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PLAYING FOR OLD TIME DANCES
By Vivian & Phil Williams
Playing for old time dances is lots of fun, but it also involves responsibility to the dancers, the caller, the employer, and the rest of the band. Dance musicians need to know how to choose appropriate tunes, maximize their danceability, and work smoothly with everyone else involved. You should be familiar with the principal old time dance forms, including the waltz, polka, schottische, two step, foxtrot, square, and longways set dances. It's also useful to know a few of the old time pattern dances and mixers, such as the Varsouvienne, Tuxedo, Rye Waltz, and La Bastringue.
General Playing Tips and Band Dynamics
1. Play with authority. Know the tunes and the style well enough to be able to play strongly. The guitar style with the most control over "driving" the dancers and playing in time is flat picking. "Wimpy" playing simply will not do for a dance!
2. Play with distinct phrasing. Every tune has its own phrasing - a group of notes often spanning several measures which has a distinct starting and stopping place. Phrasing is one of the major things defining a tune. The patterns of many dances follow the phrasing of the tune. Start and end each phrase positively and with authority so it is clear to everyone when one phrase had ended and the next one has started. Leave a short moment of silence at the end of a phrase to emphasis the end of one phrase and start another. Musicians should not play "filler" notes at the end of a phrase. This helps the dancers get with the "flow" of the dance.
3. Be positive about the tempo. The tempo needs to permit the dancers to have fun doing the particular dance, and must be kept steady.
4. Be positive about down beats and upbeats. Tapping your foot on the downbeat is a good idea, since it can help you stay on the beat and also give the other musicians a visual cue in a situation where it’s hard to hear. Be aware that certain dances require the off beat to be played at a different time than strictly following the tempo.
5. Listen to the other musicians, and do your best to enhance their contributions to the band sound.
6. Watch the dancers. A dance is a symbiotic performance in which the musicians and the dancers all are performing together. This is what makes dance playing the greatest kind of playing experience for a musician.
Keeping the Beat
Above all else the band must keep the beat. The beat is just that - the foot going down and up at the number of beats per minute needed for the dance being done. The foot goes down on the down beat, and up on the up beat, at a steady tempo, throughout the tune. The tempo only varies if called for by the dance being done.
In most tunes, the down and upbeats are at constant time intervals from each other. For some dances, however, like the schottische and the hambo, the upbeat may be played at a different time interval from the down beat better to match the dance. In a typical old time dance band, the bass plays right on the down beat and "anchors" the timing of the band. The guitar plays a positive, authoritative down beat on the bass line note of the chord, and an emphatic strum on the upbeat. Tenor banjos and mandolins generally emphasize the upbeat. Piano players keep a good downbeat, but can take some liberties with the upbeat, if the tune and the dance permit it. Accordion players generally play the bass with the same rhythm as the guitar, and the melody as appropriate for the phrasing of the tune. Musicians playing melody play with the positive phrasing of the tune, but can take appropriate liberties with the timing to provide whatever timing sense is required for the tune or dance, from the strict timing of a march to the flexible timing of "swing."
Another dimension of keeping the beat is playing with the time, or "pulse" of the tune and dance. This refers to the timing of when the notes are played. The beat is constant; the timing varies with the type of tune and the dance for which it is used. Timing is a very subtle concept that makes the difference between simply getting through the tune and creating a mood with it. Another expression for this concept, which is difficult to discuss in words, is "groove." The groove must be correct for the type of dance being done. The dancers move to the groove.
The whole band creates the groove. A band of experienced players who play to a groove makes the evening a joy. A band has to work to get the groove. Every member has to listen to every other member and augment what every other player is doing. Every member must understand the tune and the dance. Every member must develop the range of skills, or "pallet," on which to draw to develop their contribution to the groove. Every band member must have enough ego to want to do their part as best it can be done, and enough maturity to work as a team with other band members and not let their ego get in the way of creating a good dance band.
Role of Each Instrument in the Band
An "ideal" dance band has a backup section and a lead section. The backup section of a typical old time dance band is composed of instruments such as bass, piano, accordion, guitar, tenor banjo, percussion. The lead section plays the melody. Typical lead instruments in an old time dance band include fiddle, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, flute, accordion, piano, banjo. The role of the backup instruments is to keep the beat and work with the lead players to develop the pulse.
Every musician in a band has a distinct role. The best musicians understand their role in the band and work hard to fulfill that role perfectly. This may mean not playing every "hot lick" that you know. It is essential that no band member "step on" any other member. The lead players need to be able to know who is carrying the lead at that moment and stay out of their way. This may mean simply playing rhythm until it is your turn to play lead, or playing harmony. Backup players need to focus on the tempo, timing, rhythm, and pulse of the tune and listen carefully to the lead player to see what they can do to give the best support they can possibly give to both the lead player and the dancers. Dance playing is no time to "show off." No dancer is going to think much of a musician's "hot licks" and "clever" musical stunts if they distract from the dancer's ability to dance their best.
The backup players in a dance band can literally control the mood of the dancers. Many of the "cheap tricks" used by a dance band to "manipulate" the dancers are done by the backup. Each backup instrument has a characteristic role in the band. The ability of a backup musician is measured by their ability to play that role to the hilt. The bass and drums, as well as the bass side of the piano, accordion, and guitar, generally are responsible for keeping the beat. These instruments operate like a metronome, playing a steady downbeat and upbeat, unless the dance demands the upbeat played ahead of or behind the beat. It is this steady keeping of the beat that lets the lead instruments shape each tune to its intended purpose. The backup musicians do not employ syncopation or throw in gratuitous "hot licks" and runs, unless they are a part of the rhythm of the tune or really do add to its effective delivery.
Watching the dancers gives the musicians a lot of clues as to how they can better play the tune. By far the most enjoyment for a dance musician is to be able to play "to and for" the good dancers. Pick out the good dancers and follow their moves around the floor. You will find with time and practice that often you can change how you play the tune in subtle ways that help them dance better, such as hitting strong rhythm licks for balances in contra dances, smooth "forward rolling" phrasing for swings, "chopped" staccato rhythm for marches and polkas, first and third beat emphasis for waltzes, clear phrase definition in schottisches, etc.
The lead players need to contribute to the rhythm. Ideally, an old time dance fiddler should be able to carry a dance without any accompaniment. This is how it used to be done in pioneer days, when the fiddle might be the only instrument available. It is not easy to do, especially these days when people are used to hearing a heavy beat in all forms of popular music. The fiddler or other lead player should not rush or drag, or simply be neutral, but should add to the danceability of the music by keeping a steady rhythm, accenting the beats that define the dance, and making the phrasing of the tune clear. Practice with a metronome or a drum machine to make your timing more solid.
When another instrument is playing the melody, a fiddler can play offbeat “chunk” chords to contribute to the rhythm. If there is a mandolin in the band, it can play offbeat chunks even more effectively. Above all, the lead player who is not currently playing lead needs to avoid cluttering up the sound and interfering with the lead player's ability to play effectively. Drone notes, harmonies, and counter-melodies should be used with utmost discretion.
What tunes should you play? Use tunes of the appropriate type and style for the dance involved. Play a polka for a polka, a waltz (not just any tune in 3/4 time) for a waltz, a hoedown for a square dance, etc. Be aware of the expectations of the dancers and the people sponsoring the dance. Try to find out if there are stylistic and regional preferences that may affect the tune choices and how they are played.
In general, avoid using "crooked" tunes with phrases and measures of irregular length. Crooked hoedowns might be used for square dances if the caller can deal with them. Check this with the caller in advance.
If you are playing the lead by yourself with no other lead player to share the duties, pick tunes that are not too strenuous to play or you may tire yourself out before the dance is over. This means playing tunes that are not too notey, in demanding keys, or using strenuous bowing on the fiddle. If you are just one of several lead players, you can all share the duties and play more strenuous tunes. A dance is not the place to show off your technical expertise. Tunes with lots of fast chord changes usually don't work as well as do tunes with fewer chord changes. Lots of fast chord changes often stop the flow of the tune and don’t permit it to “zing.”
If you are playing for a general audience who may not be familiar with your particular style of music, you will get more people dancing if you use familiar tunes. Most musicians love to play wonderful, unusual, newly-learned tunes, but in many situations dancers prefer the tried and true. At a wedding reception for which our band was once hired, nobody ventured out onto the dance floor until we started to play The Kentucky Waltz, a tune that most of them knew.
Tunes suitable for dancing come from many sources. You can learn from other musicians, or from recordings, or from written music. There are a lot of fiddle tune books available. Particularly useful for contra dancing are Cole's 1000 Fiddle Tunes, Ryan's Mammoth Collection (the original and more complete version of Cole's), Mel Bay's Don Messer Anthology of Favorite Fiddle Tunes, Phil Williams' The Mandolin Player's Pastime, and Voyager Publication's Brand New Oldtime Fiddle Tune collections, as well as many other Canadian, English, Scottish and Irish tune collections. Good sources for tunebooks include the Country Dance and Song Society of America in Northampton, MA and Andy's Front Hall in Voorheesville, N.Y. There are also many online sites from which tunes can be downloaded.
It's best to learn to play by ear first and become well acquainted with the musical tradition of the type of music you want to play. Once this had been internalized, tunes read from music will make more sense to you and have more life.
When you present a new tune at your band rehearsal, it can save a lot of time if you bring along a chart of the chords, especially if your band doesn't have a member who is a "natural" at figuring them out. Many tunes have more than one way that they can be chorded. If there are two or more backup musicians, it is desirable to chart all tunes in which the chord changes are not intuitively obvious or well known to all. This establishes the chording the band will use for the tune and prevents musical clashes resulting from backup musicians all playing different chords.
At The Dance
Be sure to get to the dance hall in plenty of time to set up, tune up, and warm up. It is frustrating to try to play music when the sound system has not been properly adjusted or the instruments are out of tune. Take time to tune up everyone in the band. If you are playing with a piano or accordion, forget about "standard" pitch and tune to the piano or accordion. After the setup and tuning is completed, you need a few more minutes to relax, stretch and warm up before you start to play. Playing dances is very hard on your hands and arms, and inadequate warm up can lead to painful medical problems. Arrange for adequate breaks during which you can rest and stretch.
A dance band can stand up or sit down. Standing up is harder on your back and feet, but fiddlers may find that it is less fatiguing for their arms and makes it easier to play with more power. Be sure that all musicians are positioned so that they can see and hear each other, and have enough room for their instruments. Backup players should be close to each other so they can stay together. Often standing or sitting in a semicircle (rather than a straight line or two rows) enables everyone to hear each other better and pick up visual cues.
Once the dance has started, keep in mind this cardinal rule: never keep the dancers waiting. If there is a caller, he or she usually runs the dance. If there is no caller, one person in the band (often the fiddler or other principal lead player) has to be prepared to make quick decisions as to what is going to happen next. If a band member feels there is some reason not to play a suggested tune, he or she should immediately offer an alternative rather than simply objecting. Don't waste time debating the issue. Feel free to consult a tune list if you don't think fast under pressure. Let the band know as soon as possible what is going to happen next, and unless you have played many dances with this band or use written music, it's a good idea to remind them of the key, unusual chords if any, and the arrangement. If you are using a pickup band with whom you haven't rehearsed adequately, stick to simple and familiar material.
You can use written music and chord charts to help the performance go more smoothly. In many musical traditions, including general old time dance bands, contra dance bands, and ballroom dancing, it is acceptable to set up music stands and read the music and arrangements. Having written music available can come in handy even for tunes you know well, especially for the beginnings of medley transitions and tunes you have learned recently. The better you know the tune, the more effectively you can play for the dancers, but sometimes you can't avoid playing tunes that are new to some members of the band. Many lead musicians can sight-read clearly written music, and many backup musicians can sight read a properly made chart. If you feel uncomfortable with music stands - and they can feel like a barrier between the band and the dancers - put your "cheat sheets" on the floor - but spend as little time as possibly bending over to squint at them! Spend as much time as you can watching the dancers and as little time as possible looking at the written music.
The caller or a band member can announce to the dancers what kind of a dance tune is about to be played so they can be ready when it starts. Dancers often include a lot of musicians who appreciate information about the music. They also get a kick knowing that they are dancing to music written by someone they know or have heard of. Working with the caller and/or dance promoter to develop a program for the entire evening is most desirable. This permits engineering the flow of the dance to provide the best experience for both the dancers and the musicians. Think of a dance the same way as you think of an entertainment set. The dance often is divided into two or more segments with a break between them. Each segment is a set with a beginning, middle, and end. Start with something that is both "hot," familiar, and accessible to most of the dancers. Get everyone moving and excited. Around the middle of the set, it is time to cool things down a little and give the dancers and the musicians time to relax and get acquainted with each other. Then the intensity can be brought up again to finish with a real crowd pleaser, and often a waltz before the break. Planning in advance and making a set list also gives the musicians a chance to get their tunes rehearsed and the certainty of knowing what is coming next. An evening of ballroom or old time couple dances should be paced to provide variety for the dancers without wearing them out.
Many dances that follow a set pattern, such as hambos, schottisches, or the varsouvienne, need a 2- or 4-bar introduction so that the dancers can start at the beginning of the tune. This introduction often consists of the last phrase of the tune.
How fast should you play? In the Pacific Northwest, contra dances are usually between 110 and 120 beats per minute, with 112 to 116 being a "safe" range. Squares are usually danced between 120 and 132 bpm, with 128 being a sort of "standard." Waltzes can range anywhere from 110 to 180 bpm, with most of them around 130 to 140. Two-steps are in the low 100's. Foxtrots are likely to be at 140 to 170 bpm. The Heel and Toe Polka should be around 112 bpm, and the Varsouvianna at about 125. We danced a lot when we were younger. Dancing back then was much faster than today. For example, a square or longways set dance would be at around 135 beats per minute. Regular waltzes were done at around 180 beats per minute, whereas the "buckle polisher" type of waltz, which gained popularity in the 1920s was done at a much slower speed.
These are no absolute standards of speed. Expectations vary among different regions and social scenes. Knowing how to dance is helpful, as is familiarity with the particular scene you are playing for. You may have to experiment and see how people react to your music. If the dancers are having trouble getting through the steps, slow down until they are dancing with ease. If they are plodding around the floor, it may be appropriate to raise the tempo a little. Take into account the age and experience of the dancers. An older crowd may prefer to dance a little more slowly than a younger group. Inexperienced dancers may require slower tempos than experienced dancers. Sometimes when the dancers are just learning a new dance it is appropriate to start out at a slower tempo, and then speed up to a tempo more suitable for the dance after the dancers have learned the steps and are ready to do it at its regular tempo. The mood of the event or the time of day may be a factor also. The last waltz might be slower than waltzes played earlier in the evening. Another factor to consider is the condition of the floor. Dancing on grass is very difficult, and dancing on concrete can actually injure the dancers' feet and knees. So try not to push the dancers too hard when the dancing surface is bad.
How long should you play a particular dance? In a square or contra dance, the caller will determine when it should end. A mixer is usually played until each dancer has danced with every potential partner. In a free-form couple dance such as a waltz or polka, the caller (or the employer) may give you a signal when to end. But often you have to determine this yourself. One factor to take into account is the number of people dancing. If a lot of people are dancing, or if the dancers seem to be enjoying themselves, play the tune longer than if no one is dancing or if the dancers seem to be struggling. In a situation where there are a lot of beginner dancers, each dance might run a little short so that people who are dancing with unsuitable partners can change partners sooner rather than later. If the dance is very strenuous, have mercy on the dancers! People joining the dance late should be given the opportunity to get around the floor at least a couple of times, if possible, before you end the tune. The band needs to agree who will decide when to end the tune, know what the signal is, and watch for it.
Contras and Squares
Contra dances and square dances have their own special requirements. If possible, get together with the caller ahead of time and plan the dance. For contra dances, it helps immensely to be able to work with the caller to tailor each set of tunes to the dance being called. For square dances, it is essential to know the tunes the caller is using for the singing calls and the key in which the caller comfortably can sing the call. It also helps to review with the caller the types of tunes in the band's repertoire suitable for square dances. Square dance "patter calls" also are of different types. Some require really droney hoedowns played fast, while others work well to jigs, two-steps, or marches. At least find out what tunes and style the caller prefers, and what signals he or she will use for starting, "one more time," and ending. Remember that the musicians are the backup band for the caller, and should follow the caller's directions closely and deliver the music that the caller needs to be most effective.
Socializing, running through tunes, and obtrusive tuning while the caller is trying to conduct instruction or a walk-through can be very distracting, both for the caller and the dancers. Try to be as unobtrusive as possible until it is time to play. Talk only as much as necessary to get set up for the next dance set. Be ready to start the dance when the caller is ready. Let the caller know that if they don't think a tune is working for the dance, it is alright with you if they ask you to speed it up or slow it down, or even to stop the dance and ask you to play another tune. Simple tunes often work better than complex ones, especially with novice callers or callers with whom you haven't worked before. Learn to pay attention to the calls and the progression of the dance so that you won't be caught off guard by the signal to end.
Contra dance tunes should be 32 bars long, since one time through the tune is one time through the dance, and virtually all contra dances are 32 bars long. It is possible to play a 16-bar tune through twice, but that's more confusing both for the band to keep track of and for the dancers to know where they are in the dance, especially if they are novices. There are a few 48-bar contra dances; the caller needs to warn you if he or she intends to use one of these. A contra dance tune needs to preceded by a 4-beat rhythmic introduction so that the dancers can start at the beginning of the tune. For beginner dancers it is nice to have lots of contrast between the first and second part of the tune so the dancers can easily identify the top of the tune, and therefore the start of the dance pattern repeat. If the dancers get lost, they can wait until the tune comes around again, and get restarted. Examples of tunes with contrasting parts are Smash the Window and Old French Reel. Internally repetitious tunes like Rickett's Hornpipe or The Girl I Left Behind Me work well for contra dances, but are less helpful to inexperienced dancers.
The tune played should match the dance to the greatest extent possible. In the past, particular tunes always went with particular dances, so the tune automatically matched the dance. The current trend is to use any number of tunes with a given dance and vice versa, although there are still certain tunes, such as Hull's Victory or Petronella, that have remained attached to the dances of the same names. For other contras, if you haven't had the opportunity to consult with the caller before the dance, watch the walk-through or peek at the caller's reference card and see how good a match you can come up with. Or ask the caller whether he or she would prefer jigs, reels, or marches, or driving tunes, bouncy tunes, or smooth tunes. Most contra dances have just a few basic footwork moves: walking, balance, and swing. When there are balances in the dance, it is nice to use a tune with accents when the balance occurs. In particular, at the point where the balances occur, it is nice to have a quarter note figure in a jig or a heavy accent in a hornpipe or reel. For example, a couple of tunes that have accents where balances are likely to occur are Crooked Stovepipe and the first part of Sailor's Hornpipe. When the dance has a smooth, striding walk down the hall, long note tunes work best. The second half of Crooked Stovepipe is a good example. Another contra dance move having smooth footwork is the "Hey." This can be treated the same way as walking down the hall. The general rule is to use bouncy tunes for bouncy dances and smooth tunes for smooth figure dances. Crooked Stovepipe is bouncy in the first part and smooth in the second. Most jigs are bouncy throughout. Road to Boston is smooth throughout. Moody minor or modal tunes work well with some of the modern romantic contras which use figures such as the "gypsy." You can often edit your playing of almost any tune to make it match the dance better. For instance, you can add accents where balances occur, or play very smoothly for walking figures and "gypsies."
The music has a lot to do with the dancers' perception of energy and fatigue. Spirited playing with a well defined, punchy down beat and a "chopped" chord up beat right in time will give dancers a lift. So will playing the tune simple with lots of drive, as will straight ahead unison playing by the lead musicians. Sloppier timing, syncopations in the backup, letting backup chords ring, getting away from the melody into less distinguishable variations, playing softer and with less drive, all will give the dancers somewhat of a "let down" feeling and permit them to dance more relaxed with less push. The change from one style to the other can be an effective tool to shape the dancers' perception and give them a chance to relax when they might be getting tired, but bring them back to full energy by the end of the dance. Start the dance with spirited, straight ahead playing, right on the beat, right on the tune, and uncluttered. In the middle of the dance, disintegrate the playing slightly with the lead playing variations, longer sustained chords in the backup, a few syncopations, and more relaxed playing. Done right, you can see the dancers relax, start smiling, and realize that they don't have to exert themselves quite so hard. After letting them cruise for awhile, tighten up the playing, get back to the basics of good, simple, on-the-beat backup and straight ahead unison lead. Done right, you will see the energy come back to the dance for a wind-up that leaves the dancers breathless and excited.
It is desirable to have a wide selection of tunes from which to draw in playing contra dances. Prepare several good sets of reels, jigs, and marches, and be familiar with some of the more universally done dances, such as Chorus Jig and Lady of the Lake. Also, have some sets featuring tunes in minor keys and modal chording, since these seem to be in favor with contemporary contra dancers.
Many tunes work equally well for square dances and contra dances. However, you may find that complex or "notey" tunes (such as Fishers Hornpipe or Hull's Victory) which are fine for contras often don't work as well for square dances. Some square dance callers prefer to call in certain keys, and you should try to accommodate them. Many Western Square Dance Federation callers are not accustomed to calling to live music. They usually prefer simple "droney" one-chord hoedowns like Sally Goodin (Southeast style) or Sugar in the Gourd for their patter calls, and you will need to learn some country and pop tunes for their singing calls. Get together with the caller ahead of time to find out the keys and arrangements for the singing calls. "Federation" callers will probably use their records for the round dances, which gives the band a break for a few minutes.
Arrangements and Medleys
There are several ways that you can vary your band's sound during the course of a dance to make it more exciting for both the musicians and the dancers. If you have a large enough band, you can alternate lead instruments, play harmony parts, play in unison, or alternate between using thinner or fuller instrumentation. Even if you are the only lead instrument, you can alternate among playing the tune straight, simplifying it, and using more elaborate variations. You can play louder or softer, choppy or smooth. The backup can also increase or decrease intensity or vary the style of chording without changing the beat. Another way to vary the sound is to use medleys of two or three tunes rather than play the same tune all the way through the dance. This is especially useful in square and contra dances, which can be very long. If you are not accustomed to playing medleys, you might have to practice changing tunes. Sometimes it's hard to remember how to start the next tune while you're still playing the first tune. Some transitions from one tune to the next are easier or sound better than others; try them out in different combinations.
The easiest type of medley for a band to play uses all tunes of the same type and in the same key, so that if someone misses the signal to change tunes there won't be musical disaster. If the medley changes key, one of the musicians can call out the new tune and key. Fiddlers and wind instrumentalists may find this more difficult to do than pianists or guitarists because of their instrument and microphone positions. If the band knows ahead of time what the medley is going to consist of, a visual signal for the tune change may be enough. It's a lot easier if each member of the band can see a list of pre-arranged medleys of tunes with their keys.
The band needs to know the signal for the tune change, how far ahead it will be given, and who will give it. Some contra dance callers like to decide when to change tunes; they need to know in advance how many tunes will be in the medley. If a band member is going to make the decision, he or she needs to develop a feeling for the flow of the dance, the mood of the dancers, and how far the dance has progressed toward its conclusion. In a "visiting couple" square dance, it's fun to change tunes at the point where a new couple starts the figure. If the caller combines two dances, you might change tunes when the second dance figure starts. In a contra dance, a good place to change the tune is when a new head couple, who have just worked their way up the set as inactive and have sat out one time through, rejoins the line as an active couple. You can sometimes judge how far along the dance is by keeping track of how far down the line the head couple has progressed. Depending on the length of the contra line, some callers end the dance when the head couple reaches the head of the line again.
Arranging a medley so one tune flows from another and each successive tune augments the mood of the dance is a real art. Tune changes with impact can include switching from a jig to a reel, going from a "notey" tune to a simpler one with lots of drive, switching mode (major to minor, minor to major), or switching keys. The transition from one tune to the other must be done in a manner that does not break time. Tunes which are fatiguing to play but exciting to dance to, such as Big John McNeil, can be used at the end of a contra dance medley, where you play them just a few times through. Be sure to come in strong at the start of the second and third tunes in a medley. When this makes the dancers start whooping and hollering, you know you have pulled off a properly constructed medley.
The last time through the last tune should be intense enough to cause more whooping and hollering. There's no sound stronger than everyone playing the melody in unison, with a straight-ahead, unornamented beat. A cheap trick to heighten the effect is playing the next-to-the-last time a bit weaker and messier than usual. Obviously, in order to use this trick you need a signal from the caller for “two more times.”
Tunes that Work
There are many "common denominator" tunes known by most old time traditional players that work well for old time .dances. Here is a list of some of them and where they can be used:
Square dance patter calls: Turkey in the Straw, Give the Fiddler a Dram, Up Jumped the Devil, Liberty, Mississippi Sawyer, Chinky Pin, Sally Goodin, Leather Britches, Chinese Breakdown, Arkansas Traveler, Ragtime Annie, Tennessee Wagner, Whalen 's Breakdown, Old Joe Clark, Boil Them Cabbage Down, Possum up the Gum Stump, Devil's Dream, St. Anne's Reel, Sugar in the Gourd, Fire on the Mountain, Cindy, Rachel, Cripple Creek, Back Up and Push, Marmaduke's Hornpipe, Run Boy Run, Wake Up Susan.
Contra dances: Me and My Fiddle, Girl I Left Behind Me, Year of Jubilo, Sleeping Giant Two-step, Richmond Polka, Big John McNeil, Big Sandy River, Hull's Victory, Road to Boston, Lumberjack, Old French Reel, Joys of Quebec, Dominion Reel, Stoney Point, Miss McLeod's Reel, Miller's Reel, Mason's Apron, Fisher's Hornpipe, Durang's Hornpipe, Woodchopper's Reel, Rickett's Hornpipe, Paddy on the Railroad, London Hornpipe (as a reel), Going to Boston (Drunken Sailor), Rakes of Mallow, Sailor's Hornpipe, Crooked Stovepipe, Swallowtail Jig, Irish Washerwoman, Smash the Window, Haste to the Wedding, Garryowen, Pop Goes the Weasel. Many of the tunes listed for square dancing and two-steps will also work for contra dances as long as they are 32 bars in length.
Waltzes: Westphalia, Over the Waves, Kentucky Waltz, Wednesday Night Waltz, Shenandoah, Jole Blon, Missouri Waltz, Annie Laurie, Black Velvet Waltz, Peek-a-boo Waltz, Saturday Waltz, Festival Waltz, A &E Waltz, Frisco to Cape Cod, Waltz Across Texas, Home on the Range, Cabri Waltz, Blue Canadian Rockies, Blue Skirt Waltz, Tennessee Waltz.
Two-Steps: Redwing, Snow Deer, Happy Acres Two-Step, Maggie, Down Yonder, Red River Valley, Old Grey Bonnet, Florida Blues, Peacock Rag, Stone's Rag, Beaumont Rag, Red Apple Rag, Dill Pickles, Black and White Rag, Margie, My Pretty Girl, Take Me Back to Tulsa.
Foxtrots: Faded Love, San Antonio Rose, Sweet Georgia Brown, Goofus, Just Because, and most popular standards of the big band era.
Polkas: Clarinet Polka, Beer Barrel Polka, Helena Polka, Jessie Polka, Allentown Polka, Jenny Lind Polka, Calgary Polka.
Schottisches: Rochester Schottische, Flop Eared Mule, Balen in Karlstad, Great Western Clog, If I Only Had a Brain, Rustic Dance.
Other Couple Dances and Mixers: Varsouvianna, Rye Waltz, Cotton Eyed Joe, Tuxedo (Marching Through Georgia), Seven Step, Butterfly, La Bastringue, Black Hawk Waltz, Heel & Toe Polka, Hambo, Gay Gordons.
A sound system can be a great help in playing a dance, but it can also be a mess. In a small hall, the band may not need one, and the caller can get by with a megaphone. But without a sound system, and especially without adequate stage monitors so the musicians can hear themselves well, there is a tendency to overplay, with bad effects on the tone quality of the instruments and on the musicians' health. Ideally, a dance band should hire a knowledgeable sound person with good equipment to take the entire responsibility for sound reinforcement. In reality, however, it is often necessary for band members to supply their own system and run it themselves.
Use the best sound system you can afford. There is lots of variation between sound system components, especially microphones and speakers. If you are assembling your own system, try out different components if they are available. Plan for a system with monitor speakers, which helps the band hear itself and stay together.
Get to the dance and set up in plenty of time to do a sound check. Tell the band when all of them should be in their places and tuned up to start the sound check. With the house sound off, take time to get the monitor mix right first. Make sure that each player is hearing what he/she wants to hear, and that the overall monitor level is comfortable. Usually the caller is left out of the monitor so the band can focus on its sound. When everyone in the band is happy with the monitor mix and level, bring up the house sound and have someone go out into the hall to listen so you can adjust the level of each mike for a good band balance and the proper balance between the band and the caller. Some callers habitually shout into the mike, which can overload the system and cause distortion of the whole sound. Pay particular attention to the mike preamp input level controls, if your mixer has them, to be sure no one (and especially the caller) is overdriving the mike preamp stage.
As the dance progresses, check to see that the overall level has not been increased to the red line on the meter or LED's. Most systems have plenty of power and gain to fill the hall without overloading and distorting, but one must be sure that no stage of the system is being overloaded. People absorb sound and make noise, so it may be necessary to increase the level as the hall fills up. Use only enough volume so the band and caller can be heard clearly by the dancers. Many people have become so accustomed to high volume levels that they think music isn't loud enough unless it's practically deafening. For callers who simply cannot resist shouting and always want more volume, judicious use of a compressor/limiter can work wonders in cleaning up the sound. The compressor/limiter also can considerably improve the sound and punch of an acoustic bass.
Some fiddlers use a pickup or a clip-on mike instead of a mike on a stand. The advantages are: you gain freedom of movement while staying close to the mike, there's no large unsightly hardware between you and the dancers, and feedback problems at high volumes are decreased. A very important disadvantage is that it eliminates the musician’s ability to use distance from the mike to vary the dynamics. Dynamics are so important to us that we do not use pickups or clip-on mikes, and do not play with musicians who do. When you're not playing lead, you want to play backup at a much lower level, which is harder to do when the mike or pickup is attached to your instrument. If there is more than one fiddler in the band, either all of them or none of them should be using a pickup or clip-on mike, or it will be impossible properly to balance their relative volumes. In our experience, pickup mikes always have inferior sound qualities to the top quality professional mikes that should be used for good sound. Generally, the relatively inexpensive dynamic microphones sold as a matter of course by music/PA dealers are inferior to condenser mikes, which now are quite affordable, and usually the single greatest improvement that can be made to a sound system is getting top quality professional microphones. When you find a top quality mike that works well for you, carry it with you and use it.
Remember, your principal goal as a dance musician is to make sure the dancers have fun. And the more smoothly you work with the band, the caller, the sound system, and the dancers, the more fun you'll have!
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