A definitive explanation of Siding

By Hugh Stewart

There are two sorts of siding in common use.

  • Cecil Sharp, curly, banana, swirl siding:
    “Take two hands with your partner. Do half a turn ‘the wrong way’ (anticlockwise). Do half a turn ‘the right way’. Holding hands is too exciting so do that again, but holding eyes instead. That’s siding. It's just like up a double and back: 4 steps there, and four back.”
  • Pat Shaw, into-line, shoulder-to-shoulder siding:
    “Face your partner. Just like up-a-double and back: you go forward to stand beside your partner right shoulder to right shoulder, pause for a deep and meaningful glance at each other and then fall back to place. You often side twice: right shoulder to right the first time and then left to left the second time.”

The history behind this is very simple. When Cecil Sharp was rediscovering the dances Playford had published he didn’t know what “siding” was because Playford’s book was basically a crib sheet and siding was so obvious that everyone knew it and he never explained it.

Accordingly, Cecil Sharp had to invent some move that used eight beats of music, you did with someone (generally your partner), and came in two parts (one of Playford’s dances said something like “side half and then...”). He invented “Cecil Sharp Siding” which is a perfectly satisfactory move that generally fits in with the dances.

Later on people found that a Frenchman (Raoul-Auger Feuillet) had published some books in about 1700 describing English Country Dances. One of them was translated by John Essex into For the further improvement of dancing : a treatise of chorography or ye art of dancing country dances after a new character ... / translated from the French of Monsr. Feuillet and improv’d with many additions. He used an interesting notation, which was basically to draw the track you followed, with some decoration to show what your feet and hands should be doing. Some of his dances show interlocking V shaped tracks which amount to what we now call “Pat Shaw Siding” becuase Pat Shaw did much to popularise its use.

Just to confuse the issue, various dances (in particular the Maggot Pie collection) were invented when Cecil Sharp siding was in common use, so (one assumes) the authors intended them to use that sort of siding, and in at least one dance (The Round Pond) Pat Shaw himself explicitly says you should use Cecil Sharp siding, and there are some dances where the author decrees that you use each form of siding for different introductory figures. Hence you can’t simply decree that one form is correct and the other wrong.

Whilst I hesitate to lay down the law, my personal rule in the absence of any clear instruction otherwise is:-

  • If it is side twice in quick succession I use into line siding.
  • If it is side once I use Cecil Sharp siding.
  • If it is a “standard Cecil Sharp Playford” dance I use Cecil Sharp siding (yes, there is a conflict with rule 1 here for dances like Whirligig or Picking up Sticks, it’s a bit random which rule wins).
  • I try not to run into my partner.

The gory details

Cecil Sharp was well aware that he was guessing about siding. In his introduction to the Country Dance Book II he said:-

The rest of the figures described by Playford are, so far as the majority of them are concerned, fairly easy to interpret. Of those which occur in the dances given in the text, the only about which I feel any doubt is the Side. “Sides all”, “Arms as you Side”, “First man Sides with first woman”, are expressions which recur with great frequency. Although I have consulted all the sources of information at my disposal, I have been unable to find any authoritative definition of this figure. Nor have I been able to find any one of the above expressions, used in precisely the same way, in any of the dance collections subsequent to “The Dancing Master.” I should have preferred to have omitted from the dances noted in this book all those in which this expression was used, but owing to its frequent occurrence, this was quite impossible.

Some solution had, therefore, to be made. The one given in the text was arrived at by comparing the several ways in which the term was used in various dances. This made it quite clear (1) that the figure was a four-bar movement; (2) that it was executed by one dancer to another, or by two dancers, usually partners, to each other simultaneously; (3) that it was a movement of courtesy similar to the Set; (4) and, lastly, that it consisted of two movements of equal duration, half to the right and half to the left. This latter attribute, which is a very important one, was deduced from “Nonesuch” (see p.116), where the figure in question is described as “Side to the right” and “Side to the left,” with a turn Single added after each movement, thus converting the movement into one of eight instead of four bars.

The most that can be said in favour of the solution I have ventured to give, is that it fulfills all the above requirements; and that it is difficult to think of any other movement which will do so. Nevertheless, I am aware that, although the margin of doubt has been materially reduced, I have not succeeded in eliminating it.

Later, in the introduction to the last Country Dance Book (VI) he says:-

We have now, I think, arrived at the meaning of all the technical terms, used in the notations, with one exception — the Side. Further evidence which has come to light with respect to this very troublesome figure seems to throw doubt upon the accuracy of the half-turn in each portion of the figure, in the form in which I reconstructed it. Now if, instead of turning, the dancers were to “fall back to places” along their own tracks, the Side would be identical with the Morris figure of Half-hands, or Half-gip. And this, I suspect, may prove to be the more correct interpretation; but until it is supported by far more definite and conclusive evidence that we at present have, it would, I think, be unwise to make any alteration in the figure as now executed.

In his notes for lectures (in the VWML) Cecil Sharp implies that he was convinced that into line siding was what Playford intended, but that the EFDS members who had been drilled into Cecil Sharp siding refused to make the change.

You can see chunks of Feuillet’s books on the Library of Congress web site, where the dance La Jalousie clearly starts off with first couple side right and then side left (the “arrows” are showing which way your feet are pointing, not arrows showing which way you are facing or moving) — don’t bother trying to make sense of the rest of the dance, it’s obviously first couple back to back then lots of hand waving and a two hand turn to change places; although the picture is of a longways dance it is easier to think of it as a circle, with just one couple starting it and bringing in the rest of the dancers as they get to them.

For the John Essex translation see here which explains all the symbols Feuillet uses.

Page maintained by Hugh Stewart