This form of Star goes back to the 17th century. The first published reference that I know is in
"The Spanish Jeepsie" in John Playford’s "The English Dancing Master" (1651): "right hands acrosse and goe round, then left round". (Note: the spelling of the name of the dance varies by edition!)
To make a good Hands Across Star you should curve your hand slightly to make a strong hook:
Tilt your hand slightly (counter-clockwise for your right hand) and hook it with the person diagonally opposite to make a good connection. A Hands Across Star is not four hands; it is two sets of two hands. Do not touch the other person's hand with your thumb. Sadly, many dancers grip with their thumb, unnecessarily, and it is extremely uncomfortable!
I always find Hands Across Stars are most comfortable with the hands at waist level; this also gives the best connection for this hold.
Good connection is especially important for modern choreography; basically, if you are doing a Star one way and back the other way, then it is easy to finish where you started no matter how slowly you move or how poor your connection is. But if you need to Star one way then flow into a different move, you have to travel a full circle and finish where you started. Being well connected really helps you to do this.
The term "Hands Across" is still used widely outside England. The term "Star" is much more familiar to dancers in England. If I call "Right Hands Across" at a regular dance session in England, then my experience is that most of the dancers will attempt to execute some form of Right & Left Through.
Also known as Wrist Star, Box Star, Wrist-Hold Star, Wrist-Grip Star, Pack-Saddle Star, Saddle-Pack Star, Wagon-Wheel (Star), Basket Handhold, Kentucky Star, St Bridgit's Cross Hold.
Plus: (but these can also mean Hands Across): Millstone Star, Mill, Windmill, Moulinet, Old Mill.
You can see the Wrist-Lock Star in this video from 1964 in Northern Vermont (1:27 in is the first one).
Each person makes a strong hook and hooks it over the wrist of the person in front. Always be careful to keep your thumb with your fingers at the top, so that you don’t grip the next person’s wrist (and never call it a Wrist-Grip Star!). This provides even better connectivity than the Hands Across Star. Wrist-Lock Stars are normally done with the hands at waist level.
A survey was held in 2016 on the Contra Callers forum. The conclusion was that the Wrist-Lock star is indeed the standard across the USA for Contra Dances, with only a few areas using Hands Across Stars. When dancers from different areas get together, at festivals, the Wrist-Lock is the default hold.
There are of course exceptions; for example, if the choreography following the Star is, "men drop out, ladies chain" then it is much better to use a Hands Across Star.
My understanding is that, when American contra dances were first published in England, in magazine such as English Dance & Song, no indication of American styling was provided. So people in England just danced them in their local style with Hands Across Stars. Wrist-Lock Stars are still rarely seen in England.
One of the benefits of the Wrist-Lock Star is that it works well for three-, five- and six-person Stars.
Why is it called a Pack-Saddle Star? Because your lay your hand on the wrist of the person in front of you, like a pack saddle on a horse.
I like the term "Wrist-Lock" since it makes it clear that we are using wrists, and since the shape you make looks like the Lock that sword and rapper dancers make when they interlink them all and raise them high. But I am sure that although the move may become even more ubiquitous in contra dancing, the terminology will retain its local flavour.
Sylvia Miskoe, in rec.folk-dancing on March 4, 1999 said: "Wrist grip stars became popular after the appearance at New England Folk Festival (NEFFA) of the Lithuanian Dance Group doing their dances and they all used wrist grips. The square dancers thought it was a neat idea and adopted it." The Lithuanian dancers have been regular performers since the very first Festival in the fall of 1944; we don't know whether the appearance that Sylvia described was at that first festival or at a later one.
There may, of course, have been other times and places where Wrist-Lock Stars were either imported from some other tradition or independently discovered by American dancers. One example found by James Saxe is a German quadrille called "Puttjenter", documented, with a Wrist-Lock Star, in the November 1957 American Square magazine. You can see a version of the dance in this video, with the Wrist-Lock Star at 1:47.
The earliest American reference to a Wrist-Lock Star that James could find was 1949 in Ed Gilmore’s
Square Dance Callers Instruction Course. In the notes on "Texas Star" Ed writes, "Do not teach wrist hold star to beginners at the first two or three dances."
This is a Modern Western Square Dance (MWSD) Star figure. CALLERLAB defines it as:
"Palm Star: Place all hands together with fingers pointing up and thumbs closed gently over the back of the adjacent dancer's hand to provide a degree of stabilization. Arms should be bent slightly so that the height of the handgrip will be at an average eye level."
Personally I find this very unsatisfying:
There is no good connection.
Any connection that is achieved is by gripping with thumbs which is uncomfortable.
People tend to just stick their hand up and grab something; this is uncomfortable.
Aesthetically and functionally I believe it to be the weakest of the three main Star holds.
Neal Schlein said, "The Palm Star was the standard style around Colorado in the 1930s when Lloyd Shaw got started, and for many years after."
The CALLERLAB manual does state: "Some areas dance any stars containing men with a Pack-saddle Star”, so if the call is Men Center, Right Hand Star they will use a Wrist-Lock Star." I have heard that ladies don't join in Wrist-Lock Stars in MWSD because of the hairy, sweaty men's wrists in the south!
These days, outside of MWSD, I believe that I have only ever seen it used (without any attempt to grip) in historic re-enactments where the dancers are moving slowly. I suspect this is done in order to appear stylish, but I doubt if it is historically accurate.
The Lump (AKA Bunch of Bananas, Limp Lettuce)
This is when the dancers have never been taught how to do a Star; they just stick their hand into the middle and grab something. It is to be avoided at all costs!
Fun Star Variants
Partner Only & Twirl
One variant, mainly seen at eCeilidh, is for you only to hold your partner’s hand, your partner being adjacent to you in the Star. Trying to grip the other two hands with a spare finger or thumb is usually not a good idea; just bump hands together.
It is only useful if the sequence is Star Right then Star Left (or vice versa). In this situation, while it does not provide good connection, it does allow for a fun embellishment. As you switch from the Star Right to the Star Left one person can raise the joined hands to twirl the other underneath, as you both stick out your left hand to return.
This is a form of Inside Basket": Make a Wrist-Lock Star with you right hands and take Left Hands Across with your left hands; use a buzz-step to make it go around quickly.
This is another form of Inside Basket": Make a Wrist-Lock Star with you right hands and hook your left hand under the right arm of the person in front, just above their elbow; use a buzz-step to make it go around quickly.
In Appalachian Big Set, a Wagon-Wheel is a Shoulder Star. When there are lots of people the other forms of Star don’t work, so you place your hand on the shoulder of the person in front, rather than on the wrist. You can see it in this video, at about two minutes in; sometimes when the men move to the middle they make a Shoulder Star and continue the figure with their partners beside them.
Stepping in Stars
We have no details of the stepping used in 17th century Hands Across Stars. Documents from the time refer to "the dancing English" and what a wide variety of steps we used, so I assume that we were dancing rather than walking.
Later on, we have clearer information. For example, Thomas Wilson, in his "The Complete System of English Country Dancing" (1816), for "Hands across quite round" specifies "three Chasses Jetté and Assemblé". In simplified modern terminology that is three polka steps and jump.
eCeilidh dancers and enegetic country dancers tend to dance stars with polka steps, or step-hops or rants, depending on the music.
Contra dancers use an energetic smooth walk to get all the way around.
Some people just walk.
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Thanks to all the people who provided information on the forums. There are another twelve pages of notes on the subject. You can search the forum archives, or e-mail me and I will send you a copy.