Musings on playing for dance

I get a real kick out of playing for dancers, whether Morris or social dancing. There is a connection between dancer and musician which if you get it right can be really quite special. I’m not going to dwell on technique here, but on the sensation of playing for dance.

Take the ceilidh that I did on Friday. Three hundred people in a single (quite large) room, most of whom are dancing away. If you stand on stage playing for them it is easy to concentrate on the music, getting the beat right, the emphasis right, the lift right. But if you relax and start using your eyes, not only do you play better, but you start to see the effect that your playing is having on the dancers. It’s an amazing feeling! To think that your movement is enhancing the experience of others. And if you open your eyes properly then you can get this immediate impression of an entire room literally playing to your tune, which is exhilarating. You can feel them react to you, you can see the effect that your playing is having on people directly, in realtime. I love it.

I have a theory that the more a group of people get into a dance, the slower they wish to dance. This is especially true of a dance which Friday’s caller (Bob Ridout, a fantastic caller and a lovely chap) likes to call, called “The Texas Schottische”. At least I thought it was called that, but google tells me that it is a dance for three person partnerships, whereas his is for normal partners. The dance is very simple and we play walking hornpipes to it (Sportsman’s Hornpipe/Baccapipes/Idbury Hill), but when dancers get into it, it becomes quite special. Much of amateur ceilidh dancing is concerned with position and figures, getting into the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. It isn’t about movement, which is what dance should be about! But for this dance, you can see people starting to move their bodies with the music and reacting quite subtly to what you are doing. In turn, the musician sees this and starts to react to what the dancers are doing, subconsciously adjusting his speed and style to suit what the dancers want. The upshot is that the dancers begin to truly dance and the musicians begin to truly play.

The apotheosis of this of course is playing for a Morris jig. I am still quite new to playing for jigs, but I love doing it. The connection between dancer and musician is stronger then than in perhaps any other kind of dance. The musician follows the dancer and the dancer follows the musician. It is genuine symbiosis. And it’s just as fantastic on the dancer’s end, the connection isn’t weakened.

I played for a jig at the John Gasson Memorial Jig Competition at Sidmouth 2011, with minimal preparation. It went well, but we weren’t placed. I’ll be entering this year as well, different dancer, different dance, different tune. My aim with it was to create a dance which was both wonderful to look at but also wonderful to listen to. Some Morris musicians forget that the audience need to listen to what they play.

The better music is to dance to, the more musical it tends to be. Really good dance musicians are fantastic musicians in general and it’s a pleasure to listen to them even when not dancing. I’m reminded of ceilidhs that I went to years ago in Sidmouth by Boka Halat, whose rhythms and tunes kept me entranced without dancing.

Of course, you can’t play for dance properly unless you can read the dancers, and this generally means that you have to be a dancer yourself. I am a Morris dancer, not a brilliant one, but I dance far more than I play. Interestingly though I don’t much like ceilidhs. Morris for me means space and freedom to express my movements. I’m fairly tall and solidly built; in a packed ceilidh with the music going hell for leather I end up almost shuffling around, as any proper step of mine would take me a bar ahead and put me on top of someone. I find most ceilidhs too fast; I prefer to move slower and jump higher. But I do dance at ceilidhs, because I want to play better. I want to make the experience of the dancers the best that it can possibly be, not only because of altruism, but because I know that the better I play the better I will feel.

I play a lot of ceilidhs. I had played a few here and there before going to university, but my ceilidh career really took off when I joined the Cambridge University Ceilidh Band. I’ve played 72 gigs with CUCB since joining in October 2008, which is a sizeable amount. I am now one of their leaders, which takes the experience of playing for dance to another level, as you then have a more direct control over what the rest of the band does. I’ve played in some amazing ceilidhs, one that sticks out is Trinity May Ball in 2010. We were playing in the great hall, a fantastic Gothic room, as dawn was rising. The sound wasn’t particularly good, in that the only thing that anyone in the band could hear was me, including myself. This didn’t bother me, as it meant that I felt like I was playing completely on my own. That I suppose is one of my ambitions, to play for a ceilidh completely on my own. I’ve done ceilidhs with me, fiddle and guitar only and a ceilidh with me and piano only, but no more minimalist than that. It would be an interesting experiment, to see whether I can do it.

No discussion of ceilidhs would be complete without me sharing the ceilidh that I did for my Uncle’s wedding. Lineup was me on box, my Dad on flute and calling and my Grandpa on concertina. Plus the rhythm section of my Uncle’s Big Band. Amazing. It’s a gig I’m hoping will be repeated, as he has a birthday coming up and the idea is that it’ll be an open stage ceilidh, where any guest can come up and join in the band. Given that most of the guests will be professional musicians this could be really quite special. I’ll keep you posted.

I love playing for dance and I hope that I always will. When you get it right it is a truly special experience.

5 thoughts on “Musings on playing for dance

  1. If the music is too good…there’s a danger of being so intent on listening to the music you forget steps/which is left and right. ;)
    :cough: Not that I’ve done that before. :shiftyeyes:

  2. As someone who can’t dance (arthritis, not aesthetics), I do love playing for dance. You’ve captured this very well, I think. Amazing the bit about you and your Dad. I’m envious.

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