Beginning Non-Partner Techniques
By Suzanne Rocca-Butler
Dance, whether in the form of a couple or non-partner, is composed of a series of connected movements which form patterns, either random or planned. These patterns can be reduced to single movements or to a group of movements. Once a person understands dance patterns, beginning with the most elementary single movements and continuing to combinations of movements, much of the bewilderment of dance is gone, replaced by knowledge, familiarity, ease, and thus enjoyment. My goal is to make you familiar with many of the frequently used steps, step patterns, arm and hand holds, and rhythms used in non-partner dance, and to help assemble this information so that transitions from one movement or pattern to the next becomes increasingly effortless. When a dancer can anticipate the next movement pattern instead of dancing step-by-step, it is possible for him or her to flow. Before launching into the details, however, I would like to impart a few ideas I have found helpful to myself and others.
Non-partner dance is both a solo and a communal experiences solo in the sense that one does not need a partner, and communal in the sense that each dancer is part of a line or circle a group. Each dancer's movements relate to and reflect upon those near to him. Thus, among the most basic and useful concepts is to be aware of those near you when you dance, and TAKE SMALL STEPS. You probably wonder why you have given up the chance to learn some fascinating 24-figure Macedonian or Bulgarian dance to take a class from a person who tells you that this concept will be one of the most useful things she can teach you, but I will do my best not to disappoint you. There is more, but the taking of small steps is important.
Small steps enable you to "fake it" another useful tool in complicated dances. "Faking it" is the fine art of covering up an incorrect movement. "Fudging" is a close relative. If you are dancing with small steps, and you find that you are on the wrong foot, you can take an extra step, and correct the situation. Another possibility is to hold still briefly, rejoining the movement on the correct foot. By taking small steps, you can make a subtle, almost imperceptible correction.
STAND ERECT. Your carriage is important. Dance with your back straight. Look ahead, not at the floor. Keep your feet directly under your body (or conversely, your weight directly over your feet). You will be able to keep your balance, to turn with ease, to respond to rapid rhythm changes, and to recover quickly if you have made an incorrect move; thus, you will not have pulled upon your neighbors, for which they will be only too grateful.
Feet are not the only parts of our bodies with which we need to be concerned when dancing. Arms play an important role also. They may actually have an integral part of the dance, with specific movements, or they may be passive, resting in either a "T," "V," "W," or little-finger hold. Whether they are active or passive, KEEP YOUR ARMS RELAXED. This may be difficult, since dancers often will become tense in their upper bodies as they concentrate on learning foot patterns. Remember the people next to you, however, and loosen your shoulders, arms, and fingers. Once you become more familiar with a dance, this may occur naturally, but keep this in mind as you learn footwork as well.
In addition, BE AWARE OF YOURSELF IN RELATION TO OTHERS IN THE LINE. Don't allow yourself to bend forward to compensate for a feeling that your are being stretched from opposite sides. Being pulled forward has resulted from the line or circle becoming too spread out. To compensate for this, remain erect and dance slightly toward the center of the dance floor, rather than to the designated right (line of direction) or left (reverse line of direction). This makes the circle or line smaller and relieves the stretched feeling. Conversely, if your are feeling squashed, dance slightly out from the circle's center, thus making the circle larger and creating more space between you and your neighbors. Varying the size of your dance steps may be necessary as well.
There is an etiquette in folk dance and now is a good time to discuss it. Generally, line dances progress to the right also termed "counter-clockwise (CCW) or "line of direction" (LOD). This means that the leader is also on the right end of the line. Thus, if you are joining a line, go to the far left and join on the end. If you are joining a line that is very long, or are joining a closed circle, then it is all right to join in the middle of the line. Try not to separate people who are obviously dancing next to each other by choice.
Should a dance progress to the left with the leader on the left (as is the case of the French "Branle"), the same philosophy applies but in reverse.
If you are unfamiliar with a dance during a recreational (not teaching) session, it is advisable for you to STAND BEHIND THE LINE TO LEARN. Position yourself behind someone who seems to know the dance well (the leader should be one of these individuals), and try to learn the dance by imitation of movement. It is usually more difficult for you to learn a dance while in the line, since it is harder to see your neighbor's feet. Those who already know the dance will appreciate your consideration.
LEADING A LINE: The leader in non-partner dance has a responsibility to the group, in that he needs to direct not only the sequence of dance patterns, but also where the dancers travel over the dance floor. The primary leader is at the head of the line (generally on the right if a dance is moving in LOD). The person on the tail end of the line also has responsibility to the group and could be considered the secondary leader. He or she must see that the end of the line doesn't curl in upon itself (or that it DOES in the case of the dance "Zonarathikos," for example). If curling in upon itself is undesirable, then the secondary leader may have to dance backward, rather in the line of direction, and take larger steps. By dancing backward, the secondary leader has kept the end of the line (either curved or straight) open and has kept the dancers from becoming squeezed. If curving the tail of the line in upon itself is desirable, then the end person should dance forward, toward the center of the circle, rather than in the line of direction. In this case, it may be necessary to dance smaller steps to the center to make the diameter of the circle smaller. Thus, we see the importance of both ends of the line and how step-size can affect so many aspects of dance.
STYLING: Another important and complex element of dance is STYLING. As an extreme example, a native dancer from Scotland will dance very differently from a native dancer from Bulgaria. But native dancers from the Šop and Doburdža regions of Bulgaria will also dance very differently from each other. Why? One dancer at times will dance the same steps as the other. For example, isn't a pas de Basque a type of crossing step usually needing two counts of music for three steps? Perhaps it is called by a different name in another country, but "a rose by another name . . . ." In addition, there is a commonality of rhythm. A 2/4 rhythm can be found in both countries, but a dance done to a 2/4 rhythm with an occasional "pas de Basque" from Scotland will look entirely different from one from Bulgaria.
The unique element that makes this difference is STYLING. It is HOW a dancer moves. The ingredients of styling are posture, height and energy of steps, interpretation of music, type of hand hold, relation of dances to each other, formation of dancers on the dance floor, smoothness or sharpness of movements an infinite variety of subtleties.
Styling is such a complex subject that it can be a lifelong pursuit for a folk dancer to study and attempt just to absorb the dance style of a single ethnic group. Thus, it is not possible in a paragraph, an hour-long class, or even a week-long class, to experience anything more than an introduction to this exciting topic. It is enough to hope that this brief introduction will accomplish three purposes:
One, to make dancers aware that many of the same basic steps can be seen in the dances from different countries and ethnic groups that there is a commonality and that once the basic steps are learned, dancing becomes easier.
Two, to make dancers aware that there are styling differences in ethnic folk dance.
Three, to suggest that watching HOW a movement is done the style is as important as watching which step is being done. Let your ears as well as your eyes help you, since both music and movement can signify styling.
Above all, LISTEN TO THE MUSIC carefully when dancing. It is not enough to memorize the intellectual aspects of a dance. Think how colorless dancing would be if we danced only to written or spoken dance descriptions without music. Not only is music a gift and a pleasure to our senses, but it is also a tool to help us improve our dancing.
Once we master these individual movements, we can begin to assemble them, forming patterns and ultimately entire dances. The areas between the movements or patterns are transitions, and they too are comprised of these basic movements. There is, however, one more important key element which must be accomplished to be truly dancing, and that is your ability to FLOW to DANCE WITH FLUIDITY. Connect your movements, not as though they are isolated actions, but rather part of an entire feeling a unity. Then, when fluidity is combined with the "fundamentals of motion", you will be dancing with ease and joy.
Used with permission of the author.
Reprinted from the 1993 University of the Pacific Folk Dance Camp syllabus
and the 2003 Stockton Folk Dance Camp syllabus.