds and hundreds of dances fall into the category of “not worth doing” (in my opinion). Look at Fallibroome 3 which contains 13 dances from John Johnson's “200 Favourite Country Dances performed at Court, Bath, Tunbridge, Scarborough and most publick Places”, published around 1750, and assume that Bernard Bentley chose what he considered the best of the lot — they're still a very tame selection by modern standards. Maybe they've got wonderful tunes: I don't know. Sometimes a caller will say, “Here's a dance that probably hasn't been done for 300 years” — and when you've danced it you can see why! It was safely buried by popular demand; why dig it up now?
This is a dance workshop rather than a dance interpretation workshop, but I'm not going to get you to do a dance that isn't worth doing just to prove my point!
Get the twos and threes doing more. Instead of the working couple doing a two-hand turn, let's have everybody doing it. Instead of the ones doing a figure eight up through the twos at the end of the figure, change it into a double figure eight. This is all right in moderation, but taken too far it spoils the shape of the dance. “Shrewsbury Lasses” starts with the first man stepping right and honouring the second lady, then left, and then turning her, which I think is a lovely sequence. But I've seen people dance it with the first man and second lady stepping and honouring each other, and simultaneously the second lady and third man doing the same, and then both pairs doing the two-hand turn. To me this destroys the pattern — the ones should be leading the dance. Pat Shaw's version of Holborn March has the ones set, then cast as the twos move up, and then both couples do a two-hand turn. I don't like this — it's the ones' moment and attention should be on them; the twos get to do it in the next eight bars. And it's usually impossible to do a good two-hand turn if everyone in the longways set is doing it at the same time.
Convert it to duple minor. (Take hands four instead of hands six.) This is usually the best solution if all three couples aren't dancing at the same time. Often the active couple get into middle place, do something with the threes, then something with the twos. You can use “twos below” and “twos above” and dispense with the threes, though you will need a ghost couple at the bottom of the set. The ones progress one place, as in a triple minor, so that presents no problem. It certainly makes it a busier dance for the twos and threes, but it's also more confusing for them — they're dealing with two active couples in each turn of the dance. I first learnt “contra corners” in an American triple minor, and was quite taken aback to discover this could be condensed to duple minor: “How clever”, I thought.
So let's try the traditional contra Chorus Jig first as triple minor and then as duple minor.
Now let's do the same with Orleans Baffled (which you probably know as triple minor) and Fair and Softly (which you probably don't know at all unless you dance in the States). Emily Ferguson says Orleans Baffled is a million times more fun done duple in her opinion. However, it's nearly as sacred at Hambleton's Round O (see later), so I'd better watch out when calling in the States.
Convert it to a three-couple set dance. All of the old three couple dances which you do three times in the three positions are adapted from triple minor: Fandango, Shrewsbury Lasses, lots of Fallibroome such as Miss Sayers' Allemande, most Apted, most Ashover. Anything which finishes with four changes at the top “and one extra change with the bottom couple” is a conversion from triple minor. Anything which finishes with the working couple in middle place casting to the bottom without any music: ditto.
Sometimes this last bit can spoil the dance. The Hop-Pickers' Feast should end with four changes at the top, four steps for each. For a three couple set most callers tell you to dance the changes unphrased, to allow time for a fifth change with the bottom couple — not nice. What I prefer is to use four steps for the first three changes, and then two steps each for the fourth and fifth; it's not difficult since these two changes are in the same direction, up and down the line.
There are other ways to convert to three couples. One (which I don't like) is that some point in the dance where the ones are supposed to cast to the middle place, they cast to the bottom while the threes move up and suddenly become the working couple. Another is to delay the ones' extra movement to the bottom until the next turn of the dance, which is fine provided the twos don't have to do anything right at the start of the figure. If for instance the dance starts with the ones doing a right-hand turn, there is time for an unobtrusive change, and this is what Scottish dancers do on the even turns of the dance (see later). The final time just stay there: it doesn't matter if you're not in your original starting place to honour your partner. In fact it has the advantage that if the caller repeats the dance (and most of us do), you find yourself doing things with different people. Come to think of it, some dancers wouldn't regard this interesting change as an advantage at all — they'd feel much safer repeating the dance exactly!
So let's try The Hop-Pickers' Feast and phrase the final changes the way I've suggested.
Another approach is to wangle a reverse progression; this is a Tom Cook trick, though “Shrewsbury Lasses” was there first. If you can somehow get the twos and threes swapped round, the ones can quite happily finish in middle place.
Let's dance The Chamberlain Election which shows this in action — when the ones cast up from the bottom to the top the threes and twos follow then to invert the set.
So my conclusion is that sometimes converting a triple minor to a three couple set can make the dance awkward; sometimes it works very well; it's something you need to think about rather than just throwing in “and the ones move to the bottom”. In Fandango for instance, the ones meeting at the end of the reels across and leading to the bottom flows perfectly well and most people would be surprised to learn that it has been added. In Shrewsbury Lasses the interpreters had to add an entire second B in which the threes lead the same movement from the bottom of the set — I think that's brilliant, but a dance historian would say it's quite wrong for the threes to take the limelight like that.
Convert it to a four-couple set dance. This is the RSCDS approach. A lot of Scottish dances were originally triple minor; many of them were 18th century English dances with a Scottish title. The style of Scottish Country Dancing now is very different from the style of English Folk Dancing now, and the Scottish style is actually closer to the way they danced in those days. I'd read that the conversion to four couples was started by Miss Jean Milligan (the Cecil Sharp of Scottish dancing) during the early decades of the 20th century as an efficient teaching technique, but Joan F. Flett and Thomas M. Flett in their authoritative book Traditional Dancing in Scotland (1964) say on page 232:
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the sets for Country Dances usually consisted of ten or twelve couples, and in one or two places in the Borders and Angus such 'long' sets were still in use at the beginning of the period covered by living memory. In most places, however, relatively short sets have been used for as far back as living memory extends; thus in Angus and Perthshire the number of couples in a set was usually five, in the West Highlands it was anything from four to seven, and elsewhere in Scotland it was almost invariably four.This is how it works. The top three couples do the dance, during which the ones progress a place. Now the same ones repeat the dance with the bottom two couples. After the end of the second turn the ones move unobtrusively to the bottom, while the top two couples are available to start the next round. So the dance is done eight times through; each couple is the working couple twice in succession (which gives them a chance to redeem themselves) and they have a rest before and after these two turns, which they may well need for Scottish since it's all danced. I think it's an excellent system. See my notes on English meets Scottish. I adopt this approach for Nine Elms and The Nobles of Betly in my book Playford with a Difference.
We'll do the classic Scottish dance Duke of Perth from RSCDS Book 1, first published in “The Ballroom” in 1827. I'm guessing that this was published in London but grabbed by the Scots because of the name.
Keep the triple minor format but convert it from a single progression to a triple progression. This is another Tom Cook trick. It works in dances where the ones get to the bottom and finish by casting up to middle place. Get them to cast down instead, finishing below the twos of the next minor set. Similarly if the dance finishes with four changes at the top, change it to three changes at the bottom and then a fourth change for the ones with the next couple below them. This means that ones stay ones, twos and threes alternate, just as in a single progression, but it has two great advantages. First, there are never any neutral couples provided you didn't start with any; there shouldn't be any confusion about when the new top couple come in or what happens at the bottom. Second, you whip up and down the set at three times the normal speed, so more people have a chance of being ones. The main area of confusion is the twos needing to move up above a couple they've had nothing to do with — the ones need to be positive at this point without being pushy!
Let's try Sackett's Harbor and then Al Olsen's triple progression version. Al's version, called “Almost Sackett's Harbor” is in Larry Jennings' book “Give-and-Take”, and the only difference is after the lines of three have gone forward in B2. Instead of lines falling back you all give two hands to your partner, first man pull, other men push, to join the next set and take hands ready to circle right ¾. At the top you have two couples circling right ¾ and the new top couple immediately become ones; at the bottom (assuming you started with no neutral couples) you have a spare first couple who immediately become threes.
And now the same with Hambleton's Round O — which I wouldn't dare try in the States, where they know and love the original version! For triple progression, ones do three changes with the threes and the final change with the twos below them. Or possibly Three Coney Walk. We might even finish off with a Wild Thyme classic: Wakefield Hunt. [The band, Contradition, were all previously members of Wild Thyme.]