BackTo Dance or Not to Dance?

It's been suggested that we should be called “EFWSS” — The English Folk Walk and Song Society — because we spend precious little time actually dancing.  If you go to a Scottish Dance, you'll find they actually dance the whole evening.  Yes, it certainly can be done — the old adrenaline gets going and the dancing exhilarates you and you just keep moving — the lift of the music and the enthusiasm of the dancers make you dance.  I've heard a Scottish dancer say he finds English much more tiring because the excitement just isn't there to support you.

Similarly children doing Country Dancing at school, or with the Hobby Horse Club, are full of bounce — they skip all the time.  Young people at a ceilidh will rant and polka all evening.  But the grown-ups — we've left all that behind.

In America they dance even less than in England — if I say “Dance the half figure eight” they don't even know what I mean!

It wasn't always like this.  When Cecil Sharp collected traditional dances from the villages of England, they were danced all the way through.  When he published his interpretations of Playford Dances he didn't know what steps Playford had in mind, so he made his own suggestions, and very often his instruction was: “Running Step throughout the dance”.  I've seen the Sharp sort of running step, and it looks rather odd to me, but perhaps that's simply because I'm not used to it.  I'm sure Cecil Sharp would be taken aback at the way we dance (or rather don't dance) today.

And here's a quote by Charles Dickens from “Sketches by Boz”, 1836 which may be an exaggeration but surely has its basis in what Dickens had observed:

The noise of these various instruments, the orchestra, the shouting, the 'scratchers', and the dancing, is perfectly bewildering.  The dancing, itself, beggars description — every figure lasts about an hour, and the ladies bounce up and down the middle, with a degree of spirit which is quite indescribable.  As to the gentlemen, they stamp their feet against the ground, every time 'hands four round' begins, go down the middle and up again, with cigars in their mouths, and silk handkerchiefs in their hands, and whirl their partners round, nothing loth, scrambling and falling, and embracing, and knocking up against the other couples, until they are fairly tired out, and can move no longer.

Of course, if the music is in three-time like “Dick's Maggot” (or five-time for that matter) you can't do a skip-change step, and if it's a slow tune it feels and looks awkward doing a skip-change step, so you use a dance-walk, but there's a lot of difference between a light springy dance-walk and the “bringing the shopping home from the supermarket” walk that most people use.  Give it a bit of bounce, particularly a rise and fall at the end of a phrase — such as “Up a double and back”.  Get up on your toes a bit; don't do everything on a flat foot.  But don't exaggerate the rise and fall so that it looks affected — I believe English Country Dancing is supposed to look natural.  Maybe standing up straight and moving as if you're glad to be alive and healthy isn't very “natural” these days, but that's hardly the fault of the dancing!

Having said that, I am aware that some dancers in America, particularly on the East Coast, are taught to do a setting movement with a lot more bounce than we would think elegant in England — a sort of “Playford meets Morris” style.

When we do try to dance, we can only manage it forwards, not backwards, so “lines forward and back” and “do-si-do” tend to be walked.  If we dance anything in England, it's figures of eight and reels (heys) of three and four; we have to be bullied into dancing stars.  And we can't imagine dancing more than eight bars in a row — what is this, an athletics competition?

A skip-change or single-skip doesn't have to be violent and energetic, any more than a rant step — it's up to you.  And whatever step you use, please dance in time with the music and don't get where you're going before the music does!

  Demonstrate single skip and skip-change.  (Use a single jig.)

On Wednesday, August 29, 2007, Heather Clarke from Brisbane, Australia wrote:
Dear Colin,

I would appreciate your thoughts on appropriate technique for "The Dutch Crossing".  We danced this on the weekend here in Brisbane and I was rather astounded to find the insistence that it should all be walked, the set kept extremely small.

The dance community in Australia engaged in English country dancing is extremely small and teachers are few, subsequently the standard of dancing is fairly mediocre.  However, it does bother me that someone has learnt this dance and is insisting it should be danced in such a repressive manner. Is this the true nature of the dance? Surely a little energy suits the musicality of the dance?

Yours sincerely,
Heather Clarke
On Wednesday, August 29, 2007, Colin Hume from Letchworth wrote:
Heather -

I'm sorry you think that a walk step is repressive.  Yes, I've always seen it done with a walk step (and I have danced it in Holland to the man who wrote it).  Which part would you use a dance step for?  It would be very rare in England to use a skip-change for two changes of a circular hey (although standard in Scottish).  You could possibly use a skip-change for the half reel of four, but I've never seen it done.  I wouldn't want to use a slip-step for a half-circle - you'd be jamming on the brakes as soon as you started.  And I certainly wouldn't recommend any kind of step for the "Dutch Crossing" movement itself - in fact I've deliberately written that part of the tune with an absolutely regular rhythm.  You need to flow smoothly from one star to the next, and it's difficult enough with a walk!

Looking on the bright side, if your group is getting through this dance I certainly wouldn't describe their standard of dance as fairly mediocre!

Colin Hume