Genuine Playford, Playford-style, traditional, waltz… all greatly improved by being danced with a bit of style rather than just muddled through. You may find other callers disagreeing with some of my points of style, and that's fine — different people have their own ideas. One or two points I might be more dogmatic about!
John Sweeney made some interesting point on the ECD List in 2017:
I often find it useful to differentiate between style and technique. These are some of the ways I like to do it.
Technique is what it feels like. Style is what it looks like.
Technique is what enables you to get through a dance, always being in the right place at the right time, facing the right way at the beginning of every move, and not preventing anyone else from achieving success, rather helping others in any way possible.
Style is what you add, which may be the same as everyone else, or may be personal innovation or embellishment.
Technique is what you do with your connected hand. Style is what you do with your free hand.
I have seen a dancer do something which interfered with another dancer's ability to enjoy the dance, and, when confronted, they have said, “But that is my style”. No, it is not, it is bad technique!
I believe that it is important to focus on technique initially, so that the dance can succeed. When people use bad technique it can become ingrained in their muscle memory and be very difficult to correct. Adding style is great, but should not be at the expense of technique.
Not a difficult dance — I sometimes use it to start off an evening. But as always, you can dance it well or badly; the choice is yours. I think the first part wants to be danced — a skip-change or a single-skip, and you get back home after exactly eight beats — not late, not early. The corners cross — are you ships that pass in the night, or do you actually acknowledge each other. Four steps for each cross, and as the second corners finish their cross they're ready to take their neighbour's hand and fall back a double with conviction. Coming forward needs even more conviction; you've got to turn single and still move forward the same distance as you fell back, so you can't be half-hearted about it. In the Cecil Sharp version you cross with your partner, turn your back on your neighbour and fall back with confidence — you shouldn't have to shuffle backwards looking over your shoulder, not if you're a real dancer! The final three changes need to be danced — and if the ones keep hold they're ready to dance down through their new twos to start again.
I now have my own interpretation of Lilli Burlero which doesn't involve passing your neighbour backwards, but I expect most callers will continue to teach Sharp's version.
I think the reason I like this one is that it's a very positive dance, not one of those that you drift through. So stand up straight, remember you're a dancer — and go for it!
We'll dance it through first, and I'll make some points once you've seen the problems.
The first time through a tricky dance like this you may be too busy just getting through it to worry about technique. But, if you've got the technique without having to think about it, it will help you to do the dance. I think there are two important points: 1: Knowing where you're going, and 2: Fitting it to the music. It starts with the working crossing over and going into reels of three with the opposite side couple.
Listen to the first 8 bars. 4 steps to cross, then 12 steps for the reel. Many experienced dancers are always ahead of the music — they like to have a couple of bars in reserve, just in case. This is wrong (here I am being dogmatic, as I warned you). Dancing isn't like putting money aside for an emergency — being ahead of the music is just as bad as being behind. It can also put other people off. I've heard it said that some callers are like this when they're dancing, because they're thinking ahead. I don't know what excuse the rest of you have!
The next 8 bars are for three distinct movements. Half figure eight is 8 steps. Circle half is 4 steps, then the sides lead in above them — you don't lead in while they're circling and then wait for 4 beats. Some people find this disorientating, particularly in later turns of the dance. Perhaps they feel it should be symmetrical — the people leading in should either split two people or should themselves separate, one to each end of the line. But that's not how I wrote it! Rather than feel hard done by, you might just as well accept it — I'm not going to change it now. If I'm being walked through a dance, I tend to notice the unusual bits, because they're the ones which will catch me out. People who see the walkthrough as a chance to chat up their partner are at a distinct disadvantage here. Anyway, let's think through those three movements and their timing.
Listen to the next 10 bars.
The start of the next bit goes into the minor. You don't need to be a musician to hear that this is something different — and the fall back in lines is quite different from what's gone before; the whole set moving together. Many people seem incapable of falling back a double, even if there's plenty of room. It really is 3 steps and together, just like Up a Double. After the previous movement you should be poised, ready to sweep back in your lines — again, not too soon and not too late. The set and cross over are OK. The three changes are OK if you face the right direction. The most disorientating part is getting back into two lines so that the middles can circle half-way; I've deliberately given 4 bars for the circle — two to panic and two to do the move. Again the minor music for the lines falling back. And again the three changes are OK if you face the right direction, but lots of people don't, even though I keep emphasising “face your partner”. I think part of the problem is that many dancers aren't aware of other people — even their own partner if he or she isn't dancing with them at that moment. I say “Face your partner” and I can see you all struggling with this novel concept. Surely if you're dancing with a partner you should be aware of them almost all the time. Do you actually notice that in Fandango while you're doing a figure of eight round one couple your partner is doing one round the other couple?! I'll be talking more about “Dancing with a Partner” and “Dancing in a Set” at Chippenham. Anyway, let's dance it again and see if things improve.
The style in a contra is to move positively and to give weight. This is a busy dance — there are three swings in each turn of the dance and you're never out! Contra dancers in the States love swinging and expect almost every contra to have two swings — which they go at with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, sometimes oblivious of the fact that by now they should have done a couple of other moves! I notice that whenever John Krumm walks through a contra, after the swing he says: “Stop swinging”. If you're not mad on swinging you can do it slowly, you can use a walked swing rather than a pivot (buzz step), but you must use up the music — I hate it when the couple next to me do one turn around and then stand there with their hands out waiting for me to join the long line.
Giving weight is particularly vital in the do-paso, where you have three moves in the time of two. The men are doing more work, but the ladies can help by moving in as the man approaches and giving him the correct hand, rather than him trying to move her from a standing start. And do keep going at the ends of the set.
This one is in the Country Dance Book New Series, but I use a version by (I believe) Barbara Kinsman which starts: Ones set, then cast as the twos lead up; ones set again and cast as the threes lead up, then twos repeat all this. I think this has two advantages over the Kennedys' version. It gets the ones naturally into middle place, and because it's a reverse progression you don't have to add “and the ones lead to the bottom” to convert it from triple-minor to three-couple.
This is very much a dance for the ones, with the twos and threes being allowed to join in circles and heys occasionally, just like Fandango. It's not particularly difficult, but there are points where you need to time things well, and it's a good opportunity for the ones to be aware of their partner even though they're dancing at opposite ends of the set most of the time. I learnt this one as a very slow dance, but now I've started thinking for myself I can't see any reason for that. It certainly doesn't want to go as fast as Blaydon Races, but I don't see that it needs to be a crawl either.
The timing I'm fussy about is the circles: 12 steps to circle 1½ and open up to a line, then 4 steps for the ones to cross over (with an acknowledgement, naturally) and make circles at the other end. And it's the same with the first reels: 12 steps for the reel; 4 to cross and be ready for the second reel. Actually the second reel has more time, since we're not now adding the lead to the bottom at the end.
The only disorientating bit is the ones crossing left shoulder to get into the first reel; if they don't do that, they're likely to start the reel in the wrong direction. Think of it as returning to your home place (middle position on your own side) and then moving off to the other end.
And I'd like to add one extra flourish for the ones, just to make sure you are aware of your partner. When you're half-way through each of the figure eights, I'd like you to touch your partner's hand. I'm not suggesting this is good style, or the way I'd normally like to see the dance done, but it's a way of finding out whether you really are dancing with your partner. And I'd like the same in both reels of three, please. You'll also find that if you're not all dancing to the music, the ones won't arrive at the centre point at the same time, and touching hands will be very difficult. I'll be watching closely!
Of course part of the style is doing a good rant step, but there's more to it than that. I want some life and energy in it. Some men take eight walking steps (4 bars) for the initial turn, and then vaguely waggle their feet about while standing in the wave. I was taught that you move positively into the turn and do it in two travelling rant steps (2 bars) — the three of you should be stepping on the spot in bars 3 and 4. My particular hate in Morpeth Rant is low arches, so that the first lady has to crawl through them. Yes I know some people are shorter than others, but some don't even try. Make a high arch, touching finger-tips if necessary, and make sure your arms are straight — if your elbow is touching the other person's elbow, that's the effective height of the arch. Even if I force the other man to make a high arch, sometimes the lady crawls through anyway! I don't know whether she's so used to a low arch that she doesn't even notice, but it's not good dancing. First ladies, I encourage you to shout out “Get it up!” if the arch is not to your satisfaction.
In the final dance around, you should be able to get once round the other couple in six bars, leaving two to fall back from your partner (still with a rant step) and be ready to start again promptly if you're involved in the right-hand turn.
You can see all these points by clicking the image of the Reading Cloggies in 1985.
I think the style here is keeping a good waltz step going while getting the dance right! I find it much easier for the fours to cast up into the second hey, rather than standing there wondering who is coming at them and which shoulder they will want to pass. It's a typical Fried dance — it flows beautifully from move to move if you will let it, but it has unusual features which make it a difficult dance for most people. I just know she wants the blossoming to be a feature of the dance, so make it big. And the footwork in the serpentine is important and very satisfying — it's just that some dancers in England are scared of any kind of footwork and probably wouldn't do the dance just because it's a waltz.