BackDancing with Music

I believe that dancing to the music is important, and makes the dance more enjoyable.  Of course, first of all you have to be able to hear the music!  Most clubs dance to recorded music, and often it's much quieter than live music would be.  If you ask them to turn it up, they'll say “No, we won't be able to hear the caller”, but that's obviously not true, as you can see at any Saturday dance with live music.  I'm afraid the real reason is that to a lot of club callers and dancers the music is unimportant — it's the caller's voice they're dancing to, not the phrase of the music.

There are in fact a few dances which are danced unphrased, such as Drops of Brandy or “Stoke Golding Country Dance” where different sets take different times for the Strip the Willow, but normally each move has its own bit of music — and normally it will be 8 steps (4 bars or measures).  Think through “The Fandango” (Apted Country Dances), for instance.  The right-hand turn is 8 steps.  The cast is 8 steps.  The same timing for the next 8 bars.  The circle left is 8 steps, and so is the circle right.  I would probably take 8 steps to lead to the top and acknowledge, then 4 steps to cast to the middle and 4 to turn single, though you may choose to consider this as one continuous movement of 16 steps.  The turn with first corner is 8 steps, as is the turn with partner.  The next two turns together take 16 steps — in England we tend to do the turn with second corner in about 5 steps (since it's not a complete turn) and use up the remainder for the turn partner.  The figures of eight are 16 steps.  The reels of three and lead to the bottom are 16 steps.

To be even more precise, it's usually 7 steps to do a movement, and 1 beat to prepare for the next, such as taking hands for a circle or a poussette.  You don't want to stop dancing between two figures you are doing, by putting your heels down and letting your whole body sag; you want the punctuation between the two figures to be a comma rather than a full stop (period).  This preparatory beat is called an anacrusis or up-beat, and you will see good dancers using it frequently.  If two dancers are crossing, for instance, on the anacrusis they will rise up and perhaps take a step back, so that on the first beat of the bar they are ready to move forward positively.  On the other hand, if you've finished a figure and you're not involved in the next figure you do want to finish with feet together and weight over the feet — but you still don't want to sag!  You're part of the dance whether you are moving or not.  Even when you're neutral at the end of the set, you're still part of the dance.  I've seen people sit down for the next turn of the dance, which I would only do if I was really tired.  It confuses the next couple, who think they are about to reach the end of the set and suddenly find another couple materialising beside them — usually a beat or two late.  And of course there are many dances, particularly modern American contras, where you're not really neutral — your shadow may suddenly want to do an allemande left with you, for instance.

Despite this general rule, my view is that sometimes you want to flow from one movement to the next, and sometimes you want more punctuation.  A Grand Square is punctuated every 4 steps: 3 to move, and one to turn a quarter — you shouldn't just drift through it.  A right-hand turn half-way followed by a turn single left is the same; you should give a slight acknowledgement to your partner between the two rather than drifting into the turn single before you've finished the right-hand turn.  But a two-hand turn followed by a circle of four should flow seamlessly.

Bruce Hamilton is very much against counting in English dances, believing that the cure is worse than the disease, but I certainly find it helps the dancers to count things out for the first couple of times.  That's me counting out loud, not you.  I've also seen Bruce do an interesting exercise where he taught us a simple dance, pointed out that there were no beginners on the course so we didn't need to make early moves to help them, and then asked us to take hands only on the anacrusis.  Some experienced dancers simply couldn't do it — they were always ahead of the music.

Of course, a figure may not always be 16 steps, and the caller may not tell you (though he certainly should).  “Dublin Bay” (Fallibroome 1) has a strange number of bars for the first part, and if you don't know the dance well you just hope the caller is giving the timing clearly — and you learn by your mistakes.  My dance Ted meets Pachelbel has a two-hand turn going into a circle of three going into a circle of four, and these three movements just flow on for 16 steps.  You don't want to break it up into punctuated units, but you do want to fit the whole thing into that piece of music — maybe 15 steps to get there and 1 beat for the ones to change hands ready to lead down through the new twos.

All I've talked about so far is dancing to the beat of the music; there's also dancing to the style of the music, which I'll come on to later.

House Party Weekend, November 1998, with Wild Thyme playing the music

I dare say I'm best known for doing workshops of fiendishly difficult dances and just about getting people through them.  If that's what you're expecting you may be disappointed with this workshop and the first workshop tomorrow — so please let me know what you think.  The trouble is, if you're doing a really complicated dance you may not be able to do it with much style, and you may just ignore the people you're dancing with and the music you're dancing to.  I try to give a good clear call at just the right moment, but I sometimes worry that people are totally dancing to my call, and if the band packed up and went home — or just left John Blomfield to play a steady beat on the tambourine — nobody would really notice.

The music is vitally important to English Country Dance, whether we're talking Traditional or Playford styles.  But so often it's undervalued.  I'm going to try a few experiments while you're dancing, to see if I can make you more aware of the music and the functions it performs.  Of course the music is there to provide a steady beat — or at least a beat.  It sets the tempo, which can totally change the feel of the dance.  And it sets the mood — which is much harder to quantify.

One thing which I could do, and usually don't, is to get the band to play the music once through while the dancers are forming sets.  It's useful for various reasons.  It enables the caller to judge the speed; he can say (when they've finished) “a bit faster or slower”.  It encourages the less experienced dancers who recognise the tune.  It may remind the caller of the dance, or of the fact that he wants the version of Mr Beveridge's Maggot with one B not two.  And experienced dancers might take note if it's in an unusual rhythm or has an unusual number of bars.  The reason I don't do it is that often the band are still searching for the music, or it's the second dance in the same formation and the dancers are already there in the sets, or I'm putting the band on the spot — even some good bands don't like the thought that the dancers are just listening to the music rather than trying to do the dance!  One technique that I do use is to have the band play the music through when I've finished the walkthrough, and talk the dance through (doing the moves myself), then as the music carries on into the second turn I start calling the dance.

First just listen to this.     Example in PDF, MIDI and ABC format

  Band plays first eight bars of “Unrequited Love”, then straight into the first eight bars of “Barbarini's Tambourine” — same speed and smooth gentle style.

How many people know what the first tune was?  How many know what the second was?  How many recognised it but couldn't think what it was?  Jacqueline Schwab (of the band Bare Necessities) showed me her interpretation of “Barbarini's Tambourine” when I was staying with her in 1992, before it became well-known.  I read the dance and music through — and that's how I heard it.  Slow and graceful — just the sort of thing Bare Necessities would relish.  And if you didn't know the dance, and I called it like that, you'd think it was perfectly natural.  For all I know, that was the speed they danced it at in 1735.  But we know it as an up-tempo dance, so it seems totally inappropriate.

  Portsmouth   (Sharp: Country Dance Book) — first smooth and flowing, then as a rant.

Even if the speed is what we expect, different styles of playing can produce very different responses from the dancers.  You see this in an extreme form at some contra dances in the States, where the music changes character dramatically and the dancers do all sorts of strange things!  I'm not going to try that — but let's see what we can do with a Playford dance.

I hope the change into rant style made you feel that you wanted to dance it rather than walk it.

  The Trip to the Jubilee   (John Essex: For the Further Improvement of Dancing)

Here's one which I've danced at very different speeds.  It's recorded by Bare Necessities on “Take a Dance”, and to my ear it's much too fast — they even have to leave out some of the notes.  This is the speed I feel the tune.

Walt Tingle says he learnt this one to slip-jigs, and it was some time later he found out that it had its own tune.  Let's see how that feels — we might try it to a slip-jig once you're feeling confident.

I love dancing to Wild Thyme — and I also love dancing to Bare Necessities.  But their styles are poles apart — and that's not to say one's right and the other's wrong.  Wild Thyme are easier to dance to; their music is regular — there's a steady beat.  I remember waltzing to Bare Necessities and apologising to my partner for losing the beat.  “That wasn't you”, she said, “that was Jacqueline”.  And yet they can produce a heavenly sound, which to many dancers in the States is the definitive Playford sound.  But if you ask them to play something with guts — the Scottish jig used for “Pins and Needles”, for instance — they're most uncomfortable with it.  It comes out trying to sound “pretty” — which isn't what you want for a traditional dance and tune.  And their style can be rather too smooth — it never encourages you to dance, just to flow.  Maybe that's why in the Boston area there's very little done with any kind of step — it's a dance walk throughout.  But as I say, I love their music — if you haven't got a copy of “Take a Dance”, buy one this weekend.

  The Beau's Retreat   (Bernard Bentley: Fallibroome)

Here's a Wild Thyme classic — the title track of their second Fallibroome recording — and I'm not going to mess about with it at all.  I just want you to fit the figures to the music.  I am genuinely baffled why so many experienced dancers don't do this.  Why is it that a lot of men do a two-hand turn in four steps and then push the lady back into place as if saying “Look at that — I got you home a whole three beats early”?  I don't get it.  I think this dance fits the tune absolutely perfectly, so that the ones can flow seamlessly all the way through it.  Let's see if you agree.  For instance, in the B-music you get three occurrences of a half figure eight followed by half a turn, either right or left.  This is in four bars of music — twelve steps — so it seems obvious to me to do eight steps for the half figure eight and four for the half turn: that's exactly the number of steps you'd expect for each of those figures.  And yet a lot of people rush the half figure eight and are waiting for me to remind them which hand to use for the turn — indeed some of them can't wait and end up using the wrong hand.  Then they stop dead after the half turn and wait for the next phrase of music.

I use a right-hand turn rather than a left for the middle one of the three, because I feel that flows much better into the half figure eight down.  The original doesn't mention the turns at all, so it's just Bernard Bentley's opinion against mine.

  Moonfleet (Colin Hume: Dances with a Difference, Volume 4) — played both ways.

Sometimes a very slight change to the music can make a lot of difference.  I've been to musicians workshops where the leader takes a tune apart and gives meticulous details about how to phrase it so that it gives the dancers what they want.  I've been absolutely amazed by this, and as a dancer or caller I'm sure I wouldn't be consciously aware of it — but it would probably affect the way I dance.  Here's one where I know what changes were made, because Gill Howell told me.  I'd just written Moonfleet as a present for her, and Alan Davies taught it very thoroughly at a dance week with The Rampions.  Gill rang me afterwards and said they'd made two very slight changes to the music.  In bar 4 of the A-music they'd taken out two notes — Gill said they “got in the way of the dance”.  And in bar 2 of the B-music they'd dotted one note.  Minor stuff, eh?  Let's listen to the tune as I wrote it — just one A and one B — and then to Gill's amended version (which is how it's published in the book).

When she said the music got in the way of the dance, I think she meant that after the double figure of eight you needed a slight break to show that this move had finished and now it was time to lead up three steps.  As for the second change — I wish I hadn't taken her advice.  There's a circle six left half-way (9 steps) and then fall back in lines (3 steps), so I really don't want a hiccough after the first 6 beats — that encourages the dancers to circle in 6 steps, come in for 3 and fall back for 3, which wasn't what I wanted.

Let's try the dance, and once you're reasonably confident about it we'll switch between the two versions and see if it has any effect on you.

I think I was being too clever here — people didn't know what I was talking about!

Alan Davies says he's stopped calling it because the dance is controversial.  I added the two-hand turns when I saw John and Liz Felton doing them — it seemed much better to keep everybody moving — but Alan thinks most people aren't capable of doing a two-hand turn well enough in the 6 steps.

As I've said, some dances can be done at dramatically different speeds.  “I care not for these ladies” is supposed to be a romp — it's to the tune of a song about a man complaining about all his girl-friends and the problems they give him.  But Tom Cook saw it as slow and romantic, so that's the way he asked Wild Thyme to record it.  I see the progression as: “A right-hand turn and spurn!” “A left-hand turn and spurn!” — but Tom was amazed when I told him this.  He sees it as “And so we say goodbye”.  Another example is “Round about our coal fire” — the Tom Cook version is slow and mesmeric, but in the States they play it as a slip-jig.

And of course if there's a choice of tune that can have a major effect.  Try “The Bishop” to its original tune: it's quite different.  It's a bouncy jig rather than a flowing reel.  Or “The Freemason”.  “Drapers Gardens” has a wonderful minuet tune, but most bands (including one not too far from me) play the alternative recommended by Bernard Bentley — “The Margravine Waltz” — which feels quite different (and I don't think is anything like as good a tune).  With “Maid in the Moon”, Sharp deliberately changed it from a romp into a proper serious Playford dance by choosing a totally different style of tune — and he had to put in “Set and turn single” at various points to make it fit, which I think is unforgivable.

  The Waters of Holland   (Pat Shaw: New Wine in Old Bottles)

Let's try a straightforward dance at two different speeds.  I was at a Day of Dance some years ago and two callers happened to do this one at quite different speeds — it felt like two different dances, and I really wasn't sure which one I preferred.

  Balance the Star — to Jimmy Allen, Newcastle, Soldiers' Joy, The Bishop (Miss Dolland's Delight), Peacock Rag.

And finally a very easy dance, and we're keeping the same speed and rhythm throughout — just using a set of rather unexpected tunes.  See how you react — and see how you react to the music throughout the weekend, even when I'm not shoving it down your throat!

Some other dances which I might use in this session are:

The Bonny Breastknot
Chain Through the Star
Dublin Bay
Fan in the Doorway
Sally from Poland
The Short and the Tall
Star of David
Ted meets Pachelbel