The Virtues of Inactivity

adapted from a post to rec.folk.dancing, 2003

A caller wrote, discussing dancing a few decades back: "The actives often got to swing when the inactives didn't; they went down the hall and back while the inactives waited, that sort of thing."

That single word "waiting" doesn't do justice to the many possibilities open to the inactives in these older dances:

• They get to talk to each other, and not just those interrupted conversations that we have with a partner in the more modern dances, where you get a few beats of conversation before you're off somewhere else again.

Actives are going down the center and back, inactives waiting, that's 12 beats of music (not counting four for the probable cast off that follows) during which they can talk with each other. This could be dance-related gossip ("Did you notice that X is dancing a lot with Y tonight! Do you think something's going on?") or not related to the dance at all, such as talking about the bumper turnip crop, or the upcoming school bond vote, or the killing frost that hit your dahlias last night, those little non-dancing bits that help build a community...

• They can clog on the sidelines, improvising a percussion soundtrack to the band's tunes, continuing the dance by interpreting it personally...

• They can turn their attention (ears and eyes) to the musicians, actively listening to the music without the distraction of moving for a few moments, watching the interaction of the musicians with each other, perhaps catching a musician's eyes to send a smile or a thumbs-up signal...

• They can let their heart and feet rest up for a moment. Keep in mind that dawn dances are not a new invention. Folks in New England a hundred years ago would get together on occasion to dance all night, starting after the evening farm chores, going through 'til dawn, and followed not by sleep but by another day of physical labor.

• They can watch the styling of the actives. Used to be, in a dance like Petronella where originally it was only the actives who did the "twirl and balance" figure, you'd see a lot of different ways of balancing. You could go off yourself and try to emulate someone else's move, although it was considered poor form to use someone else's balance if they were in your set... And even in a dance where there's not a B&S for the actives, the inactives get to watch more of the dancing and, perhaps, pick up some pointers.

In many of today dance communities, with a non-stop program of dances in which everybody is moving all the time, these options are more limited. That's another reason why it's nice to include some of the older, traditional dances (with actives and inactives) in an evening's program.


David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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