On Inventing Dances

By Paul Handford
From American Morris Newsletter 1992

hatAs part of the program at the Oct 1991 Bay Area C.D.S. weekend workshop at La Honda, just south of San Francisco, Jody McGeen, the program organizer, incorporated a session on Dance Invention, and she asked me to lead the discussion. The idea was occasioned by the fact that a few people in her team were beginning to think seriously about inventing dances, and had been wondering if there were any general principles, pitfalls, or what-have-you involved in the business of putting together dances which are fun to do, fun to watch, and stand a chance of enduring (Footnote 1). Well, though I have been in the business of inventing dances over the last ten years of Thames Valley’s (Footnote 2) (T.V.I.) history, as I’ve said elsewhere (American Morris Newsletter: Summer 1988), I kept no diary of events and ideas as the team style and repertoire evolved, and I certainly didn’t benefit (or suffer) from any “Book of Rules of Invention.” So what could I say about the matter? Thus it was that, 10,000 m. above Nevada, I began reflecting on the T.V.I. repertoire, with an eye to inferring some of the principles, if any such there were, lying behind the processes that have given the team at least some dances that have endured, that continue to give us fun, and that have interested at least a few other teams to the extent of their learning them.

Looking back on historical events and searching them for pattern and process is a tricky business, of course. It’s all too easy to invent a “Whig history” which “explains” the past by justifying the present as it appears to the writer at the time, but I hope that what came to mind over that endless Basin & Range landscape does have some correspondence with what actually happened (at least part of the time.) With these caveats then, here’s what I think have been significant factors in my experiences of dance-cobbling with T.V.I., and what I believe to be considerations of some generality. I hope that these reflections may spark some interest or argument.

It seems to me that almost all of the dances (at least the ones we still like) were driven by the tunes. By this I mean that the curiosities of rhythm, emphasis and melody of a given tune somehow dictated, or were allowed to guide, corresponding aesthetic elements in the dance. Things never went contrariwise, so far as I can recall. Not that they couldn’t do so, in principle: one could conceive of a set of moves for a dance and then provide an appropriate tune. This just hasn’t been a practical possibility for us: we have no music composers on the team. Perhaps another relevant fact is that tunes are often encountered lying around with no accompanying dance, but the rarely vice-versa. At any event, in what follows, I try to explore how the correspondence between dance and an existing tune can develop in a context such as ours.

First of all, I suppose one might ask: “Well, what makes a good tune?” I confess I have no idea, probably because I have a but rudimentary understanding of the technicalities of music. But I know that one can differentiate pleasant tunes from exciting tunes- ones that communicate viscerally. Maybe that has something to do with it. Of course, some of the tunes used (e.g. Jockie to the Fair, Brighton Camp) get handed on “in the trade” so to speak, and are likely to get tried out on that account, but then we still have to explain why they are still around to get passed on……..

So. Your viscera get grabbed by a tune or two: what do you do? During most of my dance-confectioning time, I never found it at all fruitful to sit down and say: “right! now for a dance to fit Tune X.” This, I imagine, is because I had, at that time at least, no (conscious) notion of how the composition process could work. Instead, I usually found that the tune just sort of swilled around in the back of the brain-pan, at a barely-aware level, whenever I took the dogs for walks. At such times I found various possible dance moves pasting themselves into the various sequences of the tune (to be overwritten by other thoughts and then reinstated and so on several times over). The same sort of thing happens on Interstates. And flying over Nevada. Often this mapping of moves to music takes place more or less completely in this “barely-aware” mode, so that, suddenly, whole sequences just jump up into full consciousness, seemingly from nowhere. Now that I do have at least my own version of how composition can work, I find that it is possible to pursue it with more intent, but I still find that the most satisfying dances come from the day-dreaming approach; maybe they are less likely to be contrived that way.

What may be said analytically about a good match between moves and music ? How does this match relate to one’s team repertoire, if at all ? Several considerations seem to apply here, and most of them I now believe to be firmly rooted in my (and T.V.I’s.) conviction that “the coherent aesthetic statement” (Footnote 3) (which, of course, is the primary legitimate goal of morris performance; this much is surely beyond discussion?!) is rarely achieved outside of a single-tradition context (Footnote 4) . For my tastes, at least, dances composed in an unfamiliar (to the composer) style can often be interesting or clever, but are rarely “of a piece.” I would say that any tradition that is merely one of several in the repertoire is condemned to being “unfamiliar” to its practitioners in some important respects. Anyhow, in our case, this single tradition was Field Town, lately evolved into Thames Valley.

O.K. Let’s start with the old maxim: “the dancers must make the music visible ,” (Footnote 5) or words to that effect. I take this to mean that all the dancers’ movements, through their execution of steps, sequences, and the dance as a whole, must bring out visually whatever it is that is characteristic of the particular tune: its melody, its time-signature, its emphases, its mood, its “power-points.” Now, it seems to me that any “good dance” has this visual dimension written in so to speak: the required moves are well-designed to make this visual rendering of the tune a relatively straight-forward business. The dancers don’t have to work against the choreography; rather, it facilitates their efforts. The movement sequences fit together, with one another and with the tune, in a dynamic, organic way which gives a visual and visceral pleasure and excitement to both audience and dancers. It’s difficult, at least for me, to specify in the abstract how this works, but we are all familiar, probably both as dancers and audience, with feeling something like: “…..I really love that bit where [Move x] happens……” about some dance or other; I think these moments happen because the moves truly fit the music, both the phrase concerned and the tune’s overall essence, like a glove (Footnote 6).

One of the fairly obvious analytical principles would seem to involve a sensitivity to the dynamic difference between jigs and reels- the power of the off-beat versus the on-beat. Years ago, I conceived an enthusiasm for a tune invented by Rich Morse, then musician for Muddy River. All my dance-thinking at that time was occupied by handkerchief dances, and I was mulling over some bits in that genre to fit the tune. I don’t recall what stage I had reached with this effort when I chanced to discuss it with Cynthia Whear, then also of Muddy River. In her usual blunt fashion, she said “but it’s a reel !” She went on to suggest that the tune would do much better for a stick dance. She had a point (as she often does) and I thank her for it ; it’s been a useful one, of some generality. The dance went on to become a stick dance which we call Mr. Morse’s Morris. We still do it.

This is not to suggest that one can’t do handkerchief dances well (even Field Town ones) to reels. It all depends on what the intended primary movements of the dance are, and what moves the tradition affords. To take an example: in the Field Town double-step, there is a characteristic big LIFT at the off-beat (beat four); this just cries out for 6/8 timing. But the side-step in Field Town has its strong point on beat one, and therefore generally works well with reels. Our first Marlboro Ale show dance was a hankie-dance to a real viscera-grabbing reel-time tune “The Rambling Sailor”, a.k.a. “The Trim-rigged Doxie,” and it made good use of the strong on-beat in the A-music by using half-heys (side-steps: ONE-2,3,4). The B-music leads with a lift on beat four, and that fits nicely with the leap into the long-figure rounds (double-steps) that we use for that part. Similar steps in other traditions have different emphases: Bucknell double-step really hits the first beat, as the hands snap down hard, and they have managed to find some jigs that hit that first beat solidly, such as Queen’s Delight. So as well as paying attention to the differences between jigs and reels, one must also acknowledge that not all jigs (or reels) have the same dynamic structure. Just compare Fieldtown Dearest Dickey (FOUR-1,2,3 FOUR-1,2,3…….) with, say, Furze Field (soon to be a TVI dance; actually, it’s a 3/4 waltz, but I play it as a jig- ONE-2 THREE-4). It seems obvious that these different emphases would require different steps and sequences to service them.

Of course, a good musician can bend many tunes a good bit so as to achieve consonance of moves and music, and this is especially so if you have a percussionist, but there are clearly going to be limits to this. The spots along the stave can be interpreted mechanically, or sympathetically (Footnote 7), but there will be a point at which the tune begins to slide into a distinct incarnation……. Another interesting variation is where the team resolutely dances, say, jig-time, regardless of the tune. This is what T.V.M. used to do, when they were really working hard on the surge in the double-step (FOUR-1,2,3, FOUR-1,2,3). We still say that’s what we do, but we often don’t. But there’s no doubt that a team of strong dancers can, so to speak, impose their will on a (reasonably sensitive) musician, and get them to play, say, reel tunes almost as if they were jigs. This is where the team and the composer have their interplay. I’d like to hear what someone with a better claim on being a musician thinks about this…….

Tunes also have moods. Some lyrical, some exotic, some comical. Seems to me this, too, should be acknowledged in the dance form. The tune for Field Town’s Shepherd’s Hey set dance has always had, for me, a lyrical, other-worldly quality, which is beautifully brought out, both by the upright capers in the common figures and by the three sweeping side-steps of the (unusual) hey to the B-music. Another example: Selma Kaplan, the best interpreter of Cotswold morris music on the piano-accordion I know of, composed a great tune which she called Local Hero. It has a delightfully galumphing quality that surely could only be rendered as a buffoon dance…….so, in T.V.I., that’s what it is (Footnote 8).

Whatever the above analysis may suggest as principles of successful dance-making, perhaps we should also simply ask: well, which are the dances that have become fixtures in the repertoire? which have been taken up by other teams? What do they have in common? Well, there are four dances (one stick and four handkerchief) that we have done every year since their invention: Froggy’s First Hop, and Merrie Sherwood Rangers, The Gypsy, Jockie to the Fair and Robin Hood’s Ride. Froggy and Robin Hood I know to have been fairly widely adopted by other teams. Without going through a tedious blow-by-blow of this series of dances, it seems to me that they do have a few things in common. First is simplicity of structure (though several are long and debilitating). For example, Merrie Sherwood Rangers is a short common figures Through + Half-hey dance, and The Gypsy is simply a long-figures Side-step + Half-hey dance. Second, all but Merrie Sherwood have what I would call a powerful motif. Here I’d point to the extensive use of our “vortex” style of long-figure rounds in Robin Hood and in Jockie- they are great fun to do, and often raise a cheer. Finally, the Gypsy and Robin Hood have real killer tunes; that always helps. So what is a powerful motif? Something that’s eye-catching, fun to do, and fits the music, of course!

All of the foregoing has been an attempt to infer ways in which invented dances can really work well with a tune by examining successful combinations, and one is prompted to ask: can one learn anything about the effective match of tune and dance from those dances which really didn’t work well, ones that didn’t stay in the repertoire, in short, from the failures? First, one should recognise that falling from the repertoire isn’t necessarily a sign of failure of the dance, as such. Brighton Camp is, shall we say, rarely done by the home team any more; it certainly isn’t part of the standard repertoire. But we all love the dance- it’s just that it is beyond our stamina these days. We generally do it once or twice when our reunion involves the more iron-thighed among us- perhaps once a year.

The Dark-eyed Lady is also a very strenuous dance (involving repeated long-figure rounds in the chorus with, say, 8 x 2 plain capers, or 4 x 2 fore capers or upright capers), but I’d say that it has fallen from favour largely because there isn’t enough aesthetic payoff for the effort. Another long dance which we have attempted to revive more than once, with no notable success, is A-Roving. I’d say that it fails because of the interaction between the major physical effort needed just to get through the dance and the substantial feat of memory needed to remember its structure. As Mary Chor of Rock Creek Women said to me once: “This is pretty damned baroque, Handford!” The only real out-and-out failure, where none lament the passing, is one called The Archers. There is one obvious structural flaw, and one unfortunate historical contingency. The flaw concerns its being a long common figure dance where the two halves of the figure are separated by the distinctive figure. Now such a structure, I should hasten to add, isn’t simple evidence of my insanity: I stole the idea from the buffoon dances Old Marlborough and Mrs. Casey. But the problem lies, I suppose, in it being a long-figures dance where it’s just too easy to lose track of where you are, especially given the historical fact that the dance was introduced at around the same time as Paisley, which has a distinctive figure very easily confused with that of The Archers. So people used to keep messing up and generally complaining that the dance lacked definition and clarity. I agree.

In a different vein, I have found, in developing our repertoire, that several overall dance structures have been suggested to my imagination through inspecting the diversity of structures in the received Field Town dance canon. I tabulated all of the dances according to the shapes used for both A- and B-musics. Thus, A-music has heys, rounds & common figure sequences, while B-music uses side-step & half-hey, rounds, corners, and so on. On doing this, I discovered that several of the possible combinations didn’t exist, or were under-represented. There’s good reason for this in some cases (such as hey + hey), but, in others, there seemed to be none. So I filled some of these vacant cells, e.g. Robin Hood’s Ride is half-hey + long-figure rounds (no-one seems to do Butterworth’s version of Banks of the Dee); our Jockie to the Fair is long-figure rounds + corners. I felt that I had reasonable licence to tinker in this way, because Field Town is already such a diverse tradition and, in any case, as Field Town evolved into Thames Valley, I felt confident in doing as I pleased: we had stewed long enough in our single tradition as to have our feet firmly enough planted in a coherent style.

So what do effective dances add up to? “Simplicity and power” is my answer. Simplicity means you can learn and remember without superhuman effort , and power means, you guessed it, a coherence of steps, moves, and tune. And all this business of setting the appropriate steps, sequences etc. to a tune so as to capture and render its essence visible begs the question: “how do you know what is appropriate ?” This is not just a matter of accommodating strong beats, moods etc. Not only must the various segments of the dance choreography reflect the phrases and phrasing of the tune; they must also fit together as a whole into something with a coherence, an inner consistency. In short, the dance (plus tune) must hang together. This returns us to the assertion that such coherence requires, for most mortals, a long, active stewing in a single tradition. I would maintain that this is not only necessary to achieve a performance by the dance team and musician which gives them all real satisfaction in what they’ve done, but doubly so for those of us who presume to perpetrate our creative efforts on the innocent public.

Footnote 1.

Maybe a sign of the times: there was a morning discussion session on the same theme at the 1992 Marlboro, Vermont, Ale.

Footnote 2.

Thames Valley International (T.V.I.), London, Ontario, Canada; known as Thames Valley Morris prior to 1991.

Footnote 3

The notion is simply that the dances should be recognisably of a piece: all of the elements which go to make up a dance- the steps, the figures, the overall style- should hang together as a whole. This is much discussed in an article with Eric Smith from the 1991 morris conference:

Footnote 4

This is not to say that it cannot be very useful to use other dance traditions from time to time during the practice year. Trying to do different moves and sequences can have a most salutary effect on one’s understanding and execution of one’s own tradition, as distinct from any other. This is what you might call the use of other traditions “for didactic purposes,” rather than to keep a team’s flagging interest alive. This problem requires different treatment, sooner or later.

Footnote 5

usually attributed to Maud Karpeles.

Footnote 6

Several of these themes (including my precious coherent aesthetic statement, albeit in different terms!) are discussed most usefully by Tony Barrand in his recently-published book:

Barrand, A.G. 1992 Six Fools and a Dancer. Northern Harmony Publishing Co., Plainfield VT.

Footnote 7

This seems to me to be largely a matter of not adhering doggedly to the tempo of the piece as it is written. Despite the insistence of some excellent musicians that strict regularity of tempo is a sine qua non of good team dancing, I must humbly disagree: bending the tempo strikes me as one of the more effective means of drawing a “power-point” to the attention of both dancers and audience.

Footnote 8

Jan Elliott reminds me that this tune was first used for a non-buffoon invention by the “Pink Flamingos” (mostly Marlboro Women) at Pinewoods in 1985 or 1986. I don’t see them doing it much these days. I rest my case. But then, she also tells me that we’ve changed the tune, so………..?

Handford, P. 1992. On Inventing Dances. American Morris Newsletter 17(1): 12-19.