Dancing well is more fun


Dancing well is more fun

Many people first encounter country dancing at a ceilidh or barn dance, perhaps at a wedding or other social event. In such cases the dancing is incidental to the socializing, and the fun comes from the occasion rather than the dancing. It’s not unreasonable to take the view that the important thing is to have fun, and there’s no need to fuss about details of technique.

However, if you go on to dance regularly for its own sake, you will find, as many people have before you, that you can have a lot more fun and a deeper level of enjoyment if you pay attention to a few simple principles.

What’s more, if you try to improve you will soon realise that it’s more fun dancing with good dancers, and that that pretty woman or handsome man is more likely to want to dance with you if you know where you’re going and don’t tread on their feet.

This is not a matter of pernickety rules. It’s a matter of being aware of the music, aware of other people, not focused on your own movements but dancing as a group with the whole set.

The good news is that it’s not hard to become a better dancer. It takes a bit of time and practice, but as much as anything it just needs an attitude of mind, a willingness to accept that there are many small things that increase your enjoyment and the enjoyment of the people you dance with.

It takes a while for these things to become second nature. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it right straight away. You’ll be welcome at any dance club if you’re willing to learn. We dancers were all beginners once, and we are happy to welcome beginners and to help anyone who is learning to dance. Many good dancers were really terrible when they started. It may take a while to become a good dancer, but the effort is worth it and other dancers will be grateful. Here are some simple basic ideas to help you. There may seem to be a lot of suggestions, but you don’t have to take them all on board at once.

First, a couple of general points. You should understand that in English country dance there isn’t a ‘correct’ way to do anything — it isn’t tightly regulated as for example Scottish country dancing is. If you want to do something differently, that’s alright as long as it doesn’t annoy or inconvenience other people. You should generally do things the conventional way at first, though — there’s probably a reason for it. In particular, the suggestions here are not just my personal views; they follow the accepted practice of good dancers and callers throughout England and elsewhere.

Secondly, if you go to a dance club with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you probably want to dance together. As beginners, however, you will make much better progress if you split up and dance with more experienced partners most of the time. In any case, it’s the convention in many clubs not to dance with the same partner for more than a couple of dances in a row, and at the Round it’s usual to change partners after every dance. Don't be shy about asking experienced dancers to dance with you; they’ll usually be happy to help. Incidentally, it’s entirely acceptable these days for a woman to ask a man to dance; you don’t have to wait to be asked.

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Listen to the beat

Can you hear the beat of the music? If you’re a musician it will be second nature, but if you’re not it might not come naturally. If you can’t hear the beat you can’t dance well. In fact, if you can’t hear the beat you can’t really dance at all.

The ‘beat’ is a steady pulse that runs all the way through the tune. It’s not the same as the rhythm, which is a musical decoration on top of this regular pulse. Often, in the case of dance music, one of the instruments in the band will play on the beat — maybe a drum, but often a keyboard instrument or bass guitar.

If you have trouble with this, find a musical friend and ask them to play a dance track with a clear steady beat, and tap out the beat for you. Try to tap it out for yourself. If that’s easy, try a track with a less obvious beat. If it’s hard, you’ll need to practise with a variety of tracks until you get the idea. Some people do find it harder than others, but most people have an innate sense of rhythm and it’s just a matter of finding it.

Most country dance music is in duple time — two beats to a bar. The bar or measure is the conventional division of the music, and the first beat of the bar is slightly emphasized. Many dances are in triple time — three beats to a bar — and for some reason many people find it much harder to follow the beat of a triple-time tune, so this needs practice too.

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Dance to the music

Even if you can hear the beat, dancing to it takes a bit of practice. The music isn’t just a pleasant noise that accompanies the dance; the music is the dance, and dance has been described as ‘music made visible’. The aim is to move with the music all the time — one step to each beat. That is, your foot should hit the floor exactly on the beat. You may not manage this at first, when you are likely to have enough trouble working out where you should be going; if so you could try, in private, just walking around to music until you get accustomed to moving with the beat. The music is typically structured in 8-bar phrases (16 beats or steps in duple time) and the elements of the dance fit into this structure. A star or circle for four people usually takes 8 steps to go once round; back-to-back (do-si-do) takes four steps out, four steps back, and so on. Initially you may find it helpful to count the beats, but you should soon be able to listen to the musical phrases and fit your movements to them without having to count. Listen to the music when you’re not moving, too, so that you’re ready when you need to move again, and you can even gently move your weight from foot to foot with the beat.

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Learn the language

Many activities have their own private language, often using ordinary words with a specialised meaning, and country dancing has its own language too. Hugh Stewart’s ‘Elements of English Country Dance’ is a good guide to the technical jargon.

Dance with the other people in the set

Country dancing is social dancing — dancing with other people. They can help you and you can help them. If you don’t know where to go next, your partner or one of the other dancers in the set may be able to guide you. This will often be by fairly subtle body language, so you need to look for it. If you see that someone else looks lost, indicate where they should go, if you can. (But don’t ever push anyone physically.)

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Shoes for dancing

It’s fine to dance in any shoes you find comfortable. People have been known to dance in hiking boots, occasionally. However, suitable shoes feel better and make it much easier to dance well. Trainers are a common choice, but not ideal — they’re a bit clumsy and the soles can stick to the floor. The ideal is as near to bare feet as you are comfortable with — a light, flexible shoe with a sole that doesn’t slip too easily but doesn’t grip the floor either. High heels are probably best avoided, but a low heel may help.

Dance on your toes

With decent shoes, it’s easier to follow another principle: dance on your toes. This doesn’t mean dancing on tip-toe, it’s just short-hand for keeping your weight on the balls of your feet. If you stand with your weight on your heels, it’s hard to get moving. Get your weight off your heels and onto the balls of your feet and it’s much easier to move when you need to.

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Give weight

What does this mean? When you turn your partner by the right hand, you’re moving in a circle. It helps both you and your partner to get round if there’s a bit of tension in your joined arms. ‘Giving weight’ is providing that tension. The faster the turn, the more tension you need. Your arm needs to be somewhat bent at the elbow, and you need to link hands so that you can pull against each other. Don’t grip the other person’s hand — you both need to be able to detach easily at the end of the turn. In a star, don’t just rest your hand on top of the other hands — link hands with the person across the star from you, so that you can give weight to each other. You often need to give weight in other situations. In a circle, for example, a bit of tension in your arms helps everyone to get round.

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Don’t rely on the caller

At first you will need to listen to the caller to know where to go in the dance, but as you become familiar with the figures that make up the dances you will gradually be able to remember the pattern of the dance without relying on the caller. The caller may stop calling after a few turns of the dance, so that you can enjoy the dance and the music. The other dancers will usually remind you where to go if necessary, and you should eventually be able to help others in the same way.


Think about the next movement and be ready for it. If in a particular figure you’re standing still while others are moving, listen to the music, and move your weight onto the balls of your feet on the last beat before you’re due to move. There’s often an anacrusis — a few notes that lead up to the first strong beat of the next phrase and the first step of the next figure — and this is a good cue that you need to be ready to move. When a right-hand star is followed by a left-hand star, turn on the last beat of the right-hand star, so that you’re ready to start the left-hand star on the first beat of the new phrase.

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Spatial awareness

Spatial awareness is knowing where other people are even when you can’t see them. When driving on the motorway, you can know that there’s someone in your blind spot if they have disappeared from your rear-view mirror but haven’t yet appeared in front of you. In the dance, you don’t have a rear-view mirror, but you still need to be aware of what others are doing, even if you can’t see them, so that you can avoid crashing into them and so that they don’t have to break the flow of their movement to avoid crashing into you.

Eye contact

Make eye contact with other dancers, for example when you’re about to start a move together, or when you pass in a hey, or change places with each other. This is not an intense stare (though you may encounter that from some American dancers) — just a glance at each other. It can be an opportunity to reassure each other that you are about to do the right thing, or to seek or give help if either of you is unsure, but mostly it’s just an acknowledgement that you are dancing together. You might even smile at each other.

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Make the dance flow

A good dance is designed to flow — each movement flows into the next. A good dancer will make the dance flow smoothly, without unnecessary stops and starts. Be aware of the timing of each movement. Don’t get to the end of a movement late, but don’t get there early either. The ideal is to arrive exactly at the right time to flow into the next movement. Listen to the music — the end of the movement usually coincides with the end of the musical phrase.

Mistakes and recovery

Everyone makes mistakes, including experienced dancers. Recovering unobtrusively from mistakes is a skill that everyone needs. The golden rule here is not to try to catch up — you won’t make it, and the next figure will be messed up too. Instead work out where the movement you missed would have taken you and go there. If you forgot to join in a star, for example: where does the star go? Usually all the way round, so stay where you are. The star will come to you and you can join in the next move.

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Many English country dances, as well as almost all contra dances, can be performed with a simple walking step. However, the following steps are also used.

  • Setting

    This is very simple: just step to your right, close your left foot next to your right, then step to your left and close your right foot next to your left. One beat for each movement, four beats in all. However, if you put your weight on your left foot on the second beat, you have to pick it up again immediately in order to step to the left, and this feels very awkward. One solution is to keep your weight on the right foot as you close your left foot to it. Another, which most people adopt, is to elaborate the movement a bit: right, close, right, left, close, left. Here the emphasis marks the beats, and the close comes between the beats. Do this on your toes, with a bit of bounce.

  • Skip-change

    The skip-change or double-step is commonly used with lively music. The movement is right, close, right, hop, left, close, left, hop, ... The emphasis marks the beats, so this means:

    • step forward onto your right foot on beat 1
    • bring your left foot up close to your right (but not past it)
    • step forward onto your right foot again on beat 2
    • and hop on your right foot
    • step forward onto your left foot on beat 3

    and so on. This will probably take a bit of practice — many people find it difficult at first. It is impossible to do it at all unless you have your weight forward on your toes. It’s worth persevering with it, though — it transforms the faster dances.

  • Slip

    This is the step used to dance sideways, for example in fast circles. It is just left, close, left, close, left, ... when moving to the left, and right, close, right, ... when moving to the right.

  • Step-hop

    Right, hop, left, hop, ..., usually to a much slower tempo than a normal reel or jig.

  • 1-2-3-hop

    Right, left, right, hop, left, right, left, hop, ...

  • Rant

    I’m not going to try to describe the rant step — it’s easier to understand it from a demonstration. Yes, this is a cop-out.

  • Waltz

    The country dance waltz step is rather different from the ballroom waltz. Usually it is just a travelling movement in triple time (3 beats to the bar) with a little emphasis on the first beat of each bar: right, left, right, left, right, left, ... The steps should normally be of equal length, not long, short, short.

    Note that there are many triple time dances that are not waltzes. Triple-time dances from the Playford era are hornpipes, and have a steady 1-2-3 beat. Many modern dances in triple time are in a similar style.

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The Swing

The swing (technically the ‘buzz swing’ or ‘pivot swing’) is hard to do well, and because you’re in a close ballroom hold any deficiencies are very obvious to your partner. Key points:

  • Stand tall and don’t lean back or bend forward.
  • The man’s right arm is the important one. The couple’s other three arms are just to assist stability. The man’s right hand should be flat on the middle of the woman’s back. The rule of thumb is that the thumb should be no lower than the level of the bra strap.
  • Don’t face your partner; face to the left (over their right shoulder), with your right foot outside their right foot.
  • Don’t bounce up and down; aim for a smooth movement.
  • Your weight is mostly on the right foot, which should hit the floor on every beat. The left foot trails a bit behind, taking the weight only briefly between beats as you step forward with the right foot.
  • If you’re the man, you control the swing. Make sure that it finishes in the right position, facing in the right direction, at the right time. (Listen to the music!) The woman often needs to change direction at the end of a swing, for example to go into a ladies’ chain or a forward-and-back, so don’t just let her fly off into the distance, but give support as she stops and moves off again.

If this is all too hard, a walk swing is OK — just walk round each other. But a fast buzz-swing with a good partner is much more fun.

A compromise is to use the crossed-arm hold: right arms joined hand to elbow, left arms hand to hand. The footwork is the same, so it’s helpful for getting that right before dealing with the other points. It’s also useful for same-sex partners.

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Finally ...

Try asking other people whether there are ways you could improve. None of us is perfect, but it isn’t always obvious to ourselves what our faults are.

Enjoy your dancing and have fun!

Anthony Stone