BackPlayford for Good Dancers!

Chippenham Folk Festival, 1999

In his Saturday workshop Colin focuses on Playford and looks at what makes a “good” dancer — and that doesn't just mean getting to the right place ahead of the music!

Welcome to “Playford for good dancers!”

What is a “good” dancer?  Are you here because you are a good dancer?  Or you'd like to become one?  Or perhaps, as with The Emperor's New Clothes, you couldn't admit that you weren't one?

I believe there are many sides to being a good dancer, some of which I can't really teach.  Making sure your partner enjoys the experience is to me far more important than showing what a superstar you are.  Making other people feel welcome.  Getting a beginner through a dance without making them feel intimidated or patronised.  Looking as though you're enjoying yourself (I know I'm not very good at that), and encouraging other people to do the same…  But I'm going to focus on two aspects of good dancing today: dancing to the music, and knowing where you're going.  A lot of experienced dancers are better at the latter than the former; some of them don't seem to think timing matters at all.  So let's start with a couple of longways dances where the timing is extra important.

A Trip to Kilburn

Sharp: Country Dance Book

If the sequence were: “Ones cast to the middle, lead to the bottom, ones and threes circle left” there wouldn't be any problem: 4 steps for the cast, 4 for the lead, 8 for the circle.  But because the circle comes across the music it throws people, and then they want to squeeze the next “cast up to middle place” into the first A-music, so that they can start the second circle at the start of A2.  But that's not where it belongs.  You really do finish both A1 and A2 with the ones facing out of the set, ready to cast at the start of the next line of music.  It fits the music perfectly — but some people can't come to terms with it.  So trust me: None of the circles start at the beginning of the phrase.

The Siege of Limerick

Sharp: Country Dance Book

I love three-time dances, and I don't find them a problem (except when the caller doesn't tell us it's in three-time), but I know some dancers have difficulties with them.  Some people don't really believe that the figure-of-eight movement can be done in 4 bars (12 steps).  It's even harder for the first lady; as soon as she gets there she has to cast up again.  And I would like to add one more thing to her list of moves: I want the ones to make eye contact before they both cast up.  Some people will say: “Here he goes again — since he's been to the States he's always going on about this eye contact business”.  Well, to me it makes so much difference.  Are you here because you want to dance with other people or not?  If so, why can't you look at them.  The ones have done their individual solos for the first part of the dance — though you're still allowed to look at people as you go.  This is the point where they start working as a couple — and a quick glance to say “Here we go” makes all the difference.  It will also wake the man up if he's gone to sleep after his part, ladies.

This is a busy dance — there's no spare music at all.  But if you're a “good” dancer, surely you shouldn't need spare music.

The Chamberlain Election

Matthew Welch, 1767

Tom Cook has converted this from a longways triple minor to a three couple set dance, by having the threes and twos follow the ones as they cast up, giving a reverse progression.  The problem with this dance is the dramatic difference in timing between the first half, done to a one-two-three-hop, and the second half, done to a slow walk.  A lot of people can't come to terms with it, even when I tell them repeatedly how slow it is.  They are surprised at how fast the cross and cast sequence is, but they seem more prepared to believe that.  Surely if you're a good dancer you can instantly change your speed to suit the mood of the dance; it loses the whole point if you rush into the allemandes and have to turn twice round as if in an early version of “Nottingham Swing” to use up all the music.  And the timing of the final solo for the ones can also catch people out; it takes some skill to make this convincing, and give the feeling that the first man really is leading his partner back into the set.

Cecil Sharp House

Colin Hume

This is one of mine, in the Playford style, and I think it's the hardest dance I've yet written — even the introductions to the three figures are difficult.  It's a question of knowing where you're going, so let me give you five hints before we start.

  1. Assume the caller knows what he's talking about — until events prove otherwise!  Do what he says, and don't do what he doesn't say.  I know that sounds childishly simple, but all the callers here will agree with me that sometimes you say something and half the room do something quite different — you just stand there in amazement thinking “Why on earth did they do that?”
  2. Don't naturally drift into a standard position — that may not be what's required.  For instance, it's not a law of nature that when you do a two-hand turn you always finish with the man on the left and the lady on the right.  You'll see that in “Fain I Would” — it's a square, so of course she should be on my right.  I've seen men do the movement correctly, then panic and shuffle back to the left side because surely that's a safe place to be.  Not always!  People are used to standard formations, and many dances are full of “zero-movement” figures — they get you back where you started.  “Circle left, circle right” — I can call that at a barn dance without any problem.  But “Circle left 1¼, pass through” — suddenly people are unsure of themselves, and they drift uneasily until they reach somewhere they feel comfortable.
  3. If the caller says “Don't move yet”…  do I have to explain that one any further?
  4. Don't panic!  We all go wrong sometimes — it's OK.  In the early days of Eastbourne Festival I remember a sign on the wall or in the programme: “This is a dancers' festival — if you cannot get the dance right with one walkthrough, you may be asked to leave the floor”.  I don't think it was ever applied, or the caller would have been calling to an empty hall by the Monday afternoon — but this is Chippenham anyway.
  5. And finally, in one of my dances, expect the unexpected!  You all know what a square is; you all know what half a reel of three is — but not many squares involve half reels of three!

Measured Obsession

Fried Herman

Someone who was very insistent about timing — and much else besides — was Fried de Metz Herman.  This is one of hers — again it's in three-time — and she's very specific about how long the movements take.

On Tuesday, December 15, 2009, Nicole Salomone from Lindenwold, NJ wrote:
Hi - it''s me again.

I was just looking at your Playford for Good Dancers page. I was quite dismayed to see a serious lack of - well - Playford dances. Or even Henry/Purcell dances.  Or even contemporary to 1651 - 1721 dances.

I understand that the style can be duplicated. But out of 1,200 dances, Playford had numerous ones that were best suited for the advanced dancer: Newcastle, Faine I Would, St. Martins, and Milk Maids Bobb (from his 1st edition) automatically spring to mind. I''m sure there are many more.

Just a thought. 
On Sunday, September 26, 2010, Colin Hume from Letchworth, England wrote:
Nicole -
Sorry I'm so late responding to your feedback.  I don't see what you mean.  A Trip to Kilburn is from the Dancing Master of John Young, 1728.  The Siege of Limerick is from The Dancing Master of Henry Playford, 1698.  The Chamberlain Election is from 1767.  So the first three are in the period 1651-1728.  Yes the remaining two are 20th century, but they are in a style which would have been recognised by dancers of the earlier period, and I don't believe the people attending the workshop felt that they had been cheated - it was a convenient title to tell them what sort of session they might expect.