David's Blog

Becoming a Better Dancer

Becoming a Better Dancer

(This post is aimed articularly at English country dancers, but contra and square dance enthusiasts may also find food for thought.)

One of the challenges that callers face is that of teaching style to dancers. Note: by “style” I'm not talking about the over-the-top mannerisms that some dancers affect. Rather I'm thinking of moving gracefully, with ease and flow, connecting one figure to another, interacting with the other dancers. Style is as simple as the way we carry ourselves when standing still, and it also involves moving with intentionality, with precision, with energy.

In most dance settings, people are there to move and they resist (appropriately, in my mind) standing around listening to a caller natter on and on. But country dancing—and I include contras and squares along with English in this category—is more than just plodding through a series of prescribed figures.

Indeed, when I first was introduced to English country dancing, I resented the excessive time callers spent on imparting style points. In time, though, as I grew comfortable with the basic figures, I noticed how certain dancers moved on the floor and tried to emulate them. At that point, I was also more interested in what the callers had to say about how to move.

So, is there anything that interested dancers can do off the dance floor to improve their skill and style? Indeed. A series of six articles, Pills to Purge Mediocrity, provides a detailed set of ideas and exercises (both mental and physical) for dancers to consider, all wrapped in the notion of Personal Responsibility. He starts with the basics, how to stand and how to take the first step! A second essays looks at “developing a heightened sense of consciousness to dancing figures. Every figure consists of timing and shape, brought to life with expression.” Here, he focuses on one simple figure, the cast. Subsequent essays look at circles (connections, giving and releasing hands, timing), heys, preparing the step and working in ensemble, and the relationship between music and dance.

The six essays are a lot to read and to ponder, but I encourage serious dancers to make that effort, one at a time.

Old Movie Stars Dance to Uptown Funk

Looking for something to put you in a good mood? A contemporary mashup that combines dance scenes from classic movies set to a more recent funk soundtrack? Here you are! It's called "Movie Stars Dance to Uptown Funk," brought to you on YouTube. Great dancing, from a diverse cast including short clips of the Nicholas Brothers, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Laurel and Hardy, Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland... you get the idea. The editing is *superb* and the notes indicate that no speed adjustment was applied to the clips. Editors and dancers, sit back and enjoy five minutes of fun.

The Sleepwalker

Midwinter blues or post-holiday blahs got you feeling down? Here's a cure that'll bring you back from the doldrums. This short piece of colorful animation is based on a poem by Federico García Lorca; the images are what might result if Salvador Dali, Joan Miró and Paul Klee collaborated after a wild night of dancing to tribal fusion music. Enjoy Sonámbulo / The Sleepwalker by Theodore Ushev.

International Money Musk Moment - 2009

In sorting through some old files recently, I found this account of the International Money Musk Moment that David Smukler and I instigated in 2009. It just might be of interest. Here's the tune:

It's Fun to Hunt: The Enchanted Wood

Ralph Page kept a regular column in his Northern Junket magazine in which he shared tidbits that he unearthed in his research into newspapers in the 1800s. I share his fascination with the roots of our contemporary dances, so have borrowed his "It's Fun To Hunt" title to describe a few of my own forays into the past.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, caller Tony Parkes did a lot of audio recording at dances. Many of his recordings were recently digitized by Jon Thunberg, a volunteer working with the New Hampshire Library of Traditional Dance and Music, part of Special Collections at the UNH library in Durham. Wearing my multiple hats as dance historian and coordinator of the Square Dance History Project (SDHP), I received from Jon a DVD data disk with 1.8 GB of mp3 audio files and a spreadsheet listing available information about each tape.

Tony and I have talked for years about his writing an article on "Great Callers" that we would use as the foundation for an exhibit in the SDHP. I created a grid listing the callers we'd include, and checked off appropriate columns when we acquired video, audio, or photographs of each person. Several callers had no audio checked off, but Tony was certain that he had live recordings for them.

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David Millstone, Dance Caller

Lebanon, NH


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