Friday, February 20, 2009

Finding Music

A lot of people have asked us where we find music for our dances? How do we know that it works?

Well, first off the music has to break down into the right phrases. It needs to be in 4/4, 2/4 or there are some possibilities in 6/8 (if it is played in a fast 2), there are quite a few jigs, however that won't work because they are for Irish step-dancing and will not give the dancers the straightforward beat they need.

Anyway, you need 64 beats before the song repeats itself. Any typical Irish tune played straight works this way; they're written for dancing! So if the song is in 2/4 (or 6/8) it'll be 32 measures, or 16 measures of 4/4.

The song breaks down more than that, though. When you're writing out a dance you'll write it out with parts A1, A2, B1, B2. It's not arbitrary or made up; it goes with the music. There will be a 16 beat phrase (typically made up of two 8 beat phrases) followed by a repeat of that 16 beat phrases with a slightly different ending leading into the next section. Those two phrases are A1 and A2. Now we have two more 16 beat phrases (made up of two 8 beat phrases) that are once again very similar. That's B1 and B2. That's the song. Now it will repeat.

It's surprisingly easy to find music like this. When we started out, we really didn't have a clue about any of this, but some of it came naturally, and some of it we figured out through random websites, and whatnot.

We started out using just a couple of CDs, Zan McCleod and Martin Hayes mostly. We moved on from there. Now we use quite a bit of Sharon Shannon, because she's fantastic (as long as you like accordian). I've said before that I recommend Choose Your Partners. The beat is pretty much given to the dancers because of the bass on the down-beat and the piano chords on the upbeat. That's what you really want for teaching dance to beginners. Bluegrass tunes will often work at well; bluegrass is not really all that different from traditional Irish music, so you can keep your ears open for music of this sort that will work. In general, the more variety you have the better.

Although I've said that the music needs to be simple and clear, we occasionally break this rule ourselves. On a dance such as the Posties Jig that can be danced in time, but never is, we have stopped being picky. We will dance the Posties Jig to anything upbeat, regardless of how clear the beat is; it's more or less just background music.

Also if you're dancing a major set dance such as The Virginia Reel, The Gothic Dance, or Karissa's Cowboy Reel, the beat should be clear but don't concern yourself with finding music that fits the A-B pattern. It's unnecessary because these dances are longer or shorter depending on the number of couples or how they're called.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


What makes a good dance? Hannah and I write lots of dances, and I think we'd be the first to admit that some of them are better than others. (we might not agree about which ones, though)

One of the things that's most important to me is symmetry. The dance actually needs to be slightly repetitive. You don't always do a whole ladies chain, but it feels nice and natural when you do. Cross. Courtesy Turn. Cross. Courtesy Turn.

You can also do it in a sort of a chiasm:
A: Do-si-do partner
B: Swing your partner
B: Swing your friend
A: Do-si-do partner

I made that sequence up, but I really think that sort of a set-up is nice. That sort of repetition helps the dancer to remember what's going on because there's an obvious pattern.

Although this kind of repetition is not always necessary, when you choose to do something else you have to be careful of how it "fits" because some dances tend to feel like they've been thrown together out of a bunch of cool moves.

This isn't something that is just important when writing dances; when choosing a dance, especially for beginners, it should be symmetrical and logical, so that it has a nice flow to it and is easy to remember. If there doesn't seem to be a pattern to it, you probably should think twice before teaching it to beginners, because it can feel like a dance like that is just move after move after move, with no reason and no way to remember.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Good breeding and good temper are inseparably connected

Our current dance etiquette (listed on ball invitations) is as follows:

  • The gentleman should ask the lady to dance.
  • A lady who is seated indicates that she does not wish to dance
  • A lady need not give a reason for declining to dance with a gentleman, but she should not accept another gentleman on the same dance.
  • After a dance, the gentleman will lead his partner from the dance floor, and both will thank the other for the dance.
  • Dancing with another person is a privilege, and at our balls it is not an indication of personal affection-- rather, we are honoring God together and rejoicing in His gifts of dance and fellowship.
However, reading old books of etiquette is fun. These excerpts are from the book, Ballroom Dancing Without a Master, 1872.

"Even in private balls, no gentleman can invite a lady to dance without a previous introduction." Hm. This would save you the embarrassment of trying to get a guy to tell you his name without having to actually say, "what's your name?"

"No gentleman should accept an invitation to a ball if he does not dance. When ladies are present who would be pleased to receive an invitation, those gentlemen who hold themselves aloof are guilty, not only of a negative, but a positive act of neglect." Reasonable enough.

"To attempt to dance without knowledge of dancing is not only to make one's self ridiculous, but one's partner also. No lady or gentleman has the right to place a partner in this absurd position." Since most people at our dances don't know how to dance I would amend this. "To attempt to dance without attentiveness to instruction is not only to make one's self ridiculous, etc."

"It is not necessary that a lady or gentleman should be acquainted with the steps, in order to walk gracefully through a quadrille. An easy carriage and a knowledge of the figure is all that is requisite." [emphasis in original] We don't even require that!

"No person who has not a good ear for time and tune need hope to dance well." Ouch.

"Good taste forbids that a lady and a gentleman should dance too frequently together at either a public or private ball. Engaged persons should be careful not to commit this solecism." Wow, okay.

"Young gentlemen are earnestly advised not to limit their conversation to the weather and the heat of the room. It is, to a certain extent, incumbent on them to do something more than dance when they invite a lady to join a quadrille. If it only be the news of the day, a gentleman should be able to offer at least three or four observations to his partner in the course of a long half-hour." So conversation is a gentleman's responsibility? Interesting. Of course, if you are dancing together for half an hour then conversation is a necessity not a nicety.

"Gentlemen who dance cannot be too careful not to injure the dresses of the ladies who do them the honor to stand up with them. The young men of the present day are singularly careless in this respect; and when they have torn a lady's delicate skirt, appear to think the mischief they have done scarcely worth the trouble of an apology." I've never had trouble with this one. The young men at our dances are apparently better in this respect. I have had a dress stepped on, but they always apologize profusely.

The etiquette books I read are mostly found here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The SincereIntellectual

This is our simplified version of the traditional dance, the Physical Snob. The Physical Snob is really a little more interesting but can tend to be too fast moving (unless you get really slow music) for most beginning dancers.

Women join hands and the first woman leads the women round the men. (16 counts)

17- 32: Men join hands and the first man leads the men round the women. (16 counts)

B1 Poussette:
First couple joins both hands, the second couple does likewise and, with the first man walking forward right and backwards (the second man doing the opposite with his partner), the first and second couples change places (So that the second couple is at the top with the first couple in the middle) (8 counts)

This time first and third couples hold their partners' hands and, with the first man going back, the first and third couples change places (Third couple is in the middle with first couple on the bottom) (8 counts)

49-64: The first couple leads up the middle to the top and cast to the bottom of the set. (16 counts)

The dance is danced again with the second couple as the head couple.

The terms used in this dance can be found in the post on dance terms.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Couple of Links

Dance music is hard to get right. Before our balls my sister and I have a lot of work to do. The music needs to be the right speed for each dance, provide a solid beat, give the right mood, and let the dancers get through the dance several times. Here's a few useful doo-dads.

I usually splice and loop the songs using GoldWave Editor. Sometimes I get carried away and make them too long, and sometimes I go crazy listening to the same phrase over and over again, trying to cut it in the right spot.

Beats-per-minute counter This thing could be real useful if you want to tack metronome beats on to the beginning of a song (if it doesn't have an introduction) or just to give you an idea of speed.

A definite recommendation of this CD. The songs are at nice dancing speeds and the beat is always laid down nicely. Some of the songs are a bit short, but that's what I use GoldWave for.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Cavalier

According to a 19th century dance manual, a gentleman ought not play cavalier to two ladies. Don't worry, the guys don't ask two girls to dance, but a lot of the figures involve one gentleman and his partner and friend.

Oh, and the swings go by fast. Just enough time to get around once. This'll keep you on your toes.

A duple minor improper contra

1-8: 1st gent (and two ladies) perform a Dunstable Round.
9-16: Second gentleman (and both ladies) circle perform a Dunstable Round

17-24: Right allemande your partner (it will be appropriate to keep your arms closer to your side, rather than at eye level as is often practiced in the Virginia Reel)
25-32: Left allemande your partner

33-36: 1st gentleman swing friend once around
37-40: 1st gentleman swing partner once
41-44: 2nd gentleman swing friend
45-48: 2nd gentleman swing partner

49-56: 1st gentleman (and both ladies) in a Cavalier's Promenade
57-60: 2nd gentleman (and both ladies) in a Cavalier's Promenade
61-64: 2s arch and 1s join hands and go under.

Terms for the dance

Dunstable Round-- circle--8 counts-- A circle with 3 people, one gentleman and both ladies in a duple minor set. To the left unless otherwise specified.

Allemande-- a turn--8 counts-- In traditional contra dancing, a right allemande would be performed by two people joining right hands and walking around each other in eight counts (a left allemande would be to join left hands, obviously). If the allemande is a move performed by a lady and a gent, a shake-hand hold may be used.

Swing-- A turn-- 4 counts (often twice in 8 counts)-- Two dancers stand side by side facing in opposite directions, they then hold each other while moving forwards; the result is that they move together in a tight circle. Stand beside your partner right shoulder to right shoulder, take half a step back, and then put your right feet in so the feet are adjacent. To swing you simply walk round keeping each foot on its circle, taking your weight on the inner foot, and using the outer foot to push you round like working a scooter. Remember to pick the inside foot up to move it round the circle. The standard hold is a Ballroom hold: the man puts his right hand in the middle of her back (and this arm does all the work; she rests her left hand on his right shoulder, and they hold the other hands loosely out to the side.

Cavelier's Promenade--Floor movement--8 counts-- One gent joins his right hand to his partner's left, and his left to his friend's right. They go down the set for four counts, facing the other gent in the set and walk back up for four counts in the same manner.

Arch-- partner/friend move-- 4 counts-- Simply join hands with your partner or friend to form an arch that other couples can pass under.

All terms used should be found here.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Spanish Waltz

This is not an original dance. This is a well-known traditional dance in an improper circle formation (dances like these are called Spanish Circle dances)

Double Circle dance--improper formation. Set up with gents on the inside of the circle, facing their ladies on the outside. Call a hands four. The first gent should switch with his partner so that the gents' left arms are both inside the minor set. (Thus ladies' rights to the inside) When you assume ballroom position your arms will point inside the set and the direction you will travel.)

Measures: Three counts per measure of course!
1-2: Balance with your partner holding right hands (six counts)
3-4: Right hand turn your partner (lady under the gent's arm) Turn to face your friend (six counts)
5-6: Balance with your friend (holding right hands) (six counts)
7-8: Right hand turn your friend. Turn to face your partner (six counts)
9-10: Balance your partner (right hands) six counts)
11-12: Right hand turn your partner. Face your friend (six counts)
13-14: Balance your friend. (six counts)
15-16: Right hand turn your friend (six counts)

You should be back where you started from here

17-20: Star right with set (putting right hands into the center travel clockwise) (12 counts)
21-24: Star left (putting left hands in the center travel counter-clockwise) (12 counts)

Once again, you should have returned to your starting position

25-32: Waltz to the next set past the other couple in the set. Inside lady and partner dance inside around the other couple and outside lady and partner dance outside the other couple to progress. (the gents backs ought to be to each other, this ensures that, if there is a collision, the gents will be the ones to get hurt)-- (8 measures, 24 counts)

The dance begins again with everybody in their new sets.

The terms used in the dance with counting adjusted for three/four time are below.

Balance (your partner or friend) -- partner/friend move--6 counts--2 measures-- The couple faces each other with right hands joined, steps toward your partner with your right foot, on the second beat bringing left foot beside your right foot and lift your heels off the floor slightly (stand on the balls of your feet). On the third beat lower your heels. Repeat this backwards: step back on your right foot, bring your left foot beside your right, lift your heels slightly, and come back down on the third beat.

Right Hand Turn -- partner/friend move--6 counts--2 measures-- The couple holds right hands, and walk towards each other. The gent raises his arm and the lady passes under their joined hands to face back into the set.

Stars--A minor set move-- 12 counts--4 measures- Stars are turns for four people. In your minor set, you reach into the center with one arm (a right arm for a right star, a left arm for a left star) and hold hands, then walk in the direction you're facing. In general people use a sort of up-down step as in the balance earlier in the dance. There are many ways to hold hands in the center. Our favorite way is to have each person hold the wrist of the person ahead of them-- this is often called a Wagon Wheel hold. Another way is simply to "stack" all the hands in the center. A third way is to have the gents hold hands, and ladies hold hands on top of them.

For further terms, consult our dance terms page.