John Sweeney's Dance Notes
Why does it have so many names? (Some of these are two changes, some are four.)
This article focusses on a group of four people, each person passing two people, commonly known as "Two Changes of Rights and Lefts", or just "Rights and Lefts" or just "Two Changes". There can be more changes; three and four are very common. When done with more than four people it is known as a Grand Chain (Grand Right and Left) or Weave the Ring (done without taking hands). For more information on these moves see Hey Variants.
- Two Changes
- (Half) Right & Left (Half Round/Quite Round)
- (Half) Right & Left Through
- (Two Changes of) Rights & Lefts
- (Two Changes of a) Circular Hey
- (Demi) Chaine Anglaise
- Square Thru Two
- Balanced Square Thru Two
- Cross Trail (Thru)
- Chain Figure of Four
- Quadrille Right & Left
Note: I use the historical role names of Man and Lady below, but anyone can dance any role.
The earliest publication of the move that I can find is in John Playford’s "The English Dancing Master" (1651). In If all the World were Paper; the words are:
"The first four change places, then change with your own men, cross over taking left hands and right with the We. to your places" [We. = women]
This could be two changes starting left with your opposite, without hands, followed by two changes starting left with your opposite, with hands. Note that in these early publications the figures had not been given standardised names, so a full description of the move was needed. There is no information about footwork, styling, hand-holds or facings.
And in Bobbing Joe:
"First Cu. change with the 2. on the same side Then change with your owne"
This could be Rights & Lefts, but the side to pass by is not specified.
Later on, we see terms like "S. Hey" (Single Hey) which is usually interpreted as four changes starting right with your opposite. Cecil Sharp renamed this the "Circular Hey".
Right and Left
In 1740, in Walsh’s "The Compleat Country Dancing Master (Volume the 4th)" we have: "Walley Honey": "The 1st and 2nd Cu. Right and Left half round", and in "My ain kind Deary": "First and 2d Cu. Right and Left quite round". "Half round" means two changes; "quite round" means four changes.
In 1821, G.M.S. Chivers published "The Dancers’ Guide". An example from that in "La Paysanne" is: "Right and left... half right and left", though in Quadrilles the move was more commonly known as a (Demi) Chaine Anglaise.
The Fireman’s Dance has examples of "right and left" from 1887, 1926 and 1941. There is also a 1941 version on that page, with the wording changed to "right and left through". The "through" today implies a courtesy turn, but the move here is described without it. It may be that the "through" here meant four changes rather than two.
So, "right and left" appears to have become standard terminology in the UK and the USA across a number of centuries.
Of course, individual Dancing Masters sometimes used their own terminology. For example, Thomas Wilson (1816) called it "Chain Figure of Four" when it was done in four bars as opposed to the "Quadrille Right & Left" which took eight bars. To confuse things further he used "Right and Left" as the name of a different figure (corner crossings)!
One of the main differences, between the various versions of the figure, is how you finish it. In the old dances it is very rarely specified. In most cases you finish facing your partner; the flow into the next figure doesn't appear to have been given the same importance that it has today. Figures were often finished with a jump (Jetté and Assemblé) or Foot-It, facing your partner. If a different facing is required then the assumption is that the dancers are skilled enough to ensure that they are facing in the right direction for the next figure.
As you finish the figure, two people can naturally finish facing across; the other two are facing out. The most common ending is for those two to do a Polite Turn: as you pull past the second person by the left hand, you do a quick turn towards that person at the last moment, to finish facing across.
Some people suggest that that last turn should be to the right, but the connection with the left hand makes the left turn much more natural.
Right & Left Through
In Quadrilles, Square Dances and Sicilian Circles you tend to start each figure with the man on the left and the lady on the right, facing another couple. Sometime in the early 20th century, once ladies’ clothing took up less room, men started putting their right arm around the lady's waist so that they could rotate as a couple to change places, instead of executing the second change. This is known as a Courtesy Turn. When the figure ends with a Courtesy Turn it is known as a Right & Left Through; this has become the standard way of executing the figure in many genres. It leaves you facing the other couple ready for the next figure.
The earliest description that I know is from "Cowboy Dances" by Lloyd Shaw, 1939, page 127:
In the "right and left through", two couples advance to each other, each lady, of course, being on the right side of her gentleman. Each dancer gives his right hand to the opposite (who, of course, is of the opposite sex as well) and passes beyond, the two couples passing through each other. Each gentleman then takes his lady's left hand in his left hand, and putting his right hand behind her waist, turns her around him to the left while he stands as a pivot. Then the two couples pass through each other again, giving right hands as they do so. Then giving left hands to partners the gentlemen again turn the ladies to place. Right hands to opposites and left hands to partners give it the name "right and left through". Experts usually leave out the handshake, but beginners find it a help.
The Right & Left Through is probably the least intuitive figure in dancing; as the lady pulls by with the right hand it is natural for her to start turning to the right, but she needs to turn to the left. This may be why, in some environments (eCeilidh mainly, I believe) the caller will teach it as Two Changes to keep things simple, but still call it a Right & Left Through.
Of course, if the dance is Proper, then there are two men facing two ladies, and when you get to the second passing it is a same gender pass. In most genres the dancers will just pull by and turn to face in the correct direction, probably using the Polite Turn. But a new style developed early in the 20th century in America. You follow the path of the Right & Left Through, but don’t touch; you turn as a unit, shoulder to shoulder. You can see the Eyes Only turn in this video.
Thanks to Robert Cromartie for finding an early description of this style of executing a Right and Left on page xiii of American Country-Dances Volume I: Twenty-Eight Contra-Dances by Elizabeth Burchenal (1918).
At around 1:39 in the same video you will see some of the dancers putting their arms around each other’s waists. This is a common variant, done symmetrically; it is not one person turning the other (as in a Courtesy Turn), but two people turning each other. It is a very useful variant for helping beginners since the Eyes Only version can be confusing.
These variants are all designed to ensure that both dancers end up facing towards the other couple.
Modern Western Square Dance (MWSD) wanted the option to finish facing in a different direction, so they created a figure called Square Thru (at 14.33 in the video) back in the 1950s. In a Square Thru Two you start standing beside someone, you pull by the person you are facing with the right hand and turn quarter to face the person beside whom you started, then you pull by that person by the left hand and do not turn. This leaves you with your back to that person.
It would appear that some contra dance choreographers and callers decided that the term "Square Thru Two" sounded nice so they decided to use it. But they ignored the MWSD definition and made a new definition, using "Square Thru" even though what they mean is "do two changes, and finish facing whichever way I tell you to".
Cross Trail Thru
As if that wasn’t enough MWSD also decided to define Cross Trail Thru as:
"From facing couples: As one smooth motion, Pass Thru and Half Sashay. Ends in couples back-to-back."
The Half Sashay means slide past your partner to change places without turning.
This is an older call, still used in square dances outside MWSD, but no longer defined by MWSD. It was also known as Cross Trail Thru (at 13.28 in the video).
This definition is from Sets In Order Year Book of Square Dancing No. 1.1956 (page 7):
"Cross Trail: (As used in Southern California)
When one couple is active and advances to an inactive couple, the active couple splits the inactive couple. The active lady is in the lead. She crosses to the left; her partner follows and crosses to the right to follow the next call."
Note that which way you face is not defined in this figure; it is commonly followed by a call which has the active couple continuing in the directions that they are going, usually passing behind some of the other dancers. Choreographers use it for two facing couples at the same time when it is basically Two Changes of Rights & Lefts Without Hands.
A hundred years earlier, a Cross Trail for one couple, with them returning to place around the outside, was known as "Le Tiroir" in quadrilles.
With Hands or Without Hands?
You may have noticed that some of the descriptions above specify that you make the first pass without hands, and some say that you do use hands.
In some parts of America Right & Left Through is always done with hands, in other places it is always done without hands. Some people have decided that Four Changes is with hands, and that Circular Hey means without hands. There are no such rules; it is just local custom, or the caller’s preference.
Jim Saxe found these two references for "RIGHT AND LEFT":
The two full descriptions use almost identical wording, but the second one doesn’t mention hands during the crossing.
- "Good Morning" 1926: "couples cross over, ladies on the inside, gentlemen in passing touching lady's right hand"
- "The Country Dance Book" 1937: "couples cross over, ladies on the inside."
Read this 1949 article from "Step by Step Through Modern Square Dance History" by Jim Mayo for an insight into how some of the conventions were decided by committee!
As Alan Winston says, "The ethnography of hands on Right & Left Through now probably has a lot more to do with where the most influential dancers (sometimes the early adopters) in a particular region learned to dance than with independent speciation during the post-1950s contradance revival."
Note: If you do use hands make sure to just make a hook with your fingertips and pull past without gripping; let go immediately so that you don’t hurt the other dancer.
While Right & Left Through was always "there and back" in the old dances, finishing where you started, these days, with more flexible choreography, there is often only one crossing before you move on to the next figure.
So, fifty years ago, if the call was "Right & Left Through" then the dancers would go there and back. Usually these days dancers will only execute one crossing, finishing opposite where they started, unless the caller adds, "and back". Some callers like to emphasise that there is only one crossing by calling, "Half Right & Left Through".
Right and Left was originally "half round" or "quite round". But this figure is more flexible than the Right & Left Through with its Courtesy Turns, so there are lots of examples of passing two, three, four or even five people. A common modern nomenclature is "X Changes of Rights & Left", where X is the number of changes to execute. "X Changes" is a common short-hand for this.
Contra dancers and Square dancers usually take two beats (steps) to do one change, but many of the old country dances specify four beats for each change, or three in triple time or waltz time. One of the skills of dancing is to adjust your speed and stepping to use up the correct number of beats and arrive at exactly the right time to flow into the next figure.
Taking four steps to pass one person is a challenge for many contra dancers who want to keep moving at high speed. This is probably what resulted in a new variation:
Balanced Square Thru Two
Take right hands with the person you are facing, balance forward and back, then do Two Changes of Rights & Lefts. The balance takes up four beats, so the dancers can now do the Two Changes in two beats each.
In individual dances, stylistic changes can be seen as time passes.
For Money Musk, 19th century manuscripts say "right and left atop" or "right and left four". But modern American dancers do it with the Eyes Only version as you can see in the video.
Something similar appears to have happened to Devil’s Dream; in this dance the "full right and left" from old manuscripts has been transformed into "right and left through". Whereas the original figure left everyone facing in the right direction for the next figure, the modern version leaves everyone facing across with their arms around each other; everyone has to dis-entangle and turn before they can do the next figure. I have always felt that is a very weak point of the dance and that the old version flows much more smoothly.
At contra dances, during a Right & Left Through, you will sometimes see one couple making an arch to cross the set then executing a California Twirl to change place on the other side. While some couples are confused by people doing this to them, others take the opportunity to get close to each other and shimmy through the arch turning slowly to the other side.
Some people hate this type of distortion of the figure; others just like to be playful as they dance (as long as they don't break the dance or confuse beginners). Without innovation and improvisation, we wouldn’t have the rich variety of dance that exists today. Who knows how the next generation will dance these figures!
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