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Contradancer's Guide to Successfully Beginning Scottish Country Dance

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This is the beginning point for what will become a Contradancers Guide to Successfully Beginning Scottish Country Dance. For now, I'm going to throw in a big disorganized mass of text, and hope that I can get some help in putting the thing together in a way that will be coherent and usable.

It should be noted that, while the main audience for this text are experienced contradancers, the text should be useful to other beginners at SCD.


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Contradance (Contra) and Scottish Country Dance (SCD) are related forms who trace their histories through English Country Dance (ECD). Contra derives from localized variants of ECD in the Eastern United States from the time of English colonization that were revived with the popularization of folk music in the 1960s and have been adapted, modified and expanded over the decades since. SCD was known as “English Country Dance as Danced in Scotland” until the Second World War.

From these similar origins, some substantial differences have developed. Contra is a relatively relaxed and open form. Contra is done to a walking step, while SCD is done with a number of precisely defined and executed steps. In SCD, there is a strong connection between the specific dances and the music they are danced to, while most Contra dances have no particular association to given pieces of music. Minimum competency can be achieved in Contra with a short workshop before a dance, and intermediate status can be achieved after a few nights of dancing. In SCD, minimum competency comes after a month or more of weekly classes, and intermediate status takes six months to a year of weekly classes to achieve.

This last part is very important for the contradancer attempting to learn SCD to keep in mind – it is going to take a lot longer to know what you're doing with SCD than it did to learn Contra. While you are struggling to learn footwork, pas-de-basque and how to tie them together into figures and formations, you will be finding others with more experience who seem to be doing all of those things with little thought or effort. If you are patient with yourself and patient with others during your months of steep learning curve, you will find that you will soon be doing those things with as little thought and effort as the others, and that you're having quite a good time. You will also find rather quickly that your Contra experience gives you a leg up on the beginner with no background in country dance.

You may also find that you have developed a number of bad habits in Contra that SCD will make painfully obvious (and painful). Correcting those habits will improve your Contra experience (and the experience of those you dance with as well).

Is SCD for you?

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It's not for everybody, not even every contradancer. The only way to know for sure is to show up and try some classes and talk to your instructor about whether you're picking it up or not. However, the following might give you an idea if you're apt to find this a good fit.

  1. Do you count the bars while dancing contra?
  2. Do you enjoy proper dances?
  3. Do you enjoy dances done in three and four couple sets, rather than long-line sets?
  4. Do you like dancing with people who try to dance their figures correctly and on the correct count?
  5. Would you enjoy Contra a bit more if it was a bit more formal or elegant sometimes?
  6. Do you like being around people in traditional Scottish dress on occasion?
  7. Do you have an affinity for traditional Scottish things?

Helpful Hints

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1. Commit to giving SCD a fair try

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This is an important principle in Contra as well, as you've likely noticed beginners that show up after the beginner's workshop, stick with their beginner friends, never quite seem to get the hang of any of the dances, and leave (perhaps early) that night and never come back. This is an even larger issue in SCD, where the learning curve is much steeper and longer than that of Contra. A fair try in Contra would be two or three dances, to take into account differences in callers, partners, and bands, any of which could be a tough fit for the beginner. A fair try in SCD would be three to six months of weekly classes and as many evenings of dancing as occur. This will give you time to learn enough of the basics well enough that you can begin to get the sense of a dance so that you can not only remember the figure you're doing right this second, but also remember the next figure that's coming and how to flow from the one to the other. The first time this happens is a rather magic moment, and, until you've experienced it, you won't really understand what SCD is all about. Having (hopefully) reached this point with Contra already, you can appreciate this all the more when it happens in SCD.

2. Get involved with the classes

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This is very different from Contra, and is worthy of a lot of emphasis. SCD requires classes—only the very most talented dancers will be able to pick up a minimal understanding of SCD from attending dances, and it will take them a period of years to get to that point. By far the best way is to attend classes where you can be taught the basic steps, figures, some dances and etiquette.

3. Come to the dances.

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This should be less of a problem with Contradancers than with beginners that don't have a background in dance, because the dances are all there is to Contra. However, many beginners think that they aren't good enough dancers to come to a dance, and this is just wrong. The dance floor is a large space, and a good dance program should have a number of easy, beginner-friendly dances on it. Come to the dance and you will get to meet and dance with dancers that don't attend your classes. Dances are a very valuable place to learn what dancing is all about and how it works. You will doubtless hear many times that SCD is social dance, and the place where SCD is social is at the dances. There is an etiquette to learn that will make what you see done at dances make more sense.

Before your first class

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Before you show up for a class, it's not a bad idea to consider buying a good pair of dancing shoes (if you don't already have one). Most male SCDers will be wearing ghillies or jazz shoes, and female SCDers will wear either of those or ballet shoes (not toe-shoes). The soft-soles these have are easier on the floors you are dancing on, and will give you a better balance between sticking to the floor and sliding than most street-shoes. Over time, maintaining traction on these shoe surfaces will be an issue, and you can get tips from experienced dancers on how to address it.

It's also not a bad idea to make contact with the instructor of the beginners class to verify the time and place information you've got, to introduce yourself, and to begin to get a feel for how the instructor operates. They can also let you know about the local dance opportunities, the cost of the class, etc. Ask about how beginner-tolerant the intermediate or experienced dance class is.

At your first class

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It's a good idea to show up a little early at your first class. This will give you time to change into your dancing shoes, meet the instructor, and maybe chat with some of the other dancers. You can also get a good warm-up prior to the class if you'd like.

Something you should know by now is that dancing with beginners is very hard. Learning SCD in an all-beginner environment is tricky because you not only need to learn how to dance your part—you also need to learn enough of what your partner is to do that you can help prompt your partner from time to time. This is an reason why going to dances is important while you're learning—you will be able to dance with more dancers with more experience at the dances than you will in a beginners class.

Things your teachers will teach you in class

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Yes, these are things your teachers will teach you, but you might find that the additional modality of reading will help you understand what they're saying.


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There are some phrases and words used in SCD that have specialized meaning. For example, you will be told that any time you take hands in a figure, you should use a “hand-shake hold”. This does not mean the same grip that two American businessmen would use in a meeting, and trying to use that grip will lead to confusion and awkward dancing. “Hand-shake hold” means a hold where the gripping is done with the fingers and thumb, and what is held is the fingers – the palm of the hand is not involved. This is usually done with the gentleman holding his hand out with his fingers horizontal, and the lady placing her hand on top of his.

When taking hands on the side of the dance, there are a number of systems as to how this should be done. One is that, if there is an odd number of folks taking hands, the person in the middle will keep their palms up, with those on each side putting their palms down. Another is that hands should be held with the left palm down and the right palm up so that everybody has their thumbs pointing to the right. Clearly, these two systems are mutually exclusive, and adherents to either system, on the very rare occasion the subject comes up for open conversation between experienced dancers will result in disagreement about which method is proper. In practice, the system that seems to happen the most is that hands are put out for gripping purposes without being looked at. If the hands are lined up for an easy grip, that grip is taken. If not, one or both parties will quickly switch their hand position until a grip can be taken. In time, as you become familiar with the people you are dancing with (and, most of the time, you will be dancing with the same group of people), you can learn who takes which approach, if they have one, and adjust accordingly.


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SCD uses foot positions taken from ballet. For those not familiar with them, this guide might be helpful:

  • First position is with the heels together, toes apart, so the feet form a right angle.
  • Second position is like first position, but with the feet one step apart (heels more or less under the shoulders).
  • Third position has the heel of the front foot resting in the instep of the other foot, forming a T.
  • Fourth position is similar to third, only, again, the front foot is about a step further from the other foot, but the feet still form a right angle.

For all of these positions, even while resting, the weight should be on the balls of the feet and the toes, not the heels. Having the heels off of the ground is a good thing.

Traveling Steps

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When dancing to a jig or a reel, the traveling step will be the skip change of step usually referred to as "skip-change." Skip-change begins from first position with the right foot going forward into fourth position, the left foot closing into third position, and the right food going forward again to fourth position, then the left foot moving forward into fourth, the right closing into third, and the left returning to fourth, then repeating with the right foot going back into fourth. Once through this pattern takes two bars of music, with the right foot going forward on all odd-numbered bars, and the left foot going forward on all even-numbered bars.

When dancing the slower strathspey (which all instructors should tell you is unique to SCD), the step is actually similar in terms of what has been described here—it starts in first position, the right foot goes forward to fourth, the left closes into third, etc. However, this is done more slowly (as the music is more slow), the weight remains on the back foot in strathspey (it is on the front foot in skip-change), and there is a small hop as you switch from having the right foot forward in fourth to the left foot forward in fourth (and vice versa) to allow the back foot to go forward. Those who have seen or done Irish Step Dance may want to lift their knees up during the hop, but this should be resisted willfully. SCD tends to prefer straight legs as much as possible. Also, on the first step, since the weight is on the back foot, the front leg stretches into fourth while the back knee bends, ready to spring straight for the push to move the weight to the front foot when it's time to close to third.

Both steps are easier to do than these descriptions make them sound. They can be about as difficult to learn as these descriptions indicate, so, if you're not getting them the first time you try them, don't be discouraged. While you're dancing, watch others feet, not your own, and you'll find that you'll soon be doing them correctly.

For circling, and a few other figures, we use slip step in which you start in first position, extend the left (or right) foot into second position, then bring the right (or left) foot to close back into first position. Two of these open-close combinations go into one bar of music, rather than two bars for each right-left combinations in the other steps, so "two bars of slip step" is actually four slip step steps. Beginners rarely have trouble learning slip step.

If you're ever too tired to do these steps properly, or if your legs or knees aren't up to the strain, a prompt walking step can cover the same ground in the same time.

Setting Steps

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Setting steps keep your feet and body moving without moving you across the floor very much or at all.

Pas de basque
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In jigs and reels, the setting step is the pas de basque, which, for as common a step as it is, can be quite tricky to learn—many experienced dancers do not do the pas de basque in a manner close to what is described here or in the instructions from the RSCDS. This is a matter to apply as much patience as you need to.

The pas de basque begins (usually) in first position by moving the right foot into second position, then moving the left foot in front into third position, then raising up on the left foot for a beat, lowering to the right foot for a beat, then moving the left foot into second position, bringing the right foot in front into third position, raising up on the right foot for a beat, lowering to the left foot for a beat, then repeating. This right-then-left combination will take two bars of music, and should have a definite movement of the body to the right and then left, and also a definite change of weight on the parts where you are raising up on the front foot that's in third position.

The right-to-left movement should center on the place where you're dancing, so that your net movement is no movement at all.

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The setting set in strathspey time is much easier to learn and do than pas de basque. It begins from first position, stepping the right foot into second position, closing into third position behind the right with the left, then stepping into second again with the right and bringing the left foot up to the side of the right leg during the hop, then returning the left foot to second, stepping into third behind with the right, the back into second with the left and bringing the right foot up to the side of the left leg during the hop.

Highland Schottishe Setting
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This is a rather tricky variant of the strathspey setting step where you raise your right hand and bend your elbow so that your hand is above your head while you hop on your left foot once while moving your right foot out to second position, hop on your left again while bringing your right foot up behind your left leg (so the foot is in line with the leg, toes down), hop on your left again while bringing your right foot back out to second, hop on your left again while bringing your right foot up in front of your left leg (again, so the foot is in line with the leg, does down), then bringing your hand down and doing the rightward-moving portion of the strathspey setting step. Half-way done now. Then you reverse the process, putting your left hand above your head, and hopping once on the right while bringing your left foot out into second, hopping again on the right while bringing your left foot behind the right leg, hopping again on the right while bringing your left foot into second again, hopping yet once more while bringing your left foot up in front of your right leg, and then dropping your hand while doing the leftward portion of the strathspey setting step.

This means that one time-through of Highland Schottishe Setting will take four bars of music.

If your instructor has you trying this before you've been in class for a year, it is okay to give them a suspicious or accusing look.


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Petronella is actually a figure, but, since it's a close variant of setting, it's usually presented with setting, so it's being presented here with setting. This does not refer to the petronella turn you learned in Contra—they're derived from the same figure, but you'll need to do each a while to see how they're related.

A petronella is done just like a regular pas de basque or strathspey setting step, with the same foot-to-beat pattern going on as the setting step, only it begins with the right foot going forward into fourth position rather than second position, the weight-shift portions accompanied by a pulling-back of the right shoulder, then the left foot going back into fourth position behind, continuing the pulling-back of the right shoulder such that, when you've finished, you're now half-way across the dance, facing to the left of where you started the petronella. If repeated (which it often is) from that ending position, the second petronella will put you on the side opposite where you started.

At your first dance

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Your first dance can be a rather scary thing. It's very easy to psych yourself out because you don't think you're good enough to go around experienced dancers. However, most experienced dancers are happy to see new faces and will offer support and encouragement to new dancers.

Your dance program should be available well ahead of time, and should include a mix of easier dances and more challenging dances, and those difficulty levels should be indicated in some fashion on the dance program. It is a good idea to look the program over ahead of time with your instructor and decide which dances you'll be dancing, and, perhaps, to go over the dance descriptions shortly prior to the dance. It's a good idea to pick a more experienced partner for dances that you're less certain about, so that you will have more support should you need it.

Briefing v Walk-throughs

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It's a very good idea to ask whether the dances will be introduced by being briefed or whether there will be walk-throughs. If you're going to do so, however, you should know a little history of the controversy you will be edging into.

In the old days, when people generally lived their lives and died within a few hours walking distance of where they were born, and the number of dances to know was much smaller, each community would have its set of dances that everybody learned and knew. From this the tradition was that you should already know how to do a dance before the dance comes, so the dance would not be taught at a dance. Later, as this became less true, the standard became that the dance would be briefed from memory by an instructor, with, again, the idea that you should know a dance well before lining up to dance it. Many groups still use this standard. Other groups will provide one (or more) walk-through to make more certain that everybody lined up for a dance has some idea what they're doing, which makes matters much easier for beginners and those traveling to attend a dance.

Those who prefer briefing only will explain that it saves time, so that more time can be spent dancing. Those who prefer walk-throughs will point out that walked-through dances are more likely to work out the first time, so the dance is less likely to need to be repeated.

Without attempting to resolve the point in this space (which would mean nothing to any given group) the point here is that you should know how many, if any, walk-throughs will be taking place, so as to give you an idea of how prepared you need to be when you get to the dance.

Dance Etiquette

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Note that the following are not necessarily all universal guidelines to dance etiquette in all places. However, they should give you a plan you can follow as you walk into a dancing experience.

The program for a dance is usually published well before the dance, so it will be no mystery in most cases what the next dance will be. However, it is customary to not take a partner nor to line up before either the name of the dance is announced or a portion of the music for the dance has been played. A well-mannered gentleman does not complain when ladies and other non-men pair up with each other, even if this leads to men not having ladies to partner with. It is neither necessary nor appropriate to enforce a strict gender division in the dance, it is not the collective job of the ladies and non-men to prioritize men's comfort above their own, and groups that treat the prospect of two men dancing together as something to avoid at all costs should consider what sort of message that priority sends.

When taking a partner, it is customary for the man to take the lady by her left hand and his right hand so that, as they walk toward the top of the hall (the side from which the music is coming), they are lined up on the proper sides. The first man in the top set of each line is expected to count the couples of his line and assign them to their sets. This is the equivalent to "hands four from the top," and it can take some time to get the sets figured out.

It is no longer expected that the man accompany his partner back to the seat she was in when he asked her – it is rather likely that she wasn't seated when he asked her and that that particular spot of the floor has no particular significance to her.

As in Contra, there is an expectation that you will dance with different partners throughout the evening of dancing, and, as with Contra, it's usually easy to not have to repeat a partner in an evening of dance.

Figures shared between Contra and SCD

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Due to their common origins, Contra and SCD have some shared figures. Some will be similar figures, and some will have similar names, and some will be both.

SCD ECD Contra
reel hay hay
set in line balance in line wavey lines
Rights and lefts Rights and lefts Right and left through
Hands across Hands across Star (hand-shake star)
Advance and retire Advance and retire Long lines forward and back
Ladies' chain Ladies' chain Ladies' chain or
Chain Ladies
Back to back Back to back Do-si-do
Hands around Hands around Circle
Turn Right Hand (Left) Turn Right Hand (Left) Allemand Right (Left)