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Playing For Dancers


Cornelia
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Hello all.

 

I am Paul's wife. I do check in on the forum once in a while. You may know that our daughter is involved in Irish dancing. She's been to many competitions over the past few years, and all but one have had live musicians. I have never seen a concertina player, however, though I think it would be well suited to the task, what with the volume it gets.

 

I was wondering if any of you have played at a feis. If so, what was it like? What do you think of the world of dancers? Would you do it again? Just thought it could be an interesting topic.

 

Cornelia

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I play mostly at contra dances and for cloggers and morris dancers -- all very different. But we've periodically been asked to fill in for Irish dancers, as well.

 

One observation: people who do show dancing usually have trouble communicating with musicians. The Irish dancers I've played for seem to have very specific requirements -- speed, type of tune, a/b patterns, etc -- but don't generally do a very good job communicating it. The clogging group we've worked with for 7 or so years is the same; after all this time, they are poor at providing guidance about what they need.

 

That said, playing for Irish dancers is fun because the music is fast and the crowds absolutely love both the music and the dance.

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The Irish dancers I've played for seem to have very specific requirements -- speed, type of tune,  a/b patterns, etc -- but don't generally do a very good job communicating it.

I've played for Irish step-dancers on several occasions, and Jim's description matches my experience exactly. I would add that despite my entreaties, none seemed capable of giving me eye contact or hand signals to indicate when the dance would end ... so we musicians had to be prepared to stop on a dime, or fade out after a few measures of the next part.

 

I did borrow a tape that is used for dance practice (terribly monotonous piano accordion ... awful stuff) and from that I learned some of the pitfalls in setting the tempo. Hornpipes, it seems, can be done at very different speeds: The most advanced dancers do them at glacial speeds, because that allows them to put in the most steps per beat. So it's critically important to get a clear understanding of just what kind of hornpipe you'll be playing.

 

I think that musicians' difficulties with dancers stem from the fact that (around here, at least) all of the dancers' practices and many of their performances are done to recorded music. They're simply not trained or accustomed to collaborating with real, live musicians who have an imperfect understanding of their art, and who don't necessarily match the metronome tick for tick.

 

In short: Not my favorite gig!

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I am just at the point where I can play for other kinds of dances, and I know it helps me improve. Dancers, especially young ones, require _very_ even tempos, and I know I have to be very good to provide that (I'm not quite there, actually). The teachers should help in communicating what is needed, and I have seen that happen with my cousins' kids (several are dancers) when some musicians I know are asked to play for them. Maybe the least experienced dancers require the most able and adaptable musicians, and vice versa?

 

Ken

 

P.S. How are you and the kids? Keep you-know-who off the computer sometimes...

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As both the mother of a dancer and a dancer myself, I can tell you that the whole musician communication thing can be quite complex. It is true, in my experience, that dancers do not pay an awful lot of attention to what music is used. The choice of tunes is usually at the whim of the teacher, and we need to be able to do the steps no matter what the tune. Consequently, dancers, especially young ones, really have no clue about speeds.

 

There are two hornpipe speeds and two jig speeds. You are right that the slower hornpipe speeds are for more experienced dancers and they do then get to put a lot of steps between beats. So the musician falls asleep and the dancer kills him/herself to get all the steps in. At a recent feis, my daughter danced a slow hornpipe to music that was not only fast, but kept speeding up as it went. She kept in time however and managed a third in her competition. The jig speeds differ based on the shoes they are wearing. In fact, there are really 3 speeds, one for soft shoe, and then a fast (traditional) and slow for the hard shoes.

 

I see more and more musicians with metronomes, not ones that make sounds but the show the beat to help them keep time. It must be really difficult for the slow speeds, because it doesn't seem natural to play that slowly. As for when they finish their dances in competition, usually the girls do two steps, right foot and left foot, so that means 32 bars. In the championship categories, they do three steps, so that would be 48 per dancer.

 

Ken, the kids and are doing quite well, keeping very busy with school and Irish dancing. This forum setup has really freed up time for the other family member, so I think it's great.

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Come to think of it, I _have_ played for dancers (experienced teens and/or adults) once or twice. At the session in Indianapolis I go to, once or twice a year someone is there who dances. Of the three sessions I have gone to in Los Angeles, the most accessible one for an intermediate player like me has several regular dancers. Even the waitress (a fetching young lady, but apparently old enough to work in the bar) danced spectacularly a year ago when I was there. This last June, however, she watched us with a sad look, as she had an ankle injury. Being in the midst of a crowd of more experienced players made it easy for me. Having dancers added alot to the session, but I'm sure that's different from playing for kids at a feis.

 

Sometime I want to go watch my cousins' kids dance -- I never have and need to see how it works for them.

 

Ken

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The best thing (IMHO) for playing any for type of dancing is to dance yourself. This certainly works for morris dancing and for English folk dancing generally. I know some morris sides that won't let you play until you can dance it well.

 

Even then, you must watch the dancers to see how they are coping with the tempo etc.

 

Having said that I supposes it depends how many types of dancing you want to play for, you can't learn to dance everything.

 

If a particular dance troupe will not tell you what they want then you could try playing for someone else. They might take the hint and communicate more with your successor! (whoar, I'm feeling a bit boshy tonight!!).

 

Clive

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I play for dancers. Well, not concertina and not Irish or English dancing. I play Tahitian drums for Tahitian dance. The dance teacher and drum teacher are the same person, so the necessary communication takes place.

 

But, anyway, she does advise us about playing any instruments for any kind dancers. Her main advice is to "cross train". If you want to accompany dancing, then learn to dance it. You don't need to be a champion of that kind of dance -- just learn the basics, so you have some idea what it's like to be a dancer. Well, that's her advice. So, she has me learn Hula (because I'm not ready for Tahitian yet) and she has the Tahatian dance students learn the basics of the drumming.

 

- Alex

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If you want to accompany dancing, then learn to dance it.  You don't need to be a champion of that kind of dance -- just learn the basics, so you have some idea what it's like to be a dancer.

Agreed. I derive much enjoyment from playing for contra dances. It was contra dancing that brought me to traditional music 20+ years ago, and I think that learning to dance then has helped me immensely ever since in knowing what tunes are good for contra dances and how to play them to support the dancers. (For dances I mostly play piano.)

 

My comments earlier in this thread about playing for dancers ("Not my favorite gig," I wrote) were specifically, and only, about playing for young Irish step-dancers. Bring on the contra dancers and I'm not so grouchy. :rolleyes:

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In the playing for Dancers thread, Cornelia asked

What exactly is contra dancing?

 

Well, contra dance was the most accesible kind of dance for me, when I first tried it 22 years ago at a tender age in Washington, D.C. It was real big with young people in the 1970s, and I sometimes wonder if we have all aged as a crowd, as the folks I see at contra dances are all my age (now 40s), though maybe this is in the Midwest U.S. only!

 

The dance is done by two couples who execute various figures as a foursome, commonly for a 32-bar dance, after which the couple will "progress" up or down the line of couples and do it again with a new couple. The moves are taught before the dance in a walk-through, and a caller calls the moves throughout the dance (at least my favorite callers don't stop calling in the middle of the dance!). Some would compare it to square dance (descended from the old quadrilles, for four couples), but the culture is quite different. Much square dancing in America is codified, some folks wear fancy/silly (take your pick) costumes, and live music and even callers can be uncommon. Contra dancers I know are a decidedly informal lot, the moves are ones you can learn if you can walk, and they are very good about helping beginners feel welcome right away. Live music is almost universal - I can't remember ever contra dancing without it. I can't tell you much about the history of contras, perhaps others here can. Someone told me it has ancestry in the British Isles, but much of it seems to be a North American form. It is very big in New England, and I learned it in the Hudson Valley of N.Y. in the mid-1980s. It was a huge singles activity there, and hundreds of people would show up for the dances. Eileen Ivers used to play for our dances! (for 50 bucks, maybe?) I bet she doesn't have to do that anymore!

 

The music might be a moderately fast fiddle tune or something similar. Over the last quarter-century Contra dance music has become a form of its own, with well-known bands like Wild Asparagus, or the more recent rave, Flapjack. Many original tunes have been written for contra dancing. To get back to the thread topic, I got my first chances to play in a contra dance band this summer, once at Pinewoods and twice at a local dance weekend, and I enjoyed it, though it took focus and stamina.

 

Gee, we should really start a new thread if anyone else wants to expand on this.

 

Ken

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What is contra dance? Ken's post and the link provided by Henk tell a lot, but there still seem to be some points which are at variance with my own 30+ years of experience, mainly in being either too specific or not specific enough. So...

 

What is generally known as contra dancing today is a dance form that developed in New England, i.e., the Northeastern part of the United States, but over the past 25+ years has become popular enough in other parts of the US to have become essentially indigenous. Its popularity has also spread to other countries, but I think they all still recognize it as "American". It has antecedents in English dancing of more than 200 years ago, and *some* English country dances are contra dances in everything but national origin.

 

One should distinguish between "contra dance" as an event and as a dance form. As an event, it's a dance where most of the dances are "contra" dances, but can also include circle and square dances, and -- at least in these modern times -- setless couple dances such as waltzes, schottisches, and even hambos. There are those who class any dance done at a contra dance event as "a contra dance". I find the more restrictive definition I've learned over the years to be useful, so I'll continue with that.

 

Two things make a contra dance a "contra" dance. One is that they are danced in "longways" sets -- where couples line up (almost always two "long" lines to a "set", but many independent sets side by side) in a repeating formation, but where the exact number of couples is not critical. The other is that the couples form two groups, one which progresses "up" the hall (where "up" is normally defined as toward the band and caller), and the other "down". When a couple in one group reaches either end of the set, they become part of the other group and start progressing the other direction. (This keeps the dancers from working their way in among the band or out the door. :) )

 

The sets are also subdivided in another way, as small groups which repeat from "top" (furthest "up") to "bottom". "The dance" consists of a fixed sequence of figures, which are repeated many times. All or most of the figures in each repetition will be confined within each small group, but at the end of each repetition the couples of the two "contrary" groups mentioned above will have shifted with respect to each other, so the next repetition will be done with different combinations of couples. This is the "progression".

 

Now I'll pick a few nits:

 

Nit #1: Contra dance sets usually consist of two lines, and the subgroups generally consist of two couples, which is four people. But there are rare contras where the formation is four lines, and quite a few where the subsets consist of three couples, rather than two.

 

Nit #2: It is standard practice at contra dances for each set dance to be prompted by a caller, almost always preceded by a "walk through" to fix the pattern of the figures in the dancers' minds, and usually some more detailed instruction before each dance, especially if there are relative beginners among the dancers. But those are not absolute requirements. Certain well-known dances may simply be announced before the band starts playing -- especially with an experienced group of dancers, -- and with these the caller may instead be found on the floor, dancing in one of the sets. (Some venues provide a short, pre-dance "beginners" instruction, but I believe this is a fairly modern innovation which is neither limited to nor necessary to contra dancing.)

 

Nit #3: I did contra dancing for 25 years without ever dancing to a recording. I feel that live music is essential to a truly good dance. But the fact is that there are venues these days where contra dances are done to recordings. They are still contra dances.

 

The music: New England contra dance music has a particular feel to it. When the band Nightingale toured Denmark, a local Irishman commented that their music was "wrong, but wonderful". He also said that they were "the best band I ever heard play Irish music backward." He was referring to the flow and the pulse (the way emphasis is placed on certain beats) of the contra dance, which is quite different from what's common in Irish dance music. The New England musical style has developed together with the dancing, and I personally find it strange to dance contras to Appalachian old-timey music, which generally has a very differrent feel. Nevertheless, there are many communities outside New England which are now doing contras to "local" tunes and bands, and to them it seems natural. Still, I recommend you listen to the New England bands to get the "real contra feel".

 

The dance community: Contra dancing has evolved as a community activity, not a "club" activity. Anyone is welcome at a dance, and the form of the dancing -- as well as the calling and teaching -- makes it easy for strangers and even beginners to join in. It's true that there are many groups these days which started young but now seem to be aging, with few if any younger members. I think that's true of the folk music scene in general (at least in the US), and also in other milieus: how many teenage Deadheads do you know? But there are also a number of areas -- even outside New England -- where contra dancing is multi-generational. I have two favorite stories which relate to this, one about new dancers, and the other about generations.

 

New dancers: A woman was brought to her first contra dance by a friend. Having no baby sitter, she brought along her 6-year-old daughter, but seemed concerned that the girl would find the experience less than enjoyable, having to sit on the side and watch a bunch of adults dance. I didn't see why that should have to be the case, and I asked the little girl to be my partner in a set. She caught on immediately, and after only a few repetitions she was even making helpful comments to other, more experienced dancers who were having difficulty. Others who noticed her skill then also asked her to dance, and she had no lack of partners for the evening.

 

Generations: One significant aspect of the contra dance culture is that it's normal to dance each dance with a different partner, and it's entirely appropriate to ask a stranger for a dance... and to converse while dancing. Thus at one particular dance I danced with a woman, then later in the evening I danced with another woman whom I discovered was the first woman's daughter, and even later I danced with a young woman who turned out to be the second woman's daughter. They had each come to the dance separately and by their own choice. Admittedly, it doesn't happen at every dance, but the fact that it happens at all gives me hope for the future.

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[younger members. I think that's true of the folk music scene in general (at least in the US), and also in other milieus: how many teenage Deadheads do you know? But there are also a number of areas -- even outside New England -- where contra dancing is multi-generational. I have two favorite stories which relate to this, one about new dancers, and the other about generations.]

 

At the Glen Echo weekly contra dance -- one of the biggest in the country -- there is an interesting age division. Lots of geezers like myself who have been dancing/playing contra for years. Then LOTS of very young folk -- 17 or so to early 20s, who bring an energetic, swing-influenced style

 

And the music is changing. When I started playing, the model was the New England bands influenced by Bob McQuillan--tunes played straight up, conventional chords, very steady rhythm. The most popular bands today are swing influenced. Much jazzier sound. Led by piano players who use lots of jazz chords, never play a tune the same way twice. No more straight boom-chuka rhythms. Very challenging to play with, but the dancers seem to love it.

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It's true that there are many groups these days which started young but now seem to be aging, with few if any younger members.

I've noticed that that seems to be the case with contra dancing too, though I wouldn't be so disparagate. When I first started dancing (over 30 years ago) I remember being somewhat put off by the "older folks" at the contra dances as they weren't the high energy types as were the (my aged) folks I wanted to dance with. I soon realized that I enjoyed dancing with seasoned dancers who brought a lot of comfortable ease and style to the mix.

 

Now I'm on the other end of things, in my 50's, viewing with a smile at all those "kids" flinging themselves around with so much abandon - and yet not shying from dancing with them. I find it a nice/interesting fit dancing with them, being the grounding agent which allows them to relax and egenders more room for expression. We dance, we chat, we have fun. And often seek each other out at subsequent dances.

 

It may all be a matter of focus. I remember more my-aged young folks when I was young, and now see older (ahem - mature?) folks as now I am. Contra dancing is multi-generational, and may now be weighted more toward the older crowd for some dances. In my area (Western MA) I have a choice of 3 or 4 contra dances each weekend within a 20 minute drive. They vary considerably in the age range with David Kaynor's dances tending to "bell-out" in the late 40's whereas the Wild Asparagus's tend to asymmetrically bell-out in the 20's. Still, at any contra I'll see dancers from 6 up through the 70's.

 

I've heard a number of older folk (jeeze - I hate calling my agegroup that!) say that they don't do the Greenfield Saturday dances any more because of the plethora of younger folks there. It's true though, there is a lot of young blood out there.

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Well, contra dance was the most accesible kind of dance for me, when I first tried it 22 years ago at a tender age in Washington, D.C.

I also began contra dancing exactly 22 years ago ... in Washington, D.C. Three years later I started playing concertina. What's behind this strange synchronicity? (Cue eerie music).

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I also began contra dancing exactly 22 years ago ... in Washington, D.C. Three years later I started playing concertina. What's behind this strange synchronicity? (Cue eerie music).

 

Well, 22 is 11x2, and 11+2 is 13, which is considered a number as magical and mysterious as how people come up with such stretched connections. :)

 

For some reason, I don't normally consider a 15% time difference to be synchronous.

 

By the way, have you picked up any other instruments. And if so, when? I can't do your horoscope without full data. (Actually, I couldn't do it even *with* full data, but why fret over details. ;) )

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