Dudley Laufman – December 1997
The following article was written to mollify some dancers who sometimes travel to “contra” dances, and bug me to do Chorus Jig at our dances, somehow not being aware of the 20 or so teen age kids from Camp Yahoo who just walked in clapping and stomping. Please understand that I do not in any way advocate that other callers do things the way I do as written about in the following article, nor even share the same emotions. It works for me and as I enter my 50th year of calling and playing for dances, I am happy to share some of my experiences.
Two Hundred and fifty years ago, people with means sent their children to dancing school. The dancing master played the fiddle and taught the dances. there were no callers in those days. The dance would start with the top couple doing the figure and after they had progressed two or three places down the set, they would continue and the new top couple would start following the example of the first couple. The longways dances were all duple or triple proper. No cross over…no “hands four”. Some of the dances were Black Joak, Hunt The Squirrel, Barrel of Sugar. Outside of the dancing school, these dances were done at private assemblies.
People who did not attend dancing school, or those without means, danced in their homes or at the tavern. They did three-hand, four-hand, six-hand and Virginia reels, jigs and Scotch reels. There was no calling or teaching.
Calling was invented sometime in the 1800’s. Chorus Jig, Money Musk, and Hull’s Victory were now in vogue. Still taught in dancing schools, they became more readily available to everyone because of the calling. Dances were still not taught or “walked through” at public or private gatherings. If Chorus Jig were announced, only those who knew it got up to dance. Those who didn’t, sat it out. the prompter didn’t say, “This is only for those who know it”. (Back in the ’70’s that was done at some dances. I was asked to do that but I refused. At public dances, everyone has paid to get in, therefore they have a right to dance any of the dances they choose.)
With the advent of the microphone, the “walk through” came into use and the public dance became the dancing school and/or vice-versa. Ed Larkin of Chelsea, Vermont, formed a troupe of dancers who demonstrated the contras and then got the public up to dance with them. In the ’30’s and ’40’s, Ralph Page of Keene, New Hampshire, held dancing classes on week nights and Saturday afternoons throughout the Monadnock Region, so that by the time Saturday night rolled around, he had a healthy core of folks who knew the squares and contras being done then with little or no teaching or walk through. This is when I got into it. Everything was in place….a good warm hall with a wooden floor, good food and drink, atmosphere of courtship, great music, and dancing. No teaching. This is my memory and my vision of how a dance should be.
It is difficult at most of the public dances I play for in rural New Hampshire to conduct the learning part, what with noisy latecomers, equally noisy experienced dancers, and confused newcomers. I hate having to shush people up. Sounds too much like school. I usually can do Jefferson & Liberty, Pop Goes the Weasel by starting them the old way. But, Chorus Jig? Fawgeddabowdit. If some of the hotshot dancers took off their blinders and observed the progression in Jefferson being too difficult for the crowd, they might think twice about asking for Chorus Jig. It is very painful for me to watch newcomers struggle unsuccessfully with contry corners….to watch experienced dancers not help….to watch hotshot dancers go at it poorly. My rule of thumb for most dances in northern rural New Hampshire, if it is Saturday night, and/or if there is beer being served, don’t teach. If experienced dancers find their way to one of these dances, they will have to take it as it is sans Chorus Jig.
I might call Chorus Jig near the end of the evening if all else is equal. But, I won’t teach it, or any dance of that ilk. If I think a dance will take more than two or three minutes to explain, I’ll pass on it and do something else. There are plenty of dances that do not require lots of teaching time: The Tempest, Speed the Plow, Lady of the Lake, etc. The important thing is to maintain the social atmosphere of the dance.
So, you might well ask, how are the old or even new dances to be learned? Mostly, I would say, by the way it is being done by most callers…talk through/teaching, walk through/teaching, followed by actual dancing, starting the process again for the next dance. Learn as you dance. Some try a teaching time 1/2 hour before the dance begins. (In most parts of semi-rural New Hampshire I find this method to be useless as the folks who really should be there are still at their dinner party, arriving after the dance begins fortified with a little wine under their belts to bolster their courage). Things get out of kilter if the callers lean too heavily on the learn part, and/or choose dances that are too complex, or, as in many cases, choose only to do contemporary duple improper dances. Rarely Money Musk.
If asked to, I would conduct a class or workshop on these old dances.* I could do an evening for just those who know how.
Or, I could do what dancing masters did in Keene and England in the late 1900’s, early 1900’s. Instead of the 1/2 hour instruction period prior to the dance (mostly useless), the instruction part would run from 8:00 until 10:00. Have refreshments and then proceed with the dance, doing the ones that were taught at the class time. Not sure how this would work, but I’m willing to give it a go.**
Learn as you dance is probably the way to go for most people. Actually this is the way we do it, except with no emphasis on the teaching part and lots on the social aspect. Being true to my vision.
* In the ’70’s I got a grant from the Arts Council to conduct a series of dance classes in Concord, Canterbury, and Franklin, six classes in each town. They were well attended. Dances taught were Lady of the Lake, Chorus Jig, Hull’s Victory, Money Must and Petronella. None of those folks are dancing now…they all had kids, moved away, got divorced, etc.
** “In the early 1900’s there was a teacher of dancing in Workington, a Mr. Brydon. He was fifty years old at the time and was a full-time Teacher, holding his classes over his wife’s dress-making shop in Oxford Street. He held regular classes from 5:00 to 7:30 PM for children and young adults. Then, from 7:30 to 10:00 PM he held dances, usually attended by thirty or forty people who paid admission. There was little formal tuition at these dances, but Mr. Brydon would make use of former pupils by asking them to take up beginners. Like all the other teachers, he played the fiddle for his dances. He would play, dance, and call out the instructions all at the same time … in amoung them, playing away, telling them what to do. ‘Ladies in the center, Ladies chain…’ He did the social dances, Quadrilles, Caledonians, Spanish Waltz, Circles, Sir Roger de Coverly, Triumph, Varsouvienne, Valetta, waltz, and the traditional Square Eight, Long Eight, and Six Reel. Although he did not teach stepping at these dances, his former pupils would use the ‘Shuffle off’ in the square dances, and those who could not step would stamp their feet to the music and beat out the rhythm, ‘If you’re an angel, where’s your wings?’, the same rhythm as the Shuffle off.” — From Traditional Dancing in Lakeland , J. Flett