There’s a phrase in “Polharrow Burn” in which the fourth couple stand still in the centre of the set, framed by first and third couples turning above and below them and second and fifth couples dancing around the perimeter of the set. It gives fourth couple an exhilarating sense of being in the heart of motion, part of the dance yet able to see the activity swirling around them.
Social dancing, as opposed to performance dancing, always provides time for resting, enjoying the music, even gazing at one’s partner. In the early days, country dances done in sets “for as many as will” provided very little resting time for the top couples, who repeated the dance until they arrived at the bottom of the long line. On the other hand, the couples working their way up the set joined in some figures, but they also had time for conversation, and probably reputations were made and lost and relationships formed during that time.
Now that we dance for the sake of dancing, and not for a temporary freedom from chaperones, we have moved towards a more active role for the supporting couples. No newly devised dance would follow the pattern of “Flowers of Edinburgh,” in which third couple exist only to be danced around. The “meanwhile” patterns in dances like “J.B. Milne,” “Australian Ladies,” and “The Luckenbooth Brooch” give second and third couples patterns of their own, independent of the first couple. This continues a trend visible in earlier RSCDS reconstructions, in which movements which had been limited to the first couple alone in the original source are given to all three couples; two examples are the four-bar turns at the end of “Maxwell’s Rant” and “Gates of Edinburgh.”
The other factor which has encouraged a more active role for supporting couples has been the four-couple set which has become standard, and the built-in resting time it provides. The second couple arriving at the top of the set have the pleasure of anticipation as well as a last chance to memorize first couple’s path. As each successive first couple arrive at the bottom of the set, they can again rest, still glowing from the dance. So a dance like “Gates of Edinburgh” in which all three couples dance for 32 bars is now within the capacity of those not in training for a marathon. If the original “Gates of Edinburgh” were identical with the reconstructed RSCDS “Gates,” it would be virtually impossible in a set for as many as will.
Even in the four-couple set, some breaks within the dance for the supporting couples preserve the traditional pre-eminence of the first couple and give a little breathing space to the other couples. It may be significant that the two dances which top the international SCD popularity poll, “Mairi’s Wedding” and “Montgomeries’ Rant,” both provide 16 resting bars to the supporting couples. Corner figures, of course, provide these breaks, unless they have the continuous movement of the corner figures in “Quarries’ Jig” or “Bonnie Ina Campbell.” However, periods of movement and standing probably both need to be at least four bars long to give some respite to the dancer and not break the flow too abruptly: the two-bar starts and stops in the modern “corner chain” and “spoke” figures feel a little jerky, as do the arches for corners in “Postie’s Jig” and even the final two bars of setting after a break in “Pelorus Jack.”
The timing of breaks is also important. Dances like “The Roselath Cross” in which all three couples are moving in the first and last phrases create problems when first couple dancing from second place must simultaneously finish the reel across and slip to the bottom without obstructing the bottom couple who are dancing up to enter the reel on the sides. One wonders why the reel across in this dance could not have been replaced by a figure of eight for the dancing couple alone. By contrast, the same transition is much easier in “Mairi’s Wedding” in which first couple alone begin the dance and all three couples end it, or “The Button Boy” in which all three couples begin the dance and first couple alone end it.
The modern invention of dances for four couples has added greatly to the aesthetic appeal of Scottish country dancing, as first and fourth couples can mirror one another’s movements and give vertical symmetry to the dance. However, these dances run the risk of providing too little resting time, since all the couples are involved in the dance all the time and do not rest when they reach the top or the bottom. A fine dance like “The Diamond Jubilee” is not often done perhaps because supporting couples stand still only during the first eight bars of the dance. By contrast, “MacLeod’s Fancy” seems to provide a good alternation between dancing and standing still, as supporting couples stand during the first and last eight bars.
Dances in square sets can also overwhelm the dancer with too much activity. This problem can be solved by adopting the quadrille pattern of alternating the top and bottom couples’ movements with the same movements echoed by the side couples, as we find in “Round Reel of Eight” and “Summer Assembly.” Many square set dances end with a circle, which creates an excellent climax for the dance. But “Rothesay Rant” becomes a little tiring and anticlimactic perhaps because all four couples start again immediately after the circle. A more satisfying structure is provided by “Clutha,” in which 32 bars of dancing by two couples are followed by a climactic 16 bars danced by all four, and the sequence is repeated with the other two couples leading.
Standing still, then, can be part of the design!
Editor, The White Cockade Rosemary Coupe