BackDancing without Fear



These notes were first used at the Reelfolk Day of Dance in Cumbria in 2019.  As usual I didn't get through nearly as much as I'd planned — only up to “ Reel in C#”, though I called “ Pentonville” and “ Foxhunter's Jig” in the evening dance.

The workshop description was:

Nobody wants to go wrong and mess up the dance for themselves and other people.  But we all do at times!  Colin will teach some interesting dances and give lots of advice on how to understand what's going on and how to survive when things go wrong.

Nobody likes to look stupid; we want to enjoy our dancing but we hate going wrong.  So here are some suggestions to remove the fear, or at least cut it down to a manageable level, and some dances in which to put these ideas to the test.

My first bit of advice is — don't get so worried about going wrong.  In my experience the people who progress quickest are the ones who cheerfully say “I don't know what I'm doing — just push me in the right direction”.  They're willing to learn.  But there are other people — often men — who are used to knowing with they're doing and don't like it when they're thrust out of their comfort zone.  Maybe they manage a staff of twenty people at work, but here they're suddenly insecure and worried that people will find them out.  They hide at the bottom of the hall and hope the caller won't see them.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the psychology bit, but if you really are nervous about all this I recommend the book “Feel the Fear and do it anyway” by Susan Jeffers which you can buy new for around £7 and second-hand for half that on-line.  It's very readable and it has lots of practical advice.

Next suggestion: Sit near the top of the hall and dance near the caller.  The caller isn't on an ego trip to prove that he's better than you; he's not out to pick on you and ridicule you.  Some people accuse me of that, but it isn't true — though some dancers in North America seem to feel that any criticism of the way they're dancing amounts to public humiliation.  I'm sorry if I come across that way.  I'm trying to help you understand how the dance works, and help you dance with more style.  I realise that if you're fairly new to this, the style is low down your list of priorities — you just want to get through the dance.  But there are times when dance technique isn't just a bolt-on extra, it's something which enables you to get through the dance.  If I say “You need to dance this bit” or “You need to give some weight in the turns” I really mean it, but some people just won't listen; they plod through it and then simply can't get there in time.

It helps to have a clear understanding of the various formations.  One of the commonest is “Longways for as many as will”, but that can come in several varieties.  For Playford-style dances (and many others) it's called Duple Minor (though you don't often hear the term), in other words you take hands four from the top and you're either a one, working your way down the set, or a two, moving up the set.  The worst place to be is one couple from the top or the bottom.  If you're the second couple in a longways set you dance it once as a two, then you're neutral at the top, then you're in as a one and you won't have walked the ones' part through.  If you're inexperienced, ask the top couple to change places with you, so that you can be a one all the way down.  Good dancers will never object to this.

Far less common is Triple Minor when you take hands six from the top.  The ones are working down the set as before; the twos and threes are working their way up the set and alternating numbers.  I'd hope the caller would be very clear about this, and walk the dance through twice, but you never know.

For American longways dances (known as Contras) by far the commonest formation is Duple Minor Improper, though again you probably won't hear the term used.  What you'll hear is “Hands four from the top and the ones improper” (or in the States it's sometimes “Ones, threes, fives and every alternate couple cross over”).  Actually in the States the dancers will take the formation for granted, and if it's a rare Proper contra the caller will need to say repeatedly “Actives, do not cross over”.

The other longways formation you'll meet in American Contras is Becket Formation which simply means that instead of being opposite your partner you stand on the same side of the set, facing across to another couple.  The progression will involve moving round to the right or left, and going across at the top or bottom.  And that brings me to an important point.  Once you understand the progression, if things go wrong you can get to where you should be in time to start the next turn of the dance.  Don't get stressed about it, just say to the other couple, “Sorry, I got confused.  Can we wait for the next turn?” and then go to your progressed position and wait.  If they insist on trying to get you through it anyway, just make sure that in the last few beats you move into your progressed position, rather than standing bemused on the wrong side of the set where it's difficult for anyone to help you.

I still need to do some more talking, let's put some of this theory into practice!

The Cuckoo

See the instructions here.

As soon as you take hands four from the top you should be thinking “I'm a one” or “I'm a two”, and probably also “I'm a first corner” (first man and second woman) or “I'm a second corner” (exercise for the student).  Quite often the ones do a move and then the twos repeat it.  Or in this case it's first corners and then second corners.

As you're walking it through, try to see the logic of it.  A dance isn't just a random set of figures strung together.  Also notice the progression.  Cecil Sharp always says progression at the crucial point, though in some modern dances it's not at all obvious.  I'd never realised why Sharp was so insistent about that until I started writing these notes, and then it occurred to me that if you're new to this it's something to cling on to.  “I have progressed.  I was there — now I'm here”.  That happens when the ones cross and cast and the twos lead up.  For the first time everyone is moving to a new position, and maybe that takes you out of your comfort zone.  The ones have no-one to cling on to — it's a leap of faith.  The twos can at least take your partner's hand, so provided one of you is positive you'll both get there.  Ones — don't think of it as “cross over with your partner and face them”.  You don't face them, you just continue the way you're going and round the corner without a backward glance.  You're all progressed, but the ones are improper — on the other side from where you started.  And immediately the ones do a half figure eight up through their ones.  In a full figure eight you can actually visualise the “8” shape you're tracing on the floor, but a half figure eight is a much more common move.  So remember the vital rule: The purpose of a half figure eight is to change places with the person you're doing it with — in this case your partner.  You're crossing up through the twos, and again going round the corner without a backward glance.  Now you're progressed and back on your own side, where you want to be for the next turn of the dance.  But before you start again there's a circle left in your original four.  I'd like a slip-step, and you need to give some weight and drive the circle round or you won't get there in time.  And while you're circling you're thinking “OK, I've finished with this couple; I'm about to dance with the next couple”.  Some people don't consider this: they're so relieved to have got through the dance that they hope the band will play a little background music while they adjust to their new position.  If you were singing, you probably would get a twiddly bit between verses — but not in a dance!

John's Folly

See the instructions here.

Now I'd like you all to choose a different partner — yes, even you — and form up in a different formation: three couples longways.  These come in two varieties.  If it's an old set dance (or a new one in the old style) there probably won't be any progression, and it will often use the three “Playford” introductions.  Once you're confident with these and “set and turn single”, you may already know half the dance!  I hope to come on to those later.  If it doesn't have these introductions it's probably a modern dance, or an old triple minor converted to a three-couple set, and there probably will be a progression.  Again, be aware of this in the walk-through: “I was there, now I'm here”.  Then if all else fails you can get to the right place for the next turn of the dance.  This is one of mine, with a “standard progression” — the ones finish at the bottom while the twos and threes move up one place.  Less common is a “reverse progression” — the threes finish at the top while the ones and twos move down one place.  And there are mixers, where you have a different partner for each turn of the dance — but let's not worry about that now!

It starts with a circle at the top going into half a reel of three.  The circle is no problem provided you give some weight and draw the person on your right.  But going from that into the reel of three (also called a hey for three) can be disorientating, so let's walk the hey first, ones passing right shoulder with the twos to start, and then we'll do it from the circle.  For practise, let's walk a full hey for three, — that's easier to explain because you all finish where you started, but it's not how the dance goes!  Half a hey means the ends have got to the other end and the middles are back in the middle.  Now let's try it coming out of the circle.

If you're going with the flow, it should be natural for the second circle (at the bottom) to go to the right, and for the second reel to start left shoulder, but some people just see a dance as a collection of unconnected moves and are then surprised to find things really awkward when in fact I wrote it that way to be helpful!

A roll-away has to be done with conviction.  You're moving forwards and changing places with your partner, and giving weight isn't an optional extra — you need to do it in order to get there in four steps.  Feel the tension in your arms, roll her with energy — and for heaven's sake catch her as she goes by, or she'll roll completely away, into the next set or the wall!

Some people lose confidence when lines have to fall back.  If the hall is very crowded I agree that you need to be careful, but even if there's lots of room some people still shuffle back apologetically.  Don't do that!  And the final two-hand turn is easy, so try and make it a nice open turn with your arms reasonably straight — but again be aware that the dance will immediately start again with the new top two couples circling left.

Another jig will do

See the instructions here.

Change partners again — don't go back to your original partner, there are many others available — and we'll try an American contra in Becket formation.  The tune is traditional Irish, and its title is very Irish because another jig certainly won't do!

  Listen to some of the tune and I hope you'll see why not.

It's called a slip-jig, and it's a bar and a half of jig time.  A bar of jig-time might be “dubberdy dubberdy” whereas slip-jig is “dubberdy dubberdy dubberdy”, so you're thinking in threes — please don't try and do 9 steps to the bar!  This generally means you have less music than you expect, so moves that usually take 8 steps (like a circle or a do-si-do) only get 6 steps, and this fools the experienced dancers all the time — if you're new to all this you're at an advantage here.  So the forward and back is only 3 steps for each — or rather 2 steps and feet together.  But after that Mike Richardson is being kind — the circle is only ¾, and you get about 9 steps for the do-si-do leaving about 3 steps for the allemande half-way — in fact you could make it 8 and 4 which would be absolutely standard.  Don't bet on that in other dances to a slip-jig.

Once again we have a hey or reel, but this time it's only 5 changes.  Do you panic at the thought of counting up to 5?  Do you miscount because you didn't notice the others doing a sneaky change while your back was turned?  The secret is not to count but to know where you want to finish, and that applies to so many moves.  In the walk-through, try and note where you finish a move.  With “circle left, circle right” it's obvious.  With “circle left ¾, pass through” it's not so obvious.  But if you're aware of that in the walk-through you'll soon feel more confident.  In this case it's “until you meet your partner”, and if you can't tell the difference between one change and five changes I don't think I can help you!

If you've been taking in what I've been saying, by now you should be thinking “But where's the progression?”.  OK, I cheated.  The progression actually comes right at the start of the dance — as the lines go forward and back you move left to face the next couple — but If I'd done that people would immediately be out for the rest of the walkthrough.  So we'll dance it the first time the way we've just walked it, but thereafter we'll move left as the lines go forward and back.  When you're thrown out of the end of the set, just face in with the man on the left, and at the start of the next you slide to your left, round the corner, to join the other line.  Let's dance it!

Flights of Fancy

Dance by Susan Kevra to a tune by Bill Tomczak.
See the instructions here.

More heys, but this time it's cross heys.  Don't panic!  If everything around you seems a blur, try and step back (figuratively speaking) and see the whole picture, rather than feeling like a cog in some fiendishly complicated machine.

Twos and threes are just doing a reel of three on your own side, and it's a mirror reel so the simple rule is “take your partner's hand at the ends and let go in the middle”.  If the ones were just leading down the middle to start it would be what in England we call a “Grimstock Hey” — in fact let's do that first.  But in this dance the ones are crossing down through the twos (not crossing over at the top) so the man is doing the hey with the ladies, lady with the men.  Notice that you've just done a right-hand turn half-way, so the first man can hand his partner down into it.  This was a very standard move in 18th century triple minor dances, and would always be followed by the ones crossing down into heys on their own side, but in this dance that doesn't happen — the ones finish home but still improper.

The rest is easy, except that the ones' cast to the bottom is across the music so all the experienced dancers will get there too soon!  Don't let them infect you with this disease.  There's a general fear of being late, and the result is that many people are always early.  You've got 4 beats for the setting, 8 steps to cast to the bottom, 4 steps for the two-hand turn half-way to get back onto your own side.  Don't worry that the twos and threes have already started their turns — they've got further to go!  What I want to see is everybody doing half a turn on the last four beats of the music.

Reel in C#

Dance by Tony Parkes, 1976, from his book “Shadrack's Delight” published in 1988.

C# is the main dance pavilion at Pinewoods Camp.  Tony says: Pinewoods is one of the few places I would dare to use this dance, which is suitable only for serious learners at a workshop. But don't let that scare you off — he just means that most American contra dancers wouldn't get through it.  I've called this at the “Beginners” class at Cecil Sharp House (another C#) and it went fine.

Not only is it triple minor, the ones are improper.  In a triple minor dance the ones move down the set one place each time; the twos move up one place, and the twos and threes switch numbers.  Don't worry about it, just accept it: remember, this is Dancing without Fear.

Again we have two reels, but this time they're parallel reels: both are right shoulder at the top, left shoulder at the bottom, so don't try to hold your partner's hand!  And the golden rule with a swing in all modern dances is to finish with the man on the left, lady on the right — just open up the pointy end and you're there.

At the bottom of the set, where the ones have only one couple below them, the boring approach is for the ones to move to the bottom and do nothing for the next two turns of the dance.  In most cases a much better approach is to do as much of the dance as you can using just two couples, and in this dance you can do the whole figure — the grand chain will only need four hands rather than six to go all the way round.  The other thing the ones need to do during their turn out at the bottom is to switch sides, since they will be coming in as threes and the threes need to be proper.  Equally at the top the couple about to be ones need to switch sides to become improper, but here I don't recommend dancing it as a two-couple set because that will progress you and therefore confuse you!

The Bath Waltz

See the instructions here.

Does the fear grip you when you hear the word “Waltz”?  Don't panic, chaps, you don't have to put your arms round a woman and get close to her in this one — that may come later in the day.  What you do have to do is take three steps to the bar, but I want the first step to be a big one and the second and third to be small ones.  Of course it also depends how far you need to travel.  The figure starts with a grand chain, but you need to take small steps and make sure each turn is a curving movement rather than a pull by, whereas later there's a “turn contra corners” move where you have to cover more ground — though you still don't need to rush it.

The other move I haven't mentioned yet is a poussette, where you and your partner move as a unit with one pushing and the other pulling.  I particularly hate the “pseudo-poussette” where one person pushes and the other just bends their arms.  I want some tension in the arms — not ramrod stiff, but not floppy — and please move with confidence in the poussettes rather than the person being pushed doing little mincing steps — presumably for fear of hitting someone.  It's up to the person moving forward to look out for obstacles; if you're the one going backwards you just have to trust your partner.  It'll be your turn to push later!

Ones, as you get into middle place at the end of the fourth poussette, you think “Progression — I was all over the place; now I'm here”.  You're about to lead a “contra corners” figure.  Look on your right diagonal to find your first corner, and move towards them confidently for a right-hand turn all the way.  Now back to your partner for a left-hand turn 1¼.  Don't let the fear grab you as you contemplate a fractional turn!  You're going to the other person in the opposite sex line.  I know it's less clear when there are ladies dancing as men, but so long as you don't grab someone in your own line there really isn't any choice.  And back to your partner for a left-hand turn 1½.  If all else fails, get back to your progressed place, where you all started the contra corners move.  It's a reverse progression, in the order 3 1 2.  And be aware that there is enough music for each of those turns; you don't have to scamper round.  But also be aware that the next turn of the dance starts immediately, with the new ones facing their partner and the old ones who are now twos facing down to the new threes.

The Bag Lady of Falls Church

Download the instructions here.

We met “contra corners” in the last dance, and it also turns up in Scottish, Traditional English and American dances.  It was originally a triple minor figure, but in American Contras it's almost always condensed to duple minor, making it busier for the twos who have to deal with two active couples.  And this time ones go to your partner first for the right-hand turn.  If you're a one, it helps to know who your two corners are as you start the contra corner move with your partner.  Look on the right diagonal, then on the left diagonal.  That's easy in the walk-through, where you're standing still while the caller describes the move.  The trouble is, in many dances with this move you've only just got to the proper side and you may not be able to cope with looking at two people in a fraction of a second while starting to turn your partner.  So you have to go by places not faces.  Right-hand turn your partner just over half-way and look for a stationary person in the other line.  It's nominally someone of the opposite sex, but you often get women dancing as men, sometimes men dancing as women, so just make sure you're turning someone in the opposite line from yours.  Then back to your partner for a right-hand turn, again just over half-way, and again left-hand turn someone in the opposite line.  If you're a two and you're feeling confident, look to your right for the first left-hand turn and to your left for the second left-hand turn, which is exactly what the ones are doing.  If you're not so confident, face into the set so that you can see people on both diagonals, stick your left hand out and turn anyone who comes at you!

This is a double progression dance, so stay awake at the ends and change sides with your partner as soon as you're out.

Pentonville

Dance by Ron Stirrup of the Camping & Caravanning Club Folk Dance Group, Leicestershire.

First published in Camping and Caravan Club Folk Group Dances Volume 3, but also available in Hugh Stewart's excellent The Country Dance Club Book which I would recommend to any new caller looking for a good and varied source of repertoire with many useful tips on how to call the dances.

This dance is a real leveller — the experts go wrong as much as the newcomers.  Just be aware that you have a new partner for the left-shoulder do-si-do and that you go straight from one star to the other — that's all I'm going to say!

Foxhunter's Jig

See the instructions here.

One of mine, and there aren't any difficult moves in it, but it's busy — it's another dance to a slip-jig so you only get 6 steps instead of 8.  If you're new to all this you have the advantage — your brain isn't full of years of dancing to tunes with 8 beats!  Just accept the fact that you've really got to move with conviction in this dance, rather than ambling about.  The sneaky progression occurs when you go down in the line of four, turn, come back and bend the line.  So the final four changes are still with that same couple, but you're already in position to start again with a new couple.

The Beggar Boy

See Cecil Sharp's instructions here, though he's uncharacteristically ambiguous in B2 of the second figure where he says “Repeat B1, to places”.  Playford's original refers to “First and last” rather than “First couple and third couple” so I think he's talking positions. not numbers, which means that the circle left is at the top both times.

So here we have the three standard “Playford” introductions — get used to them: you'll meet them in dozens of different dances.  Cecil Sharp didn't know what “sides all” meant so he invented “Cecil Sharp Siding”, whereas nowadays a lot of people believe that into-line siding is what they did in Playford's day.  A good caller will tell you which kind of siding he wants you to do.  If you want to learn more, see my page on Siding which has links at the bottom to similar pages by Hugh Stewart and John Sweeney.

The Country of Marriage

See the instructions here.  Another dance by Susan Kevra, this time an American contra, and her suggested music is Beaumont Rag which has a different feel from standard American reels.

Why do new dancers get confused and disorientated?

Actually I could also ask, “Why do old dancers get confused and disorientated?”.  I know people who have been dancing for years and still don't seem to grasp the structure of a dance.  They stop on the wrong side of the set.  I call out “Get back on your own side” and they don't even realise I'm talking to them.  I know I sometimes get confused when I'm dancing, but I still know which side to finish on!

I think with new dancers there's just too much stuff coming at you.  If you're a baby learning to walk, your mother doesn't expect you to learn to play the piano at the same time.  I've danced with new partners who were really embarrassed and apologetic at going wrong, whereas I had time to look round the room and see that many other people were having even more trouble.  My real advice is to keep at it.  Everything is difficult before it's easy.  There was a time when none of the experienced dancers here knew what they were doing — and some of them… No, let's leave it there!  If you sit out and watch, you can see who the good dancers are — there are two in the band for a start, though they're busy today.  [The band was Norman and Denise Bearon.]  Ask a good dancer to dance with you.  Not the ones who go in for the flashy stuff — they're just out to impress you and everybody around them — I'm talking about the really good dancers.  I know that takes courage, particularly for a woman, but it will certainly improve your dancing.  A good partner will help you when you need help, without pushing you into a move that you already knew, two bars ahead of the music.

So my words of advice to finish this session: Just keep at it, remember that it doesn't matter if you go wrong provided you learn from the experience, and keep in mind the motto: Feel the Fear and do it anyway.