For a number of years, I was involved in folk music, either as a bodhran (Irish drum) player, or through teaching. It was a part of the physical curriculum and an after-school club. The dances were learned and rehearsed with village events in mind; harvest, Christmas, spring and summer fairs. On occasion, they allowed for sharing with our exchange schools, so everyone was able to join together, making mistakes and generally enjoying a shared activity. Despite having two left feet myself; a friend who was a regular caller for ceilidhs would always make sure that I was alright, which was kind, but also very embarrassing; a bit like being singled out by the teacher.
Teaching dance came easier, as it involved giving clear instructions and the ability to count. One that comes to mind is the farmers jig, an eight couple, 32 bar, longways dance, four boys in one line facing four girls. There are four key parts
A1 Bars 1-4 Facing up, partners hold inside hands and take 8 steps forward.
5-8 All turn towards partner to face down the set and take 8 steps back to place.
A2 1-4 Taking two hands with partner, all take 8 slip steps to the men’s left.
5-8 All take 8 slip steps back to place.
B1 1-4 Couples 1 and 2, couples 3 and 4 right hand star; 8 steps.
5-8 Couples 1 and 2, couples 3 and 4 left hand star; 8 steps.
B2 1-8 All face up the set, Couple 1 separate and cast out on their own side, the lady leading the ladies whilst the man leads the men, everyone dances down to the bottom of the set.
Couple 1 meet and make a bridge in the last couple’s place, the other couples meet their partner, take inside hands and dance under the bridge back to their lines, having progressed one place.
[N.B. As the others dance under the bridge, the dance starts again immediately]
Repeat the dance with a new top couple each time.
This dance has been around for many years. although it is a very traditional dance, it will have been interpreted through different tunes over that time, some bands drawing from the traditional tune set, others creating their own 32 bar tunes to offer variety; variations on a theme, but it is essentially the same dance, learned by the caller and repeated over time.
It can be a bit like that in education. There are certain things that have been common features throughout my career. If you are sharing information, or giving instructions, the transmission is through direct instruction, largely via the teacher’s voice, supplemented by imagery or artefacts. The imagery might include video stimulus from an external “expert”, such as David Attenborough, enabling something like the Amazon rainforest to be brought to life.
The interpretation of the instruction will inevitably lead to variation, in retention and quality of performance. Keeping with the dance analogy, timing is everything. The “caller” or teacher has to keep a close eye on timing, or everything goes awry, with inevitable slippage and potential disaster as an outcome.
However, once the basics have been mastered, I found that it was possible to challenge the children to come up with variations on the dance, to personalise it to our school. In that way, the initial walk up and down might become boys making arches and crossing over the girls, for a count of eight, repeated with girls making arches. The 32 bars of stars might be altered to right and left arm turns or doh-si-dohs. Within the basic theme, variation allowed the creation of minor variation, which is inevitably how we have such a variety of folk dances, even based around the 32-bar theme, simply because of the maths; 2*16; 4*8; 2*8 +4*4 or just 32.
Some while ago I wrote a blog about virtuosity and how that meant learning to play your own tunes; I could have said dance your own dance. Virtuosity in teaching means trying things out, taking stock of those elements in need of some reflective improvement, trying the changes in practice and refining responses over time. It is almost as simple as that, although I am very aware that current school life doesn’t always allow time for personal reflection, nor for picking a colleague’s brain to support the thinking.
Like any good folk dance caller, a teacher needs to know the dance, the tunes, to be aware of timings and be able to coach those who are in evident need, if the assembled participants are to perform. If they can, the feel-good factor is invariably high, with success making for positive feelings afterwards and once you have mastered the basics, there are many more, really complex movements to try...
You can watch some children, including Argentinian and Spanish visitors, taking part on this you tube clip.