I used to hate those words when my music teachers kept at me, but practicing is the price we pay for enjoying our dance outs and entertaining the crowds. Actually, nowadays practicing is a lot more fun generally as it is our chance to catch up with the gossip, gardening, families, and quilting. Well, we are a female side!
For the most part practicing at this time of year involves getting ourselves sorted for a dance out. Working out what we are going to dance and in what position (that last part can cause some real headaches). Occasionally, we get a break in the sequence of performances and we can start to learn another dance the whole way through. Learning a new dance comes in stages – it is, hopefully, all in the head of the instructor (who is usually the one who invented it, but not always), but often requires some tweaking as you go along when timings don’t work or steps don’t fit. As the dancers don’t have a picture of the dance in their head, they are feeling their way through the figures. We also rotate our dances – we don’t dance all of them all the time, so we revive old ones that only the longer-standing members remember (vaguely, often), as well as introduce new ones as we drop old ones.
Starting a new dance, first everyone has to remind themselves of which way is left, right, up, down, in and out (believe me, we have difficulty with these concepts at times), then we walk through a figure, dance it, tweak it, dance it again before moving on to the next figure. Well, that’s what happens theoretically. Sometimes the democratic process takes over and we can have a debate about shapes and timings, sometimes we have to live in a dictatorship and allow for the fact that the instructor knows where we’re supposed to be going with this… Actually, sometimes what would help most is if there was more listening going on, rather than discussions about the care of courgettes or hemming hangups.
It’s an interesting process to watch for a change as I discovered the other night when we were being taught Frenchay (a new dance named for the old, now closed, hospital in north Bristol). To see how to accommodate all the ways in which people process the figures, the directions they are to go in, how they interact with the people around them (right shoulder, left shoulder etc.) and then piece it together.
Mrs Wilkins the Aeronautical Engineer (retd.) is our current Dance Instructor, and I swear she bases her dances on engineering diagrams. Once I’ve worked out what piece of machinery it looks like, I can generally get a handle on the figures – cogs, flywheels, pistons etc. Once there, I can often move positions around the set as I will know where about on the diagram I am and what I need to do next. Not everyone sees a dance like that, which makes teaching it a challenge to accommodate the different memory techniques. Some people can move positions as they are learning (and find it easier to memorise the overall dance that way), some have to wait until they’ve got a good grip of it before they move around, some just can’t see the pattern as a whole and struggle to dance anywhere other than where they learnt it.
I’m sure all sides have their quirks about learning dances, or their timings for when they do it. We do it as time permits throughout the year – which can mean that some people learn it faster than others, depending upon when they attend practice and when we teach the new dance. I have known some dancers only ever to learn the first half of a dance and wait for a year to learn the second half.
BTW – we practice every Thursday night at Batheaston Methodist Church Hall 8-10pm. Drop us a line if you’d like to join in (female dancers only, but we are very happy to welcome musicians of all sorts and sounds).