NEFFA Essay: The Balance

Dudley Laufman – December 1997

Articles have been written on the Dreaded Ladies Chain (Re: injured wrists), What Makes a Good Dancer, and, The Look, Ralph Sweet’s great piece. Now it is time for THE BALANCE.

Tony Parkes, Ted Sannella and Rickey Holden all have, more or less, the same descriptions of the step-swing balance and the forward and back balance. Following is from The Contra Dance Book by Rickey Holden:

STEP-SWING: Step on right foot (count 1), swing left foot across in front of right and simultaneously raise and lower right heel or hop on right foot (count 2). Repeat, reversing footwork (counts 3-4). Right hands may be joined during this, or left hands, or both hands, or hands may hang down naturally.

FORWARD AND BACK: Step forward on right foot (count 1), bring left foot up to right without taking weight (count 2). Step backward on left foot (count 3), bring right foot back to left without taking weight (count 4).

Dr. Ralph Piper published an article “50 Variations of the Balance” which appeared in Fiddle & Squares out of Wisconsin in 1952 and later reprinted in Northern Junket, Vol. 5, #1. The above balances were included with many variations.

Ralph Page has talked about some New Hampshire balances. He has not included the Williams twins’ balance they picked from an old French wood chopper. They wore taps on their shoes. This step consisted of shuffling forward on the right foot, having been pushed there by a shuffle of the left foot. Three of these followed by stepping on left foot and swinging right foot/heel in front of the left foot. Sounded like shuffle thump, shuffle thump, shuffle thump click. I have also seen Paul Messer and Arthur Pease of Orford and Johnny Fifield of Canterbury do this step on the polka.

Nor did Page include the famous and original Francis Xavier “Whistling” Smith balance. Franny was a big feller from Somerville, Mass. Used to ride a bicycle from Boston to Peterboro just to dance. His balance went something like this: Stamp down hard on left foot – lift up on that foot and bring the right leg, knee bent, up around his chin, then repeat with right foot down, do a quick shuffle, and stamp the right foot down one beat after the normal time for the balance. Something like that. Ted Sannella and I could both do a reasonable imitation of it. Whenever Fran did it, Ralph Page would say, “Jesus God almighty, what in hell was that?”

But, what Ralph hated more than anything else was the Boston stamp balance. It was the step swing balance but you would stamp hard on both feet at the same time bringing the left foot over across the right, then repeat with the stamp and the right foot across. Page hated it with a passion. He stopped calling any figures that included a balance. The dancers then put the balance in other places, so he stopped calling those figures and eventually put himself out of business in Boston.

The Dueling Balance was not mentioned either, probably because it had not been invented yet. Popular generically among today’s dancers, it seems to be an exaggeration of the forward and back balance. Goes something like this: Partners take right hands, lunge towards each other, engage in THE LOOK, pull mightily back away from each other, jump down hard on both feet (and sometimes on someone else’s toes), and then into THE SWING. (Topic for another article. Any takers?)

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