revisiting Dolphin Reels

Peter Price

Message 45668 · 27 Jun 2006 11:42:07 · Fixed-width font · Whole thread

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It has been several years since I have been a subscriber to
Strathspey- I am back and I am back with a hot potato.

I put "Dancing Dolphins" on the April 2006 Kilts and Ghillies ball
program, visited several other class and was very disturbed by what I
saw and heard. Almost unanimously, the other teachers used the term
"tandem reels" to describe Barry Skelton's reels.

I searched the Strathspey archive, read most of the resulting threads
that date back to 1999, and found that in every one of those posting
the reels were refered to as tandem reels. I was astonished at how we
all referenced the same dances - I was also astonished how every one
missed one crucial point. The reels in Dancing Dolphins are NOT tandem
reels and we do our dancers a real disservice if we use that term.

I have written the following which I intend to submit to our teacher's
newsletter and I relish the comments I know are coming-


Dolphin Reels - a controversy

I have been involved in a friendly disagreement with other teachers in
the New Haven Branch over the proper naming of the reels in Barry
Skelton's Dolphin Book. One teacher in particular insists on calling
them "tandem reels", and in her view quite properly, since Barry
himself uses that term. I submit that Barry Skelton himself is
misusing the word.

In his words (from the contents page of The Dolphin Book, Barry
Skelton, Auckland, NZ, 1994):

1. 8 X 32 Jig Dancing Dolphins
All the dances in this book have a type of tandem reel that people
thought looked like Dolphins chasing each other through the waves.
I was told that this one looks as if they were dancing.

and in Bars 9-16 from the instructions for that dance-

9-16 First couple in tandem, dance a right shoulder reel of
three with second and third lady.*

I believe that the use of the word "tandem" to describe these reels is
incorrect and, worse, misleading and is in fact contradicted, first by
the more detailed directions in the notes to the dance and secondly in
the dance directions themselves. This may be due to a general
misinterpretation of what is meant by the word "tandem".

From Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English
Language, unabridged, second edition, The Publishers Guild, NY, 1964

tandem: adv. [orig. punning use of L. tandem at length (of
time).] in a single
line, one behind another; as, horses driven tandem; also, in
electricity, in series; not abreast.

and from the dancing directions for "Dancing Dolphins":

1-8 First couple, cross with the right hand and cast off one place.
(Second couple step up on bars 3 & 4.) First couple turn
each other
with the left hand 11/4 times. First couple finish
facing the lady's side,
(my emphasis)

That wording implies, and the diagram at the bottom of the page shows,
the first couple to be abreast of one another in direct contradiction
with the definition if the reels are tandem reels. To be tandem one of
the dancers would have to be closely behind and following the other -
not along side.

The note at the bottom also contradicts the tandem nature of the reels:

*** Note: First couple should begin parallel with the side of the set and
remain parallel with the set throughout the reel. This will require good
covering. First couple must be aware of their partner especially on the
turns. First couple cover with each other not just follow each other.
Where the directions say follow also read cover.

In the diagram first couple are clearly abreast of each other at the
start of the reel, and on the end of the reel where they are both
singly turning by the right. By extension (remember those words - "and
remain parallel") they will be abreast of each other every time they
dance across the sideline of the set- that is in the middle of the
reel (the crossing point) and at both ends. Clearly not in tandem.
There are, however, four points in the reel when first couple appear
to be dancing in tandem (and I will return to this point later) but
those moments of "tandemness" are only incidental to the nature of the
reel and not a primary characteristic of it. It is the parallelness,
the abreastness of first couple that is the primary characteristic of
this kind of reel and why I do not classify this as a tandem reel even
though it has those tandem moments.

So lets take a decidedly brief and incomplete tour of the reels that
we dance. First, I'd say, would be the simple or straight reel - three
dancers on a figure of eight track. Right shoulder, left shoulder,
mirror, across the set, on the sides of the set, on the diagonal, in
six bars, in eight bars and half reels in four bars - "straight" reels
one and all. Toss in the reel of four for good measure, in all the
standard variations - these too would qualify as simple or straight

We can add a dancer and have reels of three for four dancers- if two
of the dancers dance together in promenade hold. The Luckenbooth
Brooch (Glendarroch #28) is a dance that immediately jumps to mind. I
would call them promenade reels but again classify them as simple
reels. Please note they are not tandem reels because the couple are
beside each other, no one is following or dancing in another's track.

Then there is the Shetland reel - three couples on a figure of eight
track, each couple dancing in tandem - that is one dancer closely
behind and following their partner- and each couple dancing the role
of a single person in a straight reel. An example of a Shetland reel
is in John Drewry's dance Tickle My Fancy (32 Jig for 3 couples)
published in The Rondel Book.

9-10 1st couple cross over, giving right hands.

11-12 1st, 2nd and 3rd couples set on the sides.

13-14 1st, 2nd and 3rd couples turn Petronella-wise to form a
straight line down the centre of the
set, with 1st man and 2nd and 3rd ladies
facing down, and 1st lady and 2nd and 3rd men
facing up.

15-16 All set to partners, but on the last step each lady turns
pulling right shoulder back) to finish
just in front of her partner with her back
towards him. each man puts both hands on his
partner's waist.

17-24 A reel of three down the centre of the dance in pairs.
1st and 2nd couples pass
by the right shoulder to begin.

A modified Shetland reel can be found in John Drewry's Ferla Mor (The
Big Gray Man) in which the first couple only is dancing in tandem and
reeling on the diagonal with first corners and then with second
corners. (See The Deeside Book Part One). Both these examples are
tandem reels and also straight or simple reels, and their primary
characteristic is that the dancers are all on the same track. You
could say they are dancing in each other's footsteps as, in Drewry's
words, "…1st man follows his partner as closely as convenient."

Barry Priddey, in two dances from The Capercaille Book of Scottish
Country Dances, has created a variation of the tandem reel that
appears to be the forerunner of the reels in Barry Skelton's Dolphin
Book. From the Barry Priddey's dance The Capercaille-

5-8 1C turn with left hands 1-1/2 times to finish with 1W
facing 2M and 1M close
behind her and ready to follow. 4C turn
similarly to face 3M.

9-12 1C & 4C dance half a diagonal reel of four with 3M &
3M. After passing the men,
1C & 4C turn right about singly to continue the
half reel with 1M & 4M in the lead.
At the end, the dancing couples pass by the
left, 1C to face 3W, 4C to face 2W.

Here, for the first time that I know of, we have a tandem reel with a
lead change. The dancers are clearly in tandem everywhere but at the
ends where, by dancing a little wide (or long), space is created for
each dancer to individually turn right (or left) about and allows the
following dancer to neatly take the fore. It is unfortunate that Barry
Priddey failed to date the dances or the publication of the book. I do
not know which came first, The Capercaille Book or The Dolphin Book,
but I strongly suspect that Barry Skelton had Barry Priddey's dances
to play around with.

We now come full circle and return to the reels found in The Dolphin
Book, and they are unlike anything we've seen so far. The first thing
to note is that these are not the simple, straight reels we have
looked at so far. First couple is dancing together but not on the same
figure of eight track. They are instead on their own individual
tracks. (See appended diagrams). In a tandem reel one dancer would be
dancing in the other's track so these reels are not tandem reels.
Notice also that second and third women are not dancing on either of
these tracks but rather on their own figure of eight and that theirs
is the standard track of a normal reel- and none of these three tracks
coincide with any of the others. These separate but overlapping tracks
make this a "complex" reel. It is certainly not straight forward!

The defining characteristic of these reels is the overlapping but
separate tracks of first couple attained by THE COUPLE holding
parallel to the side of the set. And here is where I need to come back
to something I said earlier- that the moments where first couple
appear to be dancing in tandem are only incidental to the nature of
these reels. That was a deliberate misstatement to make a point. In
truth those moments are absolutely essential to the nature of these
reels and it is the way in which first couple appears to morph from
the parallel to the tandem and back again that makes these reels
unique and such a joy to dance. In this case appearances are

So, to return to the initial controversy, what do we call these
reels? They are not tandem reels, they are not shadow or Shetland
reels, they are not promenade reels. But what are they? I think that
this question is something of a Gordian Knot, and I would solve it in
a similar fashion. Since they are found in The Dolphin Book, I would
simply call them "Dolphin" Reels, brush my hands, and be done with it.

I apologize for not being able to attach the diagrams or the pertinent
dance instructions. I will mail them to all who want them.

Peter Price

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