The Language of the Dance


Our flagship organization has been plotting a new course for itself recently. Some of the functions of the RSCDS, including the annually published dance books, are coming into question. However, the RSCDS still has an essential role to play in keeping us together, and one of its key functions is suggested by the publication last year of the pamphlet Glossary of Standard Dance Terminology. Even if the Society ceases to be a major publisher of new dances, a standard dance vocabulary and conventions of expression can help to unify the rapidly expanding repertoire of dances. (At last count, the total number had reached 9,000.) The task of the Glossary will never be finished, but it provides a useful summary of the RSCDS canon as it exists now.

The Glossary was written presumably by members of the Publications and Research Committee. It carries the acknowledgment “compiled with the assistance of Mr. John Drewry,” and John Drewry’s voice can be heard especially in a comment about “opposite” and “wrong” sides. The language of the Glossary contains no surprises: it is a blend of precision and slightly archaic decorum. The Society is clearly striving for an “elegance of expression” (the Glossary actually uses that phrase) to match the elegance of country dancing as conceived by the RSCDS. Eighteenth-century idiom is perpetuated in phrases like “1st, 2nd and 3rd couples dance six hands round and back.” However, the Society has avoided false gentility: women are “women,” not “ladies.”

The language of the Glossary is heavy with noun phrases like “a half double figure of eight.” Such language makes us envisage the dance in static terms. The verbs used are “advance and retire,” “balance,” “cast,” “cross,” “lead,” “pivot,” “set,” “slip,” “turn,” and the ubiquitous “dance.” “Allemande,” “promenade,” and “poussette” are used apparently as both nouns and verbs, but “reel” only as a noun. Useful verbs like “circle” and “chase” are not included.

To ensure the consistency and precision so important for unambiguous written descriptions of dances, the Glossary recommends some conventions of expression. For example, the order of reference follows current positions of couples in the set (“2nd and 1st couples dance rights and lefts”). Turns are designated by hands (“turn with the right hand”). In teaching or briefing dances, one would probably substitute terms which do not require dancers to stop and think, such as “turn with the hands that bring 1st couple inside 3rd couple.”

Not surprisingly, the twentieth-century shorthand expressions so useful in briefing dances–“hello and goodbye setting,” “mirror reels,” “cross-over reels”–continue to be excluded from the RSCDS canon. Metaphors proliferate in contemporary SCD talk: “butterfly turns,” “fishhooks” (half figures of eight), “paper clips” (the 1st couple’s path in Inveran reels) are examples used by some teachers. Domestic colloquialisms like “teapots” are clearly not compatible with the ideal of elegance, and “three hands across” is just as explicit, if wordier. But a term like “mirror reels” gives dancers such useful information that it seems a pity the RSCDS does not recognize it. A recent RSCDS book (Book 37) describes a cross-over mirror reel this way:

1st woman dances a reel of three on the men’s side with 2nd and 3rd men, while 1st man dances a reel of three on the women’s side with 2nd and 3rd women. 1st couple finish in partner’s place.

This description still requires an adjunct diagram, since it does not mention the symmetrical track. (Wording like this has given rise to controversies like the one over “Cadgers in the Canongate.”)

The Society’s decision to use a given term or not influences the way we think and talk about dancing and the curriculum followed by teachers. For most of us, mirror reels are conceptually quite different from parallel reels, and they are the kind of reel most often taught at the beginner level. Since understanding of a dance is made so much easier when an eight-bar phrase can be conceived as one entity, one would hope that the Society would analyze published dances to ensure that recurring patterns are named as figures. One such pattern, described in early dance books as “lead out at the sides,” is explained in Leaflet 33 in these rather cumbersome terms:

1st couple dance out on the men’s side and cast (woman up and man down) back to the middle. They dance out on the women’s side and cast similarly back to the middle to finish facing up with the woman on the man’s right.

As revealed recently to the Strathspey newsgroup, Ellie Briscoe suggested to the Publication and Research Committee that the traditional term for this figure be used. (It also appears in other familiar dances like “Waverley,” and John Drewry has used it in dances like “Midnight Oil”). Apparently the Committee thought the figure had too many variations to be described by one term, but as Ellie points out, it is quite as consistent as a reel of three. Current terminology might substitute “dance out at the sides” since nearer hands are used, but the staid yet succinct terminology would certainly preserve RSCDS decorum when contrasted with the graphic contra dance term “smash the windows.”

One difficulty for the authors of the Glossary must have been posed by recently devised figures, especially those which occur mainly in the work of one contemporary devisor. Some, like John Drewry’s “rondel” and Bob Campbell’s “tournee,” with their Francophile names, have long been canonized by the RSCDS and now form part of the standard curriculum in which advanced dancers must be proficient. Others, like Drewry’s “set and rotate,” have been included in the Glossary, presumably because they occur with some frequency in the work of other contemporary devisors. (“Set and rotate” is also used by Boyd, Barbour, Haynes, and others). Yet others, like Drewry’s “espanol,” are not included, although a similar case could be made for their inclusion.

It’s interesting to compare the contents of the new Glossary with those of the RSCDS Formation Index (1988 edition), the RSCDS Manual (1992), and Keith Napier’s Scottish Country Dance Index (1995 edition and 1997 supplement). Common figures (reels of three and four, rights and lefts) appear, of course, in all four. Listed below are the few common figures that do not appear in the Glossary, together with less common formations which appear inconsistently in the four publications and a few terms in occasional use which do not appear in any of them. Some of the disparities can, of course, be explained by publication dates: a formation devised only in the last ten years could not possibly appear in the Formation Index, which in any case lists only figures used in RSCDS dances.

Name of Figure  Glossary   Index   Manual   Napier 
arches no no no yes
back to back no no yes yes
birl / bourrel no no no yes
chain progression no no no yes
chase no no no yes
corner chain no yes yes no
corners pass and turn no no no yes
crown triangles no yes yes yes
diagonal rights and lefts    no no no yes
en rond no yes yes no
espagnol no no no yes
highland schottische
poussette yes yes yes yes
Inveran reels no no no yes
La Baratte no no no yes
Marigold reels no no no no
petronella in tandem no no no yes
polka poussette yes no no no
Schiehallion reels no no no no
set and rotate yes no yes yes
spoke no yes yes no
star grand chain no no no no
tandem reels no no no no
targe no yes yes no
tourbillon no no no yes

First, one notices some puzzling omissions in the Glossary. Neither “back to back” nor “chase” appear in it; however, “back to back” is a familiar term in traditional and contemporary dance descriptions, and “chase” figures occur in many RSCDS and other dances. As suggested above, simple, clear verbs seem particularly useful in a dance vocabulary so dominated by noun phrases.

Next are the puzzling inclusions, led by the mysterious “polka poussette” and the “highland schottische poussette” which occurs so far only in two dances. The “targe,” “spoke,” and “corner chain” are wisely excluded–they occur in a few RSCDS dances of modern composition, and have never become popular. “Crown triangles” has probably been excluded for the same reason, although several devisors outside the RSCDS have used it.

While opinions may well differ, it might be argued that simple, distinctive, versatile figures should be included in the RSCDS canon, whether they appear in dances published by the RSCDS or not. Proficiency in these figures leads to better dancing; they are useful in the construction of dance lessons as well as in written descriptions. Those of modern composition include “set and link,” which is included in the Glossary, but perhaps also “Schiehallion reels” and “Inveran reels,” which are not. (Names can never be changed after the fact, but the naming of figures after dances sometimes suggests that the figures are more recondite than they are. The original published instructions for Hugh Thurston’s dance “Schiehallion” uses the term “reel of eight” for the distinctive reels.)

One might also argue that figures which have been devised independently by more than one person (“petronella in tandem” and “tandem reels” are examples of this) should be recognized on the assumption that they have a certain inevitability, given our dance tradition, in contrast with more exotic figures like “La Baratte” (and dare one mention the “polka poussette”?).

People learn more easily when recurring patterns have names, and standard terms help communication in any field. To some extent the Society can also influence the evolution of this dance form by publishing (and keeping current) a glossary of widely recognized figures. These should occur with some frequency in traditional or modern dances, or both, making them a useful basis for a teaching and dancing curriculum. The terms used for these figures should preserve traditional decorum, but not exclude simple, direct language which has proved itself. The Society is moving in the direction of greater openness, and the words it uses should not be an exception.

Rosemary Coupe
Editor, The White Cockade