BackGetting there at the right time

Wednesday Workshop, Cecil Sharp House, 13th July 2005

I've talked about timing before, but it's one of those things I think really important and most people ignore.  Dancing is “moving to music”, and if there's a specific piece of music for a specific move you should do that move to that piece of music — not only starting it as that phrase starts, but finishing it as that phrase finishes.  I don't know whether it's a skill that some people haven't mastered, or whether they just don't care.  For those who do care, here are a few pointers.

The first exercise I got from Bruce Hamilton of California at a GUSTO conference.  If you're just doing a circle left followed by a circle right, you don't need to worry about how far the circle goes — provided you come back the same distance you'll arrive at the right spot.  But if you're doing a move which requires you to move from point A to point B in eight bars of music, you need to know what speed to travel at.  So I'm going to ask the band to play eight bars of music — that's 16 walking steps — and ask you to decide how far you will travel in those eight bars.  And then we'll do it, and you can see whether you underestimated or overestimated.  I'll put out some markers, but I'm not asking you to tell me which one you're aiming at.  You'll know.

Now we'll try it with a skip-change step.

And now I'm going to put you on the spot (which is something Bruce would never do) by asking you to dance from point A to point A in those eight bars.  You decide how big a circular path you need to make.  Yes, you may need to take avoiding action — that's something you should be used to in English Folk Dancing.

Enough of the exercises, but try to bear them in mind as we do the dances.  If you found you were getting there sooner than you expected, just be aware of the fact and try to compensate for it.

  The Punch Bowl   (Henry Playford, 1703)

Most people do Pat Shaw's interpretation, which has everybody moving all the time during the A-music.  I think my version is closer to the original, and less confusing.  You have to move positively (though without rushing) for the first twelve steps, but then you need to slow it down for the half circle (six steps) and the cast (six steps).  It's no good just setting a pace and keeping to it regardless of the distance to be travelled.  And the same in the progression — you should have just finished the two-hand turn half-way and fall back as the music finishes.

  Green Willow   (Maggot Pie)

A classic two-couple dance from 1932.  The introductions are all walked, but I want a dance step at the start of each of the other parts.  People tend to get disorientated in the first figure, and unable to keep going from the first move to the second.  And therefore they tend to be late or early — but that's not what this session is about!  In the second and third figures you need to give plenty of weight to get the circles round, making sure that at the end of the circle you're not still whizzing round but are ready for the next move.

  The Golden Wonder   (Ann Higley, Dancing Every Day)

This is a busy dance, after the innocuous A1, and I like it very much.  The “London Bridge” movement in A2 requires everyone to start moving at once — you don't wait for the ones to reach you before joining in.  The bottom couple finish it facing down, which is just what they want for the cast which follows it.  The threes just have to be aware that they're threes — it's not the sort of dance where you do a set and turn single while deciding what the next move might be.  And in the C section people get really disoriented.  You must go all the way round your partner before going round the whole set, and you've really got to move it.  You'll be very grateful for the next A1.

  Powell's Fancy (Hoffed Ap Hywel)   (Thompson)

This one is claimed by the Welsh dancers, along with Lord Carnarvon's Jig and anything else with a vaguely Welsh title!  It's danced to a slip-jig, which means it's busy, but it's still not frantic.  People dance this as though they're terrified of being late — and then they're early.  Maybe it's just a question of confidence; if you know you can get there at the right time the panic magically disappears.

  The Gallant Enterprize   (Daniel Wright)

Tom Cook's version, published in Packington's Pound, 1989.  Quite a tricky dance, but I still want you to fit it to the music.  In the first Morris hey, make sure that after four bars the set is exactly upside-down, and you should fit the hey into eight bars as required.  But for the second one you need to move a little faster so that you can incorporate the extra change into the same amount of music.  The B-music has a most unusual 22 bars, but the dance will fit the music if you let it.  It's the casting movement after the two-hand turn that takes twelve steps.  Don't start the reel too early, or too late, and don't rush the half-turn and fall back at the end of B1.

  Well-Hall   (Henry Playford, 1701)

People have real trouble timing this one, and yet to me it makes all the difference.  You have four bars to do the right-hand turn 1½ and face up.  No, you shouldn't already be casting!  But equally you shouldn't have rushed the turn so that you're standing still facing up at the start of the fourth bar.  And please don't do it balancing in and out, in and out — I don't know where people get that from but in my opinion it should be a smooth turn, at a constant distance from your partner.  At the start of the next four-bar phrase you look at your partner and you both cast for two bars and then do the Hole-in-the-Wall cross for two bars.  Surely that's not too much to ask.

  Braes of Dornoch   (Johnson)

Charles Bolton's three-couple interpretation.  The first A is busy: eight steps to lead to the bottom and cast up to middle place, in time for an eight-step two-hand turn, rather than rushing the turn because you started it late.  But the second A is not busy — you're not leading so far, and the turn is only three quarters — that's why Charles is insistent that you should acknowledge your partner at the end of the turn and then about turn.  And because B1 starts with setting there are twelve beats left for the two turns, so surely six steps for each works best.

  Dovetail   (Gary Roodman: Sum Further Calculated Figures)

As the name suggests, the moves are meant to dovetail into each other, so timing is vital.  And it's in three-time, which throws some people's ability to dance to the music.  Gary doesn't specify how to split the time between the right-hand turn and the turn single, so I would use eight steps for the turn and four for the turn single — both are the standard amount.  Don't blur the edges and just drift from one move to the other; look at your partner meaningfully on beat 8 to say “We've done the turn; now let's turn single simultaneously”.  Victoria Bestock doesn't agree with me; she would use six steps for the right-hand turn and six for the turn single.  With the half-turn and cast I would use six steps for each.

  Time Limit   (Colin Hume: Squares with a Difference, Volume 2)

You won't find yourself ahead of the music in this one!  Make sure you're there to balance the wave at the start of A2, and be very definite with that left-hand turn half-way or you won't know who you're looking for next.  I've now decided that the so-si-do is better left shoulder; you then need to close in so that you can take your current partner's hand.  B1 is deliberately meant to be busy, so keep your wits about you and remember it's always the insides who make the arch.  And give some weight in the allemande left or you won't be home ready to start the next turn of the dance.

  Mission to Please   (Ron Coxall: The Other Blackburne Tunes)

Again, the ones need to be aware of how much ground they need to cover, so that they can finish the promenade just in time to go straight into the Grimstock hey — not stopping and then starting again.

  Selma and Louise   (Penn Fix: CDSS News, Sept/Oct 1994)

The only timing issue here is the hey and gipsy in A2. And of course swinging to the end of the music in B1, which many dancers in England are reluctant to do.  You don't have to swing fast, but I really would like you to use up all the music.

  Edinburgh Castle   (Henry Playford, 1695)

Another slip-jig, to the same tune as “The Trip to the Jubilee” but somewhat faster.  The tricky bit of the timing is doing the reel of three across and then the second person cutting it short to finish in progressed place.  But some people also have difficulty with the moves in B1: lead away three steps, then turn and lead back.  Some people really can't think in threes, so they want to lead away for three, then turn, and they're late getting back.  I'll be watching you!

  Lady Williams' Delight   (CDSS News, Nov/Dec 1993)

Not just three-time, but the A-music is five bars of three-time.  As usual, it's being aware of the path you need to follow and how long it will take you.  Some people also have trouble falling back for six steps — they can't really believe it's that far, so they mark time in the second three — I've seen it in Sharp's version of “Mr Isaac's Maggot” too.

Victoria Bestock of Seattle has some good points to make about timing — particularly for beginners.  I don't agree with her about counting, and I was relieved that after she'd sent this posting to the ECD List several people wrote in also disagreeing!

1.   I think the main problem is that beginners take a longer time than experienced dancers to process information.  When you call a figure most dancers respond instantaneously and automatically because they are familiar with the terminology.  The beginner is thinking “Cast off.  That's the one where you face one way to go the other way.  I want to cast down, so first I should face up.”  or “Turn single.  Always to the right.  Which way is right?  I thought it was that way but my partner is going the other way!  Oh yes, his right is on the other side.  This is my right.”  It takes extra time to think about it all before knowing what to do.

So one thing I do with people who are slow to respond to calls is to back up the call a few beats (usually calling two beats earlier, occasionally four beats earlier) to give the new person time to process the information.  The experienced dancers will usually know to wait for the phrase (though some may start early) and it gives the newcomers a few extra beats of think time to figure out what the call means.

2.   In some cases they aren't listening to the call at all.  The words you say in Playfordese are meaningless to them and they tune them out.  They get their information by watching other dancers.  They see it, then they do it, always a bit behind.  I used to work on mirroring skills with my high school students who were like this so they learned to copy pretty much simultaneously, but you probably can't get away with that at a dance, only in a class.  With experience this sort of learner does learn to process the visual information sooner and get closer to matching what others are doing at the same time they are doing it.

The fact that they are slow to respond initially doesn't necessarily mean they won't be fine dancers once they are familiar with the terminology.  The thinking time becomes less; they respond more quickly after hearing the calls.

3.   Try mentioning that one of the goals is to dance to the musical phrase.  I haven't worked much with kids under 5, but from Kindergarten on up, every child I've taught could change pattern at the change of the musical phrase at the end of the first lesson.  As obvious as that seems to us, some people don't actually know that they are supposed to do that.

I once had a lot of new people show up for the beginner session, and they did the moves cheerfully with no regard for phrasing.  So I explained what I wanted.  “Dance to the phrase, using just the right amount of space so you arrive at the end of the move at the end of the phrase without rushing and without stopping.”  I demonstrated.  “Cheat all you need to at the end of a phrase so that you can begin in a new direction exactly on beat one of the next phrase.”  I demonstrated with right- and left-hand stars (star for about six beats, use the last two to let go, turn around, put the other hand out, and begin walking in the new direction on beat one of the next phrase).

Experienced dancers do this automatically, but it isn't obvious to people who haven't danced.  They will dance the right hand star for eight counts, hear the change, then start a few beats later to turn around.  To my amazement, that beginning group could dance beautifully to phrases as soon as I explained and demonstrated what I wanted.  It wasn't that they didn't understand the music, or didn't hear phrases, they just didn't know what they were supposed to be doing.  Once I explained that, and once they paid attention to it, they were successful on the first try.

4.   Dancing to the phrase is best done without counting.  Early in my career a contra dance caller explained to a group that everything was in eight count phrases.  She counted while the music played to make it clear.  (I shudder!)  Then we danced, and I saw a man counting the eight count phrases — starting on beat three of the music each time!  As long as people dance to counts, they are preventing themselves from learning to listen to the music and getting the phrasing from the melody line.

With kids I'd have them “draw” the phrases with their hands, or keep the beat different ways for each phrase – thigh tapping for the first phrase, clapping hands for the second phrase, finger snapping for the third phrase.  The first time through they'd hear the change, and then change the movement, a few beats late.  After two or three times, they could anticipate and start the new movement on the first beat of the new phrase.

5.   Beginners have a lot to think about.  And generally they can only think about one of them at a time.  They can pay attention to the pattern and figure out where to go next, or they can listen to the music.  A friend who plays taiko drums read my article on dancing to the beat and asked why a man in her group could sometimes play on the beat, and sometimes not.  So I realized I'd omitted one reason for lack of dancing/playing in time to the beat or phrase — focusing on something else because there's too much to think about at once.  The taiko player could play on the beat when he concentrated on the beat, or he could concentrate on the dance-like patterns, but not both at the same time.  Once he memorized the patterns and could think about something other than “what comes next” his playing was accurately on phrase and on beat.

I hope this is helpful.  These are things that help with normal beginners.  Some people take a very long time to become successful, and some people are Permanently Clueless — in which case smile, look at the sets that are being successful, and encourage everyone to help the newcomers without harming them.  (Point, but don't push or pull).

Here are a couple of quotes from the ECD List that support counting:

From Orly Krasner:

I know we keep discussing this, but now I feel I really must chime in, as a trained musician (pianist and singer), a credentialed musicologist (PhD), and teacher (university level).  And as a dancer, choreographer, and dance teacher.

People must be trained to hear a musical phrase.  It does not happen by magic.  It does not happen by wishing it were so.  It certainly does not happen just by telling people to listen to the music!  Counting helps you listen to the music!!

Musicians count.  I hated counting as a student.  My piano teacher scrawled on the yellow Schirmer cover of my complete Mozart Piano Sonatas: Counting time saves time.  Years later I've come to the realization that she was right!!

An ensemble playing all the right notes but getting the rhythms wrong will fall apart sooner than one playing all the right rhythms with bunches of wrong notes.

Teaching a dance by telling people how many steps they have to get where they need to go cleans up sloppy patterns faster than repeated reminders to cover other dancers, straighten your lines etc., etc.  Watching Andrew Shaw teach and looking at the results he gets convinced me to try it his way.  Even I could reproduce his results (albeit to a lesser degree).  And it works with beginners!  Counting is quick — learning a tune while trying to figure out a pattern is not.  I wish somebody had pointed out some of this to me when I was a beginner — and I'm a musician!!  Seems so obvious now, but it wasn't at the time.  I still count — sometimes more consciously than others.

If you want your dancers to listen to the music, to dance to the phrase — you have to teach them how!  Just telling them to do it won't ever make it so.

Gene Murrow and Suzanne Ford also agreed with Orly.

From Martha Edwards:

When I was a music teacher, I found that the Kodaly (or was it Orff) method of using “Ta” for quarter notes (crochets) and Ti-ti for eighth notes (quavers) got students much more quickly to correct rhythms than “one and-a two and-a” or whatever, just because they were more rhythmic words.

So, yes, many routes to understanding the music, but one of them is still…counting.

When I started contra dancing about 15 years ago, no one would tell me anything about the timing of the dance, lest I be “confused” by counting.  When I discovered that the moves actually fit to the phrase (because someone was willing to break the vow of secrecy and let me know that you could count to four or eight or sixteen for most of the moves) the whole dance became clear.  I did not then, nor do I now, spend my dance time counting in words (except sometimes), but I always try to know how the moves fit with the music, and a quick check with the actual words “one two three four five six seven eight” has sometimes revealed a beauty that some vague attempt at arriving at the right timing did not.

At the very least, our callers should know how the moves fit with the music, and counting is a better aide than guessing.

Once they've figured out the counts, I'm especially delighted, of course, to learn the dance to a caller's deedling, or to the expert slipping of the notes of the tune under my feet during the walkthrough that some of our best musicians can do.