John Sweeney's Dance Notes
How long is the tune?
Most dances are written for 64 walking steps (if you put stepping in you will of course do a lot more steps!). These are broken down into eight sections of eight steps/beats. That is why most dance figures are eight steps long. Most tunes come in two parts which are known as the A-music and the B-music, each of length sixteen and generally played AABB to give 64 steps/beats. It is useful to listen to some tunes and practice picking out the As and Bs.
If you are using a recording then you need to listen to it all the way through to check that it is well-formed, and that every time through there are 64 beats. Some tunes are “bent”, meaning that they are not sets of eight eights, and some bands play around on recordings and add extra beats or leave some out, or stray from the AABB structure.
If you are working with a band then you need to be aware that they are only human and may occasionally play one too many or one too few As or B thus getting out of synchronisation with the dance. The dance may well still work, but maybe not as well as it might, and those dancers who are musically aware will find it jarring. You need to develop the skill to tell whether the band is in sync and shout “A1” to them next time around if they are straying.
Musicians generally think in terms of "bars" rather than beats. There are generally two beats to a bar in jigs and reels, so they will talk about 32-bar tunes which give us those 64 steps/beats.
While most dances use 32 bars, some use 48 or 64 (easy enough, just repeat some more As and Bs or use a tune with a C-music).
There are also a large number of dances that use tunes of whatever length the choreographer chose to use; this is especially true of modern American ECD choreography. You need to check the instructions or the number of bars in the music if this is the case, and make sure you use a suitable tune. You also need to check with the band as to how many As and Bs you need since there are sometimes multiple interpretations of historical dances with different formats. Written music sometimes has "repeat" symbols; an A music may be eight bars, or eight bars repeated, i.e. 16 bars; make sure that you and the band are working with the same understanding of how long each piece of music is.
What type of tune is it?
There are jigs, reels, waltzes and lots more. If you are looking at written music then it will have a time-signature to give you a clue. For example, jigs are 6/8, waltzes are 3/4, reels are 4/4 or 2/4. If you are listening to a recording then try counting quickly to the music, counting the notes (not the beats). 1-2-3, 1-2-3 is a jig; 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 is a reel. Then try counting the steps you would take to the music. You will normally find that the music comes in eight-step/beat groups. I you get a 1-2-3 feel then it is usually a waltz or a 3/2 tune like "Hole in the Wall". Slip-jigs are 9/8 and sound like jigs, but come in six-beat groups. From a musician's point of view there are also 6/4, 2/2, 3/8 and many others; from a caller's point of view I just want to know whether I am working in threes or fours, and how many steps there are in the phrase.
Dances written for a waltz need a waltz. Most other dances will work to any jig, reel, march or polka. Different types of tune will give a different feel to the dance. For example, try dancing a move with a balance (e.g. Rory O’More) to a reel then a jig - you will find that you bounce more to a jig.
3/2 is another type of tune that occurs quite a lot historically, and is very popular in modern American ECD choreography. Although the beats are in threes, like waltzes, it has a different style and feel, with modern dancers usually walking all three steps with the same emphasis. Historically there is much discussion about what stepping was used.
How fast is it?
Musicians refer to this as the tempo. It is measured in beats per minute: BPM. Try listening to some tunes using a tool like this and see how fast each tune is. The tempo you need depends on the dance:
Contra: 110 to 120 bpm - generally most dances will be in this range but the occasional contra at 105-109 can be good as a change of pace, and bands will occasionally hit 125. Some callers make the mistake of getting the band to play below 110 for the first dance to give beginners more time for the moves. But it takes skill to dance slowly; it is much better, for the beginners, to play at standard speeds.
Country Dancing: 90 to 120 bpm - in the first half of the 20th century speeds up to 135 were normal, but things have slowed down. Some dances work well at below 100, but historically lower speeds were an opportunity to put in more footwork rather than just to walk more slowly. Occasionally you will get one much slower, as low as 80 bpm. Likewise a dance like "Monica's Delight" is usually danced at well over 130 bpm.
Appalachian Big Set/Running Set: 120 to 140 bpm!
Waltz-time dances: around 120 to 140 bpm - some dances work well to slightly slower music but it can become a little laboured; faster than 150 can be tiring, although some traditional dancers dance the couple waltz to much higher speeds.
Hornpipe-step dances: 80-90 bpm (not to be confused with hornpipe tunes, these are dances with a strong step-hop, like Nottingham Swing and Clopton Bridge).
It is important to judge the situation when choosing a tempo. The best tempo will depend on the dance, the state of the dancers, whereabouts in the programme you are and lots more.
What sort of feel should it have?
When working with recordings you will need to listen to a variety of tunes which have the right sort of tune in terms of phrasing, time-signature and tempo, and choose one that gives the feel that you want the dance to have.
When working with a band you need to convey to the band not only the type of tune and the tempo, but also what feel you want it to have, using terms like smooth, bouncy and driving.
How many times through?
Longways Duple Minor (including Contras): It is conventional to dance an odd number of times through so that there is no-one waiting out at the top during the last time through. 7 or 9 is good for small groups; American contras often go for 13 to 15. Agree how many times with the band as they may have arrangements that require more times through.
Longways Triple Minor: The same logic means that 7, 10 and 13 are good numbers.
Set Dances: Usually once or twice for each couple.
Circle Mixers and Sicilian Circles: There are no end effects, so you can run them as long as you like.
For some basic information on how to understand written music, please see Colin Hume's article.
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