Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Period Dance 101

With the season wound down, I can't let my blog just sit dormant. Since I am a dance master (no matter how debatable that might be) I thought I'd give a brief primer to those who claim to have two left feet. After all, people of the Civil War era did not have television; they found other ways to entertain themselves.  Dance was one of the most common ways to have fun.  If you didn't know how to dance, you were probably raised by wolves and were not much of a social person, anyhow.

I always think it humorous to hear a Civil War soldier say they can't dance any of the period dances--when in reality they're pretty much already doing it when they go out and drill.

That's right--period dance is not all that different from drilling--just moving in a more confined space.  You still start out with your left foot, and you step in cadence.  When drilling someone in the ranks sings, you find it's easy to keep cadence--how much more so when you have a full band?  This is actually one of the most complicated parts of period dance.

I'm not saying you're ready to do all the period dances--some of them are rather complex.  But you are certainly ready to do the simpler and more common dances.  You don't have to worry about remembering the figures--a good dance master will call the figures out until he's confident that everyone can go on their own (just like how the commanding officer will call out your next move when drilling).  All you really need is a quick primer on the most common figures, so that when that figure is called, you'll know what to do.

We'll go over the Virginia Reel, which is the most common of all the period dances.  This is one of the few dances that you will see at every ball and barn dance, so if you only know one dance, The Virginia Reel would be the one to know.

The dance itself can vary from ball-to-ball, but in general the simple figures below will be part of this dance, and these figures cover about eighty percent of all the figures used in the common and simpler dances.  Get this dance down, and you'll have no problem winging it for the remaining of the simpler dances.  You still may need a little assist on some of the more complex dances, but with practice, you'll be able to handle those as well.

Basic rules in period dance:
1. The lady is always to the gentleman's right when standing side-by-side at the start of a dance.
2. Sets (group of dancers) have a head and a foot.  The head is always the end toward the musicians, the foot is always the end away from the musicians.  Only if the set has to be reconfigured due to space restrictions would this be different.  Not all dances use sets--some form a circle around the dance hall.
3. When the lady and gentleman must stand across from each other at the start of a dance, determine which side the lady should be on by facing the head of the set and follow rule #1.  If these rules are ever broken, it is unlikely you are dancing a period dance.

The Virginia Reel is generally performed with six couples in each set.  It can be performed with more or less, but six works the best.

Each of the following figures of the Virginia Reel is performed to eight counts--where each count is one step.

The first figure of the Virginia Reel is "Honor your partner".  This is nothing more than a simple bow. 
Next figure is a right-hand turn.  Give your partner your right hand.  In the center, both of you turn all the way around, and then return to your original place.
Now is the left-hand turn.  Repeat what you did with the right-hand turn, only use your left hand instead.
Follow this with a two-hand turn.  Just do what you did for the right-hand turn, only use both your hands.
Finally, you have what is known as do-si-do, sometimes also called back-to-back.  You and your partner both take three steps forward, passing each other on each other's right side, followed by one step to the right (which now puts both of your backs to each other).  Continue the remaining four steps back to your original place.

If you've had problems with the above, you are probably in remedial training for drill instruction.

At this point, the dance changes so that only the head couple dances.  They start with a sashay down to the foot of the set, followed by a sashay back up to the head.  A sashay is a sideways-skipping step.  If you are not sure about what I mean, position yourself further down the set at the start of the dance and watch the other couples as they do this figure.  No one is going to be particular if you don't get it right, but you don't want to be running down the set.
Once back at the head of the set, the head couple will do what is known as "Reel the Set" or "Strip the Willow"--both are terms for the same figure:
a right-hand turn one and a half times around,
followed by a left-hand turn with the lady on the outside
followed by a right-hand turn with your partner,
followed by a left-hand turn with the next lady in the line.
and continue until you reach the end of the line.

Once at the foot of the set, the head couple sashays back up to the head of the set.  This is followed by what is termed "Casting off", meaning the proceed to turn and walk down the outside of the set. Although not all dancers do this, there is a correct way to turn when casting.  For the gentlemen, it will be counter-clockwise (to your left), while for the ladies, it will be clockwise (to their right).  Turning the other direction looks a bit clumsy and is not as elegant (as well as not being correct).  Sometimes you will see couples honoring each other as they cast.  Although the honor is not really necessary here, I think it does add a nice flair.

All dancers proceed to follow the head couple in casting off.  The head couple will meet at the foot of the set (they'll have to do a best guess as to where that is since there won't be anyone there as markers) and form an arch with each other with both their hands.  It is important to note that they should not try to hold hands (which is common for dancers to do).  The reason is pretty simple--the dancers that have been following now have to go under your arch and step back into the two lines.  If the head couple has locked hands with each other, that arch will be too narrow, as the dancers take their partners hand and try to step under that arch together.  It will also likely be too low for the taller dancers who may have to bow pretty low to get under that arch.   Finally, if that head gentleman is a private, and one of the other dancers is a general--well, it's just not good to make a ranking officer bow to a low-ranking soldier.

Once all the dancers have returned to place, the head couple that just did their arch will drop their hands and be the new foot couple.  There will be a new head couple, and the dance starts again, until all dancers have had a turn at being the head couple.

So, for this dance, we covered the following figures:
Right-hand turn
Left-hand turn
Two-hand turn
Sashay down the hall and return
Reel the Set (also known as Strip the Willow)

And that's a basic primer for most dances.  Once you know and can dance the Virginia Reel, you can do most of the dances at the balls held at reenactment events.  There are still a number of figures to learn, but I'll go over those in a different article.

I'm hoping to go over the Virginia Reel at the Regimental Dinner, so if you're in the 1st Tennessee, you'd better brush up on on this article.  I'll see you there.