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Planning Retirement Online

Make Mine Country Style

                                   January 2007



Make Mine Country Style 

The Swinging Sporran: A Lighthearted Guide to the Basic Steps of Scottish Reels and Country Dances

The Department of Health has issued a statement on dance as a way to fitness. Zoe Bremer puts in a plea for English country dancing

The English country dance repertoire is wide and includes dances to suit adults at most levels of fitness and agility. Most barn dances, of the kind put on by charities for fundraising, consist of dances in a range of styles and formations dating from the 17th century (or before) to the present day.

Though many of the dances may put a strain on arthritic joints, older dances such as those from the Playford repertoire (named after John Playford, a Civil War correspondent who began collecting and publishing popular dances in the mid-17th century) are mostly taken at a more leisurely pace. Examples of these dances can be seen in the BBC's serialised production of Pride and Prejudice, although some were simplified for this to meet the restricted dancing skills of some of the actors.

Dances from the 18th century in the same style are also referred to as 'Playford' dances, and many country dance clubs throughout England specialise in Playford-style dancing in order to provide challenging programmes for dancers of all ages.

The advantages of this kind of dancing:

  • No special clothing is required
  • Soft shoes are worn (not outdoor ones: this is to protect the floors of dance studios)
  • It is inexpensive - my membership of Morley College Folk Dance Club costs me ?3 per year
  • Provides access to a new circle of friends and activity holidays such as those run by H F Holidays (  )
  • It is a gentle form of exercise which promotes good balance, co-ordination and posture as well as mental stimulation
  • There are also regular Playford Balls in certain parts of the country which are a wonderful opportunity to dress up in period costume

Modern American Square Dancing

Modern American Square Dancing has developed from several forms of country dancing, including the Playford repertoire and Scottish country dancing. Dancers learn a fixed set list of moves then dance at that level until they have learnt the moves for the next stage in the syllabus.

The basic level to which all dancers train is called Mainstream, which consists of about fifty moves. Most major events for square dance clubs are run at this level, sometimes with individual dances announced as being at the next level up which is called Plus. The Mainstream course takes about 30-40 weeks to learn (but less if you're particularly good at maths).

Details of all the moves for each level can be found on Callerlab's website,  under Programs. Anyone who has done any English or Scottish country dancing will know most of the basic moves, albeit sometimes by different names ('four changes of a hey' in English country dancing is known as a 'square through' in square dancing, for example).

The challenges of square dancing are mental rather than physical, although it is possible for someone taking part in a major event to walk the equivalent of 6 or 7 miles, as has been demonstrated by square dancers wearing pedometers. Dancing is always taken at a walk (120 b.p.m. is the standard tempo), with no slip-steps, skipping or jumping. Favourite types of music used include country, rock & roll, jazz and Western swing, but some clubs use a much wider range and many callers are constantly reviewing their choice of music to meet the desires of dancers and to set themselves challenges.

The effort required is mainly confined to concentration, making square dancing a good way to keep the mind active in retirement, but with better health benefits than playing bingo. Unfortunately, square dancing is often misrepresented on television and so many people may be put off by displays of people skipping around.

The American drama series Six Feet Under gave a much better, if fleeting, view of modern square dancing, than anything seen on British television for many years. It has to be said, however, that none of our clubs in the UK at present meet in funeral parlours!

Once you have reached Mainstream level, the syllabus is the same anywhere in the world, and you can join in a Mainstream dance in any country: square dances are always called in English. This means that square dancing can be taken up here then practised on holiday overseas. Most clubs that you visit do not charge you an entrance fee. It would be a good idea to contact the club in advance, as they like to know who is visiting and from which country.

As its name suggests, the home of square dancing is the USA, where it now has "Official Folk Dance" status in most States, but there are square dance clubs all over northern Europe as well as in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries.

Where to find country dancing classes

The English Folk Dance & Song Society:

Local adult education service or WEA or U3A

The British Association of American Square Dance Clubs (BAASDC):

If there isn't a club in your area or local clubs are not currently recruiting beginners, you might like to set up your own beginners' course via your local adult education service, WEA or U3A. Be sure to recruit your caller through a club affiliated to BAASDC as only Callerlab-trained callers will be able to offer you the correct syllabus. Other people may call themselves "square dance callers" but unless they teach to this syllabus, they will not provide you with the training which you need in order to join a square dance club.

A full list of clubs world-wide can be found at , a site sponsored by Palomino Records



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