Initial Publication Date: May 21, 2009

Some Conventions Used in Old-Time Dancing

In almost all cases, old-time dances are done to music that has 8 phrases (usually played as reels or jigs; each phrase has 4 bars--8 beats), and therefore, there are typically 8 different steps that will be done. One time through the dance/song should result in all dancers "back to place" (i.e. where they started), or in some cases, advanced one position in the set. Each dance move will begin on the first beat of the music phrase and dancers have 8 beats to complete the move and get ready for the next. The call is generally initiated 2-4 beats before the next phrase so that dancers can anticipate what to do next when the music comes around. Listen to the music and you'll "feel" when the next phrase begins to start the next dance step. For more information about "old-time" dancing, check out the Country Dance and Song Society .

We will use three different dance forms to demonstrate symmetry elements:

Square Dance

  • Four couples to a set, defining the 4 sides of a square
  • Ladies lines up the the gents' right
  • The "call" typically goes to the gent (telling him what to do...they need a little more help).
  • Squares come in different flavors: a) all couples do the same move at the same time; b) "heads" (couples facing the band or backs to the band) and "sides" (couples facing perpendicular to the band) alternately do the dance, and c) couples 1,2,3,4 sequentially do the dance, traditionally couple 1 has their back to the band, couple 2 is to their right, 3 faces the band, 4 is to the left).

Contra Dance

  • The dance form is a long line of ~6 or more couples facing each other. a) A 'proper' dance has gents on one side facing their partners on the other. b) More typically, contra dances are done in the 'improper' form with alternating men and women along the line. To get in the appropriate orientation, "Take hands 4" down the line in small circles of two couples. Couples with their backs to the band will be the "head" or "active" couples--they will switch sides with their partners; the couples facing the band will be the "inactive" couples (they certainly do the dance moves--this does not imply that they are passive during the dance).
  • The call goes to the "active" couples telling them what to do.
  • The dance is done in these groups of 2 along the lines there will be groups of 4 dancers simultaneously doing the dance.
  • At some point in the dance there will be a "progression" ...The head couples will move down the set one position past their current "inactive" couples, and the "inactive" couples will move up the set one position to dance with the next "active" couple.
  • Active couples will continue to dance the active part until they reach the bottom of the set; inactive couples will stay inactive until they reach the top of the set.
  • When couples get to either the bottom or top of the set, they will wait out the dance for one turn, and switch sides with their partners. Thus, an active couple at the bottom of the set becomes an inactive couple for the rest of the dance and an inactive couple at the top of the set becomes an active couple.

Triplet Dances

  • The dance is done with three couples in a set, organized in a line, men on one side, partners facing across.
  • The call typically goes to the "head" couple--the couple lined up closest to the band.
  • At the end of the dance, the head couple will have progressed to the bottom of the set, and there will be a new head couple to start the dance anew.

Let's Dance!!!

Strap on your boots, Resin up the bow, Find a partner, 'Cause here we go....