BackDancing with Finesse

Sidmouth International Folk Festival, 1993

  The Little Nightingale   (Pat Shaw: New Wine in Old Bottles)

On paper, this is not a difficult dance.  Typical Pat Shaw — it flows beautifully from one movement to the next, with no awkward turns.  But also no spare time; no forward and back, or set and turn single.  You've got to be on the beat — or you'll be late.

The star must go exactly once around — I know it sounds obvious, but some people don't do it — they drift around, blithely confident that in any self-respecting dance a right-hand star is surely going to be followed by a left-hand star.  The corners must turn half-way in four steps, and be ready for the next movement.  The two-hand turn half-way for the ones is natural — both times you open out with the man on the left and lady on the right — but if either of you faces the wrong way, there's chaos.  Many people's approach is: two-hand turn half-way, right, done that — they let go of their partner, step back on their heels — then think about what the next move involves.  That's not dancing — and it's not going to get you through this dance.  You've got to be there, on your toes, ready for the back-to-back.  Rather than thinking that a figure moves you to a particular place, think of it as moving you through that place, and on to the next place, and so on.  And then the circle: dead easy — except that like the star you must move it all the way round in eight steps.  You've got to give some weight; you've got to be positive about it.  And the final movement — backing up with your partner — really disorientates some people.  They don't like going backwards, for one thing.  It was all right when it was the second half of the back-to-back — but this time you're turning through 90° before falling back.  Do it with confidence; don't look behind you or stumble backwards in fear and trembling.  And the final problem is changing from a two to a one.  Because it's a double progression, you don't have a whole turn out to study what the ones do.  You've got to work it out while you're dancing as a two.  Again, it's thinking ahead — which a lot of English dancers don't do.  Let's try some more turns of the dance.

  More of the same

Have a seat — I'm going to talk for a few minutes.  And if you'd rather talk to your partner than listen to me, can I suggest that you'd find it less crowded outside.

“Dancing with finesse”.  Finesse is really another word for technique.  But technique has a bad name — it's perceived as artificial and boring.  So when Wendy Crouch and her team were planning the syllabus for the Playford module of the EFDSS Recognition System they chose the word “finesse”.  A bit of style — the things that make the difference between merely getting through the dance and doing it well.  Though as we've seen, without the finesse you don't even get through some dances!  The Recognition System has attracted criticism from people who think we are trying to create an elite, to exclude people, to standardise everything, to force everyone into the EFDSS mould.  All we are doing is trying to help people to dance better.  And that's what this session is all about.  I hope you enjoy it too — and we hope people will enjoy going to the sessions of the Recognition System.  But there's no compulsion to go.

[Wendy Crouch became Wendy Knight, and the EFDSS Recognition System became GUSTO — an independent training organisation — but everything I've said still applies.  Wendy is now dead, and I doubt that GUSTO will continue without her.]

I went through “The Little Nightingale” in detail, explaining what I saw as the important points.  And some of you may be thinking: “Well, if we need to know all those things just to get through one dance, what chance have we got of really being good?”  But in practice it tends to be the same few points that you need again and again.  Giving weight.  Finishing off the movements properly.  Being ready for the next movement.  Not getting disorientated.  Thinking ahead.  Once you've got the idea, it's while you're doing the walkthrough that you can spot the problems — that's a tricky bit, to get from this movement to that position — that's rather quick, and so on.  I know a lot of people regard the walkthrough as a chance to chat up their partner, or somebody else's — and that's fine if you're sure you can both do the dance well.  Some callers are wonderful at pointing out where the problems are going to be, and how to get round them — John Lagden was, for instance.  Most callers simply aren't that good, or don't think it's their job — it's up to you to work things out for yourself.

So, let's try an interesting experiment.  I'm going to pretend to be a bad caller.  I'm not actually going to do anything wrong — that would be stretching your credulity too far!  But I'm not going to give you the useful tips that I otherwise would.  Imagine it's Club Callers' Night at your local club, and here's Joe Bloggs coming up to the microphone.  He calls one dance occasionally, because he's the club treasurer and his wife thinks he ought to.

Bash bash — is it on?  Oh, er — longways sets.

  Help — Al Olson, Zesty Contras

[I tried calling it without the usual helpful tips, but it caused complete chaos!]

It's called “Help”, and it's by Al Olson — but of course a bad caller wouldn't tell you that!  Not a difficult dance, but one or two traps for the unwary.  The ladies chain up and down is fairly unusual, but it shouldn't give any problems.  Circling ¾ always fools some people.  If you do a swing followed by a promenade, I don't see any point in changing to a cross-hand hold — the man's got his arm round the lady's waist and she's got her hand on his shoulder — they're well-connected, so why break contact?  Similarly if you do a lady's chain followed by a promenade you might as well keep the hold.  In fact contra dancers in the States always use this position for a promenade — I went to a Western Square Dance class at Pinewoods last year and Bob Dalsemer had to explain to everybody what a cross-hand promenade was!  But the thing that really establishes whether the man is dancing with finesse is this: after the left-hand star, did he keep hold of his partner's hand to pass her into the ladies chain with the new couple?  Or did he think: “Ladies chain?  That's no business of mine — I'm a man”?  English social dancing is working together — with your partner, and with the other members of your set.  If you want to be a solo dancer, try Clog, or Disco.

  A few more turns

I shall now stop pretending to be a bad caller.

This business of leading — I know some feminists object to the notion of the man leading the woman, and I know that plenty of women are better dancers than their partners, but I've never had a partner who objected to me leading her.  In a dance, that is.  Of course, if I forget where I'm going I hope she will lead me.  Leading doesn't have to be a tug on the arm; it can be such a slight movement that the other dancers in the set can't even see it.  And you can lead without touching — just by a look in the eye or a movement of the head you can convey the message “We are going to cast below the twos” or “reels of three across”.  I can't explain how it works, but I know it does.

  Miss de Jersey's Memorial — Quartet, Pat Shaw, 1971

Another complicated longways dance, in waltz time.  “Oh no, not waltz time!  I can't waltz — I've got the wrong number of legs!”  No excuses accepted.  All you have to do is three steps to the bar, and make the first one a bigger step than the other two.  And in this dance you don't have the terrifying ordeal of actually putting your arms round your partner and waltzing around as a couple.

You must give weight in the turn 1½, and you must move to get through the straight hey — make sure your body's curving round, not moving in an angular or jerky way.  I find the hardest bit is the twos getting into the right place for the circle — the last time I danced this and changed number I got it wrong!  And yet it's perfectly logical.  You do four changes of a straight hey, which gets the twos back into the middle, then the twos do a fifth change but the ones don't join in!  The bit where the ones and twos separate isn't difficult, but very few people do it with conviction.  Of course it works better if you have plenty of room.  The ones should surge down the room — then change hands and continue surging down even though they're going backwards.  And the twos aren't just waiting for them to come back; you've got your own movements to do.  And then again, the final movement, going backwards — do it with confidence!  As you turn your back on your neighbour you've noted where he or she is, so there shouldn't be any more danger of colliding than in a back-to-back.

There are two approaches to an Advanced Dance Workshop.  One is to do simple dances, but take the time to put in the style and finesse that might otherwise be missed.  The other is to do impossible dances, as a mental challenge.  I suppose I've been part-way between the two so far, but I'm aware that I have the “impossible dances” reputation so I'd better put one in.

Some people feel that if you're doing a difficult dance there's no time to worry about technique — you're too busy just getting the dance right.  I think that's looking at it the wrong way round.  The technique is what enables you to get the dance right, even though you've never met it before.  Seeing the problems during the walkthrough, giving weight, finishing off the movements, helping each other…  You have to reach the stage where the technique becomes automatic — where you don't have to think about how to circle left ¾ or do five changes of a straight hey.  Then you can concentrate on doing the dance.  It's like an artist having to learn how to mix the colours before starting to paint, or a composer knowing the rules of harmony and orchestration before writing a symphony.  The finesse needs to be there inside you — not just something that you do at a Workshop occasionally and then discard because you're going to a “proper dance”.

  Two Left Feet — Pat Skelton, The Cantii Collection

A couple of final points.  Some people never learn — either the dance or the finesse.  You can call a longways dance through six times, stop calling on the seventh — and some people go to pieces.  I've had people sit down, and indeed leave the dance, because they got to the end of the set and I stopped calling.  And this was a dance where the ones and twos did exactly the same.  They thought I was failing in my job — they said my job was to keep calling all the way through.  I think I would have failed if I'd kept calling.

And last but not least — the purpose of finesse is not so that you can impress an audience — that's not what English social dance is about.  It's to make the dance more enjoyable, for you, your partner and the rest of your set.  If you want to learn more about figures and dance technique, may I recommend Hugh Stewart's excellent booklet “Elements of English Country Dance” which you can also read online at  And as he says there: “For goodness sake if you don't like dancing then go away and do something you do like instead”.  So get out there and enjoy your dancing — with finesse!