BackPhrasing and Timing

The dance must fit the music — it seems obvious to me.  With Modern Western Square Dancing the music is unimportant; it's just a beat, and there's no phrasing — the dancers just shuffle through the figures as fast as they can.

References: “In any square dance a sliding shuffle step is far more comfortable than a walk, a run or a skip.” (Square Dancing Indoctrination Handbook, Sets in Order American Square Dance Society, 1980).  Walked swing: “use short walking or shuffling steps…” (The illustrated Basic and Mainstream Movements of Square Dancing, ditto 1982).  But this same book says, in Styling Comments from CallerLab: “Dance Step: Should be a smooth, effortless gliding step in which the ball of foot touches and slides across the surface of the floor before heel is gently dropped to floor”, which sounds much better to me.

But we're not much better in England.  The standard way of starting “Fandango” is a right-hand turn for 6 steps, cast for 4 steps, and then slouch for 6 beats waiting for the music to catch up.  And again after the second cast, stand with hands joined for six beats, waiting to circle.  One cynical definition of an advanced dancer is: “Someone who can always get to the right place before the music does”.

A good dancer should know how many steps a standard figure takes.  Most figures are eight steps (or beats): circle left, right-hand star, half figure eight; set and turn single, back-to-back, gipsy, turn.  A reel of three or a full figure eight is usually 16 steps.  Some people do a right-hand star for 4 steps, then take 4 steps to turn slowly on the spot — at which point I usually walk into them, and they think what a bad dancer I am.  A lead down the middle of a longways set is almost always 8 steps (7 steps and a turn), but dancers in England seem to lose count after 4 — surely we can't be expected to walk that far?  In my more militant days I would lead down and shout out “5, 6, 7, 8” to persuade the people in front that if they turned too soon they'd be trampled underfoot.  Maybe I'm slightly more tolerant (or resigned) now.

How long is a cast?  Normally it's 8 steps — coming up and curving well out — but a quick cast is only 4 steps.  If the call is “Ones cast into middle place and circle with the threes” it's 8 steps; if it's “Ones cast into middle place and right-hand turn half-way” it's probably 4 steps.  I find myself unconsciously measuring the length of a dance as the caller walks it through, and I can often tell if he's missed something out because the 4-bar phrases don't fit together.

Of course, I can be caught out if the music really is a funny number of bars.  I think a caller should tell the dancers if it's not in 8-bar units, or if the timing is odd — I've known callers walk through an entire dance and never mention that it's in 3-time, with 3 steps per bar.  Even that may not help.  Some dancers just cannot think in threes — they're always putting in an extra step, so they're always late.

No doubt some people think I'm over-reacting when I complain about them not fitting the dance to the music.  If you don't see the importance of it, I probably can't persuade you about it — it just seems obvious to me!  I get a lot of satisfaction from fitting my moves to the music — and it's not to impress anyone who's watching; I actually enjoy it more that way.

So to re-state my original remark: The dance must fit the music.  Tom Cook quotes Imogen Holst's phrase: “Dancing is Music made Visible”.  What sort of music are you making visible?

Here are some dances that I've used in this workshop; of course there are many more.

  Fain I Would   (John Playford, Dancing Master, 1651)   See my explanation here.

A beautiful dance to a beautiful tune, and one which very definitely needs to be phrased to the music.  Each figure starts with a standard Playford introduction, followed by two-hand turn your corner into side lines (though without taking hands in the lines) and then two-hand turn your opposite half-way and middles push back from this person to reform the square.  You need to move positively, and you need to phrase it to the music — and the middles really do need to push back rather than drift — it's not a drifty dance!  Particularly in the third figure there's a tendency to drift from the arming into the turn with your corner, and I won't accept that.  Arming is a movement which takes eight steps and finishes with you facing that person.  Then you face your corner for the two-hand turn.  (And don't quote me Cecil Sharp's version of Newcastle; that wasn't one of his successes in my opinion — see what you think of my version.)

The timing for the second figure is tighter than some people realise.  Eight steps for people to cast and follow, ending in circles of four.  Eight steps to take the circles all the way round and for the “followers” to get back to their home place — not so easy.

In the third figure, Sharp has the middles doing a back-ring while the outsides circle round them, and if you've ever tried this in costume you'll know how impossible that is.  The original wording says: “The 1. and 3. Cu. meet, turn back to back, the other foure hands about them, and go round to the right…”, and I believe that “go round to the right” applies only to the outside four — the insides just stand there.  I also do the circle to the left rather than to the right.  Playford has the men on the right of the women in the diagram, and the numbering in his instructions is totally compatible with this, but I've never seen anyone teach it that way.  Sharp switches them round, pointing out that it does not affect the dance at all, and I agree.  Perhaps the circle was to the right because the men are leading their partners round; in this case in reversing the positions it seems logical to reverse the direction of the circle.

  Turn of the Tide   (Ron Coxall: Roles)

Several dances in this session are in 3-time — but very different from each other.  First a waltz with a tune written to fit it beautifully — I once danced it to the wrong tune and it just wasn't the same dance.  It's not difficult, but as always there's a vast difference between merely “getting through it” and dancing it well.  Give some weight in the circles and turns, and keep the circles nice and open.  Ones, be positive in the lead down and back, which should be your big moment, though some people choose to minimise it.  The special part of the dance is what Ron calls the “turning poussette”.  If it's done well it's a great movement; if (as often happens) it's done badly you just think “So what?”.  First of all, let me point out that the man needs to start it on his left foot — I didn't realise this for ages, and kept wondering why I was having problems!  Some people blur the edges because they start turning too soon.  You really do take two waltz steps out — don't anticipate at all.  Then it's one waltz step for the man to move round a quarter, and the woman needs to support him while she turns on the spot.  In the next bar the woman moves and the man lifts her slightly to help her.  Once you've done it with a partner who's doing it right, you'll never be satisfied with anything less!

  The Koeport Galliard   (Pat Shaw: New Wine in Old Bottles)

I've danced this several times and not really understood the timing of the first part, so eventually I took the revolutionary step of looking at the instructions!  There's a lot of time (six steps) to lead in and face the sides, so I suggest three to lead in and three to acknowledge your opposite and turn to face the nearer side couple.  (I later discovered that Alan Davies changed the timing to go straight into the half figure eight after leading in three steps, but I do it as Pat Shaw wrote it.)  On the other hand, at the end there's only three steps to cross with your opposite and three for the backwards cross with your partner, so you have to take much bigger steps and make sure that the preceding turn single leaves you fairly close to your opposite.

It's B1 where the panic sets in.  There's certainly enough time: six steps to turn your corner; six steps to turn your partner all the way or star half-way.  It's just a question of knowing which you do when!  In fact because people are panicking they rush the moves and give themselves time to go the wrong way.  All the turns or stars end with you facing away from the person you've just turned; you don't need to do any kind of spin round at the end of the moves.  And the same applies in B2 with the gipsy corner into the back-to-back partner.  Don't rush it — it won't help you!

  The Beau's Retreat   (Fallibroome 2)

This dance fits the music perfectly, and yet people insist on rushing it.  Twelve steps for the chase, with first man and second lady finishing improper in middle place, and twelve steps for them to two-hand turn 1½ to finish proper.  And yet so many people rush the turn in eight steps and then wait for the music to catch up — I don't understand it.

Bernard Bentley is not good at saying how many steps each movement takes, and of course John Young doesn't say in the original, but it seems natural to me that each half figure eight takes eight steps and each half-turn takes four steps.  And yet people rush the half figure eight and look at me accusingly because they think I'm late telling them which hand to use for the turn.  Incidentally, I think the dance works much better using right hands for the second turn in B1 rather than left for both as Bentley does.  And before you accuse me of changing the dance, let me point out that the original doesn't mention the turns at all; it just says “and change places” and hands aren't even mentioned!

  Mary K   (Gary Roodman: Calculated Figures Volume 5)

I had the good fortune to dance this not long after Gary wrote it, with Gene Murrow calling and Bare Necessities playing.  The music comes from a superb CD called “Cracks and Shadows” by Dave Wiesler and several other top musicians — you can buy it on-line (though it's not designed for dancing to) at

Gary is rightly fussy about the phrasing and timing.  He really does want the men to take 9 steps for the cast, and wait for the final 3 steps before the half turn.  This gives the ladies the momentum to start their cast — otherwise the move is a bit flaccid (and you wouldn't want that).  You need to be good to do the circle half-way, fall back and be ready to move forwards, all in 6 steps.

And then we have the mini-square movement to finish.  Make sure it really is a square — don't turn it into a circle — and you must phrase it well.  It's two steps and turn on the third; you can't just drift through it.  I remember someone at Pinewoods once complaining on the evaluation form that there were “no drifty dances” the evening I was calling; this is not a drifty dance.

  Alterations   (Kathryn & David Wright — Wright's Humours)

Not a difficult dance, but some people do it very badly.  Many of them can't cope with the fall back a double after the set — by the third beat they're already into the cast.  Try giving a little acknowledgement and then cast — make them two separate movements.  You're dancing with your corner person after all — it isn't a race to see who can get there first.  You've got 8 steps for the cast, which is quite a lot, and I don't want you to get there a moment too early; your feet should come together on the eighth beat of the phrase of music.  The other corners on the contrary are often late; turning 1¼ in 8 steps means you need to give a little weight.

The only other slight difficulty is the first man going from the left-hand star into the cross over.  And it really isn't awkward if you're thinking ahead instead of relying on the caller.  If you keep hold of the star till the last moment you'll be in trouble — you need to “ease out” as Fried would say, with your feet under your body so that the man can change direction without it looking and feeling as if you suddenly changed your mind!

  Star of David   (Colin Hume, DWAD5)

There's lots of music for much of this, and a good dancer will use it all up.  Try and open the set up where possible.  Twos, be ready for the first solo waltz.  As you set in the lines and cross over, think how you are going to start the waltzing round — whether you need to change feet — which direction you're going to set off in.  This is mainly addressed to the man, who is nominally in charge; if he's positive his partner will be happy to follow him.  And in the final “Star of David” movement, a common problem is to take the star round too far.  It's two places for everyone, then the twos turn on one more place — they finish all three stars in middle place.

  Cascade   (Colin Hume, Packington's Pound, 1989)

Country Dancers seem to have real trouble with anything involving a step, though Historical and International Dancers are used to it.  I think this is an easy step, but some people just never get it — they can't bear to do the pause on the first beat.  And as for doing figures and a step — you must be joking!

The hardest part of fitting it to the music is the end of the canon.  I wrote it so that each couple got back to place just as they were needed — but most people get back far too soon.  On the other hand, people are often late in the progressive circular hey — it's one bar (the three moves which make up the step) per hand.

  Bonny Breastknot (Devon)   (Traditional, CDM2)

A dance which needs to be danced rather than walked — let's see a skip-change step for most of this.  Be aware that there is no extra music for the ones to move from the lines across to the lines up and down.  I've seen people do two balances and then a leisurely turn single into the new lines.  There's no truth in this — it's a vigorous dance and you're doing it a disservice by trying to make it a gentle Playford-style dance.

  Chain Through the Star   (Colin Hume, instructions on website)

I learnt the central figure to this dance in Denmark, and made up the rest around it since I couldn't remember the dance — it probably wasn't progressive at all.  Here's a dance where you must move to the music so that you're all moving together or it won't work — like “Dutch Crossing” or “Hey-mania”.  You've got to be aware of the other people and just go for it!  The timing is very tight.  The middle men basically do a left-hand turn four times around — they must give weight and keep moving.

  Sally from Poland   (Pat Shaw, New Wine in Old Bottles)

The music really does tell you, at least some of the time!  There's a twiddly bit which comes four times and always means “Star half-way; turn single out”.  It's a simple dance on paper — no complicated figures whatsoever — but people can be totally disorientated by it.  And there's a real temptation to rush both sets of three changes at the end.  I want you to dance to the music!

  Elizabeth   (Colin Hume, DWAD4, 1996)

There's plenty of time, but some people aren't willing to take it!  In the circle I like two bars (two waltz steps) to circle left half-way, one bar to move in and one bar to fall back with neighbour.  And in the final move a lot of people just won't take six or twelve steps for the various moves.  If you do it as a waltz you're not so tempted to get ahead of the music, but that's not how I intended it.

  Little Hunsdon   (Pat Shaw, Among the Pines, 1983)

This is where I really don't want you to blur the edges, particularly in the Grand Square, but in fact throughout the dance.  There are not many places here where you just flow from one move to the next.  I'm certainly not saying that it doesn't flow — Pat Shaw dances almost always flow beautifully — but I want to see the punctuation between the figures.  If someone was watching you without being able to hear the music, would they know where the musical phrases were — or even what time it was in?

  The Short and the Tall   (Ron Coxall, Jogs to the Memory, 1991)

A fun dance which really needs some drive — go for a skip-change step in the snake movements.  On the other hand, make sure you don't overshoot the circle half-way — stop when you're opposite your partner.

Some other dances which I've called at this workshop are:

  Another Nancy's Fancy   (Pat Shaw, Between Two Ponds, 1976)

  Bouzer Castle   (John Young, Dancing Master, 1721)

  A Trip o'er Tweed   (John Young, Dancing Master, 1713) See my interpretation here.

I think the phrasing and timing are perfectly clear here, but people want to blur the edges and wander around ignoring the music.  Is it really that difficult to think in threes and sixes?  Six steps for the ones to cast and the twos to lead up and all be ready to fall back in lines with conviction — two steps and together.  Maybe the tricky bit is for the ones to do a back-to-back in six steps and make a quarter turn to face up to the twos, ready to do a back-to-back with them.  Let me put the question: Are you in control of your feet or not?  If not, I don't suppose anybody else is, so you'd better assume responsibility!  If I had to break it down, I'd step forward right, left, step across right, fall back left, right, pivot on the right foot and bring the left foot down beside it.  If you've learnt good dance technique you'd do all that without thinking.  And after the second back-to-back the ones are already facing up, so the man is ready to draw his partner round the second lady and finish on his own side.  Step right and acknowledge — two steps.  Cast to bottom place — four steps.  The lady would probably start the cast on her right foot.  I don't mind which foot the man starts on so long as he does it with conviction.

  The Scotch Measure   (Thomas Bray, Country Dances, 1699)

On Sunday, March 18, 2007, Alex Constable from Auckland New Zealand wrote:
I would like to obtain a schedule of timings for all of the popular dances.
We play at many dances and functions at which serious dancers request that we play various dances.
Are you aware of any publications which set out the number of beats per minute for various routines.
A prime example are the various waltzes, (Standard, swing, modern, etc.

On Tuesday, March 20, 2007, Colin Hume from Letchworth, England wrote:
Alex -
I'm sorry, but I don't have any idea. My background is English and American social dancing rather than couple dancing, where there is a caller who sets the tempo of the dances if the band are in any doubt.  In my opinion there is no "correct" tempo for any dance, rather a range.  It depends on how good the dancers are, how tired they are, the condition of the floor and many other factors.