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This page is intended to help dancers (both new and experienced) understand the music, its phrasing, and how that relates to the dancing a bit better. A better understanding can help you become a better dancer, and perhaps more importantly to have more fun dancing and to cause those around you to have more fun as well.
Dancing to the Music I: Musical Phrases
Based on an article in the February 1989 Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter; updated and expanded some.
One of the key skills for good dancers to learn (not to mention good callers and musicians) is that of timing. Contra and square dancing are group activities, and they work best when everyone is dancing together. If you start a figure too soon or too late, or keep doing it too long, that disrupts the flow of the dance for you, your partner and everyone around you.
Back in 1989 I got comments from some dancers about how nice it would be if the local dancers would dance more to the phrasing of the music. Based on that I decided to write a series of articles on the relationship between the phrasing of the music and dancing.
To introduce the topic, I want to distinguish how different styles of dancing relate to the music. Nearly all dancing is done to the beat of the music. But traditions differ in terms of how they relate to the phrasing of the music. Some traditions largely or partially ignore the phrasing. New dance figures begin when the previous one ends, regardless of where that happens in the musical phrase. Old-time southern dancing tends to work that way, and French Canadian dancing does as well.
Other styles are danced not only to the beat of the music, but to the musical phrase. Once you catch on to a dance, you should notice that you’re doing the same thing each time a certain part of the tune comes around. New England contras and squares work that way, as do English country dances and many other traditions.
Most callers figure out fairly quickly that many dancers, both new and experienced, dance rather independently of the phrasing of the music. As a musician I suspect that many dancers don't have a clear understanding of how the music is phrased. This article is you a better feel for the phrasing of dance music, and how it relates to dancing.
Often when I tell dancers to listen to the phrasing of the music I get responses indicating that many dancers think that’s a skill that’s beyond them and I’m asking the impossible. Actually it’s very easy to hear if the tunes are played well and you know what to listen for. It’s part of the role of the musicians to play the tunes in such a way that the phrasing is easy to hear. Equally importantly, it’s part of the role of the dancers to listen for and dance to the musical phrases.
So try this. Next time you are at a dance, listen to a contradance tune and try to hear its phrasing. Here’s what to listen for. Most tunes have two melodic parts, creatively known as the A part and the B part. Each part is repeated, so a typical dance tune goes in the sequence AABB over and over again. There are exceptions, but they generally they follow a modified version of the same pattern.
In the next tabbed section we'll look at the phrasing in more detail.
Hearing the Phrases
Dancing to the Music II: Hearing the Phrases
Based on an article in the February 1989 Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter; also updated.
In the previous tab we looked at how dance tunes generally have two parts, the A and B parts. Each part is repeated, so dance tunes generally take the form AABB.
Furthermore, each part of the tune is generally broken down into smaller phrases. This can best be illustrated with a song everyone knows, for example that old polka “Yankee Doodle”. Let’s look at the first verse.
|Yankee Doodle Phrasing||Measures||Beats|
|Yankee Doodle went to town||2||4|
|A-riding on a pony||2||4|
|He stuck a feather in his hat||2||4|
|And called it macaroni||2||4|
This verse is the length of a typical A part or B part of a dance tune. I’ve divided it into four parts. Each part is long enough to take four walking steps (e.g. if you were going down the center in a contra line), or to do a balance (as in balance and swing). In musical terminology, each part is two measures long, and each measure is long enough to do two steps. Some people find it easier to think in “counts” (also called “beats”), where a count is equal to one walking step.
Also notice that the first two lines stick together pretty well as units, as do the last two lines. Each could be considered a four-measure subphrase of the A part of the tune.
So the music actually has both shorter and longer phrases in it at the same time. There are the short two-measure phrases, the longer four-measure phrases, and the repeated parts of the tune which are eight-measure phrases. Some tunes have longer phrases than others (e.g. marches).
Next time you’re at a dance, try listening for this kind of phrasing in a tune. You may not hear all of it, but you should be able to hear at least some phrasing of the tunes.
In the next section we’ll look at how this fits in with real-world dancing.
Dancing to the Music III: Phrasing of Dance Figures
Based on an article in the March 1989 Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter, with updates and additions.
In the previous tab we looked at the phrasing of dance music, with the goal of helping you to think about and eventually feel the musical phrasing. Here I want to start showing you how to relate that to the actual dancing. If you take this seriously, you may find yourself doing some unaccustomed counting at dances for a while to figure out what’s going on. That’s OK as long as hearing the phrase becomes automatic after a while and not something you think about constantly - that would kind of spoil the fun!
Last month at Bowdoinham we were dancing Lady of the Lake when suddenly the Maine Country Dance Orchestra was playing Wipeout! Now, if you’ve ever tried to figure out the phrasing of a dance being done to surfing music, it’s an unusual experience. Eric joked about whether phrasing was relevant under such circumstances as he passed me in the line. However, it was. Although each contra line developed its own phrasing, each line was internally consistent. Imagine the difficulties if some of us were going down the center while others were swinging below!
When dancing to standard dance tunes, each figure of the dance has a certain amount of time allotted to it. For example, in a balance and swing, the balance is two measures (four steps), and the swing is six measures, for a total of eight. A do-si-do is generally given four measures, although these days people tend to rush it. Rights and lefts are eight measures altogether, as is down the center and back and also a ladies chain.
By the way, if music is played at dance tempo it uses a metronome setting of about 120, which means 120 beats per minute, or 60 measures per minute. Dance tunes are generally 32 measures long, so they can be played nearly twice in a minute. So if you can learn dance tempo, you can play a tune in your head and get a pretty accurate measure of time. Note: These days because modern dances fit more figures into the same amount of time, dance tempo has slowed down to a metronome setting of more like 108. So in fact once through a dance tune would now take nearly 36 seconds.
In the final tab of this series we’ll look at the figure Down the Center and Back and see how there’s more to it than it appears on casual inspection.
Down the Center
Dancing to the Music IV: Down the Center
Based on an article in the March 1989 Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter
In the last section I pointed out how each figure in a dance is allotted a certain amount of music, and gave you some examples.
So, let’s take a simple figure from Hull’s Victory and analyze it in terms of phrasing. Imagine dancing it to Yankee Doodle. We’ll skip to the middle of the dance after the swing with your partner. You end facing down, which puts you on the other side of the set from where you started the dance. Now it’s time to go down the center.
The whole figure Down the center and back is eight measures, so there’s time for 16 steps altogether. You might think (as do many dancers) that, as there is time for 16 steps you’d go 8 steps down and 8 steps back up to place. If you look at the figure more carefully, here is what really happens.
- You go down the center.
- Then you have to turn as a couple at the bottom of the set.
- Next you come back up to almost place.
- Finally you cast off when you get back (put your arm around the inactive person and turn to change places).
So in reality, to get where you’re supposed to at the right time, you will have to do something like this. Go down the center for the “Yankee Doodle went to town” (about 4 steps). As you start riding on a pony, turn as a couple (4 more steps); you’ll need that time, although most dancers don’t allow enough for that part. Come back up the center while dealing with the feather (4 steps), and you’ll have time to cast off while learning about macaroni (4 more steps, a total of 16).
Applying this to dancing as a whole, it’s helpful to keep in mind how much time you have and what you have to do. Of course, part of the fun at a dance is to do things that aren’t part of the official dance. However, you should always make sure you are in the right place to begin the next figure when it is supposed to begin. It’s also good to think about what is tasteful for the dance. Something that would fit in with a modern contra might be in bad taste when dancing Hull’s Victory. Otherwise you might get dirty looks from other dancers, and in the case of some of the modern dances with lots of figures crammed into a short period of time, you may even cause a major problem that is hard to recover from.
That’s the end of this article on dancing to the music. Hopefully an understanding of how dances fit together with the music will help you to enjoy dancing more and to be more fun to dance with!