BackThe Music Will Tell You

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.

Easter Thursday

I know three dances with exactly the same figures — there was a lot of copying figures in the eighteenth century.  One is “Katherine Street” from the Dancing Master volume 2, around 1710.  Charles Bolton has a version in “Retreads, Volume 7”, though he has cut down the action for the ones, introduced more for the twos and made it improper.  Another is “Sadlers Wells” from the Dancing Master volume 3, 1728.  The third is “Easter Thursday”, and it's even possible that the figures were put to the tune by mistake — the tune is in 3-time.  Bernard Bentley, who wrote the “Fallibroome” series of books, is always very honest about what he's added or left out, unlike some other dance interpreters, but he's sometimes vague about how the dance fits the music — even though he chose lots of dances with good strong tunes.

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.

Six and Sixpenny Rant

See the instructions here.  The music should tell you that it's a rant — so it's designed to be danced rather than walked.  It was written by a group of undergraduates including Norman and Denise Bearon — and you know how lively they are, even though that was a few years ago.  It's a pity that for some people the music will tell them they'd better sit this one out!  It really needs to be danced, and danced well — it's harder than it looks and the final dance round really needs to be tight.

Sally from Poland

A dance by Pat Shaw, published in “New Wine in Old Bottles”.  The music really does tell you quite a lot in this one, so let's listen to the whole tune, particularly the “doodly-doo” which comes at the start of the tune and also later on.  Of course you noticed that it's in three time, but did you notice at the end that there are three two-bar phrases?  That means you have three moves of six steps each, and unlike Easter Thursday, the dance actually mirrors what the music is doing.

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.

Cupid's Garden

A dance from the book “Maggot Pie”, published in 1932, with a wonderful tune which is in three time except for one point — and the writers brilliantly use this point to put in the three Playford introductions, even though they're not at the start of each figure but part-way through.  Marjorie Heffer and William Porter were from Cambridge, and they wrote probably the first new book of English Country Dances for over a hundred years, inspired by the set dances published by John Playford and interpreted by Cecil Sharp.  I think they did an amazing job.  The only change that I've made is to use inside hands for the leads in the Grand Square and the first figure rather than right-hand in right.

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.

Fan in the Doorway

Gene Hubert, Dizzy Dances Volume 3, 1986.  A contra-dance to a slip-jig — that would baffle most modern contra-dancers!  You count mainly in units of twelve steps, occasionally 3, 6 or 9.  But do you really need to count after the first couple of turns?  The music tells you that the dance just flows on and on seamlessly.  I didn't have time to do this.

The Music Will Tell You

See the instructions here.  Let's listen to the tune — yet again it's in three-time.  A plaintive tune — some would say downright miserable.  The music tells you that it's smooth and flowing.  And yet it's not a leisurely dance.  You may strive to make it look dreamy, but there's no spare music — just the right amount — so give some weight in the two-hand turn 1½ and on into the circle.  Let's try it.

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.

On Saturday, February 3, 2007, Colin McEwen from Berkshire, UK wrote:
"The Music Will Tell You".  You say "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 will tell you!”

The short version of my feedback is:-
In my experience this phrase is only used by a non-musical teacher / caller at a loss for an answer & thus you are right to be sceptical. In limited circumstances the phrase may have a value but I advise against its use ! [if you are at a loss for an answer, admit it and either move on or work through the problem with the class.]

I could go on much longer on this topic - I have looked into the apparent reasons behind it and still conclude "it's a cop-out" - i.e. there is very little justification and I cannot find any good examples where it adds any real value.

[ask me if you want more detail]