Should Musicians Dance? This might seem a strange or unusual question to some but it is one that I have frequently considered. I’ve interviewed many dancers and musicians in Scotland and elsewhere as part of my PhD research. Many Scottish musicians do not consider themselves as dancers. This comes as some surprise to dance musicians from other countries – that it is possible to be a dance musician in Scotland and not be an active dancer.
I have a particular interest in the relationship between music and dancing in Scotland and how this relationship has altered over time. In common with the dance musicians I have met from other countries, I too believe that musicians should at least have tried whatever style of dance they are playing for. They don’t have to be particularly good dancers but ought to be aware of the particular requirements and nuances of the different dance styles. Practical experience of a particular dance or style of dancing can alter a musician’s perception of it.
Eighteenth and nineteenth-century dancing masters considered such an awareness of both dance and music to be vital. Two hundred years ago, it was common for dancing masters to be musicians as well as dancers. Francis Peacock, who taught at that time in Aberdeen, stated in the manual he published for the profession, that dance and music were ‘intimately connected’ and that proficiency in music was ‘indispensably necessary’ for dancing masters. And in the nineteenth century, James Scott Skinner, who is perhaps much better known as a fiddler and composer, started his career as a dancing master and continued to teach dance around the north-east of Scotland for over thirty years. But this ‘intimate connection’ between dance and music appears to be less important today .
A professional musician I spoke to described how he had been listening to some young musicians who were rehearsing a set of tunes they had put together for ceilidh dancing. However, the switch from one tune to another just wasn’t working out for them – they struggled with maintaining a steady tempo but appeared not to notice that their tempo was slipping, so he suggested to them that they might try dancing through the problem.
I just poked my head in the room and said, ‘Look guys, here’s the way to do this. Two of you come out and dance to it and see what it’s like, then go back and tell the others in the band what your experience of dancing to the music was like. So they did. They noticed when they danced that whenever [the melody changed] the tempo dropped a little bit and they came back to the band and said ‘we did this, we feel that, the tempo went down so you need to keep it going’. And lo and behold, they got it. I wonder how well [dancing] is presented to them and if it’s actually sold to them as something that will improve their playing?
A similar case can be seen in Highland dancing and piping. As a highly competitive sport, Highland dancers have exacting requirements from pipers. One dancer told me that when taking part in competitions, she ‘used to prefer it if I knew [the piper was] also a dancer’. She and other dancers referred to problems they experienced with timing in particular. As Highland dancers need to gain quite a bit of height in the jumps that accompany each foot movement, they require a specific and very regular tempo that allows them enough time to do this. She explained that she ‘used to prefer it when competitions would use a CD because you knew it would be the same tempo from the start through’.
In Aberdeen, the organisation Scottish Culture and Traditions [SC&T] promotes the teaching of Scottish traditional music and dance in classes it holds for adults. The small pipes class makes a point of introducing pipers to playing for dancing, in this case, percussive step dancing. An important part of that is that not only do the pipers get a regular opportunity to accompany the step dance class, they also have to try the dancing so that they begin to understand what it is that dancers need from the musician.
Each form of Scottish dance has a different requirement from the musician, whether speed, emphasis, phrasing or even the swing of the music. Perhaps it is only through experiencing the different types of dance that musicians can truly understand what makes a good experience for both the musician and the dancer? It may not solve the problem but surely it will help?
Pat Ballantyne is a step dancer based in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. She teaches at Scottish Culture and Tradition and recently gained a PhD from the University of Aberdeen in dance and music titled ‘Regulation and Reaction: The Development of Scottish Traditional Dance with Particular Reference to Aberdeenshire, from 1805 to the Present Day’.
To find out more about the fascinating stories of Scotland’s dancing masters, you can read Pat’s PhD thesis at http://primo.abdn.ac.uk:1701/ABN_VU1:PCFT:abn_digitool_marc230127
Pat’s SC&T step dance classes start on Wednesday 5th October, at the MacRobert Building at Aberdeen from 19.00 – 21.00. For further details see http://scottishculture.org/classes-and-workshops/ and Facebook – Scottish Culture and Traditions.