The Dancer’s Word.

The Dancer’s Word.

In the spirit of the times, I’ve taken up the opportunity to recommit to some things that I’ve put on the backburner. One of those things is learning sean-nos dancing. Emma O’Sullivan is teaching sean-nos on the Zoom platform, and I’m subscribed to the block she’s hosting at present. Having dancing at the front of my awareness, I realized something. Over the years, I’ve made every effort to be critiqued by other musicians, and I’ve also made every effort to build relationships with dancers. And yet, it has never even crossed my mind *to be critiqued* by dancers.

I haven’t had every opportunity to play for dancers, but I have had many experiences with them, especially after my street performance project, as well as taking up contra dancing. But you’d think that somewhere along the way, I would’ve sat down with one of my many friends who dance, and asked them if they could give me a word or two about my playing. I hope to change that sooner than later.

Have any of you ever had any particularly interesting conversations with dancers about the music? I remember very recently, a Youtube video popped up in my autoplay of dancers(not related) talking music and how they related to it. I was astounded by how much new information I learned. Whatever the case, I hope everyone is doing well in these dark times, and that you’re all finding some form of peace and joy; Even if it’s away from the tunes.

Re: The Dancer’s Word.

My main experience of playing for dancers is Border Morris. Their main critique is ‘too fast!’. If you are the lead player, I think it is always a good practice to take a big breath and slowly let it out before counting in or leading in the tune, otherwise, in the moment, things tend to get too fast.

Re: The Dancer’s Word.

My main experience of playing for dancers is Set Dancing. Their main critique is ‘too slow!’ for reels, too fast only for polkas. Otherwise they are mainly happy that they have live music instead of a CD. We got constructive critique from the dance teachers. When we started playing with our ceili band, their main critique was lack of rhythm for reels but later they said, we have improved over the years. One of the teachers said we have a good rhythm, especially for the composition of our band with 3-4 fiddles, one flute and a guitar. No Piano or box.

Re: The Dancer’s Word.

I have quite a lot of experience playing for dancing, but not for *dancers* per se – the ‘ceilidhs’ I play for are mostly private functions (weddings etc.), where few of the dancers are experienced (or sometimes even willing) and are led by a caller. The dance repertoire consists primarily of a mixture of English and Scottish country dances and N. American square and contra dances, which, it seems, are quite forgiving in nature, are danced with a basic walking or skipping step and tolerate a wide range of tempos, depending on the ability of the dancers. The main thing required of the musicians, then, is to be able to play at any tempo (which is rarely fast) and to keep it rock-solid, or adjust it as directed by the caller.

Early this year, I was engaged to play for a monthly Irish setdancing class (taught by an English couple, living in Wales, who were brought together at an Irish setdancing class in London); unfortunately, ‘factors beyond our control’ got in the way after the second month and it has not been able to take place since. In preparation, I was lent a CD box set of ‘music for the sets’, to work out tune sets to fit the particular dances (For those familiar with setdancing, this is, no doubt, second nature). I also practised matching the tempo of the recordings, which was right at my technical limit. Part of the reason, however, for engaging live musicians was that the recorded music was too fast for teaching purposes and even when we (myself on fiddle and a concertina/accordion player) came to play, we were asked to slow down - so the tempo, in the end, was brisk but comfortable.

I have played for stepdancers a handful of times and, yes, they can be *very* particular about tempo. But I cannot say that I have ever been subjected to an in-depth critique by a dancer.

Re: The Dancer’s Word.

Having been introduced to this music by a dance teacher, I have been around dancers the whole time I’ve been playing. Most of my playing for dancers has been for step dancing or ceili dancing. I’ve played for a handful of big Christmas performances, regular ceilis, etc. And I’ve always found playing for dancers to be fun, especially ceili dancing, because you can really help drive the energy in the room, and it can become a symbiotic relationship where the musicians and the dancers are feeding off of each other’s energy.

But maybe the most important interaction I’ve had with regards to the music and a dancer is that one of my early banjo students was a former professional dancer. He had done several of the big show tours, and he and his wife met dancing on a tour. He came to me, having never played an instrument other than recorder when he was in school. I lent him a nice little 17 fret open back banjo, and in his first lesson, I showed him how to hold it, how to hold the pick, and what notes were what. We went over the D scale, and then I taught him a single reel. All the while, he was remarking how hard it was, and I was amazed that he was able to just do everything I told him to, including learning a tune his first day! I think he had just had so much practice exerting control over his body that he was able to absorb what I told him and then just do it.

But the more flabbergasting moment was our second lesson a couple weeks later. He returned to me, and I asked him to play the tune I taught him, which he did remarkably well! But then came the surprise. He had learned 4 more tunes, which he had just pulled out of his head! (Including the 5 part King of the Pipers jig). He was one of the rare dancers that was always into the music, and he had been dancing to these tunes since he was 7 years old…

Needless to say, he progressed very fast as a student. And not long after that, we were having discussions about how the structures of the music and dance are intertwined. We were constantly learning things from each other about the music, because his innate feel for the rhythms was impeccable, and my knowledge of the music was filling in blanks for his understanding too. Now 9 years later, he and his wife are some of our best friends, and in many ways he is a better banjo player than I am…

Re: The Dancer’s Word.

"… it can become a symbiotic relationship where the musicians and the dancers are feeding off of each other’s energy."

Yes, indeed. This is just as much the case with inexperienced dancers, who get ‘high’ on finding they can do it, or on laughing at their own incompetence (and, dare I admit it, sometimes the band laughing at our own incompetence - I never mentioned the ‘p’ word 😉 ). The ‘craic’ of the dancers feeds into the music and we deliver it back to them, and they dance better (…at least, with more exuberance and abandon).

Re: The Dancer’s Word.

That is so cool Reverend!

I’ve had some experience from both sides of the coin. I’ve played for dancers in an Irish-style Celidh band, on Highland pipes for Highland dancing, and most fun for me playing in a Balkan-style dance band playing for Bulgarian and Macedonian dancing.

After playing music for some years I began doing the dancing side of things, with Scottish Country Dancing.

When playing for dancers I sometimes felt like little more than a metronome, but when I danced I began to understand how many cues the dancers take from the music. In Scottish Country Dancing the dances have varying levels of complexity, and the challenging thing with the more advanced dances is remembering how the heck they go. I felt that without the music I couldn’t get through a dance, that the music has a mnemonic function. Other dancers told me they were the same.

In Scottish Country Dancing the band starts with the "name tune" so the dancers know from the music what dance they will be doing. Every time the band switches tunes the "leading couple" passes off their role to the next couple, and so it goes down the set until each couple has their turn to lead. When the band returns to the name tune the dancers know the dance is concluding. It’s entirely symbiotic. (I’ve never played for Scottish Country Dancing but the band could look at the sets and know where in their medley they are.)

With Bulgarian dancing I could see that the music effects the movements and body-language of the dancers.
Many Bulgarian dance tunes are in "additive rhythms". If we think of an Irish reel as being 2+2+2+2 and an Irish double jig as being 3+3 then it’s easy to arrive at Kopanitsa which is 2+2+3+2+2. With a metronome doing single clicks just play it out, 11 equal clicks per bar, grouped short short long short short.
For the dancers, they tend to do up & down footwork in place on the 2’s and a sliding step to the side on the 3’s, the entire circle of dancers (often as big as the room) all thus rotating as one.

The coolest thing is how the dancer’s bodies react to the various modes used in Bulgarian dance music.

The body language that I perceived as being the ordinary or default movements were when the tune was in an ordinary Major mode.

When Bulgarian dance tunes switch to a minor mode the shape of the melody changes too, to more jagged shapes, greater intervals and leaps, and the dancers respond with frenetic up & down footwork.

When Bulgarian dance tunes switch to the so-called Hijaz mode (in the key of A it would be A Bb C# D E F G A) the tunes tend to have flowing notewise passages and the dancers’ body language becomes more flowing too.

(The band, for a Bulgarian dance, will play a single tune for the entire dance, but the tune has a large number of parts in various keys and modes.)

Re: The Dancer’s Word.

I have also been on both sides of the dance floor: my mother used to teach Scottish Country dancing, so it was in my pores from a very early age, and in those days I knew a lot of different dances from the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society books.
We moved to Scotland when I was just coming up to 40, and got involved in going to regular ceilidhs with like-minded friends: not such a wide variety of dances done at ceilidhs, but very enjoyable nevertheless. I also joined an international folk dance class which brought us dances from all over the world, and in all sorts of strange timings: our teacher used to use tapes, but had some magic slow-downer device on his machine to be able to learn the footwork at an easier pace - and without lowering the musical pitch on the tapes. He did eventually upgrade to mini-disc then CDs!
I only came to playing for dancing just over 10 years ago, first on my accordion, then moving to keyboard, but I would say that being a dancer myself helps enormously in determining speed for dances: you might well say, "this one goes at 115 bpm" or "this one at 130bpm", but the acid test for me is what the feet do. At rehearsals, I will sometimes ask a couple of players to get up and dance a short section, just to show the other players what feels right for dancing. I am often, in the one band, in the position of doing any count-ins or intros, so a quick couple of dance steps under my keyboard or even in my head helps get that right. And we do spend quite a lot of practice time on getting those starts spot-on. In any case, speeds are not set in tablets of stone: experienced dancers will often ask you to play faster than novices would.

Re: The Dancer’s Word.

Exactly so Trish, your body knows what the right speed for, say, a Strathspey is. You’ve done it so much that it’s encoded in your muscle memory.

In the Pipe Band I play in I’m the only one who has danced to the types of tunes we play. When they’re discussing the speed for a Strathspey I have to get up and dance it and say "that’s the speed".

About your International Folk Dance class, here in my area when they would do festivals and dancers would come from all over for a big dance, our band would play for it. We mostly played Bulgarian and Macedonian music but there was a smattering of Greek, Israeli, Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, etc dances as well. So we played all the "additive rhythms" like Ruchenitsa, Daichovo, Buchimish, etc. We never got around to learning Sandansko Horo which is one of the coolest rhythms 2+2+2+3+2+2+2+3+2+2/16 (22/16) have you ever danced that one?

Re: The Dancer’s Word.

I’ve played in dance bands for over 50 years. In many of them, we just played what we wanted and people danced.

Two bands were WAY more specific. In the ballroom dance band, the tempo had to be just right for each dance, with three different waltz speeds and two different swing speeds. The tango band had more leeway as to speed, but it had to "tango".

Re: The Dancer’s Word.

@ Richard: I don’t think anyone ever told us the time signatures of those unusual rhythms we were dancing to: we just learned the steps!