Southam Festival, August 2009
Usually it's a cop-out on the part of the caller who doesn't know the dance well enough. “How many steps for the circle left ¾?” “Oh, the music well tell you!” I've seen people wearing T-shirts with musical notation which goes along normally and then collapses in a heap, and the slogan “The music didn't know either”, and I sympathise with this view. On the other hand, Cammy Kaynor who calls in the Boston area of the States is insistent that the music really can tell you — he claims that he can play the music on his fiddle in such a way that it actually says “Set and cast one place” and then play the same phrase in a different way so that it says “Two hand turn”. I'm sceptical about this, but it's certainly true that the music can set the mood for a dance, and encourage you to walk one phrase and dance the next phrase. A good band will play the same music quite differently if it's for walking to the first time and dancing to the second time. And I've seen dancers in the States change their dance style quite dramatically in Tom Cook's “Smithy Hill” when the band change to a smoky night-club style with saxophone improvisation. So let's look at a selection of dances and see what they music tells you.
First we'll listen to one A music. Perfectly clear phrasing — it's obviously three phrases of two bars each. Six steps, six steps, six steps. For instance, you could set (smoothly) to your partner, a big turn single and a two-hand turn. But the instructions in Fallibroome 5 just say “Neighbours back to back. Partners back to back”. And that's how a lot of callers call it — because they haven't thought it through. I can only see two choices. You can do one back-to-back in one phrase of the music — 6 steps — and the other in two phrases — twelve steps. Or you can do what I recommend, which is to take 9 steps for each back-to-back and accept the fact that the second one starts in the middle of a musical phrase. Here's where it's no use the caller saying “The music will tell you” — it won't!
In B1 Bernard Bentley thought he couldn't fit it all in, so he left out the circle and instead put in a balance forward and back, followed by a set. I'm sure we can fit it all in, provided you go from the turn single immediately into the circle left. Four bars is twelve beats — that's four beats for the turn single and eight beats for the circle — standard timing.
Triple-time is another case where for some people the music tells them they'd better sit this one out. You do not need three legs to be able to dance in three-time, but you do need to be able to count up to six!
There's an A-music of 4 bars, a B-music of 8 bars, a C-music of 4 bars and a D-music of 6 bars, each repeated, and in all four cases the repeat is the same moves as the first time, though with different people or in a different direction. Pat Shaw really does give the music every opportunity to tell you what to do — and yet some people won't listen.
The Grand Square comes at the start of each figure, and it needs to be square — not exactly military but very definitely phrased to the music. The music will tell you that it's three steps to lead in or fall back (no, they didn't slap hands in those days any more than they did in Playford's day), three steps to meet or lead out positively (not a fall back) and three steps to turn half-way and be ready for the next move.
Again you need to be able to count up to six. At the start of the first figure, men move in to the centre and turn to face your partner. I reckon you have three options. You can walk in for three steps and then wait for the band to catch up — that's you telling the music what to do, and it won't work! You can creep in with six little mincing steps. Or you can move in a curve — which means you start moving out diagonally to your left — and use six normal-sized steps. Guess which one I prefer. Then you all have six steps to change places with your partner — so again you move in a curve — and finish with inside hands joined, man on the left, facing one of the four walls. This is where the music magically changes from three beats to two beats to the bar, so you have the usual four steps to lead forward a double and four to fall back. Make sure you're not moving round the square in a sort of star promenade; the star comes next. You're walking directly towards a wall, and falling back with confidence, so that the whole set opens out. Then the ladies star as the men cast, finishing with a left-hand turn back into the square but one place round to your right. Make sure you don't turn too much — you need to be in square formation. Then the ladies have six steps to move in to the centre — you don't want to be half-way there before that phrase of the music starts.
If the chorus is a modified grand square, the second figure is a modified grand chain. People often blur the edges and then confuse themselves. Three steps to do a two-hand turn half-way, so you're still facing your partner — it's not like allemande left your corner in American Square. Three steps to about turn to your right — still turning clockwise — to face the next person. Then a reverse two-hand turn half-way (which shouldn't be any harder than turning the usual way, but always seems to be), about turn to your left — still turning anti-clockwise — to flow into Cecil Sharp siding with the next person as the music switches to duple time. A lot of people fall to pieces on the reverse turn, spin round in a panic thinking they're going to be late, and either they collide with the next person or the siding has lost its curve completely. The music tells me that there is enough time for the movements and they can fit together beautifully.
Now listen to this tune. Very different — a bouncy jig. What sort of dance does this want? Well, it's exactly the same dance, with the same number of steps for each move, but I hope the music will tell you to move differently. We'll try it a few times with the second tune, then we'll try switching between the tunes. Your cue is that the music will slow down or speed up in the last bar to indicate the change. The band have been practising the change-overs for weeks, so I won't have to tell you anything — the music will tell you.
I didn't have time to do the changing from one tune to the other, and I was still ten minutes late finishing. Also people found the 3-time tune too miserable, so I've rewritten the B-music.