Both these terms are used in country dance classes, and both express important concepts. The concepts are, however, quite different.
“Phrasing” refers to the matching of the figures of the dance to the phrases of the music. Commonly, the phrasing of the dance corresponds to the phrasing of the music. Country dance music is extraordinarily regular, consisting of eight-bar phrases which can be further broken down into four-bar units. Many dance figures are equally regular. Ladies’ chain, for example, is an eight-bar figure which readily breaks down into two four-bar units or four two-bar units if we count each time a hand is given. If a ladies’ chain is well phrased, the dancers will use exactly two bars for each two-bar segment, but they will time their movements in such a way that they flow smoothly from one segment of the figure to another, always dancing through a position and never coming to a halt.
“Good phrasing,” then, is a basic skill that enables us to relate to the other dancers in the set as well as to the music. The dancer who phrases well will always be in the right spot at the right time: halfway through an eight-bar reel at the end of bar 4, and facing down the men’s side at the end of bar 4 of the allemande. In four- and eight-bar movements, good phrasing expresses the dancer’s natural response to the music. However, in movements which are more arbitrarily fitted to the music (like down the middle for three, up for three, and cast for two) good phrasing must be more deliberately cultivated, the result of counting bars rather than simply listening to the music. Given time, that too can become second nature.
And what of covering? It refers to the matching of our movements with those of other dancers in the set. Covering most obviously enhances the appearance of the dance, when for example the loops in parallel reels of four are exactly matched, or everyone turns with the same extension of arms. But covering also enhances social pleasure and interaction: if the end people in a reel of three approach the middle together and glance across at each other, they will have a sense of dancing together with all others in the set, and if a long line of dancers in a ballroom are momentarily side by side on bar 5 of the allemande, they will feel a oneness that goes beyond their own set.
“Good covering” is clearly the result of good phrasing, and together they give that sense of being part of a larger whole which is the essence of country dancing. The very best dances (Bratach Bana,for example) are so good because the continuous motion of the dancers enables them to relate to all others in the set, not merely to their own partners. A moment in which phrasing and covering come together occurs near the end of Maxwell’s Rant when the first couple have danced down between the third couple and cast to their own sides. Just as they pass through the middle, their movement is magically transmitted to those on the sidelines, and all turn as one to round off the dance. Both phrasing and covering are not an obligation, but a source of joy!
Editor, The White Cockade
[Based in part on an article by Ken Way in the New Haven Branch Newsletter; a comment by Evelyn Murray, editor of The Tartan Times of the Boston Branch; and on Strathspey server postings by Oberdan Otto, Kent Smith, Brian Mackintosh, and Priscilla Burrage.]