David's Blog

Planning a dance program

What's in a dance program?

I was struck once again, as I was planning my English country dance for Sunday, at the number of variables that get juggled to make a good program.

You start out by knowing that you want some simpler dances at the start. There's always a good chance that there will be less experienced dancers and maybe some—hooray!—who have never done this form of dance before. Those simpler dances give folks a chance to learn some of the basic terminology, which can be a confusing blur of jargon to an outsider's ear: "set and turn single," crossover mirror heys," "half a double figure eight," and so on.

The other great thing about simpler dances is that the experienced dancers can spend more time dancing and less feeling that they need to help the newcomers.

Such help, however well intentioned, can feel intrusive, especially when the helpers have even the slightest edge of irritation in their voice or anything less than a smile. New dancers, like newcomers to any established club, are sensitive about not wanting to ruin it for others. Some of the most successful programs I've called have included lots of simple dances; everyone was able to participate and beginners and old hands—old feet?—alike had fun.

A typical program in Norwich, though, will include some more challenging material, especially in the middle of the program. We have quite a few experienced dancers who are looking for something that pushes their brains a little more. I often include a dance that will be unfamiliar to most of the dancers, perhaps something I've picked up in my travels or a dance I've heard about. That's the case with Zither Man on this Sunday's program; two separate dancers in Florida mentioned it, and I was able to find a video of it on YouTube. From there, a few e-mails produced the directions (confirming my own notation from watching the video) and, more importantly, a copy of the music.

Okay, some easier and some harder dances, some that are old favorites and some that may be new compositions... what else goes into the mix? One obvious category is formation: unlike the contra world, where most dancers expect an entire evening of duple improper or Becket formation, in English country dance we are fortunate to enjoy both longways dances and set dances for two to five couples, some of them in short lines, some in circles, and others in odd formations.

Set dances offer interesting choreographic possibilities that are not possible in longways dances; they tend to be harder as well. In a longways dance, say you start out as a number one couple—you'll learn the figures for that position and then you repeat them over and over again until you reach the bottom of the set. Twos have the same situation moving up the set, and even in a triple minor ("hands six") the twos and threes get to repeat their respective moves as they alternate places moving up.

In contrast, a set dance can feel very different from each place. Take a four couple longways dance, for example. You learn what to do as a first couple; you walk that part and dance it, but the next time through you could be a fourth couple, with a very different set of figures and transitions to remember. If the dance is walked through for all people in all positions, that's too much for most folks to remember, and besides, it takes a long time. So, you leap into the dance and hope that the caller will keep prompting!

What about mood? English offers a wide range of possibilities, from lively to sedate, bouncy to smooth, joyous to meditative. Put too many slow dances one after another, and the energy level flags; similarly, an entire program of zesty dances lacks variety.

So, you balance the difficulty and add variety in formations and for good measure, you make certain that there's sufficient variety of moods. But wait! You have inadvertently programmed five dances in a row all in the key of D major. The musicians aren't going to be happy about that. Some kinds of ornamentation fall naturally in different keys, and most musicians will be happy to have more variety in the key to let them explore other variations on a tune. Don't forget to include both major and minor keys, too.

And while you're at it, do you really want all those dances in 2/2 time? What about the extraordinary variety of metric possibilities? You'll want to include a stately dance in 4/4, with four steps to the bar, several dances in waltz time, some lively jigs, perhaps a driving slip jig (9/8 time, "jiggety jiggety jiggety"). Don't forget 3/2 triple time; the tune can drift on and off the beat before resolving, playing tricks on a mind accustomed to more squared-off tunes.

Here's a chart showing the plan for this month's dance.

O 6/8 G LD
O 6/8 Gm 3 cpl round
N 3/4 Dm circle mixer
N 2/2 F LD
O 2/2 D LT
N 3/2 G LD
O 2/4 Am 3 cpl
N 3/4 D LD imp
N 6/8 D LD imp

-- break --

O 6/8 G LT triple prog.
N 3/4 Am LD imp.
N 2/2 Gm 3 cpl
N 3/4 A LD
N 2/2 Am LD
N 2/4 C LD

That's 15 dances, for a three hour program including the refreshment break. It's almost certain that we won't get through all of them, but I prefer having extra material planned rather than having to scramble to insert something. Yes, the musicians I'm fortunate to work with can play anything I request, and play it well, and I am certainly grateful for their skill; still, it's not good form to ask them to play material at the drop of a hat. Better to give them notice for more tunes than are likely to be needed at the dance.

The late Fried Herman recommended that callers make up a grid with three dances for each slot in the program: the dance you planned to do, plus one easier and one harder. Given the other factors you're keeping in balance, ideally in one slot you might have three three-couple set dances in mind, each in the key of A minor, ranging in difficulty from easy to hard. I don't plan that carefully, but in this program there are—not shown—alternate dances in mind for four slots, plus I have standing at the ready a short list of other dances that I can substitute into the program if we end up with a significant number of less or more experienced dancers.

It's not unusual for callers to spend more time planning a program than it actually takes to dance it. When planning this month's program, I had just returned from a weekend of calling, nearly 13 hours of dances, so I had a lot of material fresh in my mind. This program came together quickly, in only a few hours. We'll see how it goes!


David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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