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7 Essays inspired by Weekend Whirligig

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Here are seven essays that I wrote as a result of "Weekend Whirligig" 2008, a great ECD event held in New York state every alternate fall.   Jacqui put some photos from that event here.

The second essay is “aimed” at a British audience & it might be published in the British dance magazine Set & Turn Single. The third essay was written by Jacqui.

All the other essays are aimed at dancers in both countries. I am trying to explain the differences that exist in the two dance communities.


Recently, on the “ECD Mailing List” a highly informal poll was conducted by Allison Thompson who was “struggling to put a number together for the ECDs devised (not reconstructed) since Sharp’s death.”

She admitted “we have a definition issue as to what constitutes ‘English’ dance in the US versus the UK but….if you think it is English country dance, then list it as such.”

The poll is unscientific, the data is in question (are we counting contras or ECD?), but the over-all conclusions are stark, beyond dispute.

In England thousands of English country dances have been written since Sharp died (as thousands were written before Sharp died).

In America, if you discount two prolific dance composers who have written between them 400 dances, only a little more than one hundred new English Country Dances have been written by Americans since Sharp died.

Informal total: 500 new dances written by Americans, well over 2,500 new dances written by Brits.

Here are a couple of examples that explain the situation.

Recently (Fall 2008) the British caller Trevor Monson was hired by “Weekend Whirligig” to bring to the U.S. dances recently written in the UK. Trevor called a lovely set of five dances -- but tellingly I did not know, had never danced, a single one of the dances he called.

For the past decade, my British wife Jacqui & I have spent half of every year dancing in England, the other half dancing in America. Though we are not regular attendees at any club, we travel around a great deal, dance as often as we can.

The first dance Trevor called, “Around About” by Jack Brown, a man we’ve danced with often in England (he lives down south where we live), was terrific, and we had never danced it before!

Several years earlier Andrew Shaw came to California and called “Dances from the North of England.” I did not attend but I saw the list and I realized I had not danced a single one of the 28 dances in his program. Not one of the twenty eight.

More telling still, some of the dance writers in Andrew’s program were totally unknown to me. Of course there were exceptions (Tom Cook!), and I may have danced one or two of the dances, but not remembered title or author. Nevertheless, the essential point stands.

The repertoire in England is huge. “Orion’s Ring,” the British band Jacqui sits in with when we are in England, has a database of close to 5,000 dance tunes. Of course there are some they have never been asked to play, and of course there are many more being written every day.

As of this moment, the possible repertoire in America, the dances you are likely to encounter at an evening program in America, are one out of a possible 2,000? (We must include Playford, Regency…)

In England, you could encounter any of over 5,000 dances.

However, the minute one is able to make a generalization, it ceases to be true.

At the very same “Weekend Whirligig” Sharon Greene introduced the assembled dancers, primarily East Coast dancers, to dances written by West Coast writers of English Country Dances. I knew most of the writers, I knew none of the beautiful dances she chose.

Soon, the situation in America will begin to resemble the situation in the U.K. -- so many dances exist in the repertoire, that wherever you go, anywhere from one third to three quarter of the dances will be new to you.

Soon the situation in England will begin to resemble the situation in the U.S. -- a core of well-known-to-all dances is already emerging, dances written by Gary Roodman, Colin Hume, Philippe Callens, Ron Coxall; reconstructions by Andrew Shaw, Colin Hume.

And yet, the two dance scenes will remain different at least for a while, at least as long as they cater to currently existing different needs.

In England they love dances that are challenging, difficult to master. In America they love dances that are not difficult, that flow and are tied to a very beautiful, and highly memorable tune.

The two dance communities have much in common, but they are essentially not alike. Their needs differ, their dances differ. And there is so much else that distinguishes one dance scene from the other. 

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Reflections on Weekend Whirligig 2008

Recently a small contingent of Brits flew over to America to attend an absolutely wonderful weekend of “English Country Dances.” (Footnote #1). Midway through the weekend one of them said to me, “It amazes me how quickly all these American dancers pick up the moves in every dance called this weekend.”

I suddenly realized she felt slightly intimidated. She is struggling mightily to learn the moves in all of these “new-to-her” dances (She later wrote to me: “I must have known about six dances over the whole weekend.”); the Americans around her seem to know the every single dance by heart -- after only one run-through!

I knew I had to explain the situation to her. I told her that absolutely every single dance called this weekend (except for dances in two workshops -- more on that later), contained dances I had danced before. Some I had danced only three or six times before, some twenty times, but not a single one of these dances was “new” to me -- and I don’t even dance that frequently in the U.S.A.

Ninety five per cent of the dancers at that weekend had danced all these dances more than a dozen times before; some had danced these dances a hundred times before!

She thought for a second and then said, “How boring.”

My immediate response (in my mind, not out loud) was “No. We love these dances, we love the music. We enjoy learning to do each dance a bit better. In many cases the tune is to die for. Why not dance that one again -- and again, and again.”

I didn’t know how to answer her, explain it all to her. Only much-much later did the explanation become clear to me.

I had a once in a lifetime experience at “Weekend Whirligig.” An experience that will be equaled, not topped.

What made the experience so memorable? The music, my partner, a few moves I suddenly remember with great pleasure.

It was a triple minor, we were, of course, the number one couple.

The dance begins with the number one couple casting away and down. After a few turns of the dance, as the rhythm & music seeped into our bones, we timed perfectly the leaning-towards-each-other-heads, the almost imperceptible light touching of palms before we catapulted away, down, into a three person hey, me with couple below, she with couple above.

We loved arriving just on time, staring into each other’s eyes, smiling, sometimes grinning madly, as we “pushed” away.

The combination of the mischievous music (the band was playing in an inspired way: I am sure they “fed“ off us; we were catapulted to new heights by them), the setting (it was our farewell dance before we all departed from this magical weekend), made me hurl myself into the hey for three, sometimes skipping, sometimes gesticulating wildly, all inspired by the music.

At one point I caught another member of our three-person-hey good-naturedly mimicking me; I guffawed. It did look silly, strange, but it makes others grin, clearly it made me guffaw. If the music (& me) make my body move oddly why deny it, why curb it?

The most memorable move of all was the “to-be-found-in-many-other-dances” circular hey for four.

Somehow the musicians made the music swoop with each of the four changes. With a down then up motion we seemed to glide by each other.

A few of the circular heys for four were spooky: they ebbed, flowed, we whooshed by each person in turn. This was trance-dance, the ultimate peak sought after, achieved only rarely.

When the danced ended she made a point of saying to me ”That was a great ride, Henry. Thanks for the ride.”

She got it right: it was a great amusement park ride. We did it, our bodies (the only instrument we have to use) did it.

This time through the dance did not resemble the dance I’ve danced a half-dozen times before. Primary credit must be given to the band. Without them, nothing would be. Had they been anything less than the brilliant musicians they were that afternoon, the whole experience would have been different.

A good, smiling, on time, lively partner is also an absolutely essential ingredient. Add to that other dancers up and down the line who enthusiastically play supporting roles.

We dance in a community that expects all couples to dance the first & last dance of the evening with each other and all the other dances with others, preferably a whole host of different others.

Dancing “such & such” a dance yet again, is not dancing it again, it is reconstructing the experience with a different band, a different partner, different dance neighbors -- and often all this occurs in a largely “new” setting: a dance gathering far from home, far from the dancers you usually dance with, far from the music you usually dance to.

The dance will not be like the dance you’ve danced before somewhere else with someone else -- and the opposite is also obviously true: I’ve had some dreary partners, danced to deadly dull, soul destroying music. The experience can as easily be horrific as terrific.

And that is why dancing, yet again, a dance we love is not boring. We Americans don’t mind dancing those few dances we truly love again & again & again.

But what if you danced in a community where you danced to recorded music (old records your club has used for years), and the norm was that you never switched partners -- all night long, all year long. Even if you travel to a Festival far from home, you still dance with the one you “brung.”

Well then you would want a different kind of dance to dance -- perhaps dances that challenged your mind, not dances that involved you deeply, and repeatedly, with your partner.

A British dancer recently said, “Although I loved my job, I think it was dancing most evenings that let me turn off the horrors of the day and be ready for the next. That could be the reason why I like some of the more complicated dances.”

British dancers seem to love complicated dances, dances that present a challenge. Solve this sequence of moves. The music? The music is chiefly something you “hang” the dance moves on (Footnote #2)

(Sharon Green added: “Not only that -- if the music is too brilliant, too involving, it can distract you and by doing so impair your ability to solve the puzzle”).

Dances are written to meet the needs of the dance community they are written for. A British contra dance often has no “swing your partner” (Oh no, not him/her, my regular partner again!). If there is a swing, it is with your neighbor; someone you will never-ever dance a full dance with.

British dancers are quite satisfied to stand relatively still for twenty minutes of an explanation of the many moves that are combined to create this very complicated dance. Then they only dance the whole sequence once, maybe twice (“Would you like to do it again?” the caller asks.)

They’ve solved the puzzle. Dancing it a second time through is perhaps okay, but more than that is boring. They’ve mastered that. They want to be given a new puzzle, a new sequence of moves.

How can one community possibly understand the things that please the other dance community?

Run a dance through only twice? You must be joking.

Repeat a dance fifteen times in a row? You must be insane.

So much depends on the dance & the music.

American writers of English Country Dances have focused on short, simple dances that are attached to outstanding tunes. The music is the be all and end all. True, the moves should fit the dance (be appropriate, the sequence must be pleasing….), but we want to hear the music, and we are devastated if we hear the music only two or three times. (Footnote #3)

Brits have focused on challenging dances, puzzles that give pleasure when properly solved. But you don’t get pleasure solving the same puzzle fifteen times in a row. You want another puzzle, and your pleasure is in “solving.“ mastering, not in listening to the music -- because the music is often very similar -- a record of a jig or reel.


#1 “An English Country Dance Weekend”? With the exception of one Sunday morning workshop devoted solely to Contras, not one single “contra” dance (or “western square dance) was called all weekend long.

In America, contra dances are kept separate from English Country dances. You attend an evening devoted to one or the other. There are weekends (and rare evenings) where a portion of the weekend (or evening) is devoted to one or the other, but never the twain shall mix: you will never encounter an evening where they are mixed together higgledy-piggledy -- and yes, this is very antithesis of an evening of “Social Dances” in England.

#2  It seemed inexplicable to me that one British dance writer wrote all of her dances with No Specific Music in Mind. I was always puzzled by the seemingly arbitrary sequence of moves in her dances: change on the right diagonal….invert the line….now change on the left diagonal. I also felt the beautiful music (that a friend of mine wrote to accompany her dances) could have benefited from a different sequence of moves.

The moves never seemed “inevitable.” It was almost never the move I expected would come next. And that’s the point. If the move was “inevitable” there would be no puzzle: the music & the previous movement would, with a certain inevitability, lead you to….

Moves are not there to make the music visible, moves are there as part of a sequence to be followed, a pattern to be puzzled out.

#3  Early in his career, the great contra dance caller George Marshall admitted to deliberately calling simple contra dances. He wanted people to listen to the music created by the world’s greatest contra dance band, “Wild Asparagus“. He felt inventive “new” contras only distracted from the essential bond: body moving almost mindlessly to music.

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Below is one attempt, by my wife Jacqui, to explain how the sound of Social Dance Bands in England differs from those in America. Notice, I did not say ‘English Country Dance Bands’, or ‘Contra Dance Bands’. Until very recently ALL bands in England were asked to play in every style imaginable. It is all ‘Social Dance’ or ‘English Folk Dance’.

No band specialized in Contras, or specialized in that thing they still don’t understand over there: ‘English Country Dances’. “Aren’t all the dances we do (squares, longways, three couple sets) ‘English Country Dances’?”


Why it is that English bands are so different from American ones is a complex question with many contributing factors. It is difficult to know where to start but here is my attempt:

First, the dancers in England have a lot less disposable income than Americans so their clubs find they cannot charge enough to hire live bands except on special occasions. (This is an uncomfortable truth that I won’t try to prove here.) The result of this is that English bands get no live "fooling around" or experimentation time. Jacqueline Schwab admits that much of Bare Necessities' development was done at the weekly dances they played for. Second, the English dance repertoire is truly ENORMOUS. And varied. Everything from Bridge of Athlone type barn dances to Pat Shaw rag time to Scottish country dances to Playford to Regency to American contras and American squares, both New England and Modern. The list is mind boggling and that's before we get to the hundreds of new dances written each year. Every band has to carry around with them two CRATES of music (plus their own sound system.) The band I play with, Orion's Ring, has been working on putting all their dance tunes into .gif files so we can play them from an LCD screen attached to a laptop and leave the crates at home. So far there are over 4,500 tunes and though it's mostly done, it isn't finished.

So these two factors mean that you never get the chance to "get into a groove" with a tune and do things with it. You never get to play the same tune two weeks in succession and you never get to do a set dance more than twice through or a longways more than nine times (usually only seven).

Now we come to who would actually choose to play in such a dance band. As if these reasons were not enough to discourage professional musicians there is also the matter of what the callers expect of the bands. At a typical workshop at a Festival or "Day of Dance" half of the dances will take considerably longer to teach than they are then danced, so in total the musicians will probably actually play for less than half of the workshop and be expected to sit quietly doing nothing (bored) for the rest of the time. It is also quite usual for a caller to ask the band if they have such and such and would they mind playing that then, or even to give them a new piece of music and ask them to play it cold off the page.

Of course professional musicians are well able to do that, competent amateurs too, but why would they for so little amusement and even less pay? The main instrument of choice is also a factor here. In the US it is the piano (or, recently, the electronic keyboard.) In Britain the piano was not an option since few village halls have one and if they do it is very unlikely to be in tune. So long, long ago the accordion became the usual choice (or the melodeon for display teams).

So the net result is that an English Social Dance band will often consist of just two people; an accordion and one melody instrument. As you can readily see, this puts some limits on the range of sound available to the musicians. The style that they then develop is further moulded by the repertoire that they are asked to play. And finally, it is the dancers’ preferences that ensure that a band is hired so this could well be the real reason that the English bands sound the way they do!


An evening of ‘English Country Dances’ in England is nothing like an evening of ‘English Country Dances’ in America. And because there is no ‘nationally acknowledged’ repertoire of tunes they can focus on, fool around with, perfect, it is almost impossible for any band in England to play an evening of ‘English Country Dances’ in the style Americans are used to. In fact, many English dancers have some reservations about the American bands’ love of improvising!

(For a fuller explanation of the different dance scenes, see the following, found on our web site:, “America For Brits,” “Contras & Ceilidhs in England,” “Changing Partners: England & America,” “Brits & Contras,” “Explaining American Contras to Brits,” and Jacqui’s “What is Contra Dance?”)

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Sharon Green wrote, “We had a truly memorable Barbarini's Tambourine, didn't we?” It took me a second, and then I grinned with delight. Indeed it was a truly memorable “Barbarini‘s Tambourine.”

I’ve know Sharon Green for almost twenty years now -- in the way dancers “know” each other: thirty meetings in all of that time? Almost all of short duration (one night), with two or three longer periods of contact: attendance at week long dance events. But I doubt we’ve been partners for a dance as often as twenty times in all of that time.

Barbarini’s Tambourine is a lively dance that begins with first “corners” flipping out over their shoulder (casting) behind one’s neighbor along the line, passing “appropriate” shoulders in the center, ending in the other corner’s place.

It is a somewhat unusual move, but a few other dances have incorporated it, and once you’ve done it a few times, it is not at all difficult, and it is fun.

She and I, in sequence, executed our parts perfectly as we moved up the set as “number two” couples. It was easy; it was fun. We were grinning delightedly as we made our way up to the top. Nothing unusual so far.

But it all began to go wrong when we became number one couples: for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out which shoulder to flip out on, what direction to head in.

I was slipping, sliding, reversing direction on a pin, avoiding all others around me by a hair’s breadth. It was funny to behold, and those around me were giggling. Sharon was watching delightedly, laughing all the way.

They knew I was a good dancer. They knew I would get to where I needed to be at the end of the move, but my path was, to say the least, circuitous, hilarious, almost dangerous. Two or three times I tried to figure it out, as I skidded, dodged & weaved. People around me kept laughing and pointing to where I needed to be.

Finally, In the two-hand turn with partner that occurs just before I need to make the flip-out move I whispered, “Sharon, tap me on the shoulder I need to turn out over.” She laughed, lightly tapped my right shoulder at just the right moment, and I catapulted off, went the right way, executed the move effortlessly.

“Babarini’s Tambourine” was a hoot, a delightful romp with a delighted partner, and delighted bystanders too. We trusted each other and because of that, magical moments occurred in this dance and will occur in future dances.

Long ago I realized that all of us, all of the time, are “Thrown out of Paradise” must leave “The Garden of Eden” where everything is new, where everything happens for the first time. Every time after is second best: the thrilling edge of newness blunted.

Paradise will occur again, but not in this way. Wait.

“We had a truly memorable Barbarini's Tambourine, didn't we?’ Yes, we did. This combination will never be repeated and it was fun all the way.    

American dancers of English Country dances have learned to maximize the number of combustible elements needed to create a new experience: time & place, band & partner.

Let’s see what happens with this combination this time!

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Knowledge comes in stages. Here is what I suddenly realized -- after “Weekend Whirligig” 2008.

My most memorable dance experiences have been with strangers, will continue to be with strangers -- not with my wife. Why?

First a couple of examples

She was short, wiry. We had never ever seen each other before: we were at a dance weekend somewhere. The music was sinuous, snaky, and the first move of the contra was preceded by “snaking” around another couple to meet in the center & swing.

After a few times through the move we slinked around the couple to meet, crouch low, embrace each other and get deep into one of the fastest swing I have ever been involved in. We whirled at warp speed until a millisecond before I deposited her before neightbor, myself before my neighbor -- for either a dosido, or a swing.

What I remember is the swing with her. It was awesome, swirling, speedy, deeply satisfying. Once, right before I deposited her before her neighbor, I happened to glance up at the neighbor: his mouth was open, his eyes riveted on us. He was awestruck, amused.

Can I now, many years on, recall her face? No. Would I recognize her if I saw her? Heck no. My memory is a sieve, but that scene, those few moments, will forever be there in my mind‘s eye.

There are many more there to recall. Here is one other. Out on the West Coast. I met her in line, later asked her to dance. She brought out the wacky side of me. She danced joyously & inventively. We liked each other as dance partners. She was religious, married; I too was married. But we had fun on the dance floor. Coincidentally, my wife and I were staying at the house of a good friend of hers. He asked her if she was enjoying the weekend.

She said she particularly like dancing with -- and she began describing me. He stopped her, told her I was staying with him, and then he told her a little about us (my wife and I). He later related all this to me.

It is relatively easy to come up with explanations for this phenomenon: our best dances are with people we do not know (or know little about). There are dozens of tried & true explanations. We tell our deepest secrets to strangers on a train whom we will never see again. We try hard to charm, strangers, to make them love us. As my wife said, “I tend to up my dancing to 110% when I dance with…” and she named a couple of dancers she loves to dance with.

After a while, one’s life-long partner does not elicit 110% of one’s effort. That should not be true, but it is so.

One can say the preceding another way: I am less restrained when I meet someone I don’t know. They don’t “expect” certain behavior from me. In fact they don’t know what to expect, and on my side, I don’t care what I do. I just do what the music almost makes me do.

So sometimes I get a little loopy -- in front of strangers, not my wife.

I could go on with examples of great dances with strangers, but I need to stop & explain why I keep saying, “but not with my wife, not with my life-long partner.”

There are tons of explanations for that as well. You’ve already “impressed” your partner; your partner knows you too well; you hardly go ’wild’ or give 110% -- with your partner.

I like the explanation that recently occurred to me. We are all being constantly thrown out of Paradise, out of “The Garden of Eden.’ The first time can never be “the first time” again. It can be a good second time, a terrific hundredth time, but it is time one hundred, it is not time number one, the very first & magical time.

My wife is a wonderful dancer, a terrific dancer. I have learned a ton about dancing from her, I have learned a ton by dancing with her. I never would have gotten deeply involved in English Country Dancing if I hadn’t married her. Again, I could say much more, but the essence of marriage is a long history in shared activities.

So I often have great dances with my wife -- we are terrifically comfortable with each other -- but many of the worst moments in my dance history occurred with her as my partner (the nastiest comments, the dirtiest looks, the most exasperated expressions, have been directed at her -- and how could it be otherwise?) “I know him too well not to hate him,” someone once said. She would probably say the same about discomfiting dance moments -- and me.

Plato said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I’ve just explained a part of my own behavior. I do hope I will curb my behavior towards her on the dance floor. (Good luck -- and while you are it, could you also be a nicer husband altogether…)

Okay, I may only change my behavior a little. But I will be readier to forgive me when I have this wonderful dance experience with someone who is clearly not my wife.

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So far I’ve described in detail the joys of dancing ECD in America, gorgeous live music, a constant change of partners. Below is an essay that was published in S&TS. It describes one of the joys of the kind of dances they do in England. Or, the “uncontrollable, purging laughter” I describe in the essay below does not happen when I go English Country Dancing in America. Sometimes, but rarely, it happens when I dance contras.

Brits like difficult dances. What I describe below happened at a “Fun Style Dances” workshop led by John Turner.


Character is destiny. To some extent, one cannot change character. I am not here to berate those who take dance seriously. For them, if a dance goes wrong, they frown. They are angry, frustrated. They are where they are not supposed to be -- and they are not happy.

But for me, some of the most side splitting moments of my life occur when a dance goes wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to get a dance right. I don’t mean that I want a dance to go wrong -- but what I see when a dance does go wrong makes me laugh uncontrollably. I hold my sides -- I am convulsed with laughter, I am literally paralyzed, rooted to the spot as I watch the bewildered faces around me.

Exactly what is it that I see? I see people befuddled, looking utterly lost. These are people who love to dance. They are, for the most part & in most situations, good dancers, but at this moment, in this dance, they are wandering around aimlessly, or rooted to the spot like deer caught in headlights.

This just happened in a dance -- and the foremost image in my mind is of this tall man, moving slowly, cautiously, with a bemused look on his face, bewildered. He was not angry, not unhappy, just utterly bewildered.

I also see the well meaning, funny little woman, scurrying to the place she thinks she ought to be.

I hardly ever laugh uncontrollably. No joke makes me laugh uncontrollably. Yes, I may guffaw, I may laugh -- but uncontrollable laughter, deep purging, healing laughter, happens seldom, very-very seldom in my life.

But it happened in three dances in the last hour. The dances were fiendishly difficult.

There were line inversions where bottom man & top lady must invert the line of three -- and then immediately four people change places on the diagonal, and then the middles cross while the ends change places, and then a different foursome change places on a different diagonal -- and it is always different people in different positions crossing, changing, inverting.

You can see how this is almost guaranteed to go wrong: you need to remember whether you are one of the four that this time through the dance must cross on the diagonal, or cross straight across, or, since you are at the top (or is it bottom?) of the line, it is you who must lead the inversion.

So people were heading for the middle when they should have been crossing at the ends -- or crossing at the ends when they should have… Sometimes five people were doing what four people should have been doing & one person was left all alone at one end, frozen, gazing at the scrum in the middle, not knowing where he or she should be.

I was convulsed with laughter -- convulsed is the only correct word. How often, in life, are you convulsed in laughter? -- and of course, being convulsed, I was clogging up the middle, causing further confusion.

Laughter is the best medicine. Countless studies have shown that endorphins course through your system, heal all parts of your body, when you laugh hard. But how can I make myself laugh hard?

When a dance goes wrong and bewildered people are wandering around trying to do the right thing, their faces blank, or registering utter confusion -- if you take it the right way -- you laugh, you laugh hard, you hold your sides because your entire body is convulsed.

I love that -- I can’t create that -- but I love it when it happens -- and in the past ten years of my life I can’t think of any situation, other than a dance gone wrong, when that has happened.

After reading my article in Set & Turn Single, Bob Lilley emailed me: “ I loved your article in S&TS on the hilarity of dances going wrong. I've had the same experience myself. In this case there was a bonus to my enjoyment, because from your description, I figure that the dance in question was my own "Three Pound Note".

When I first sprung it back in 1987 on my club, the Icknield Wayfarers, it took 5 weeks to get it right. I think that's probably about par for the course. I haven't yet found another club with the collective patience to do the same though.

I would dearly love to know, if you can remember, who was sadistic, or maybe just optimistic, enough to try this dance on you.”

John Turner emailed the two of us: “Yes I am a bit of a sadist! and it was 'The 3 Pound Note'.….It’s magic to see even the most competent of dancers having the occasional orientation problem. Such dances are gems, real levellers, and help to build an atmosphere.”

For Brits, dances that cause “occasional orientation problems” are “magic,” are “gems, levellers, and help build an atmosphere.”

On the other hand can you imagine an American dance composer “chuffed” (Brit-speak for very happy) that no other club save his home club has had the patience to learn his dance?

Brits love what difficult dances do, Americans simply do not love difficult dances.

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In England they say “I am going to Hoover” the living room; in America they say “Please Xerox the following for me.” Those phrases sound odd to people in the other country. What do you mean you are going to “Hoover.” Hoover is the name of a product, a machine. You mean you are going to “vacuum clean.” Xerox is the name of a Company; you mean you are going to photocopy.

No one would dare to say to people in the other country. You are wrong! You are not allowed to call it “Hoovering” You are not allowed to call it “Xeroxing.”

We are allowed to call it whatever we want to call it. We can call it “Chicken scratches” if we want to call it chicken scratches. What we have actually done is what companies fervently wish we would do “the name of the company has become our name for the experience:” To Hoover. To Xerox.

Recently a Brit said, “In England, people often use the word "Playford" to mean any dance in an elegant style, even modern compositions.”

An American answered “I don’t at all agree….I would…argue that the use of the name of a publishing family [Playford] that is specific to a relatively limited historical period to apply to any dance that doesn't get one's heart beating above 100 bpm excessively broad. I would argue that to call *any* slow & elegant dance, "Playford," is… inaccurate….”

“Inaccurate…excessively broad.” “Hey, I say Hoover, and I mean Hoover. I don’t care what you would argue. I really don’t care if you agree. Boot (not trunk), lift (not elevator), and when I say Playford I mean by Playford any dance in an elegant style, even modern compositions, and don’t you tell me what I should mean.

A Brit could say to Americans, “How dare you call an evening of ‘Playford-Style’ only dances an evening of ‘English Country Dances.’ An evening of ‘English Country dances’ in our country, the one that has the rather crucial word “English” in your title, includes Contras & Ceilidhs & Playford dances & Southern Squares…..

“Our definition is right, your definition is wrong.”

“No, no, our definition….”

Both sides need to step back and stop saying the other side “got it wrong, we got it right.”

There is no right & wrong, only different definitions, and all these troubling misunderstandings finally led me to an easy comparison between two dance terms used in our two countries.

When an American says “English Country Dances” a Brit must hear “the kind of dances we do at a Playford ball.” These two terms mean roughly the same thing: A bunch of dances all of which are “Playford like, or in the Playford style. At neither event, an “English Country Dance” in America, a “Playford Ball” in England, will you encounter Southern squares, or “swing your partner, swing your neighbor” contras.

If you dance ECD in America, you will be happy at a Playford Ball in England. If you love the dances you find at a Playford Ball in England, seek out evenings of “English Country Dances” in America.

Now that we’ve got that straight [Playford Ball, U.K. = ECD, U.S.], we can think about other terms that mean one thing in one country, a totally different thing in the other country.

At our Contra dances (99 % of contra dancers in America believe contras have nothing in common with “English Country Dances“ -- if they even heard of the term ECD!) you will never encounter a “Playford Style” dance. Until ten years ago (and still in many places today) a Contra Dance would not even include a square.

If you attend the unbelievably huge NEFFA Weekend Festival, and you go to contra dance workshops all day, contra dances at night, you might dance 160 dances, and never encounter one square, or one four face four. We chose to dance contras all day & all night.

“Isn’t that boring?…Don’t you think you should include?…. Don’t you realize contras are only one sub set of….?”

Stop. Stop judging. Start understanding. Here, in America, this is what we love to do. We love to dance contras all weekend long.

We, in America, could say “we don’t understand how you decide what kind of dances you will dance at a ‘club’ evening. Your callers include Southern Squares, and new England Contras and the Virginias Reel, in what you label as an evening of ‘English country dances.’ It almost seems you include everything except what is clearly foreign: Bulgarian dances, Rumanian dances…

Your answer? “That’s right. We think of all these dances as ‘English Dances’ -- contras, squares, four Couple sets, eight couple sets, Ceilidh dances (definition later!) All these are English. A Hungarian Csardas is clearly Hungarian, but all those other things you just listed are English Folk Dances.”

We are two countries divided by a common language and until we understand how the other country uses certain words, we will continue to insult, accuse, deeply misunderstand each other.

The following is probably the most prominent example of what triggered all these thoughts.

At Weekend Whirligig (An “English Country Dance” weekend) I asked a British dance friend if he had done much “English Country Dancing before?” He looked at me as if I was a complete idiot -- and I was! He’d been dancing since he was 16. He was probably almost 60. “Have you done any English Country Dancing before?”

The next day a friend said to me, “Have you seen … yet today? Has he forgiven you for asking him if he ever did any English Country Dancing?”

Oh Sh… I meant ECD as it is defined in America, and indeed, another Brit attending this weekend of “English Country Dances” let me know she “recognized” at most six of the over one hundred dances we danced that weekend.

Almost all the Americans attending the weekend had probably danced most of the dances called that weekend -- and danced each often.

In England “everything” is an English country dance. There is no commonly accepted core. You can come to their evening dance and call a contra written in the U.S.A yesterday (John Meecham once did!), a dance written 500 years ago, or a quirky, queer, tango-inspired dance written by your cousin in Kent thirty years ago.

No one at any club expects a caller from outside their area to come to their club and call dances they already know, have danced lots of times before.

Of course there are some classics known everywhere, “Nottingham swing,” “Fandango,” but by and large, anything is fair game -- except clearly “foreign” dances -- though the polka (originally Polish!) is a staple, and so is what was once an Austrian dance: the Waltz.

Other terms? Do you want to read a whole essay on what is a “Ceilidh” in England? Here’s a quick definition: an evening full of relatively simple, often very vigorous dances, danced by mildly drunk young & middle aged dancers. Ceili, in America, means Irish dancing, you know, threes & sevens. You want better definitions? Ask someone else!

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Copyright 2009   Henry Morgenstein

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