Shake Hands with the Country Dance

1935 New Hampshire Model by Beth Tolman WHAT HAS HAPPENED to the jigs, reels, quadrilles, and hornpipes that used to rollick America back in its teens? Who does them now and where are they danced? The answer, of course, depends upon what section of the country you speak from. In most places it is safe […]

By Yankee Magazine

Nov 08 2018

Photo Credit : Drawing by F.W.P. Tolman
1935 New Hampshire Model by Beth Tolman WHAT HAS HAPPENED to the jigs, reels, quadrilles, and hornpipes that used to rollick America back in its teens? Who does them now and where are they danced? The answer, of course, depends upon what section of the country you speak from. In most places it is safe to say that the dances are just mere names now, along with the old time tin peddler, red flannel ankle-lengths and dried apples in the attic. However, in a few isolated “islands” dotted over the country, the dances have been actually fanned back into life after a lagging period and are being danced by people who are sternly devoted to keeping more of the quaint old American customs in repair. And in the remoter hill-billy sections the dances are probably still being done to the tune of a sawing fiddle or two for want of anything more available. But in New Hampshire (and perhaps in a few other sections) it is a different story. We have had no sign of sagging interest in the country dance for a hundred and seventy years! In fact the interest has rocketed to such a pitch that it is certain that the town halls will, one of these Saturdays nights, burst at their seams or rock so rhythmically that the old spring floors will crash in time like the walls of Jericho. The reasons why New Hampshire has this unusual story to tell are probably two. One is the music. It so happened that the local jazz boys grew up in a background of old time music. Having heard their fathers and grandfathers playing the old tunes and of ten improvising for lack of written version, they began to fool around with the jigs too, but in the modern idiom, playing tag with the notes and often overlaying the jig structure with a veil of syncopation. Then a few of them got together and soon jazz-jig orchestras popped up, with music bristling with original ideas, smooth as new cream and sizzling with interest for flaming youth. Naturally enough, then, the young people were netted in and immediately included the old time dances along with their fox trots and waltzes. The other important reason for this expanded interest is, of course, the summer crowd, New Hampshire’s grand and stepchildren. When the city folks started coming in years ago, their support of the country dancing was evident but rather timid. They paid their admission to see a good show but they never presumed to join in with the dancing. They flanked the sidelines of the old town hall, watched the country fellers and their gals whirl in and out of the figures and whispered to each other “my, how quaint.” Now things have changed and they have actually joined in themselves. They have invited the prompter and a nucleus of the best dancers to teach them the ropes and they mix happily in all of the sets. This merging of town and country, of young and old and of the modern and the antique, is a rare bit of democracy seldom found in this democratic country of ours. Over the threshold of the town hall, you are the equal of you. For instance, old Mrs. Velvetbustle of New York City and Palm Beach trips lightly with Ben Bumpkin and loves it and old man Hayseed never fails to date up Deborah Deb from the city in a lissome Basket Quadrille. That is the way it is in New Hampshire. Now, lest this democracy should appear too “paradisical,” perhaps a little explanation of a point of view is in order. Of course, when the imported people began to sprinkle the sets with their untutored selves, the country folks at first showed a rightful resentment, for it is no lie to say that the city dancers were often as appropriate in the old fashioned dance as a cactus would be in a wedding bouquet. But as the old timers realized that the jigs were changing and adapting themselves to the less precise and more speedy times, they opened up their attitudes like an umbrella and thankfully realized that here in New Hampshire the country dance was being carried along by the coming generations instead of being hurtled to an undeserved and mouldy grave as it had been in so many other places. Now, since there is no brake on the interest in country dancing, there will of course be more and more need for a few general ideas as to the technique of the dance, a need for an all-around glossary of terms and then a play-by-play description of the most favored of the dances done in New Hampshire today. This article proposes to put forward a few helpful hints on style so that the beginner will feel less like a motherless child when he first touches foot to town hall floor. Also, it will give a pocket dictionary of dancing calls common to practically all of the dances, so that when the prompter roars, “gents bow, the ladies know how” or “kick beginner will feel quite at home, mentally commenting: “Ah, ha, that can’t fool me! That is only call number 17 in sheep’s clothing.” In articles to come there will be a general explanation of the various types of dances and their derivations and recipes for the Portland Fancy, Morning Star, Virginia Reel, Plain and Basket Quadrilles, Lady Walpole’s Reel , Hull’s Victory, Chorus Jig and others along with the music and measures applied to each. Now for the general technique: Of course this does not pretend to make even a stab at the old-time correctness and precision with its five positions for this and that, because naturally one cannot be taught on paper the finesse that is native on1y to practice and association. These hints, then, are only for verdant beginners who wou1d welcome a few offstage instruct ions before they actually accept an invitation to dance in the old town hall. The old timers to whom cutting the pigeon’s wing and in venting dance filigree of their own is almost as functionary as breathing, are asked to stop here and read no further. The general style of country dancing, as suggested by the music, is slightly vertical in comparison to our modern slinky technique. This must not be exaggerated a hair, however, lest the dancer turn into a hopping human pogo stick. Stamping (except in places like the wind-up of Hull’s Victory when the old cow-hide boots used to beat a tattoo on the floor) and swinging the arms about like a windmill in a gale, are definitely taboo. A lilting buoyancy with strict attention to the number of beats in each figure, is the ideal. There are numerous little filigree steps and kneetoe brandishings that will be worth trying for later, but the beginner should content himself with trying to work out the figures gracefully and either standing still or tapping in time to the music when “unemployed.” Exceptionally good dancers can fake a sort of “Charleston” step in between their turns to do a figure that fits in beautifully with the music and adds an attractive garnish to the set. Next, the trick of turning. When the prompter shouts, “Swing your partner” or “Swing your corner,” the couple always turn to the right in their places just as if they were trying to whirl on a soup plate. The turning can be slow or violently fast but at all times be in time to the music and well under control. Unlike modern turning, there is a subtle little half-step built for the music which is grand fun if mastered. The right foot issued as a pivot while the left foot “paddles” in short circular steps about the pivot. This will probably take quite a little offstage practicing to perfect, but it is worth any moments put on it. And there is one important general traffic rule to remember which will avoid knots and tangles every time. That is, never begin another figure until the prompter indicates it or until the music suggests it in case the prompter does not call every pattern. Even if you miss your count and finish up one figure in more than “jig time,” always wait at your place until the proper time to begin. This wi1l also doll up the appearance of the whole set for those who sit by and watch. The music is most generally divided into measures of eight and less generally four and sixteen. This is the count which is required to carry out the figures. When the dancer gets used to feeling through the music and sensing the counts he will find a grand feeling of satisfaction in being a perfectly timed part of the whole group. In a quadrille or any of the dances where four couples form a square (a square dance, in other words), the least experienced couples should aim to be at the side rather than at the head or foot because the side couples do their figures as carbon copies of the head and foot couples. In contra dances, where two lines stand “contrary” to each other (a dance more favored in New Hampshire than the squares) the beginners should avoid the key positions which are generally the first, third and fifth couples. These couples start the dance, while the even numbers, in this case, wait and repeat the figures later on. General grace and willowness are to be sought after as the dances are anything but slip shod. Individuality is fine as long as the individual is subservient to the spirit of the whole group. The working out of a perfect set in groups, of course, is the purpose of the dance, a curious incongruity to have marked the age of rugged individualism! Now for the explanation of terms most commonly used in the New Hampshire dances: This little knapsack of knowledge will be a handy thing to have stored up to use on one’s first venture. The terms are reduced to the fewest possible number and well concentrated for portable purposes. The numbers indicate the count needed to execute the calls: ADDRESS PARTNERS: (8) Gentleman steps forward to center with left foot, turns and faces partner; closes right foot to left and bows. Coincident with this, the lady slides right foot toward center, faces partner, steps back with left foot, bending both knees for the curtsey, then draws left foot to right. ADDRESS CORNERS: Gentleman bows to lady on his left, while his partner bows to gentleman on her right. (the lady is always to the right of her partner when in place) ALLEMANDE LEFT: (8) Couples turn back to back, and walk four steps to corner (forming a square figure), each meets a new partner; give right hand to each other, and turn. Return to place (four steps), give left hand to partner, and turn. ALLEMANDE RIGHT: (8) Lady walks four steps to left side (passing in front of partner); gentleman walks four steps to right. Each meets new partner on corner; give right hand and turn. March back to place, give left hand to partner and turn. BALANCE AND TURN PARTNERS: (8) Partners face each other, take three short steps backward and rest; then forward and rest; join hands waist high and turn once around. BALANCE AND TURN CORNERS: (8) Face corner. The balance step is made thus: Step to side with right foot, point toe of left foot in front, step to side on left foot, point toe of right foot in front. Then join hands and turn once around. Return to place. CHASSE RIGHT OR LEFT: (4) A gliding step with either foot in the direction desired. If to the right, the right foot glides, the left is drawn to it in a closed position, and repeated as often as desired. CAST OFF: Means to go below the next couple. DOS A DOS: (Back to back) (4) Lady and gentleman forward, pass to left of each other; that is, right shoulder to right shoulder; having gone one step past each other, take one step to the right, which brings the couple back to back. Without turning, back around each other and walk backward to place. ENDS: The head and foot sides of act. Head couple stands with its back to the music Foot couple faces music. FIRST FOUR: The four forming the first and opposite couple. FIRST TWO: Head or first lady and opposite gentleman. Second Two, head gentleman and opposite lady. Third Two, lady to the right of the first couple and opposite gentleman. Last Two, lady to the left of the first couple and opposite gentleman. FORWARD AND BACK: (4) Start left foot forward, advance three steps. On the fourth count bring right foot raised to the heel of the left. Starting with right foot, walk back three steps and on the fourth count bring left foot up in front. FORWARD, AND LADIES TO CENTER, FACE OUT: (8) All join hands, forward four steps; back four steps; forward again four steps; gentlemen turn partners half around and return to place. Ladies remain in center, facing partners. GRAND RIGHT AND LEFT: (16) Face partners, salute, then join right hands, gentlemen moving to the right, ladies to the left. Gentleman drops his partner’s right hand and takes next lady’s left in his left; next with right, etc. (This is a movement in which the two lines, moving in opposite directions, weave in and out) When half around he meets and salutes his partner, giving her his right hand, and continues to place. (In saluting and meeting, the salute always precedes the taking of hands) LADIES CHAIN: (8) Ladies cross to opposite places giving the right hands as they pass each other, and the left hands to the opposite gentlemen-turning once around give right hand back-left hand to partner and turn to place. NEXT COUPLE: Couple from head couple going to the right. PROMENADE FOUR: (8) Partners cross hands, right hands above, promenade across, passing to the right of advancing couple, and taking their places. Return to place in same manner. PROMENADE ALL: (8) Partners cross hands, and promenade around in a circle. RIGHT AND LEFT: (8) By two opposite couples; couples cross over, ladies. inside, gentlemen in passing touching lady’s right hand. When in opposite couple’s place, gentleman takes partner’s left hand in his left and turns half around, and repeat back to place. SIDES: The third and fourth couples.