This is a dance form Cecil Sharp found in Kentucky in the Appalachian Mountains, and published in the Country Dance Book V.
Firstly it should be made clear that Running Set is not what the people in Kentucky called it. Basically to them it was ‘dancing’; perhaps ‘Square Dance’ as opposed to ‘Ballroom Dance’. We don’t know why Cecil Sharp gave it this name, probably he was confused by the term they used “to run a set” which meant to dance the same figure through for each couple in turn.
Next perhaps we should make it clear that Running Set (or whatever you choose to call it) does not actually involve running. It is done to a brisk smooth walk to fast music; Cecil Sharp described it as looking as though people were on wheels as they moved around.
The last caveat is that Cecil Sharp said that the music they used was very inferior, and suggested doing it to some English tunes instead. He didn’t actually say what the inferior tunes were, but nowadays Appalachians do it to fast American Reels.
The thing that got Cecil Sharp excited about Running Set was that it has no courtesy moves in it (honours, acknowledging people and such-like). To him this demonstrated that it must be a cultural survival from before the true English Country Dance was turned into the Playford court version.
Running set is made up of a series of figures for two couples to do, along with various chorus type figures. It is open to variation so it is difficult to accuse anyone of doing it ‘wrong’; they just happen to have added some extra bit or dropped a surplus move.
Running set can be done in two formations: as a square set or as a Sicilian Circle rotated so you have an inside couple and an outside couple, this tends to be called Big Set. It was happened that Cecil Sharp only saw the square version so he published it as a Square Set. While most figures are for two couples there are some that only work in a square set, and some that only work in a Big Set.
Since the figures are pretty fluid it is dangerous to try to document them precisely; for example I have generally standardised figures by starting with a circle left, but in most cases that could be left out completely. I have also standardised on ‘two hand turns’, as Cecil Sharp described, but nowadays Appalachians usually do a walk-round swing instead (i.e. a turn in ballroom hold).
It is also dangerous to be dogmatic about what is traditional in Running Set. As a generalisation communities in the Eastern Appalachians dance Big Set and the Western ones in square sets. Since Cecil Sharp published it as a square set that is how the EFDS danced it. Cecil Sharp said the speed depended very much on the ability of the dancers (he described the musicians as accompanying the dancers) and suggested a speed of 160 beats per minute as a suitable starting point — and this is roughly the speed the Round uses. The EFDS dancers took this as a challenge: the Round has a recording by Elsie Avril at about 190! Appalachian communities tend to dance at about 130, with display sides going rather faster.
Appalachian clog sides will often do Running Set figures while clogging, and you can sometimes see some clogging at social dances too. Cecil Sharp never taught clogging as part of Running Set (and at EFDS speeds they would have had a job keeping up).
How the dance is organised depends on local tradition. In EFDS circles (and the Round) each set would agree on a figure for each couple, and they would take charge for ‘their figure’, and the band would play until the last set had finished; this could take a long time if someone insisted on dancing every figure they had ever heard of. Traditional Appalachian communities tend to have a caller to keep everyone together, and they may either do the same figure repeatedly for one dance, or elsewhere the caller will call a different figure for each time through.
Basic Moves in a Square Set
do-si. This involves two couples circling left once, partners turning by the left (with a fore-arm hold probably), the men sliding across back to back and turning their corner right, sliding back to their partners left, corners right and back to their partners for half a left hand turn into a quick promenade as a couple round the other couple back to places. This whole manoeuvre needs to be done in as tight a set as possible with the men only just missing each other as they cross and the women being ready to catch them as they arrive.
In Kentucky this is called a do-si-do, but we call it a do-si to avoid confusion with a back to back (not that there seem to be any back-to-backs in Running Set). Other parts of America have similar sorts of figures also known as do-si-do; in particular Lloyd Shaw published one from Colorado, and another from New Mexico which he called a do-paso since he met it in the city of El Paso.
Little Promenade. This has a warning call of Swing your Partner, whereupon you half-turn your partner, half turn your corner, return to your partner and promenade round the set to get home. The nominal timing is four steps for the half turn and go to your corner, and then another four steps to turn your corner and return to your partner.
Grand Promenade. This has a warning call of All Swing. It starts as for a Little Promenade so everyone half turns partner, then corner, and starts to promenade their partner with a cross-hand hold. At some point, sometimes in time with the music, the caller will count 5, 6, 7, 8 and on 8 everyone turns in towards their partner and promenades back the way they came (given the cross-hand hold you should not need to let go as you turn). When you get back to place you half turn partner, corner, and then promenade your partner home.
StructureIn a Big Set things are fairly simple. Usually dancers start in a big circle and the caller will tell them to circle left and right, and then call ‘odds to evens and circle four’; at this the circle folds into the Sicilian Circle formation with the odd couples going in to face out to the evens. Panic may ensue if there is a surplus couple, but they can just wait for a progression. The caller will then call some figure which will usually end with ‘circle left and on to the next’ upon which the dancers break their circles and slide to the left to meet a new couple. The caller may end the dance with figures such as tunnels or circles with men on the outside and women on the inside which don't make sense in square sets.
In a square set things are more stylised; partly because squares tend to be anyway, and partly because that is the way it was taught to many people working from Cecil Sharp's book.
Introduction: all join hands and circle left 16 steps. (Cecil Sharp taught people to face to the left and men raise their right hands to by their ears, and women keep their right hands at waist level (and your left hands go where they get put) and then move forwards round the circle; but personally I don't like that style at all.) There is then a Little Promenade to get home.
Having established that the set can dance together we have head couples do-si followed by side couples do-si and then a Grand Promenade.
This completes the introduction and we launch into the first figure. The general theory is that we have the first couple lead a figure with each other couple in turn; then have a little promenade and then the second couple leads the same figure, another little promenade and so on until the last couple have led the figure. At this point we have a grand promenade and start again with a new figure. There is a sort of convention that if the figure ends with a circle the last time a couple leads it they do a do-si before the promenade. If the two couples not involved in that do-si feel bored they may do one too, but must be careful not to be late since the leading couple are in charge and will call the start of the promenade at a time to suit themselves. Eventually when exhausted all lead off at the end of the grand promenade instead of promenading home.
A Round convention to get though figures more efficiently is to have the first couple dance a
figure with all the others, then have a grand promenade and the second couple then starts with
a new figure instead of repeating the same one. This means we get:
Circle left; little promenade home
Figure led by 1st couple with 2s, 3s and 4s
Figure led by 2nd couple with 3s, 4s and 1s
Rights and Lefts
Figure led by 3rd couple
Figure led by 4th couple
A total Round eccentricity is to finish off with Thady You Gander by promenading into a longways set, dancing Thady You Gander four times and then going into a Grand Promenade by turning partner, finding corner somehow (which reforms the set) and then promenading partner.
Thady You Gander is led by the top couple who lead to the bottom of the set, cross and cast home improper. The working woman then leads the men round behind the women’s line and back home; her partner leads the women round behind the men’s line and home. When the working man gets home he starts a strip-the-willow figure by turning his partner left (sic, it flows from the leading round), the working couple turn the 2nd couple right, turn each other left, 3rd couple right, each other left, the 4th couple right and finally turn each other left into progressed place at the bottom of the set.
The following figures can be considered ‘Round repertoire’:- Shoot the Owl, Going Down Town, Polka Swing, Wind up the Ball Yarn, Wild Goose Chase, Grape Vine Twist, Back Door Key, Waves of the Sea
These notes have been compiled from various sources and notes accumulated over the years. The main references are:
Country Dance Book V by Cecil Sharp, published in 1920.
English Folk Dance Society Journal, articles by Maud Karpeles in 1930 and 1931; Douglas Kennedy in the 1937 EFDSS Journal.
Kentucky Mountain Dancing by Patrick Napier of Berea College, originally published in 1949. Most of this was reprinted by the EFDSS in 1982 as a pink A5 booklet.
Kentucky Running Set by Hilary Johnson. This was a set of notes on KRS by a Round Chairman published in about 1985. In turn this was somewhat based on a ‘KRS for rusty brains’ crib sheet produced in about 1980; before that the Round had to rely on rusty brains and the Country Dance Book.
Cowboy Dances by Lloyd Shaw, published in 1939. He lived in Colorado and effectively founded the Western Square Dance movement. Many of the visiting couple figures he describes could well count as Running Set figures.
Some figures have been noted down from various workshops, in particular Phyllis Gilford (Eastbourne 1984), Bob Dalsemer (Pinewoods 1992), Tony Foxworthy (Eastbourne 1993), Bill Litchman (Sidmouth 1993) and Barrie Bullimore (Staplers workshop, 1994).