I do Folk Dancing because I enjoy it. I like putting my arms round the women and giving them a swing. I like the elegance of the Playford dances: the patterns, the figures. I like a fast-moving American Square, where you don't know what the caller's going to throw at you next. I like the complexity of a Pat Shaw dance, where each movement dovetails into the next and you're always thinking. And I'm quite happy doing “Cumberland Square Eight” at a children's dance, because I like kids too.
Go to a Barn Dance — a one-night stand for a group of people who've never done it before — you'll be in no doubt that they're enjoying it, even if they're making a complete mess of everything. The same at a Scottish dance — they whoop and holler, applaud, smile. But go to a Dancers' Dance in England — especially a Playford Dance… they may be enjoying it, but an outsider would never guess. Very straight faces, not a hint of a smile — all very prim and proper (and English). A little polite applause after each dance before they “have a rest”, but it isn't done to show any real enthusiasm — after all, this isn't a ceilidh!
I disagree with this attitude completely — and as a result I'm sure I annoy some people because I don't treat it as deadly serious. That doesn't mean I mess things up for the other dancers, but I get in there and enjoy it. I make remarks to people in the set, or even to the caller. I might wear a silly hat. I might overdo the flourishes when honouring a lady in a Playford dance. I might give an unexpected twirl to someone in a right and left grand. And possibly people object because I'm then changing it from a cerebral activity to real human interaction — I'm forcing them to realise that I'm a human being and not a cog in a big machine. Modern Western Square dancers can be even worse — they're so busy reacting to the calls they wouldn't notice if I was wearing pyjamas.
So always remember — the purpose of dance technique is to enhance your enjoyment of the dancing, and the enjoyment of other people in the set. Never get so wrapped up in the technique that you lose sight of that. There's a comment in my “Dances with a Difference, Volume 3”: “If you're not enjoying your dancing, what on earth are you doing it for?” Hugh Stewart makes the same point in his excellent booklet Elements of English Country Dance : “For goodness sake if you don't like dancing then go away and do something you do like instead”.
So here are some dances that I enjoy — let's see if you can find the enjoyment in them too.
Dorset Four-Hand Reel (Traditional English, CDM5)
I know it's not a difficult dance, but with a set of four people who enjoy it it can be an exhilarating experience. If you crave complication, put two sets together and do interlocking reels. If that's not enough, try the Dorset Twelve-Hand Reel which finishes with three interlocking reels and six-hand stars in the middle; that really is a challenge.
Well-Hall (Henry Playford: Dancing Master 11th Edition, 1701)
A beautiful flowing dance with a beautiful three-time tune. For me the enjoyment comes from dancing with a good partner and fitting the whole thing to the music. But some people don't know what I'm talking about, or just can't be bothered to find that magic moment when you finish the turn 1½ together at exactly the same time, and then cast in unison. Many people seem to be afraid that they will be late, so they rush the end of the turn in order to have a bar to spare before they cast off. If they can't see this, I don't suppose I can say anything to convince them of it.
Heidenröslein (Pat Shaw)
A square in waltz time, again with a beautiful tune, and again for me the enjoyment comes from working together as a group — particularly when people do the star for three bars and then fall back on the fourth.
Fiddle-Faddle (Jim York)
A great American Square which cleverly gets you into two stars — one men, one women. I do the version where you switch from one star to the other and back again before the men pick up their partners for the star promenade.
Pioneer Polka Quadrille (Ted Sannella)
The only American Square I know where you take your partner in a ballroom hold and polka round. If it hadn't been by Ted Sannella I wouldn't have believed it!
Gathering Peascods (John Playford, Dancing Master 1651)
First edition Playford and great fun — provided people dance it with a bit of oomph rather than approaching it with the reverence they feel it demands. There's always someone who forgets to get into the inner circle and is left behind while they all slip past him.
Devil's Dream (CDM6)
The favourite contra dance in England — and a non-starter in the States because it doesn't have a swing! Lively, all-action, fun — a great finish to the evening with some driving reels from a good band.
Michael and All Angels (Fried de Metz Herman)
A stunning tune by Purcell, and a stunning dance set to it by Fried. The triple-time dances somehow have more emotional impact. For four years I ran a New Year's Eve dance in Letchworth where I live, aimed at people who wanted a good evening of dancing rather than “fun” dances, and we always finished with this one. It would be wasted on some people.
Morpeth Rant (Traditional English, CDM1)
There's a feeling among dancers in England these days that “we're too old to do rants”, but it's all a question of attitude. I've found that if people are sitting down and I say “Longways sets for Morpeth Rant” there's a groan and a general feeling of “Oh no, I don't want to exhaust myself ranting” — and they stay sitting down. So I always do it after another longways, usually a gentle Playford one: “Stay there and we'll do Morpeth Rant” (without any hint of apology). And almost all the people will stay on the floor and do Morpeth Rant and enjoy it. People live up to your expectations — or down to them. If you're enthusiastic and you tell them that something is a great dance and they're going to enjoy it, they probably will.
Another trick is to do “Roxburgh Castle”, and after you've explained the “trace the turrets” movement say “That's all done to a rant step. Oh, didn't you know it was a rant dance? It's in the CDMs”.
See also the notes for Enjoy Dancing Better