BackDances with a Step

Two workshops for the Hertfordshire Folk Association, January 2002

It was supposed to be three, but I had an operation on my back two days before the third workshop, so Wendy Knight ran it instead of me!

The “Dancing English” were once known for their use of steps, but these days everything tends to be walked.  In this series of workshops, Colin will be looking at steps as well as dances.  Rant, polka, pas de bas, single-skip, skip-change, slip and waltz will be taking their place alongside the dance walk (which will also be given a wash and brush up).  The idea is not to exhaust you with a whole afternoon of rants and polkas, but to remind you of the variety available in English Country Dance.  The dances will be interesting, including one or two Scottish, not all energetic, and Colin hopes to show you that the use of steps can add to your enjoyment of dancing.

  Fan in the Doorway:   Gene Hubert, Dizzy Dances Volume 3, 1986

Start with a dance to warm people up and allow late-comers to settle in.  “Fan in the Doorway” is all supposed to be done to a walk step — but it's a purposeful walk, not a meander or plod.  And because it's done to a slip-jig (which would baffle many contra-dancers) you only have twelve steps instead of the regulation sixteen, so you have to be 25% more purposeful!


Gene Murrow says that occasionally he's late arriving at his regular dance group in Westchester, NY.  As he walks from his car he can't hear the music, but through the long windows he can see people walking round in complicated patterns.  And he thinks “If I were new to all this, would I want to walk into the hall and become part of the pattern?”

In Playford's day we were known as “The Dancing English”, and foreign dancing masters came over to marvel at the different steps they saw and take them back to their own countries.  When Sharp transcribed Playford's dances a hundred years ago and gave them back to us he didn't have much use for the walking-step.  The normal country dance step was the running-step, described as “an ordinary running-step executed neatly and lightly”, and he then described the walking-step as “a modified form of the running-step, in which the spring, though present, is scarcely noticeable”.  Scottish Dancing still has a variety of steps — pas de basque, skip-change, slip, Strathspey and various kinds of setting.  International Dancing has all sorts of steps.  But towards the end of the twentieth century, the Dancing English became the Walking English.  Why was this?  Maybe it was the influence of the American Square Dance boom of the 1950's — no stepping in that.  Maybe it was because our kind of dancing gradually became less popular, didn't attract so many young people, and the existing dancers got older and less fit.  I suspect it was also because, after the Second World War, Douglas Kennedy changed the focus from teachers to callers, and the idea of “instant dancing” came in.  It's all to do with attitude and expectation.  If you dance Scottish, you expect to do a step; you expect a class to start with step practice.  English social dancers have got lazy.  “It's more effort to dance it”, they say.  True, but it's more effort to go to a dance than to stay at home and watch television — why not take it to its logical conclusion (and many people undoubtedly do).  And yet when I play badminton nobody says “It's more effort to run about — let's do it all to a walk step”!  In fact as people have become more health-conscious they realise that it's very good for them to do some energetic activity two or three times a week.  In the States people will tell you that they go contra-dancing for the aerobic exercise — and they dress that way too.  Some of them get through three or four T-shirts in the course of an evening, during which I estimate they do about 300 swings.  If you look at the recommended activities for getting your heart rate up to the required value, dancing is well up the list — but I don't think it's our sort of dancing they have in mind.  Suppose you went to see “Riverdance” or “Swan Lake” and they walked it all — what would you think?!

In these three workshops I want to look at various steps in the context of interesting dances — not necessarily complicated dances.

Let's think about steps.  If we do use steps they would probably be skip-change, slip and possibly single-skip.  So let me suggest how and when to do them.

  Skip-change step

This is the standard step in Scottish (RSCDS) Dancing, but theirs is much more rigid, with a straight leg as it comes forward and the toe pointed — and it looks great for Scottish.  English is more relaxed.  I think a jig with its uneven rhythm fits a skip or skip-change better than a reel does: it encourages you to dance rather than walk.  Surprisingly enough, Sharp doesn't mention it in the Country Dance Book — he just explains the single-skip.

The first thing I want to insist on is that it starts with a little hop which propels you forward.  If people ask which foot I start on I say “right”, but actually that isn't true: the first thing I do is come up onto my toes and do the preparatory hop on my left foot.  That's on the upbeat — the anacrusis, if you prefer the technical term.  Then on the downbeat my right foot goes forward — but if my body isn't already moving forward from the hop, the right foot won't get me travelling nearly so far.  On the next upbeat my left foot moves forward until it's just behind the right one, and on the downbeat the right foot again goes forwards.  That brings us to the upbeat which starts the cycle again, and this time the hop is on the right foot.  Gosh, it sounds really complicated!  You've heard about the centipede who was asked to explain how he walked, and once he started thinking about it he got so confused he fell over.  Please don't do that!

  Let's try a skip-change step in a circle, or as couples facing round in ballroom direction, so you can feel whether you're moving in the same rhythm as other people and then apportion the blame.

A skip-change step enables you to cover large distances, but that doesn't mean you have to; good dancers adjust their stride or their path so that they get where they're going just as the music does.

  Country Courtship — John Young, Dancing Master, c. 1727

Here's a dance to throw at people who say all Playford is slow and boring.  Both A1 and A2 have three movements in the time of two, so you really need your skip-change step.  Notice that as the twos finish their half figure eight the lady goes straight into first corners cross, so it's slightly less frantic than you might at first think.

This was originally triple minor, and I learnt it as a three couple set dance, but I often call it these days as duple minor double progression.  The triple minor version ends with four changes with the twos rather than three changes with the threes (“Right and Left quite round” says Mr. Young), making it a very busy finish.

  Errol on the Green — Pat Shaw, 1972.

See the instructions here.  An alternative, and Pat Shaw actually says “Double step should be used throughout” — in other words skip-change step.  You'll get away with a walk step in the heys, but you certainly won't in the second half!  As always in a quick turn, give some weight and bend your arm to get closer to the other person.

  Lady Pentweazle's Maggot — Packington's Pound, 1989

A dance from the Packington's Pound collection put together by Tom Cook and recorded by Wild Thyme.  I'm not sure whether you would call the tune a slow Schottische.  My understanding of the difference between a Schottische and a Hornpipe is that you dance a Schottische to a 1-2-3-hop and a Hornpipe to a step-hop, and that Phillebelula All The Way — the standard tune for Nottingham Swing — is a Schottische, not a hornpipe.  But you can do either step to either rhythm, so that may not help you much.

We had some interesting discussion on this point.  Barbara Burton, who was playing for the workshop, agreed with me.  Roger Nicholls, leader of the band Orange and Blue, said he thought it was the other way round.  Jill Bransby, a well-respected International Dance teacher, said that the standard Schottische step in International circles is 1-2-3-hop, 1-2-3-hop, step-hop, step-hop, step-hop, step-hop, which neatly combines my two categories.  She thought this step fitted particularly well with the casting to invert the set, where there was a tendency to get there too soon.  I've since read a booklet by Peggy Dixon called “Late 18th Century & 19th Century Ballroom Dances”, written for Nonesuch Early Dance in 1993.  She studied “Grammar of the Art of Dancing” (Friedrich Albert Zorn, Odessa, 1887) in translation, and “A Complete Practical Guide to the Art of Dancing” by Thomas Hillgrove, New York, 1863, and their version is the same as Jill's.

Anyway, Tom suggests a gentle 1-2-3-hop for most of this.  And a note to the scholars: the last four bars are the “Right and Left” shown diagrammatically in Matthew Welch's Country Dances of 1767, so don't assume that “Right and Left” always meant “Four changes of a circular hey”; it did in Playford's day but then it changed.

  Measured Obsession — Fried de Metz Herman, Potter's Porch, 1991

Let's look at the Dance Walk, and particularly as it applies to three-time dances.  Three-time doesn't necessarily mean a waltz — it's smooth and flowing, with a little emphasis on the first beat.  The Dance Walk is the way you might walk if you weren't bowed down by the cares of the world.  It should be light and springy — the emphasis should be on being up rather than down.  In the old days ladies and gentlemen were taught deportment, and dancing too; you can't imagine one of Jane Austen's heroes or heroines plodding around.  These days people find it unnatural to stand up straight and move with a bit of spring and grace in their step, which is a real pity.

  Let's just try walking round the room to the music, graciously acknowledging everyone we meet.  But don't be artificial and affected — that's not what this sort of dancing is about.  If you want that sort of thing try a minuet; English Country Dancing is supposed to look natural.  Some dance teachers say that with a dance walk you should put your toe down first rather than your heel, but it's difficult to make that look natural.  So try to make sure that at least some of your weight is on the balls of your feet — and don't shuffle!  I hate it when the noise of people's feet is in danger of drowning out the music!  Think “forward”, and think “up” rather than “down”.

One thing that distinguishes the Dance Walk from an ordinary walk is the rise and fall at the end of a phrase.  Teachers mention it when you're going Up a double and back.  It's three steps and a close, so as your feet come together do a little rise and fall — but again, nothing exaggerated or affected.  You can do it whenever you come to a full close — at the end of a two-hand turn, for instance.  It rounds the movement off; it's like a full stop (period) at the end of a sentence.

Here's one of Fried Herman's three-time dances to a tune by Purcell, with lots of opportunities to dance well — or not!

You have six steps for the half star rather than four, so you need to take smaller ones than usual.  On the other hand, when you're going outside the other two people you need to take a wider track, so your stride needs to lengthen.  The caller won't tell you this — it's a fallacy that the caller will tell you absolutely everything and you just respond like a machine.  You get that in Modern Western Square Dancing (and you need it, since the dance isn't walked through), but in English Country Dance you have to think for yourselves — and that's not meant as a criticism of either kind of dancing, they're just different.

One thing I hate is the pseudo-poussette, where one person pushes and the other just bends their arms.  In this dance you go out for six whole steps, so there's even more temptation to stop moving backwards.

Some people have problems with the two slow steps.  I don't believe Fried meant you to move one foot forward and leave the other where it was; she meant step-close, pause, step-close, pause.

The face-en-face isn't difficult — it's just unusual, and why not?  There's lots of time for this and the back-to-back — six steps there, six steps back.  By contrast the final eight bars are quite busy: 3 bars (9 steps) for the lead and cast, and only one bar for the turn half-way.  This means the cast needs to be quite tight.  Similarly 3 bars for the gipsy and only one for the turn single — and yes, she does want them in the same direction.  It seems best to me to finish the gipsy facing your partner, so that everyone does the turn single the same amount.  I believe that if you can fit those movements into their own bit of music you'll feel a lot of satisfaction and enjoy the dance more.  If you just can't be bothered by all this — well, you've probably left already.

  Corstorphine Fair — Miss M Hunter (who taught at Corstorphine Primary School)

A Scottish dance, which is all danced; the Scots don't know how to walk.  It's true!  I remember teaching “Unrequited Love” at an Anglo-Scottish Dance, and one person (I later discovered she was a top Scottish Dance teacher) asked “Can you explain the step?”  “It's a walk”, I said.  “Can you demonstrate it?” she replied.

I want to see a good slipped circle, finishing in a position of equilibrium after the eighth slip, and at the end of the circle right I want to see the middles come in to reform the straight lines.

(I didn't do this as there were twelve dancers; I did Elizabeth instead.)

  The Fast Packet — Bob Lilley, CDSS News

A fun dance, and one of the very few hornpipe dances which is done in the States.  It's easy (except the clapping for some people) but as usual you can choose to dance it to the music or not bother.  There's lots of time for the arm turns, so go round enough to use up the music.  I don't want to see you waiting for the music to catch you up, but equally I don't want to see you both flying backwards on the last beat.  It's not random length music you know — you should be able to predict when it's going to finish!  The same with the do-si-do — there's lots of time, so please go well out and use it up.

  Blareham Reel — John Smart, Seven Essex Dances

This is one of the few dances in my repertoire which use a pas de bas step.

Pas de bas is just an ordinary setting step.  Try it taking hands in a circle.  Then do two on the spot (R, L, R, L — 4 bars) followed by two turning 90° clockwise each step (4 bars) — repeat all this three times (total 32 bars).  Now try the same thing with a partner using ballroom hold.  Now try dancing round another couple.  Unlike a polka round, there's no preliminary spring; it's a much flatter step.  Dance with the whole body, not just the feet.  If you're not rising at the right time, try falling onto the beat; this automatically means you will have risen first.  Don't try and take huge strides.

My card for this dance doesn't mention steps except the pas de bas for the final dance around.  What should we do as dancers in a case like this?  In Scottish there's no decision to be made — it's all danced.  And if you saw Scottish dancers doing this dance (with a Scottish poussette rather than a dance around) you'd be convinced that it was a Scottish dance.  In American ditto — it's all walked.  But in English we have a choice.  In Playford's day it was up to the individual dancers what steps they did, and it wouldn't be the same each time through the dance.  These days we tend to dance reels and figures of eight, and walk the rest.  I'm going to leave it to you.  Of course you and your partner need to come to an agreement, but you also need to consider each new couple as you start to dance with them and adjust accordingly — just as they would have done in Playford's day.  That's a part of social dancing too — being aware of other people's preferences or problems.  If you were in a display team (performance group) I'd certainly be telling you when to dance and when to walk, but that's a different situation altogether.

  Cupid's Garden — Marjorie Heffer and William Porter, Maggot Pie, 1932

Here's one of my favourite Maggot Pie dances.  I assume it's an old tune, though it's not the same tune as the Playford dance of the same name, and since the source isn't identified in the piano edition of Maggot Pie it may have been composed by William Porter.  Wherever the tune came from, they fitted a new dance to it brilliantly — without having any tradition of composing dances to fall back on.  The tune is mainly in three-time, but it switches to four-time in the middle of the B-music, and that's where the dance writers very cleverly fit in the three standard Playford introductions.

In the Grand Square introduction, try not to blur the edges — I don't want to see you just drifting vaguely about.  Three steps to lead in or fall back and turn a quarter, three steps to lead out and face or move in to meet, three steps to turn half-way and be ready for the next move.  I do it with inside hands throughout; they wrote it with right hands throughout.  There's no spare time, but you can dance it to the music and still put a bit of style into it.

In the first figure, on the other hand, there's really too much music.  Six steps for the men to move in and face back; six steps to cross with your partner — you're in great danger of getting there too soon and waiting for the music.  You can't even move in a big curve, or you'll be hitting the other people in your set.  The answer is to take smaller steps — but without making it look mincing and affected.  And if the people who are not moving in take a step back, you can open the whole thing out.  On the sixth beat of the music where you cross with your partner I want you there, inside hands joined, ready to surge forward a double as the music changes to four-time.  But not on the fifth beat.  If you had an audience, I would not want them to know that the set was going to open up until it actually happened.

You finish B1 with the left-hand turn ¾ into a square, and then the ladies move in and turn left to face.  If you're not careful, they've already started moving in by the end of the turn.  It takes a bit of skill, and attention to the music, but I certainly get great satisfaction from fitting the dance to the music in this way.  Again, if the men move out slightly it helps to open the dance up and give the ladies somewhere to go in their six steps.

In the second figure there's no music to spare, and some people get disoriented.  Three steps to turn half-way and stay facing, then three steps to turn single half-way and face the next.  I know these days if we do a clockwise turn we expect to follow it with an anti-clockwise turn single — curving out of the turn — but that's not the way they wrote it.  I admit I've changed one of their other dances — The Merry Andrew — because the stars and turn singles in the same direction make me dizzy, but that's not a problem in this case.  And the second turn single to the left flows beautifully into Cecil Sharp siding with the next.  The turn singles while the other people cross the set would have been to the right in those days, but I don't have strong feelings about it.  I suggest that after the six steps when you cross with your opposite you finish facing that opposite (as is normal in a cross over) and then use all six steps to turn single.

The third figure is just very disorienting, and it feels very odd to honour your partner whom you haven't seen for ages.

  Double Lead Through — CDM2, Traditional

It looks such a simple dance, and yet there are plenty of opportunities to do it well, or not.  Forward and back, with a bow — how could anyone do that wrong?  Well, some people seem incapable of doing three steps and a close — they're already falling back on the fourth beat.  Some people feel they have to slap hands with their partner as they meet, which is something that comes from Modern Western Square Dancing and in my opinion is totally out of place in Playford-style or traditional-style dances.  And some people seem really embarrassed by the bow, so either it's very formal or it's twee.  You've got to think about context.  This is a traditional dance, collected from some villagers somewhere.  They weren't pretending to be lords and ladies — they were just acknowledging their partner with a bit of courtesy, which you can do whatever social class you belong to.

The lead down and back, or up and back — some people take too long; some men do three steps and then throw their partner into the other hand and drag her back.  I don't want it to look rushed, but the ones must be out of the way before the twos start, and the twos must be back in place facing their partners before the stepping begins.

See the section of notes on Rant Step.

  Black Mountain Reel — Derek Haynes

Scottish dances are often in four couple longways sets but with only three couples working at each turn of the dance.  It's actually a very short triple minor set, but don't try and explain that to the Scots; they won't know what you're talking about!  Often the ones get into middle place and do most of the dance from there — it gives them access to the other four dancers, and they can do things with their first corners and then second.  A very clever variation on this is a five couple set with both ones and threes active.  The actives move down a place and now it's as if each active couple is in the middle of their own three couple set — but the middle couple of the five is in both sets.  There's an even cleverer dance in this format called Polharrow Burn, with half diagonal reels of four, but this one's enough to be going on with.  The whole dance is to a skip-change, so there are no variations in the step to confuse you.  I'm not going to demand that you make it look Scottish, but you really have to move in some of it — and that means leaning forwards into the step and giving plenty of weight in the turns.

  Let's start by moving the actives down one place, identifying your first and second corners, and then trying A2 to the music.  I hope the original fours are on their toes in middle place, with people coming at them in all directions!

  The Scotch Measure — Thomas Bray Country Dances, 1699

Here's one danced to a 1-2-3-hop — and it really needs to be danced with a bit of oomph, or you just won't get there.  Only three bars for the ones to cross and curve round into a line, and then you lead up with a 1-2-3-hop in the fourth bar.  People usually don't believe this until they've tried and failed!  The interpretation is by Christine Helwig but she doesn't mention any step, so maybe they would walk it in the States.  For the circling and corners crossing I would drop down to a walk step, but with this sort of tune I feel a swagger is more in keeping than the usual restrained dance walk.  See what the music tells you.

If I'd done the third workshop I would certainly have covered the Waltz Step and the Polka, for examples of which I might use Cast Away Waltz and Yorkshire Square Eight.