One chord or two

By Simon Scott, Vancouver

One chord or two. Which will it be?

May I first say how much I have enjoyed, both dancing and teaching, many of the newer dances in which the third and fourth couples begin on the opposite side of the set. I say “opposite” side rather than “wrong” side. The added variety, the altered progression and the mirror imaging are indeed a delight. Many of them, of course, have been so cleverly written by our very accomplished and renowned John Drewry and I join you in thanking him for them, along with his many others.

I do however continue to be most concerned by what, I feel, is an “unnecessary” need for two beginning chords to allow those couples to change sides in order to start the dance. I don't think that either the changing of places, or therefore, the second chord is at all needed. May I explain my reasons why?

To use, if in fact we do, as our example and or our reference, the very wonderful and very old strathspey “The Glasgow Highlanders” is, I think, not at all valid.

The Glasgow Highlanders is not only a most elegant and classic dance but it contains it's very own, and equally very unique, form of progression. This progression is an ongoing and integral part of the dance. It is not just a change of sides in order to start dancing. It is a special feature of that particular dance which carries on, making its needed adjustment, during each repetition, until the dance ends.

I have never considered the two chords at the beginning of “The Glasgow Highlanders” to be for the purpose of changing positions. I rather believe that the first chord is to acknowledge ones own partner, and then, “having made the change” to acknowledge the person you now face, and with whom you are about to start dancing the rights and lefts to start this magnificent dance. When these two chords are played, with sufficient time separation to properly make the second bow and curtsey, a most gracious start is experienced. Most often these two chords are played without sufficient space and the enjoyment of this feature is sadly missed or maybe not even realized.

However, this feature is not the case in these newer dances to which I refer. There is no need at all to acknowledge the same person twice. Here, it is surely “only” a matter of a different “starting” position. Many of our dances have varied starting positions. A square set for instance or sets with three or five couples or any number of other possible shapes that are not the standard set. Those dances don't have two chords in order for us to adjust to a different shape, size or configuration, away from the conventional four couple set.

With the greatest respect for these new dances, and indeed for their composers, I feel that the beginning would be far more elegant and enjoyable with the dancers ready, in their appropriate starting place to begin the dance, and to have “one” chord only. This would allow dancers time to execute and enjoy a gracious bow and curtsey as their acknowledgement to their chosen partner. Our acknowledgement should be something that happens with “meaningful grace” and with “equal emphasis” at both the beginning and end of every dance that we take part in.

I find it so unfortunately untidy and inelegant to quickly acknowledge ones partner and then to rush across the set, particularly in reels and jigs, in time for the first step of the dance. It has “no” worthwhile reason. The second chord of music seems only to be a spacer and has no dance movement to accompany it whatsoever.

At a social dance or at a ball, with live music, the band must be told if any of these dances are on the program. The MC must then announce to the assembled dancers how many chords will be played. Then, as many of these dances are very popular and are likely to be encored, yet another decision and announcement must be made. Do the dancers stay where they have obviously finished the dance and are suitably ready to repeat or do they return to the other side to restart? If it is live music I'm very sure the MC will say “Stay where you are” and begin the encore with one chord. If so, then why not the first time through, when the dance first began?

If recorded music is being used they either cross back again for the encore or they ignore one of the chords. I'm not sure which one is best. I only know that all this rather confusing and untidy mess can be avoided.

When using recorded music for teaching, the dancers must be told by their teacher whether the music to be used will or will not have two chords. On other occasions a good piece of recorded music with two chords may be difficult to use for an alternate dance that requires only one.

I would like us to avoid this kind of confusion and unnecessary “non dance” movement at the start of a wonderful dance which, I think, is for no apparent reason or gain.

“Let's start the dance where the dance starts”

As these and maybe more delightful dances are used, and as new recorded music comes out, now on CDs, I would seriously encourage us to drop the two chords, both with live music and on any future recordings, in favour of a simpler and far more elegant beginning with the dancers taking their places on the floor where they will begin, and play music with one “wonderful” chord.

By the use of two chords I feel we are setting an unfortunate precedent for an unnecessary and inappropriate need. My comments, of course, are directed as much, if not more, to musicians and composers, as they are to the teachers and dancer. However, we as dancers are the ones who are affected. Therefore, if you agree with me, we should be asking our musicians and dance composers to consider, that in the best interest of the dance, we start without this unnecessary changing of sides. It will, I believe, add to the enjoyment as well as maintain the appropriate elegance, if we start from the dance's starting place.

As has been evident over centuries, The Glasgow Highlanders itself being an example, dance composers have and will continue to explore numerous and innovative variations of both old and new formations, within this ever living dance form. We are therefore always likely to dance in any number of new and different patterns and shapes. Sometimes these may be from new and alternate starting positions. It is very much my hope that, through this evolving process, we will always do everything we can to maintain the character of Scotland's national dance and music, to contribute to the rich social enjoyment, but also to display the wonderful elegance, poise and dignity that this fine dancing deserves.

I “love” the full rich sound of the chord. I “love” the thrill that the bow and courtesy can have, as our mutual acknowledgement to one another as partners. They both need and deserve our time and our attention to their execution and duration. Don't let them be hurried because they signify, in such a grand and gracious way …

The beginning of the dance and the invitation to take part.

I talked with John Drewry some time ago and you will note that he no longer suggests two chords in these type of dances.

Copyright © 2001 by Simon Scott. Published by permission.