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Sally's Journal
June 28th, 2017
11:09 am


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I was at a ceilidh the other week, which had attracted quite a few students who were bright, but hadn't done a lot of dancing before. After a few successful contras, the caller tried Fiddleheads and it, err, really didn't go well. I've been musing about why, and I came up with the following theory about folk dance move hardness.

Folk dance moves have (at least) four axis of hardness.

1) Simple to Complex. This is what people usually think of as 'hardness'. Walk in a circle is easier than walk in a figure eight.

2) Group to Solo. This is about two things, whether everyone else is doing the same thing as you, and whether there is some way to physically drag you through the thing. If four people dance round in a circle, that is easier than if the first person skips round the rest of the people who stand still, even though the physical move is the same for that person. Dancing is easier when there are people to copy and people to guide you.

3) Common to Rare. A do ci do and a mad robin are remarkably similar moves. But one happens all the time, and so people know what it is, and one is a rarer thing, so people aren't as immediately sure what to do.

4) Returning to Rearranging. Some things get you back to where you started. This is easier than having to be somewhere else, because if the (eg) reel goes completely wrong, you can get back to where you started and you are in the right place for the next bit. Some things progress you in fairely standard ways (eg move the 1s to below the 2s). Some things just Totally Rearrange the Set (eg tea kettles changing orientation, or turning four people in a square into four people standing in a diamond). This is harder than just getting back to where you started.

5) Short to Long. Things that start hard get easy when you do them for 16 bars, so half a ladies chain is harder than a full ladies chain not just because of the improvement in returning v's rearranging, but because you get longer before you have to worry about the next thing. (There's probably another thing about density of hardness, one hard move in a dance where everything else is circles and stars will fly more than 10 different hard moves linked together).

So you can now think about folk dance moves on these axes:

Circling - simple move, very group (everyone holds hands and does exactle the same thing), very common, completely returning, goes on for 16 steps usually - this is about as easy as it gets.

Circling three quarters - as above, except less common, and no longer returning, more rearranging, and just 8 steps, so harder.

Do si do - simple move, but a bit more solo (you're moving in the opposite direction to your partner, no-one is holding your hand or steering you, but you are mirroring what they are doing), very common, completely returning, not too rushed.

Reels - more complicated move, surprisingly solo (no-one leading you, or anyone you can directly copy), but fairly common, and returning, usually has quite a lot of time for it though.

Ladies' chain - more complicated move, quite balanced between group and solo (you are always holding someones hand, but not doing exactly the same as anyone else), fairly common, and returning.

Petronella - quite a complicated move (turning one way while moving the other), balanced between group and solo (you are doing exactly the same as everyone else, and can have a quick tug in the right direction from the circle, but you do your turn on your own), not that common in English ceilidh, and not immediately returning (until you do four), and quite quick.

etc etc.

So this is my theory about what went wrong with the start of Fiddleheads (1s cross over (passing right) and go left around one person into the middle of the set, lady facing down, man facing up, so you form a diamond, the first man with his original twos, but the first woman with the twos above) It's a fairly simple move - four steps across the set, turn left, come back to the middle of the set. But it's almost totally solo (if you're very leet and remember to look at other sets you can copy your mirror further up, but no-one else in your set is doing the same move as you), it's very rare (99% of the time if you cross with your partner you both turn together down or up the set, and you hardly ever stand in diamonds), it's ridiculously rearranging - half the people don't end up dancing with the same group of 4 they started with, you don't end up back in a longways set, you end up in diamonds, and it's pretty quick, you go straight into the petronellas without much time to catch your breath.

Of course, the real reason it didn't go very well was because the newest people turn up last, and are then dancing at the bottom of a set miles away from the caller (in quite a flat hall) with other new people. I don't know how you fix that.

I think this gives us a framing to think about which things will be hard for different groups. With complete newbies, the common / rare axis goes away completely, because everything is new (although over the course of an evening things that build on earlier dances help). With a mixed crowd of experienced and new people, you'll get through things that are very hard overall so long as they're a lot more 'group' and a lot less 'solo'.

Anyway, just rambling...

(4 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:June 28th, 2017 12:29 pm (UTC)
Interesting perspectives. I was also there, and didn't think that any of the contras were successful; there was colossal confusion during basically all of them towards the bottom end of the hall. I actually thought that Fiddleheads probably went the best of all of them, and the only actual problem it had is that everybody, having done it more or less right first time, ended up in a diamond dancing with somebody else and thought that this couldn't possibly be correct and complained. Once people had been told what success looked like it went quite smoothly.
[User Picture]
Date:June 28th, 2017 01:39 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry I missed ceilidh, I'd hoped to come.

That sounds like a good division of the difficulties to me.

It seems calling for beginners usually works amazingly well considering you're trying to teach a dance on the spot. The problems I notice tend to be things like, not making it clear where you're supposed to end up, or who with, etc, so if you get confused or don't know the terminology, beginners start off in the right general direction and can be gently steered. It usually works fine, but can go wrong when there's a set of *entirely* beginners.
[User Picture]
Date:June 29th, 2017 10:00 am (UTC)
That sounds like a useful classification (and reminds me, I should try to find some kind of called dancing in this country as I do enjoy it although I am very bad!)
[User Picture]
Date:July 1st, 2017 10:00 am (UTC)
What you described ("1s cross over (passing right) and go left around one person into the middle of the set, lady facing down, man facing up, so you form a diamond, the first man with his original twos, but the first woman with the twos above") is certainly very confusing. Even if first couple separate from each other, they can't make a four-pointed diamond.




If 1st couple crosses straight across and both turn leftwards, man will go up into the next set and lady will go down into her own set. If she faces down she'll face 3rd couple. He, though, will be looking up at the 4th (or whatever number is bottom couple) in the next set up.

Is that correct? If so then they each make a three-body shape with their respective couples.

The only way to make them into a four-body diamond shape with *both* turning left is this:

"First couple cross *down* by the right and cast behind to finish lady [facing] down, man up, in the middle of the set."

If they cross dead straight across and want to finish lady down, man up, in a four-hander, then man has to cross over and turn to *his right*, and lady crosses over and turns to her left.

(For me, the use of boating terminology - especially the directionality of "casting" and use of left and right - is a real help. Scotty dancing tells people where they should be ending up by the end of each phrase, too.)

"Anti-clockwise" is a visual cue for what is a set of gross motor actions, so "take hands, balance in and out and twirl as you move one place anti-clockwise round the diamond; balance and twirl again, and the ones do an extra half turn; 1s swing their partner" , would translate as

"Take hands, then balance in, balance out, drop hands, and twirl one place to your right, to end first couple on wrong sides, second couple in the middle of the set. Repeat to end first couple back in the middle; they add a half turn and swing their partner."

Offhand I don't remember which Scottish dance this reminds me of, but up to this point, and including the four- handed promenade down, it feels familiar. Scotty dancing would have end people set and turn rather than plain turn, and then prom back up, turn and cast.

As with all these dances, if the first 8 bars are stuffed there is no retrieving it. (You could also try requiring beginners to be in the top sets closest to the caller :-). )

What is the right way to begin? I am intruiged!

The inventive chap who wrote the dance knew what he wanted. I think he just didn't write it clearly enough.
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