BackLearning dances

Dancers in England are not good at learning dances, and many callers call the whole time.  I don't know which came first — whether callers keep calling because they know the dancers won't remember, or whether dancers don't bother to try because they know the caller will keep calling — but I think it's a real pity that most dancers take no responsibility for learning the dance during the walkthrough or (for a repetitive dance) during the first few turns of dancing it.  I believe that people dance better if they know what's coming next rather than blindly following the call, and I'm very pleased when I can shut up and let people dance to the music rather than the sound of my voice.  Of course back in Cecil Sharp's day it was very different — you went to classes to learn the dances, and then you went to a dance party and just danced them, without any caller.  And Scottish is still done like this — people are expected to learn the dances.

So if learning a dance is a new skill to many dancers, what advice will help you to do so?

I tried this out at my Wednesday Workshop in 2005, and at my House Party weekend in 2008, and I expect I'll be trying it again at a Festival some time.

I asked for comments about this topic on the ECD Mailing List.  Most of the replies talked about what the caller should do to help people learn dances rather than what the dancers themselves could do.  Click here to read the entire thread — my initial message is actually number 2 in the list because David Millstone had the wrong date on his computer and thus jumped to the top of the list!  So I paraphrase (with thanks to all the people who responded)…

From the Caller's viewpoint…

You must be willing to stop calling, even if there is a small amount of chaos at the start.  Some people will not try and memorise the dance unless you actually stop calling.  Let the other dancers help them out, and be ready to start calling again if the chaos becomes too great.  You should be able to judge when the dancers don't need you.  Some calls are obvious and can be dropped sooner — you don't need to say “Circle left” and “Circle right” after a few turns, just “Circle”.  Sometimes the best training for dancers is calling — it forces them to think about figures earlier than they might on the dance floor.

Victoria Bestock in Seattle gives several reasons why it is good for the caller to shut up as soon as possible.

If this sounds very alien to you, and it probably will to most of you, then read my article on Teaching the Kinesthetic Learner in the CDSS magazine a few years ago.  It's a different orientation than most callers have, and since kinesthetic learners take longer to memorize dances, and do it by getting their bodies to teach their brains instead of the other way around, it makes sense for callers to teach in ways that support them and not the faster learning computer-heads.  The goal is to get the whole group dancing independently of the caller as quickly as possible so they are dancing to music, and not to instructions.  Even though there will be more computer-heads on the dance floor, you don't have to worry about them, because they learn sequences as lists or maps very quickly.  It's the slow learners you want to bring along so the whole community is learning the dance.  For those who learn slowly, by feel, by repetition, the more explaining you do, the less they are learning.

Kinesthetic learners look like irresponsible slow learners at first, because they learn by feel and not by thinking.  They learn sequences by the feel of how they link together, not by memorizing them or thinking about them.

By minimizing the words as Colin suggests (even though he himself is one of those highly spatial people who thinks in patterns — just look at the beautiful and highly original dances he's created — and learns by getting his brain to teach his feet instead of the other way around) the time between sections is reduced and the ability of the dancer to flow from one bit to the next is increased.  For the kinesthetic learner, the purpose of the caller is to get the dancers to move correctly from one chunk of the dance to the next without stopping, and to associate the move and the music.  Thinking isn't needed or used.

Being aware of what other dancers are doing is extremely important and is not something that many callers stress.  I watched a Scandinavian dancer trying to learn a 3-person hey, and though he knew he needed to make a figure eight on the floor, he had no idea of the interrelationship of the three parts and would often cut off another dancer not knowing that there was a pattern to the interrelationship as well as the design on the floor.  Spatial dancers will see the patterns and interrelationships most of the time, and think in foursomes in a duple minor.  They have more trouble thinking in terms of the whole set, but can learn to watch each other and do so.  It makes the pattern pretty — something they enjoy.

Kinesthetic dancers may not have maps of the patterns, but they unconsciously watch other dancers for the size and shape and feel of a movement, and match that beautifully, creating a wonderful sense of togetherness.  Dancing is something we do with other humans.  We connect not only individually to the music, but also to each other.

To answer Colin's question (about how to get people to learn dances) in a totally different way, I think one way we teach people to learn dances is simply to expect them to learn them.  We don't have that expectation.  We expect that the caller will do a detailed teaching or walk through every single time a dance is done.  What we have learned is to become dependent.  I keep thinking that after 20 years of ECD in Seattle, people would be able to dance Fandango or Mad Robin without a review.  But even the very experienced dancers aren't learning the dances.  Maybe this is what Colin is experiencing and is the reason for his class.

At the Experienced Dancer dances I'm running once a month, I usually schedule one very popular dance, done at the end of the break with no teaching.  It would have been taught many times before at regular dances, and perhaps reviewed the week before.  I'm hoping that people will start remembering dances after they've done them for a while, and develop a repertory of dances that doesn't need to be walked through in great detail for each couple each time the dance is taught.  We could spend more time dancing to glorious music and less time standing and listening to the caller if we'd do that.

Paul Stamler agreed, and added:

It's very easy to always call everything and super-teach everything (including having every couple walk through everything from every position), and to not bother encouraging people to learn dances, especially in groups with a continual influx of beginners.  But there's a point at which that holds back the group, and teaches the beginners not to really learn things.

It was a revelation for me when I saw Joseph Pimentel's way of teaching “Fandango”.  He put the least experienced couple at the head of every set, walked it through once for them, and told the others to “watch the person who corresponds to you”.  In a room that was half rank beginners, that worked like a charm.  And after they'd all danced it (well) to his calling, he had them do it again, with no calling at all.  Which they did (well again).

Trevor Monson said:

Even though I like calling dropped down/off as soon as possible, one habit that dancers complain about is in a 3 couple dance, when a caller walks the dance through slowly the first time, a bit faster the second time, and then says the third couple should have picked it up by their turn (often with the horrible comment that the third couples all look intelligent enough to have picked it up by then!)

On dancing it to the music the caller then calls every move for the first couple, drops it down a bit for the second couple, and then stops calling altogether the third time through (as everyone knows it by now).  The poor old third couple don't get a walk through, and then don't get any help when attempting to dance it when it's eventually their turn.

The caller then wonders why the dance has fallen apart!!

Tom Vincent said that in this case the caller should have walked it through three times, and it was up to the dancers to demand the third walkthrough if they felt they needed it.  Cammy Kaynor disagreed with Tom on the second point — he said that dancers often underestimate their own abilities and also the amount of assistance the music and the band can provide.  It's one of the caller's jobs to assess whether the dancers will be able to manage without further instruction.  Cammy is not willing to cater for the “perfectionists” who want to spend ages walking the dance through in detail; he feels that in many cases they will learn more quickly by just getting in there and doing the dance.

Emily Ferguson lamented the fact that contra dancers never learn any dances at all, and don't even know what they're called — they just follow instructions long enough to do the sequence of figures, then erase, install a new sequence, dance, erase, etc.  Emily is right (though I'm not convinced it's a bad thing), and it brings out the point that when we talk about “learning dances” the phrase has two different meanings.  I believe English Dancers in the States have a core repertoire which many of them know reasonably well, because they dance them frequently (though Victoria obviously doesn't think so).  In England there doesn't seem to be any core repertoire any more; all the callers are teaching new dances.  But I was really thinking of the case where the dancers aren't even capable of putting the sequence into their short-term memory!

In this session I'm going to ask you to try and learn the dances — if you're not willing to do that, the whole thing is doomed to failure.  I'm going to take different approaches to teaching the dances — some with a conventional walkthrough, some with just a talk-through, some where the band just starts playing and you follow the call.  I'll be asking you which you found helpful and which you didn't — I'm learning this by doing it as well!

During all these dances I was asking people for their reactions — what they found difficult, what they found helpful, whether the whole workshop was a waste of time, and so on.

Mount Hills   (Fallibroome 2 / John Young)

After the above brief introduction to the session I called this.  No walkthrough or talk-through — the band started and I called it.  And why not?  There are no difficult or unusual moves in it.  The first time through I pointed out that the twos did exactly the same in A2 as the ones had done in A1.  The second time I just said “Twos”, and cut the rest of the calling down dramatically; the third time they were on their own.  No-one went wrong, and they were dancing with style rather than just getting through it.

After that I sat them down and explained my ideas in more detail, as in the six bullet points above.  People seemed interested, and asked a few questions or made points.

Helene's Night Out   (Claudio Buchwald, Hudson Barn)

I walked A1 through, and asked them to guess what was coming next.  This emphasised that A2 started like A1 but the second half was different — and therefore needed to be remembered.  I told them that B1 started “Slip out with neighbour” and of course they guessed that it continued with “Slip in again”, but there's nothing obvious to guess after that.  I told them that unless they knew the dance they wouldn't have any chance of guessing the remainder, which again meant they were going to have to remember it.  Ones leading up is most unusual at this point, and it's not a move you will just flow into — you need to be ready for it.  In fact the whole of the second half is very busy, with no time to go wrong and then correct.

The first new couple to become ones had trouble, but after that it went very smoothly and I stopped calling quite soon.  It was good to see that the dancers were helping each other over occasional lapses of memory.

Of course there are hundreds of dances with a very predictable pattern, and I could have called several of these to show people how much of the dance they actually could guess, but I tend to do more complicated dances at my Wednesday Workshops.

I generated some email correspondence on this approach of guessing what comes next.

Fae Fuerst didn't see the point.

When I wonder, as the ones cross straight over and go below, will this be the cliché half-figure 8 up, or something else?, that doesn't seem like an attitude worth encouraging.  There must be other ways to get people to pay attention to the connections in the dance.

Gene Murrow said:

Depends on which parts.  In Indian Queen, for example, after the walk-through prompt of “1st diagonals set forward, turn single back to place, two-hand turn” I might say “2nd diagonals, guess what?”   But I agree with Fae that in her example “1's cross and go below,” the “guess what” question isn't useful.  Whenever possible, I agree with Colin that it's a good thing to encourage (by various means) our dancers to learn/internalize the dances.

Ruth Scodel said:

Any dancer with even a little experience should be using conventions (Up a double/Siding/Arming) and symmetry/repetition to organize dances mentally (“chunking”) and so make them easier to remember.  The caller can easily remind dancers of these, as in Gene's “Guess what?” in Indian Queen.  But the other big element in learning dances is momentum.  Many of the best figures are best precisely because they are not predictable but still flow, or because they turn one kind of movement or pattern into another (like the lines of four in Mr. Isaac's Maggot or Dublin Bay — here we all are suddenly together!).  I think of the dances I like most as stories that have plot development.  Good dancers don't necessarily try to guess what the next move will be, but they know what will be second nature and what won't.  If it turns out to be obvious, they immediately combine it with what precedes as a single unit in memory (cross/go below/half 8 is one item); if it's a surprise, they mark it as a salient item to remember.  But callers can't really point out everything that is predictable, or likely even if not predictable, or surprising.  The question is how we train dancers to do this efficiently and persuade them that it's more fun if we do.

Terry Gaffney said:

I think Colin's question is very good when addressed to people who know what they are doing.  You have a new dance, you hear the tune, you start the walk through — cross over and go below — what comes next?  Well there are a couple of possibilities, but based on what's gone before, and the music, there may only be one optimal possibility, and it's good to understand why.  In “Prince William” after the 1s cross and go below, you could have the ones do something involving a half figure eight, but given that you've just finished a hey, and way the music feels, a two hand turn seems just about right.  Of course, the caller can only use such questions if there is a good case for the answer being unique.  By the way, I think it is often the case that in the best dances the figures seem to follow inevitably from each other. “Smithy Hill” is a good example.

For people who don't know what they are doing, then used as Gene suggested, it's still useful.

Judith Hanson said she thinks I try to anticipate moves because I'm a choreographer, and she would recommend this as a useful exercise for “young” dance composers, but she doesn't find it useful as a dancer.  In fact at the next Wednesday Workshop I asked people for their opinions, and none of them thought it was any use!  But I'm pleased to report that Bruce Hamilton was at my House Party weekend in 2008 and he agreed that it is a useful technique.

So it seems there's not a simple “right” answer — I believe it helps me as a dancer, but other good dancers obviously don't.

King's Maggot   (John Young)

I warned them that I was going to call it three times (I was doing it as a three-couple progressive dance) and then they'd be on their own for the second three times.  I walked it through carefully, with a musician playing the melody line as they moved, explaining how the dance fitted the music, and that there were four bars (12 steps) for each line of music.  I pointed out the similarities between A1 and A2, between B1 and B2, between C1 and C2 and then that D1 and D2 were really a continuous phrase of eight bars with no similarity between the two halves.

The great majority felt that having a musician play during the walkthrough did not help, in fact was a positive hindrance.  I know dancers in the States will be aghast to hear this!  Possibly it was because none of us was used to this approach, and the music was being played too slowly.  In a three-time dance you sometimes need to take bigger steps (because you only have six rather than eight) and the music did not encourage this.

Fae Fuerst commented on this:

A little music during the walkthrough can be very helpful, especially in dances with tricky timing, but I agree that it's an advanced tool and in the wrong hands it's just distracting.  A more reliable approach in all weather might be to play the tune once through before the walkthrough (no repeats, or even skip the B if appropriate) so the dancers can at least get a sense of the tempo and mood.

John Berger pointed out that the caller can give the musicians a clue by saying things like: “OK, let's walk that much, starting with the cast at the beginning of B1” and can give them a definite cutoff.

Gene Murrow said:

As noted, it is a very tricky business, and depends on the instrumentalist.  As a caller, I think it's great (though not essential), provided:
  1. the musician knows the dance, or at least how many bars of slip jig music are needed for a “cross and go below”, for example
  2. the musician is in a position where s/he can see the dancers
  3. the musician can hear the caller (often not the case!, as the caller's microphone is not fed into the monitor mix)
  4. the caller and musician agree on a clear set of hand signals for starting, continuing, stopping, slowing down, etc.
As a musician, I love providing this kind of back-up to callers, as the challenge of it enhances my pleasure in playing for the dancing and contributing to a good time for all at the event.  All this is another good reason to encourage our musicians to dance regularly!

Jonathan Sivier made similar points.

Dunham Oaks   (Brian Wedgbury)

I gave a talk-through but did not call it at all.  I stressed making sure that the circle and the star went all the way, the pause between leading forward and passing through, taking four steps for the turn single, and not forgetting the back-to-back.  Everybody danced it without any problems, though someone pointed out afterwards that the talk-through would have meant a lot more if the dancers had heard the tune beforehand, so that they had something to hang the moves on.

Separate Paths   (Al Olson, Zesty Contras)

I emphasised looking on the left diagonal for your shadow in A1 and your partner in B1.  I made sure they understood who they should line up opposite at the end of the figure.  People had more trouble with this one than any of the others, and a suggested reason was that there were two similar left diagonal movements.  The first was a ladies chain; the second was a right and left through and the men seemed unwilling to go there!  On the other hand each of these moves was preceded by the same move straight across the set, so that should have given people a clue.

Mayfair   (Colin Hume, New Dances for Old)

I told them it was a Playford-style dance, in which you finish in the other couple's place at the end of the A-music in all three figures, and asked them to guess the A part of the three figures.  After they'd guessed the “Forward a double and back” in A1 I told them about the pass through and cast away.  This should give them the structure for the introductions to the first two figures.  After they'd guessed the arming I pointed out that if they finished it right shoulder to right, “pass through” was not a good option, so I explained the casting movement and then got them to work out B2.  I talked through the remainder of the figures, and when I called the dance I didn't call the A part at all, beyond saying “Second figure” and “Third figure” to remind them that they were on their own here.  People still got confused in the casting movement, so the second time through I did call that.  Part-way through the walkthrough I expressed concern that instead of a workshop on learning dances this was becoming a workshop on composing dances, but nobody complained.

A Trip o'er Tweed   (Fallibroome 2 / John Young)

I talked it through (after letting them hear the tune) but didn't walk it through, though I did call it.  In the talk-through I emphasised the similarity between A1 and A2, and the fact that B1 started similarly but in reverse.  I asked them to visualise the final part, where the first man draws his partner up and round the top lady.  It collapsed the first time through — and I agree that the drawing is a very odd movement!  (Later I looked at the original wording and decided it was a wrong movement — see my interpretation here.)  I demonstrated the move, and after that it went fine.  We then danced it three times without a call, and after some other people had switched in we did the same again, without any problems.  I was certainly aware of the concentration in the room, and I suspect I wouldn't have got away with some of these things with a more average group of dancers.

Melanie Axel-Lute said,

Just a thought (not a seriously considered opinion): For a set dance, where you are in a different position each time through and do different things, a talk-through might be more useful than a walk-through.  If you can visualize the entire dance from a talk-through, so that you see how all the bits fit together; that could be more useful than just walking one position and then having no idea what to do when you're in a new spot.  I realize not everyone could do this.  I'm a visualizer (and sometimes annoy my partner by staring into space during a walk-through, as I “see” the dance in my head), but it would be a good thing for all dancers to make the effort to see the dance as a whole, not just their own part.  When I teach a set dance, I try to point out how the whole dance goes, which to me would make it easier to do and to remember.  For example, in Shrewsbury Lasses, to point out how the second B, where the threes cast up, is a mirror image of the first B.  I know some people don't want to hear that — they say they learn only by body memory — but although that works OK for contras and some longways sets, I think it's a lousy way to learn a set dance.

The Introduction   (Fried de Metz Herman, Fringe Benefits)

I walked it through with a solo instrument playing the tune — this time up to speed.  I pointed out that A1 and A2 were identical, so there was less to learn.  The diagonal crossings are not difficult to remember, provided the middles open out at the end of the left-hand star.  And of course the ones have to know who they are for the lead up: this should give the others enough clues for them to remember the remainder of the dance.  I called it the first four times, dropping the call down as soon as possible.  We repeated the dance without a call.

The Elephant's Stampede   (Lorna MacDonald & Gillian Mackintosh)

This is a Scottish dance in Square formation, and the last sixteen bars use a figure called “Schiehallion reels” (which first appeared in the dance “Schiehallion”).  I explained and walked through this figure carefully, and when I called the dance I just said “Schiehallion reels” at this point rather than trying to explain who was going where.  I emphasised being aware of what other dancers are doing and seeing how the whole thing fits together.  I explained the structure of the dance: the men reach their new place at the end of B1, the ladies join their partners at the end of B2, and the Schiehallion reels take you all round the set, one place anti-clockwise each time, back to this new place.  One or two people were not good at the concept that all four of the same sex have to cross the set at the same time — you need to give way to the person to the right of you, but you can't afford to wait because the person on your left can't cross until you're out of their way.  It was an energetic end to the evening (I know — I was dancing too!) and I felt the whole thing went very well.

Here are those I didn't have time for — so this is what I would have done…

Spin Chain the Gears   (Kathy Anderson)

The only complicated part of this dance is the MWSD move of the same name.  I walked the whole figure through for heads and sides, but explained that when I called the dance I would just say “Spin Chain the Gears” and they would have to remember that part.  Of course I improvised breaks as well, but they're used to that.

Chicago Challenge   (Al Olson, Zesty Contras)

I stressed the similarities of B1 and B2, and the fact that the end of the dance goes straight into the next turn with everybody facing the correct person for the balance and swing.  I tried to help them see the whole picture — that the progression has happened at the end of A1, that the start of A2 turns the minor set half-way round and the end of B2 turns it back again, with B1 just filler as far as changing positions is concerned.

Delia   (Ellen Taylor, Hunter's Moon)

Talk-through only — no call.  I emphasised being aware of the active couple — the ones — as this helps everybody to hold the dance together.

Strawberries and Cream   (Colin Hume, DWAD4)

I walked them through A1 and then invited them to guess A2.  I pointed out that the lead away was unexpected and therefore they must think ahead.

Maggie's Waltz Square   (Colin Hume, 2001)

I walked them through the first four bars and then invited them to guess the next four (which are identical).  I explained that the next four bars got them to their starting place for this turn of the dance but improper, so they knew where they were aiming for, but that the heads and sides did two different things and switched over for the third and fourth times.  I declared that the rest was easy.  I gave a minimal call.