The Dance Is Not The Tune!

Many dance books provide a tune to go with each dance. BUT... in many (most?) cases the tunes are only provided as examples, guiding the reader towards the style of tune that the choreographer envisioned when they created the dance.

In reality: Tune medleys are very common in country dancing in England. If there is a tune closely associated with a dance then the band will often start and finish with that, but play different tunes in between. Sometimes hearing the original tune coming round again lets you know that this is the last time through.

A nice, recent example is Albireo’s recording of "Hole in the Wall". Steve Hodgskiss wrote a new tune called "Hole in the Roof" which they switch to part way through, then back to Purcell’s tune at the end.

Country dancing encompasses all the traditional/folk/country dances from England and the (former) colonies for the last 500 years, including all the specialised variations such as Contra Dance, ECD, eCeilidh (that is English Ceilidh), Modern Western Square Dance, lots of other Squares, and all the other wonderful genres. It is very difficult to generalise about this wide spectrum of dances and tunes, but, in general, I believe that most dancers are, and always have been, happy to dance whatever dance the MC announces or calls, to whatever music the band plays.

I sometimes call the same dance twice in a row. But I do it to two completely different tunes: different speeds, different styles, different feel. The dancers love seeing how the choice of music can make it feel like a completely different dance.

Did every musician, from the 17th century on, have every tune book? Could every musician read music fluently? (I wish I could!) Or did they just play a suitable tune so that people were able to dance?

Did they even always have music? Cecil Sharp, in "The Country Dance Book Part 5", describing Kentucky Running Set (Appalachian Big Set) said:

17th and 18th Century

On his Web site Colin Hume say, "I know of four dances with exactly the same figures - this happened quite a lot in the eighteenth century." One example of four identical dances with four different tunes is: The last one is even in 3/2, a completely different musical signature from the other three.

Cecil Sharp, when interpreting the Playford dances, started out trying to keep the tunes and dances together as they were published. In "The Country Dance Book Part 2" he says, "It has already been pointed out (see Part 1) that the Country Dance ordinarily consisted of a series of figures arbitrarily chosen to fit a given tune, and that it was only rarely that any of these became stereotyped by usage and achieved universal acceptance.
"Naturally I found that many of the best tunes were attached to dances which for one or other of these reasons had to be excluded; while, per contra, dances otherwise free from objection were often allied to poor tunes. My selection had, therefore, to be a compromise. I might, of course, have transferred the good tunes mated to indifferent dances, to the good dances set to bad tunes. And remembering the arbitrary way in which Country Dances were often compounded, I should have had ample justification for adopting such a course. On reflection, however, I decided, so far as this book was concerned, to print for each dance the tune with which it is associated in "The Dancing Master". In future I may, perhaps, act differently."

And indeed, he did act differently! In his later volumes many of the dances were matched to tunes that he selected for their quality, rather than for just being published with the dance originally. For example, he published "The Geud Man of Ballangigh" to the tune of "Hunt the Squirrel".

19th Century

A typical early 19th century example is the College Hornpipe. In the preface to one of his books Thomas Wilson states, "it contains all the good old Dances that have stood the test of time, such as "The College Hornpipe" and "Haste to the Wedding"". He then proceeds, in this and later volumes, to give at least five different versions of the dance. One can only assume that he meant that the tune was popular, not a particular set of figures; his books teach you how to create dances to fit any tune.

In Wilson's 1820 "Companion to the Ballroom" he gives multiple versions of dances for most tunes, often as many as five different versions, some 16-bar examples, and some 32-bar examples. I assume this is because, rather than recording existing dances, he was actually providing samples for the ladies to use when they called or lead a dance at their next assembly.

The leading couple would devise a set of figures that fitted a certain length of music; this would be known as the "Figure". Then, "The couple about to call the Dance, should inform the Master of the Ceremonies of the Tune and Figure, that he may give directions to the different Sets, (if more than one) and direct the band accordingly".

This is one of the reasons that Jane Austen doesn't give the names of the dances in her books; they didn't have names - they were just sequences of figures that a couple chose to lead when it was their turn: "On entering the Ball Room, each Lady intending to dance, must be presented by the Master of the Ceremonies with a ticket, on which is inscribed the number of her call."

Likewise GMS Chivers in "The Modern Dancing Master" (1822) says, "The Figures are so arranged, that any New Tune, or one particularly wished to be danced that is not in the collection, can be easily selected, observing that the tune contains the same number of bars as the Figure requires."

Quadrille were extremely popular in the 19th century. Paul Cooper says, here: "Hundreds of Quadrille Sets were published in England in the 1820s (though often as music without dance figures)." and here: "It's important to understand that the choreographies of the First Set were danced to many different tunes."

See also Susan de Guardiola's excellent article.

It is my distinct impression that, historically, there was much less emphasis placed on making one figure flow into the next, especially at the point where the end of the sequence transitions into the next time through. There is much more focus on this in 20th century choreography. Also, because, in many cases, any set of figures went to any tune, there are far fewer examples of the movements matching some special characteristic of the music. I am not convinced about the concept that "the music will tell me what to do". At Morris dancing, one Foreman would often say, "Play the music so that it reminds me how the stick-clashing goes". Unfortunately the music told him something different every week!

20th Century

Check out the dances from English Dance & Song - quite often there is no tune, and if there is a tune it is usually just a suggestion.

Community Dances Manual 1 (1949): "Some of these melodies are attached to particular dance figures but most of them can be used at will for a whole heap of dances." The examples give in the original publications are often different from the ones provided in the modern reprint compilations.

For most modern genres, such as Contra Dance, eCeilidh, Barn Dance and MWSD, the caller suggests the feel that they want for the dance, and the band selects the tunes and medleys that they wish to use. This freedom has allowed the bands to experiment with different styles and genres of music and bring innovative music to the dances.

Yes, there is a modern American genre, known by Americans as ECD, for which the majority of new choreographies are designed to go with specific tunes. But that is only a small part of the totality of English country dancing. And, sorry guys, not all of those new tunes are wonderful!

One dance I remember was falling apart completely until the band asked the caller if they could play a different tune. They did, and the dance went perfectly. The original tune is not necessarily the best tune!

I quite often find a new choreography that I want to call, but can't find a good recording of the music. I hope the composer of the dance doesn't mind that I call it to a different tune. Surely it is better to be able to enjoy the dance to any tune, rather than not dance it?

I was challenged by some dancers when I called the late Wendy Crouch’s wonderful "Winter Solstice" to a tune of my choosing. They had somehow got it into their heads that the dance has to be danced to a specific tune. No. I have been told emphatically by Wendy’s husband that she wrote it without a tune in mind, and despite it often being danced to certain tunes, she was always happy for anyone to dance it to any tune. I currently call it to "On the Danforth" by Wild Asparagus. It feels great and builds to a wonderful climax.

When I am calling I would much rather that the band play a tune that they know and love and have practiced, rather than trying to make them learn some obscure tune. The end result is usually much more enjoyable for the dancers and the band.

Yes, some dances require other than 32 bars, so it may be easiest to stick to the specified tune. Yes, some tunes have some characteristic that makes certain moves feel better. Yes, some tunes are so closely associated with a dance that it is great to start and finish with that tune. But, over the last 500 years, I would suggest that these are the exception rather than the rule.

Experiment and have fun! :-)

Back to Dance Articles Index.

Feedback is very welcome on any aspect of these notes or Web pages.

Please contact John Sweeney with your comments.