BackDancing with Style — 1

Chippenham Folk Festival, 1998

What does “Dancing with Style” mean to you?  Do people consider you a “stylish dancer”?  What it certainly doesn't mean is affectation, artificiality, posturing — the things that some people seem to think are required in Playford-type dances.  So many of us consider ourselves good dancers — we can follow the caller's instructions, we can remember the dance enough to keep going when the caller stops — but we're just going through the motions.  We get to the right place at the right time — if we're really experienced we can even get there two bars early — but we're not putting any style into it.  In the days of GUSTO I had meetings with Wendy Crouch, Alan Davies and Betty Chater — and in the breaks from discussing the EFDSS training programme we would talk about you lot.  “Who would you consider a good dancer?” somebody asks.  There's a long pause.  We come up with seven or eight names — from an entire country!  Are things really that bad?

I'm going to concentrate on three aspects of style in this workshop:   Dancing to the music   Posture   Understanding the shape of a dance.

Now let me admit — I don't understand why people find dancing to the music difficult.  I can be caught out if there's not as much music as I expected, or I can simply misjudge the distance I have to travel — but I'd hope by the second time through the dance I would have realised this and corrected it.  I really don't understand how a couple can be in a longways dance where they lead down the middle, lead back and cast round the twos — and they're late every time.  I can see two possibilities:

The people who don't care obviously won't be at this session anyway.  But maybe some of you just don't realise what “Dancing to the music” means.  Maybe it's not as obvious to some people as it is to me — I was a musician long before I was a dancer — but I don't believe that's necessary.  So I'm going to try an experiment.

Indian Queen

Sharp: Country Dance Book

I'm going to use the Playford dance “Indian Queen” which I expect most of you have danced many times; it's not a difficult dance.  First of all I'm going to get the band to play you the start of the tune — just one A — and I want you to imagine that you're walking to it.  All I want you to do is clap your hands gently on each beat you would walk on.  You don't need to know that there are two steps to a bar; you're just clapping on the beats.

Now I want to see whether you know where each figure starts.  A1 has three moves: set, turn single, two-hand turn.  A2 has the same three moves, for different people.  B1 has two moves: a right-hand star and a left-hand star.  and B2 again has two moves: a back-to-back and three changes of a circular hey.  I'll remind you of the sequence of moves as we go — I'm not insisting you remember them.  All I want you to do is to clap once at the start of each move — the first beat you would step on.

(If it doesn't seem convincing, have them doing it with eyes closed.)

Now the next question — and I'm not going to try and get you clapping this one — is: “When does each movement end?”  I bet no-one's ever asked you that before.  And the answer — assuming you're dancing another movement after this one — is that the first one ends just before the second one starts.  Each movement flows into the next; you don't want to stop dancing, wait for two beats and then start up again.  That's not “Dancing with Style”.  By all means come to a close, feet together, but it's just a momentary hesitation.  And yet I see so many people who do the two-hand turns as if they were in a race — four or five steps in which to turn the other corner round rapidly, push them back into place, and then wait for the band to catch up so you can do the right-hand star.  I don't get it!  In most cases, how many steps does a two-hand turn take?  Eight.  And whether you're taking part in the next move or not, I expect you to use all of those eight steps.

Now we understand how it fits the music, let's do some turns of “The Indian Queen”.

We'll do some more, but I want to look at another of the three aspects of style: Posture.  Unless some kind of injury or infirmity is preventing it, you can stand up straight and look as if you're alive and well.  Have you ever seen a floppy ballet dancer?  I haven't.  Have you seen “Riverdance”?  Didn't you feel that sense of life, exuberance, vitality?  I know we're talking about social dancing here, not display dancing — but I firmly believe that if you stand up straight and dance with a bit of sparkle you'll enjoy it more — and so will your partner and the other members of your set.  And I want some eye contact, in the set and the two-hand turn.  I know English people tend to be uneasy about this — and I'm not advocating the intimidating stare you can get from some dancers in America.  You don't have to look at them without blinking through the entire two-hand turn — you're allowed to look away — but the impression you want to give is “I'm enjoying dancing with you”.  That's what social dancing is about — not just doing complicated patterns, but working with other people.  I hate it when I'm doing a set and turn single or a corners cross and the other person is looking at the floor the whole time.  And a grand chain is surely a means of meeting and greeting other people in the set.  If you don't look at them it's like shaking hands with someone without looking at them — surely the height of rudeness, even nowadays.

And has it ever occurred to you that you can dance the stars even if the caller doesn't insist?!  Let's do Indian Queen even better.

Another Nancy's Fancy

Pat Shaw

When I'm picking out dances for teaching style, I can end up with an entire session of Pat Shaw if I'm not careful.  This is “Another Nancy's Fancy” — a wonderful dance, and one where the timing isn't nearly as regular.  Let's listen to the tune — just one A and one B.

So how many people noticed that the A music was a funny number of bars?  In fact it's 5 bars, and it's in three-time (you all noticed that?) so you do three steps per bar.  We're going to try the clapping exercise again — this time with your eyes closed — and you may find it a little harder.  In the first A there's a right-hand turn which takes 3 bars — 9 steps — and a gipsy left which takes 2 bars — 6 steps.  Then there's the opposite for different people: a left-hand turn and a gipsy right.  Let's have one A and hear you clap on the first beat of each of those four moves.

A2 has the same timing to different moves.  Let's move on to the B music.

One of the things about Playford-style dances as opposed to American contras and squares is that you can have one move where there's plenty of time, and then another where you really have to move to get there with the music.  Here comes the fast bit.  You have 2 bars — 6 steps — for a back-to-back, and 6 steps again for a half figure eight.  Then you have four changes of a circular hey, three steps each.  Let's clap that part.

How many people think this is boring?  How many think it has nothing to do with dancing?  How many people think it's boring but can't do it?!

Then with B2 things slow right down.  You have 6 steps for one couple to cast and the other to lead up, 6 to do the reverse, 9 steps for a slow two-hand turn, and 3 steps to fall back to place.  If you get this right I'll let you dance it!

In 2019 I ran this session at Lichfield Folk Festival and only did the clapping test once for this dance, but I described each section and then got people to do it to the music without a word from me — you could feel the concentration!


Steve Schnur, Zesty Contras

This one comes from the American book, “Zesty Contras”, but it's not a contra, although it's called “Breathless Contra” in the book — it's three couples longways and I just call it “Breathless”.  You might think it more English or Scottish in style.  Steve expected it all to be done to a walk step.  But it's busy, and some people have a tendency to break into a lurch if they think they're getting behind.  Please don't do that.  A purposeful walk should get you there with the music.  You need to give plenty of weight in the turns.  If necessary, bend your elbows to get in closer, so you're travelling round a smaller circle.  Here's a dance with no punctuation — everything flows into the next figure — but it still has to fit the music.

One of the tricky things about style is knowing when to flow from one move to the next and when not to.  All modern American contras are designed to flow — they leave you facing in the right direction for the next move — and some modern contra dancers are totally thrown by a traditional contra where you sometimes have to work at it to get it to hang together.  Pat Shaw dances always flow — but that doesn't mean you blur the edges.  That right-hand turn followed by the gipsy left are two movements, and in my opinion you finish the turn facing the person you are turning, then cast into the gipsy.  It's the same when you do a right-hand turn half-way and then turn single left — you finish the turn looking at your partner, then you turn single.  Lots of people blur the edges, and I think it's wrong.  But in this dance — and again it's only my opinion — moves are designed to flow from one into the next and particularly in A1 I wouldn't give you an exact number of bars for each of the three moves:

Ones quick cast to middle, man down, lady up: right hand star.  Ones cross left: star left.

The next move is one we find in “Devon Bonny Breastknot”, “Fandango”, and various other English dances.  The Scots will tell you it's a Scottish move.  And the Americans will tell you it's an American invention called “Turn Contra Corners”.  The ones don't actually start in middle place — they'll still be finishing the left-hand star, so it's really just “pull by” to meet first corner.  Again I wouldn't phrase the four moves — just make sure that at the end of the 8-bar phrase the ones are facing their partners in a diagonal line with the second corners.

The reel of four is definitely phrased.  8 bars — 16 steps — means 2 steps for each change, which is what feels just right.  It's important that everybody starts moving at the same time — the corners shouldn't have to wait for the ones to cross to work out which way to move!  Are you looking at people as you pass them?  Are they dancers to be danced with, or obstacles to be avoided?

Steve Schnur probably meant it to finish with a 4-bar swing and then a 4 bar cast — but it's been a fast-moving dance up till now, and it doesn't feel right taking 8 steps for the final cast to the bottom.  So we're going to do a 6-bar swing — that's 12 beats — and then cast on the final 4 beats.  This means that if you're one of those men who likes to swing that little bit longer, you'll be in trouble.  I want to see you swinging for 12 whole beats — not swinging for the standard 8 and then waiting for the band to catch up — and then straight into the cast.  It will help greatly if you finish the swing on your own side!  The threes lead up on those last 4 beats — and then continue leading up to the top as the new ones cast.


Colin Hume: Dances with a Difference, Volume 5  [I didn't have time to do this.]

The third aspect of style I mentioned — understanding the shape of a dance — is the hardest one to teach.  You could also describe it as “knowing where you're going” — but it's a bit more than that.  I think that before you can claim to know a dance you should understand the whole pattern, not just your bit.  Lots of men know what their progression is in “Levi Jackson Rag”.  But ask them what the ladies' progression is — “I don't know, they just come at me and I grab one”.

Here's one of mine, which is thoroughly non-standard.  I called this in Boston in America once, and people had terrible trouble with it.  A good dancer said to me afterwards: “Some people were fighting the formation the whole time”.  They really didn't believe the dance worked the way it did — they wanted to fit it into one of their standard categories so that they felt safe with it.

So for those of you wanting to categorise dances — this one starts in a formation much like “Dargason”, goes into a four couple longways set, converts back into upside-down “Dargason” formation, into an upside-down four couple longways, and all that again.  In my view it all flows perfectly well, and there certainly aren't any figures you haven't come across before — but there are some unusual moves, so you'll just have to trust the man who wrote it!

Beechen Grove's New Hall

Charles Bolton

Here's an easier alternative, but again a dance where you need to understand the shape.  It's almost a square, but you're not always all facing into the centre, and that makes it a challenge to some dancers.  Do you do the final courtesy turn with confidence, fitting it to the music no matter which of the walls you need to end facing?  Do you confidently join up in the line of four before the final set, or does it always come as a surprise?

The Dunsmuir Waltz

John Drewry / Bruce Hamilton

Originally a strathspey, converted to a waltz.  Here's one where you need to be aware of the whole pattern, not just where you're going, or you'll bump into people rather than slotting neatly in like parts of a precision machine.  Bruce wants this to be expansive, so you need to move with conviction, even when you're going backwards in the opening move.  Use all the space you can, rather than keeping tightly to the confines of your set — which means that you need to be aware of the other sets around you too!

Sadler's Wells

Back to “The Dancing Master” with a sigh of relief.  This one isn't Playford — it was after Henry Playford had passed the publication on to John Young.  The only change I've made is to have the ones improper.

  Note that the half figure eight is only two bars (4 steps) and so is the cross and cast.  How do you deal with this?  You're ready to move on the phrase, and you dance it!  If the ones keep moving really positively, and the twos move in and lead up as the ones cross and cast, you'll all be there in time for the two-hand turn.

That wasn't difficult, was it?  The timing was standard; the only tricky bit was having to move fast in the half figure eight and the cross and cast.

Easter Thursday

I know of two other dances with exactly the same figures as Sadler's Wells — this happened quite a lot 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 and introduced more for the twos.  He also makes it improper.  The other is “Easter Thursday”, and it's even possible that the figures were put to this 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.  In this one he says “NOTE.- B1 a clap and hands four has been omitted”.  But I've put them back — so let's dance “Easter Thursday”.

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.  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.  The half figure eight and the cross and cast are not as tight as in “Sadler's Wells” — 6 steps for each rather than 4.


Just a few final words.  Every Style Workshop is different, and you may find other teachers disagreeing with me about the way I've explained some of these dances.  What you won't find them disagreeing with is the things I said right at the start — Style is important; most people don't have any; fit the dance to the music; stand up straight, look at people and enjoy dancing with them.  And my standard warning — no matter how stylishly you dance, if you're not enjoying it what on Earth are you doing it for?