Dance Notes

Dance Etiquette and its practical application - Part 2

This article is actually the third in a series on dance etiquette. The first (entitled Further Dance Matters), in the Spring ’98 issue of ED&S, discussed the social nature of Country Dance and the need for us all to improve our dance etiquette. The second, in the Autumn ’98 issue of ED&S, identified the qualities of the ideal social dancer, highlighted some of the bad habits we need to eliminate and developed a set of guidelines for improving our standards of etiquette. This article covers a few etiquette related issues: personal space; giving weight; communication between dancers etc.

In days gone by Country Dancing was a very important social grace and one of several ways of meeting influential people, climbing the social ladder or getting a few precious moments ‘alone’ with your chosen beau. Etiquette was paramount. A few ill chosen movements or indiscretions would quickly label you as unsuitable and ruin your chances of social and financial advancement. Today the emphasis is firmly on enjoyment and exercise and etiquette come a very poor 3rd. We seem little concerned if our standards of etiquette or our attitude to our fellow dancers leaves a few disappointed or disgruntled partners in our wake. Sadly to some the subject and its practice have become irrelevant.

Etiquette is not about being stuffy or old fashioned, it’s about being polite, courteous and supportive of our fellow dancers, as well as making our dancing more fun. A friend, a 27 yr old ardent Ceilidh goer, the other day complained ‘about partners who dig their thumbs and nails into your arms when dancing’, so its not just the older generation who would appreciate a little more consideration from their dance partners.

Lets consider for a moment our individual need for Space. We all have a need for our own personal space, i.e. an area around us maybe large or small in which we are free to move, in which we feel confident and ‘in control’, and in which we do not feel threatened or overwhelmed by others around us. We get wary when we have to relinquish any of it, e.g. in a crowded tube train, a shopping crowd or a lift.

It’s in our nature not to relinquish this personal space unless advances are friendly and sensitive to our needs.

Dancing is not so different. Whether you realise it or not when you invite someone to dance or accept an invitation to join the dance you are allowing your dance partner and your fellow dancers to encroach to some degree upon your personal space. If the encroachment is friendly and sensitive to your feelings then all is well, but we all have our own standards of permissible behaviour (etiquette) for someone entering our space. Behaviour that is acceptable to one person may be totally unacceptable to another e.g. vigorous handholds, swings and turns. These standards are unique to each individual although they will frequently be very similar to those of other dancers. We have an obligation therefore, when joining the dance to ensure that we only enter our fellow dancer’s personal space in a sensitive manner. This manner (i.e. our attitude) in which we approach our dance partners is extremely important. It could change an occasional dance partner into a lifelong friend.

There appears to be a misconception that an ‘experienced’ dancer is necessarily a good dancer. Unfortunately this does not follow. So how do we assess whether our standards of etiquette (or technique) match those of the people we dance with? We perhaps need to reawaken our powers of observation.

There are several ways of communicating with your dance partners/neighbours:

Eye Contact;

Facial expression;

Tension in limb or body;

or perhaps in the last resort by Speech.

We will only notice the above if we are attentive to our fellow dancers. So forget about the car maintenance, the ironing, the decorating and concentrate on the issue at hand i.e. enjoying your fellow dancer’s company. None of us are infallible and if the following situation does not happen to you, you are quite fortunate. It occurs regularly with me on the dance floor, my mind goes blank, a glazed looked comes into my eyes and I’ve already forgotten the next figure (I know others have the same problem), but this is ‘Social dancing’ not competitive dancing and we help each other out. An attentive partner will immediately be aware of this situation and by any of the above means can put me back on the right track (I usually try to thank them). We can communicate our thoughts to our fellow dancers and, if they are attentive, they can read them. So if you notice a reaction in your current ‘partner’ then act upon it or at least enquire? One useful action if you are in danger of injury is to let your affected limb go completely limp, hopefully it will then register with your current partner that there is a potential problem and remedial action can be taken. Changing partners more frequently hones these dance skills as well as creating a more social atmosphere.

Now for the thorny subject of ‘Giving Weight’. We’ve all heard the term but what does giving weight really mean? What would its dictionary definition be?

Before you read on please spend a few minutes trying to work out your own dictionary definition of ‘Giving Weight. Try to make it as generally applicable as possible.

It may help us by first of all deciding when we give weight, before we try to define what we actually mean by the term. Is it only in Turns, Stars or Swings? Do you give weight during Grand Chains, R & L Thro’s or Ladies Chains? What about a Gipsy, Siding, or Back to Back?

I would argue that we ‘Give Weight’ every time we come into physical contact with our fellow dancers (or even enter our current partner’s space), so Hand Turns, Swings, Chains, Pousettes, California Twirls, Circular Hey (with Hands), Circling, Up a Double (& even Gipsy), etc. all qualify.

What steps do we go through when ‘Giving Weight’? Most of them are automatic to us and consequently we are not really conscious of the decisions we have made or the actions we have taken. Let’s break it down into its constituent parts which will, I believe, help in our understanding. Firstly there’s the decision of ‘What figure are we about to execute?’ We may be prompted by the caller, we may have to try to remember or we may get a clue from an adjacent dancer. Then ‘What Style’ are we dancing? Playford, Traditional English or New England etc. ‘With Whom?’ is probably the next decision, Partner, Neighbour, Opposite, Shadow etc. and ‘What type of partner’ are they? Expert or Beginner, Confident or Shy, Eager or Reluctant, Young or Older, Sprightly or Infirm, Attentive or Daydreamy, Early or Late, In Balance or Off Balance, Large or Small. All these factors could have a bearing on the manner in which we approach our dance partners and how much weight we need to ‘give’, in other words, each partner is unique, and we have a fraction of a second to assess the above and decide how to handle them.

It doesn’t stop there either. If we are to execute the figure correctly we will need to work as a single unit, so once we have made ‘contact’ we must sense the ‘weight’ of the other person(s) and then apply an appropriate counterbalancing force. We should be able to ‘feel the weight’ of the partner(s) during the figure and adjust accordingly to any changes that occur (beware of using your fellow dancers as walking sticks, particularly in Chains, Circles or R & L Throughs). The result must be that the figure is executed successfully to the comfort and enjoyment of all participants.

We are, I believe, now in a position to produce a satisfactory definition for ‘Giving Weight’. Let’s see if our definitions agree, probably not in wording but hopefully in spirit. My version goes like this:

A process whereby two or more dancers coming together in the execution of a particular figure, sense the weight of the other participants and apply an appropriate counterbalancing weight or force which ensures that the figure is performed smoothly, timely and in balance.

At Sidmouth this year, George Marshall, the caller with Wild Asparagus, gave us a wonderful insight into ‘social’ dance. I don’t remember his comments exactly but the gist of it was this:

Dance for yourself and there is only one person (you) looking out for you (if you go blank or forget the next figure);

Dance for you & your partner and there’s now twice as many looking out for you;

Dance for your set (it was a longways duple minor we were doing) and there’s now at least 4 times as many people looking out for you;

Dance for the whole room full of people and everyone is looking out for everyone else.

So lets dance for one-another and our enjoyment will be increased several fold.

A thought on eye contact. I personally think it’s an essential part of country dance but we Brits are somewhat shy and insular. Be aware that some may perceive too much eye contact as a threat to their personal space. We must therefore be very wary not to overdo it. One rather pleasing instance when eye contact comes into its own: when about to dance with your partner or your corner, do you try and catch their eye and acknowledge them just before you are ready to move? Not only does it reassure them that you are ready for the next move but it also serves as a reminder to them should they have difficulty in remembering.

And finally thank you to all those who have responded either verbally, by letter or by email to my previous articles, your comments have been much appreciated.

Please feel free to comment on any of the above or any of the previous articles to John Turner, 35 Pirrie Close, Shirley, Southampton. SO15 7QA . Tel No. 023 8036 0892 or email: john.turner15 at or of course write in to the ED&S letters page.

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