Jump to content

How to choose music for a given dance


RAc
 Share

Recommended Posts

I have a question for you experienced dance musicians and/or dancers.

 

As far as I can tell, most English and Scottish dances work in multiples of 8 bars, meaning a set of dance figures is normally finished after a multiple of 8 bars, and the next round of a dance consequently begins at another multiple of 8.

 

A typical example is the Eightsome reel, where the "body" of the dance consists of 8 rounds of 48 bars each. Further dissecting the dance, one finds that each round is split into two identical halves, each of which further splits into three groups of 8 bars. The first group is an ad lib dance of the dancer in the middle of the moving circle, the second group futher dissects into two halves of 4 bars each in which the center person sets and dances with one distinct partner, and the third group is a figure 8 reel pattern among 3 dancers, again in 8 bars span. (There is also a 40 bar intro and outro dividing into 5 groups of (again) 8 bars each, but that's just for completeness).

 

On the musical side, the "basic blocks" are of course a huge selection of pieces to choose from. Most English and Scottisch pieces appear to be 32 bar pieces (jigs, reels or hornpipes mostly). A lot of those can be looked at as 2*2*8 bar pieces structured AABB, but the A and B sections are so discreet and standalone that each multiple of 8 can easily be constructed from them, e.g. AABAB, ABBAB for 40 bar groups and ABABAB, ABBABB, AABBAB, ABAABB or something the like for 48 bar groups. Some 32 bar pieces, however, are structured more like 2*16 so it's not easy to rearrange the parts freely (for example the Knutsford). There are 48 bar pieces such as the Galopede that are basically AABBCC extensions to AABB, so these can as well be rebuilt in any convenient way (eg ABCABC or AACBBC for 48 bar pieces).

 

Now the interesting question is of course how to select music to accompany a given piece best. I've looked at many Youtube videos of this particular dance (the Eightsome reel) and of course also read the thread on mudcat (https://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=135364) in search of an answer. The reason being that a band I'm involved in too may need to accompany the Eightsome Reel soon...

 

There is a broad spectrum of approaches. In some cases, there are 10 different AABB reels played against each of the ten sections, frequently played ABABAB in each of the middle rounds. It seems to me that this would mostly be appropriate for dancers who know the dance really well; each new tune can be chosen to add more dynamics and drive to the previous one, thus "pushing" the dancers who don't really need fixed points in the music to revert to.

 

On the other side of the spectrum, you would have one or at most two ABCABC piece(s) for the entire body of the dance, so the dancers have recognizable "safe harbors" to resync with if they get lost (The ABC groups align nicely with the halves of each round). Thus, this is probably the better choice with dancers just learning the dance. On the downside, playing the same tune for 8 rounds may get boring in the dancer's ears and gives little room for adding or subtracting dynamics during the dance.

 

I'd be interested in knowing how you seasoned dance musicians tackle those questions. Let's assume your band has an active repertoire of, say, 50-100 32 bar reels and maybe half a dozen 48 bar reels which you could all use in a million of possible permutations of A,B, and C sections. Let's also assume that a caller suddenly announces the Eightsome reel so you would need to make a decision what to play to the dance (the question would of course arise the very same way with any other dance).

 

Would you typically use the same music every time for the same dance, or does the front person look at the overall picture (such as whether these are experienced or beginning dancers, how much you would want to challenge them, how much they have had to drink so far, how exhausted they are and so on) and then decide on the music? If a given dance has an "internal structure" of, say, 2*3 groups of 8 bars each, would you prefer a 48 bar reel played ABCABC to match the grouping over an ABABAB rendition of a "standard" tune, or don't you care?

 

It is my sentiment that the best dance musicians would make a fresh decision with every new dance, taking all of the factors into consideration dynamically so the music would best fit the dancers, their experience, the overall mood of the location, time and occassion, the vibes and so on? Or am I overinterpreting?

 

Please don't flame me if this should be a stupid or trivial question, I'm fairly new to dance music. It's an exciting and fascinating world, and there is so much to learn...

 

Thanks!
  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi RAc,

 

I'll answer from within narrow confines of ITM in Co. Clare.

 

We had a friend, a player who also danced. Typically we would be playing ITM for set dancing, mostly falling into 2 distinct types of set; the Caledonian Set or the Lancers Set. (There are other sets danced in Co. Clare too).

 

I'm going to give an example for the first 2 figures or movements.

 

Typically we would play 2 x 2 part double reels for the first figure, so that works out at AABB x 2, and repeated for the second tune. Most of the Caledonian set consists of identical sequences danced by the "tops" and "sides", or two couples facing each other. The advantage of this arrangement was that as the "tops" finished their sequence, the "sides" came with a new reel, often chosen to be a complete contrast to the preceding reel, and thereby, hopefully, giving the dancers a bit of a lift too.

 

For the second figure of the Caledonian set, a much shorter figure, we used to play 2 single reels three times, so that would be ABABAB, and repeated for the second reel. The added advantage, again, was that the "sides" again took over with a new tune.

 

Our friend had an exact arrangement for every figure. The remaining three figures were all biggies. Typical Clare, everyone danced reels, but the fourth figure could be played as jigs, but you'd have to check with the dancers first. There was an optional sixth figure of hornpipes, but not everyone danced the hornpipe figure. (As a novelty we used speed up the last 8 bars up to reel time). To us musicians, the hornpipe figure looked to be the same sequence of steps, whether it was the Lancers or Caledonian.

 

Our friend had an equally extensive repertoire of tunes for the Lancers set, timed again to co-ordinate so that the sides came in with a new reel or jig, as appropriate.

 

Perhaps there could be something here for you, in changing tunes, when different groups take their chance to dance, or speeding up the last eight or sixteen bars of a hornpipe or strathspey dance.

 

Regards, John.

 

  • Thanks 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Coming from American squares and contras, defer to the caller ( if there is one,  sometimes one of the dancers will prompt.).  He/she will usually give a brief general instruction to the band after presenting the figures to the dancers;  sometimes a specific tune for a particular dance or something like "Jigs or reels. not to fast and not in D or G this time please!".  Having been paying attention to the figures as introduced, you can then proceed accordin'.  ?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

From about 10 years of playing for Scottish Ceilidhs, the only dance I can remember that was anything other than a number of tunes in a set played twice through each was the Eightsome.  For that we stuck an extra A on the start and a B on the end (I think...if that adds up?).  All the other dancers we'd look at how drunk or tired the dancers were and end it either after twice through the whole set (normally 3 tunes) or at the end of the tune we were on when someone nodded or waved a leg in the air.

Unless you're playing for specific set dances where it needs to resolve I wouldn't worry.

Oh and it's worth pointing out that a lot of our dances were couple dances to it didn't matter so much how many times you went through it.

  • Thanks 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

On 12/28/2019 at 3:32 PM, wunks said:

Coming from American squares and contras, defer to the caller ( if there is one,  sometimes one of the dancers will prompt.).  He/she will usually give a brief general instruction to the band after presenting the figures to the dancers;  sometimes a specific tune for a particular dance or something like "Jigs or reels. not to fast and not in D or G this time please!".  Having been paying attention to the figures as introduced, you can then proceed accordin'.  ?

 

Thanks for the response, wunks!

 

All of what you write is a lot like it is in English/Scottish music. I'm mostly interested in the details of your final half sentence though (" you can then proceed accordin' "). From my limited understanding of American music, I seem to remember that the dances are less set but rather called "on the fly," so the musicians indeed need to listen to the introduced sequence of figures to obtain a sense of the details "in real time." In English/Scottish however, when the caller announces the name of the dance, the musicians normally know the sequence of figures and so have an idea of what tunes to pick.

 

Could you elaborate on the exact meaning of "proceed accordin""?

 

Thanks!

 

@Mudchutney and @John, Wexford: Thanks so much, that's exactly the kind of responses I was looking for! 

 

Happy New Year to everyone!

 

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Many years ago, before I started playing mostly Nordic music, I played in bands for English folk and then Scottish ceilidh dance.

 

As I recall we'd worked out in advance the sets of tunes to be played with popular dances - we had sufficient sets and variations of tunes to make up a sufficient number of sets to ensure we didn't repeat a set during the course of an evening.  I recall we had something like 30 sets, and a maximum of around 90-100 tunes to be played during the course of an evening.  We could then select a set to play according to the dance being called (or in the case of Scottish ceilidh dance a caller wasn't usually present so the band announced the dances, the dancers usually being required to know the dances). 

 

We worked with callers that would indicate the structure of the tunes to be played for a specific dance, eg 3 tunes of AABB, or 32 bar jigs, in which case the band leader would suggest to the band the set to be played.  This selection was always the responsibility of the band leader.  Having a knowledge of the figure structure of the dances is useful for the band in helping the selection of the set to be played for the dance - that is, some jigs/reels may not be suitable for some dances.

 

[Recently I've been enjoying the English music sessions I've been going to, and am starting to think about playing the English repertoire again - I must dig out my old tune books since I can remember only a small number of the tunes I used to play having played mostly Nordic music for the last 25+ years!!]

Edited by SteveS
  • Thanks 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

As John, Wexford mentioned with regards to Irish Set Dances, the figures have a known number of bars. A good source for bar counts, are dance sites such as DanceMinder.com. and Mabula.net. These sites will have all of the common Set Dances listed, including number of figures, bars per figure, and tune type most common. The bar count includes the 8 bars for nothing that the dancers use to establish tempo, and the figure ends on the last note played. To make things flow for the dancers as mentioned, a good band watches for the change during a figure. Figures fall into the categories of Tops ( 1st tops have back to the band, 2nd tops are facing the band) and Sides ( the other 2 couples ), and a follow the leader type of figure where one couple at a time is active, mimicking what happened by the previous couple. Sets like the Connemara Reel Set, and the Merchant Set follow this scheme. A challenging set to play is the Ballyvourney Jig Set. It is set to Slides, and all 5 figures run straight into each other, so that the only 8 for nothing is at the beginning.If playing for set dances, I find it helpful to watch a video of the set to see where the lift to the dancers calls for new tunes. It is both fun and helpful to learn to dance some of these sets. It took a long time for me to decide to give it a go on the floor vs the stage, but really enjoy dancing for the past 8 or so years.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

RAc, 

So you have the caller's general instructions, the size and number of sets, the figures to be danced and whether the crowd is sprightly or geezerish, beginners or old hands.  The collection jug overflows with green and the punch bowl gives off a mildly neon pink glow indicating it's been properly spiked.  You've selected a tune or two or three ( don't try to cram three tunes into a short dance and change tunes at a significant change point in the dance) from your vast repertoire, some introductory beats by the lead musician and your on your way!  At this point watch the caller closely for signs of panic.  

 

Here we have such a mix of dances from different cultures that we regularly use marches, polkas, jigs, reels and hornpipes and the rhythms and tempos vary considerably within all these types. Avoid starting too fast with marches and jigs as the following reels or hornpipes will sound frenetic.  I've played for some English country dancing and the caller gave us the sheet music for each dance a week in advance! 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...