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Figures and Steps


Dance walk

Some people don't walk in time with the music!  I don't know whether it's that they can't, or they can't be bothered, or no-one has ever pointed it out to them.

Some people may be on the beat, but it's more like “carrying the shopping home from Sainsbury's” than dancing.  In the old days ladies and gentlemen were taught deportment, and dancing too; you can't imagine one of Jane Austen's heroes or heroines plodding around.  These days people feel awkward standing up straight and moving with a bit of spring and grace in their step, which is a real pity.

Try getting them to put their toe down first rather than their heel.  They may find this unnatural at first, but anything that you do often enough becomes natural.

One thing that distinguishes the Dance Walk from an ordinary walk is the rise and fall at the end of a phrase.  I mentioned it in “Up a double and back”: three steps and a close, and as your feet come together do a little rise and fall — but nothing exaggerated or affected.  You can do it whenever you come to a full close — at the end of a two-hand turn, for instance.  It rounds the movement off; it's like a full stop at the end of a sentence.  Some people think that in a good dance you should never stop moving — you just flow from one position to the next — but that's not how they thought of it in the 17th or 18th centuries.  They used steps then, and in Regency Dance they finished most moves with a Jetté Assemblé which is a very definite jump landing with feet together.  I'm not suggesting you teach that, but you might mention it.

Skip-change   Top of page

I demonstrate this.  I start by describing it as “right-2-3, left-2-3, right-2-3, left-2-3” but then I explain that if you just did that it would be a pas de bas (pas de basque in Scottish) which is a perfectly good step (I demonstrate) but not what I'm talking about.  What makes it a skip-change is the push on the anacrusis (the up-beat before the start of the bar).  So although I talk about starting on the right foot, I actually start with a push on the left foot, and that's what helps to propel me forwards — it's “push-right-2-3, push-left-2-3, push-right-2-3, push-left-2-3”.  I demonstrate this, weaving in and out of the dancers, showing them how far I can travel and how easily I can change direction.  You may need to mention that the “push” is forwards rather than up.  I also point out that just sticking your leg out to the front doesn't get you anywhere; you have to be leaning forward if you want to move forward.  Dancing is a controlled fall!  You might try teaching this in a big circle: 8 skip-change steps to the left, 8 to the right.  If people are giving weight and therefore can feel the rhythm of those on either side of them, it may help them to find their own rhythm.  Use a jig rather than a reel for this: you can do a skip-change to both but the unequal rhythm of a jig makes it easier for people to feel the step.  If you want to get technical, I'd suggest a single jig such as “Pop Goes the Weasel” rather than a double jig such as “Irish Washerwoman”.

Single skip   Top of page

Although skip-change is the standard dance step in England, Sharp doesn't ever mention it.  He uses the single skip, and that's what dancers in the States (who follow Sharp more closely than we do in England) will use.  I start by describing it as “right-and left-and right-and left-and” but again point out that it's the “push” which propels you forward so it's really “push, right-push, left-push, right-push, left-”.  I use it occasionally, but it can be rather lollopy, particularly if your arms are flopping about at the same time — I demonstrate this.

Beware of learning English dances from YouTube videos.  These are mainly American dancers, and you will get the impression that if people ever dance they use a single skip.  Not in England, we don't!  And some YouTube videos are awful, and some are just plain wrong.  You are also likely to see Cecil Sharp siding, and no hands in four changes of a circular hey, since that's what Cecil Sharp decreed, whereas in England you're more likely to see into-line siding and four changes with hands.

The one time I do use a single skip is when the dance is in triple time, for instance The Physical Snob in Session 4.  Yes, a skip-change will fit the beat of the music, but it won't fit the bars of the music, because “right-2-3, left-2-3” is two bars of reel or jig time (which have two beats to the bar) but triple time has three beats to the bar, so it would be: “Bar 1: right-2-3, left.  Bar 2: 2-3-, right-2-3”.  I struggle to demonstrate a skip-change against a triple-time tune, but I can see that a lot of people don't know what I'm talking about and will still use a skip-change step.

Slip   Top of page

A slip-step is usually done in a circle.  As with a skip-change, you might think the first move is for the leading leg, but it's the push on the anacrusis that really makes it work.  If you're circling left, the first move is a push on your right leg; that's what propels you to your left, not just sticking your left leg out.  As with skip-change, it's best practised to the uneven rhythm of a jig: “push, left, close, push, left, close, push, left, close, push, left, close”.  I would say that after the push to the left, the right foot should come up to the left foot, without actually banging into it — some people finish with feet apart which looks wrong and of course means they can't travel so far.  I also demonstrate why it's not a good idea to be going full-blast to the left on the eighth beat — you need to come to rest with feet together so that you're able to slip back the other way!

gallop   Top of page

A gallop is the same as a slip-step but you give two hands to your partner and usually gallop down the set and back.  Again it's a good idea to stop before you come back!

Step-hop   Top of page

It's down on the on-beat and up on the off-beat.  I'd thought that was obvious, but for some people it seems to be completely random — and it's most uncomfortable doing a forearm turn with someone who's going up when you're going down.  I tend to stress “down and down and down and down” but it still doesn't help some people.  I point out that it doesn't have to be violent, it can be quite gentle, but it definitely has to be two steps on each foot.  I demonstrate not doing this and then say “That's not a step-hop, it's a jog”.

If you just say “swing”, a lot of people will assume you mean a ballroom hold, which I don't think works for a hornpipe.  I tend to say “cross-hand swing” because that's quick to say, but then I explain that what I really mean is a right forearm hold (which they've already used if they're dancing “Nottingham Swing” for instance) and then left hands joined above or below.  Don't let people do right forearm and left forearm — that just ties them in knots.  And make sure they don't dig their thumb in — that's painful.

Giving weight   Top of page

Yes I keep banging on about this, but it's so important.  Whether you're doing a slipped circle, a right-hand turn with a skip-change step or a two-hand turn with a dance-walk, you need to feel the tension in the hands and arms, a good firm connection without squeezing the other person's hand.  It really does make such a difference, so don't be afraid to stress it time and time again.

Country Courtship        Country Courtship: Music in PDF/MIDI/MP3/ABC formatPrint this danceTop of page

Source: John Young, Dancing Master Volume 3, c. 1727.
Format: Longways duple — double progression
Music: Own tune (jig)

A dance which really needs a skip-change step!  See the instructions here.

Cumberland Square Eight        Cumberland Square Eight: Music in PDF/MIDI/MP3/ABC formatPrint this danceTop of page

Source: English traditional
Format: Square
Music: 64 bar reels/jigs — I've given the two tunes I would use.

A classic from the barn dance repertoire.  Published by EFDSS in Community Dance Manual Volume 1 in the mid-20th century, but that doesn't mean the dance was written then.  It comes from the 19th century quadrilles — see my Connections page for more information.  I once read that a psychologist watching this dance said to the caller, “That's a wonderful example of interpersonal dynamics.  You're dancing just with your partner for the galloping.  Then you and your partner dance with one other couple for the stars and baskets.  Then all four couples join together in the slipped circle.  And finally you're back with just your partner for the promenade.”

Falconer Hall        Hexham Quadrille: Music in PDF/MIDI/MP3/ABC formatPrint this danceTop of page

Author: Peter McBryde — Scottish Country Dance Archives
Format: 4 couples longways
Music: 4 x 48 bar Scottish jigs

A1:Twos face up: ones, twos and threes right-shoulder reel.
A2:Ones stand still, threes stay facing down, twos cast left shoulder: right-shoulder reels of three at the bottom.
B1:At each end, right-hand star.  Set in lines; give right hand to partner and cross over.
B2:Ones and twos take inside hand with neighbour and set; ones cast, twos lead up.  Half double figure eight (twos cast, ones cross moving up etc).
C1:Ones and threes the same.
C2:Ones and fours the same.

Any Scottish dance to a jig or reel will involve a skip-change step, and there are lots of good Scottish dances that English dancers never hear of.  This one needs a good clear walkthrough and precise calling, but it works really well when people have got it.

For the music I'm suggesting “Hexham Quadrille”, which isn't quite Scottish though Hexham is almost in Scotland.  Scottish dance musicians have what John Kirkpatrick calls “medley mania” — they feel they have to change tune for each turn of the dance.  I don't know any historical precedent for this, and I'm quite happy to play the same tune all four times!  Possibly Scottish bands need four tunes because the MC doesn't tell them when to stop and most Scottish dances are done 8 times through.  If you have four tunes you can play 1, 2, 3, 4, 2, 3, 4, 1 which means you start and end with the original tune.

A Scottish dance from session 3 is “Maxwell's Rant”, and here's another easy one — they're both actually English.

The Machine Without Horses        The Machine Without Horses: Music in PDF/MIDI/MP3/ABC formatPrint this danceTop of page

Original instructions on page 5.
Source: John Rutherford — “Twelve selected Country Dances with Figured Basses for the Harpsichord”, London 1772
Modern version: RSCDS Book 12
Formation: 3 couples longways in a 4 couple set
Music: 8 x own tune (reel)

A1:Ones set; cast to second place; twos move up.  Right-hand star with the threes.
A2:Ones set; cast back to the top; twos move down.  Left-hand with the twos.
B1:Ones lead down, twos move up the outside and follow them: down between the threes, cast up the outside to original places, then ones cast into second place as the twos lead up into top place.
B2:Ones and twos, four changes of rights and lefts.

The title may refer to a sedan chair, but not a motor car in 1772!

If you'd like more Scottish dances, see my page on Scottish Dances.

Nottingham Swing        Phillebelula All The Way: Music in PDF/MIDI/MP3/ABC formatPrint this danceTop of page

Source: English traditional
Format: Longways duple
Music: 16 bar hornpipes

The classic English traditional (now described as “ceilidh-style”) step-hop dance.

Clopton Bridge        Print this danceTop of page

Author: John Chapman
Format: 4 couples longways
Music: 4 x 32 bar hornpipes

A modern classic.  John Chapman lived in Stratford-upon-Avon, and Clopton Bridge is one of the main bridges over the river Avon in the centre of the city.

Circle Hornpipe        Print this danceTop of page

Author: Jim Billson
Format: Circle, men on inside
Music: 16 bar hornpipes

Another step-hop dance which goes down well with both experienced dancers and newcomers.