Confessions of a ceilidh caller: Playing about with Playford

I’ve been folk dancing for as long as I can remember, and have been calling dances for the last five years. So it seems strange that I only ‘discovered’ Playford dances in the last year. My second-hand impressions were that Playford was boring and outdated (ironic, as a folk dancer) – and I didn’t even know what it meant. Some old bloke who wrote down some dances? Wannabe Pride and Prejudice? Not really knowing, I went for my usual method of learning-by-doing and took on a couple of Playford gigs. A year later I’m breathing a sigh of relief after two reasonably successful first gigs! After preparing, panicking, and finally calling for the dancers at Coventry Zesty Playford and Cecil Sharp House I thought I’d share my thoughts on my first foray into the Playford collection.

First off, what IS Playford? Well, in 1651 a music publisher called John Playford published a book called the English Country Dancing Master, which contained music and dance instructions for over a hundred dances. Where he got the dances from and why we think he chose to publish them in the Puritan era is another story for another time, but suffice to say that the dances were clearly pretty popular. The book ran to 18 editions, continuing long after Playford himself had died. However, I’ll admit that when choosing dances to call I put most of my historical interest aside. My focus is to find and choose dances that are simply *good dances*.

So what makes a dance ‘good’? Here’s a few things that I’ve been thinking about over the past year….

The moves
There’s some really great dance moves in the Playford collection, from flowing elegant figures to energetic galloping and jumping around. However, there are also some fiendishly difficult dances, and instructions so odd that it seems likely there was a typo at the printing press. I think the key is that at a social dance you shouldn’t spend more time learning a dance than actually dancing it. So I have no qualms about cherry picking the best moves out of a dance with 6 different non-repeating parts and turning them into something easier. In fact many callers of Playford dances adapt them or re-interpret them to suit their audience. That way you can spend less time thinking and more time dancing!

The music
The way the Playford books are written seems to imply that certain dances had ‘set’ tunes. Whether or not this is historically accurate, there are definitely things to be said for dances with specific tunes…and for those without. One of the things I like about ceilidh dances is that you can use any tune, which gives each dance a different flavour every time. However, I also really enjoy doing La Russe to the tune of the same name, because it has the bounce all in the right places. A lot of the tune/dance combinations in Playford are really well matched and it can make the dance fly in a way that any old tune wouldn’t. Of course, that’s very much dependant on the way the tunes are played as well, which is where a good band comes into play – if you’ll excuse the pun! Bobbing Joe at Coventry Zesty Playford and Paul Hutchinson (accordion), Fiona Barrow (fiddle) and Karen Wimhurst (clarinets) at Cecil Sharp House were both brilliant outfits for the job, providing skillful harmonies and driving rhythms to complement the dances perfectly.

The attitude of the dancers
Although this might seem something of a cop-out, being something the caller has less control over, I really do think that this can make or break a dance. At Coventry I was expecting (and duly received) a relatively young and enthusiastic crowd – I know full well that they draw a lot of custom from the local Warwick University. However at Cecil Sharp House I was anticipating a more sedate crowd, perhaps more set in their ways and sticklers for ‘tradition’. I was pleasantly surprised then, to discover that the dancers at Cecil Sharp were a mix of ages, and that young and old were just as capable of filling the room with energy, style and fun as their midlands counterparts. Another thing that struck me was how welcoming and adaptable the dancers were when a French-speaking couple who’d never danced Playford before arrived in the interval, and how helpful and forgiving they were in the few ropey moments I had calling. Certainly not the stereotype I’d feared.

The highlight of the two gigs for me was the penultimate dance we did at Cecil Sharp, ‘Emperor of the Moon’. I chose it because I loved the flow of the figures and how they fitted with the music – ok and maybe a little bit because of the name! Although on the night I fumbled a bit with the explanation, it was definitely worth it to see the dancers enjoying themselves so much. I was so mesmerized by the flowing movements and joyous smiles of the dancers I nearly didn’t tell the band to stop playing.

Unfortunately there’s no video from Saturday, but here’s the video of our friends across the pond that inspired me. At the risk of sounding like an internet meme, the bit from 2:28 on totally made it for me.

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