Olivia, Richard and Sunnara put these notes together to accompany a workshop that they gave at the 2007 Easter Gathering at Sibford School. As musicians playing and singing for teachers at so many sessions, they realised how inexperienced so many of us are when leading dances to live music. The workshop helped us to understand what a great resource they can be and gave us tips on how to best work and communicate with them.

Knowing when to start

  • Talk to your musicians beforehand.
  • Establish who to make eye contact with in the band.
  • Make sure the musicians know which dance you’re doing next.
  • Establish what the intro is, or make eye contact to decide when to start dancing.
  • After you have finished teaching the dance, tell the musicians that you are ready to start by using phrases like “Let’s try it with the music”.

Knowing how to stop

  • Agree some signs that say you would like the dance to finish soon.
  • It helps if you can warn the musicians before the last time through.
  • Remember that “last time through” for the musicians may not be “last time through” for the dancers. (It depends on the tune.)
  • The dance doesn’t need to be a fixed length. The musicians can play for as long as you like! It can be different every time, just go with the feel of it.

Getting the speed and the feel right

  • Agree signals for speeding up and slowing down, and perhaps show the musicians the speed you would like to start at.
  • You can use phrases like “The musicians will probably start this quite slowly…”
  • Talk to your musicians and maybe practise with them beforehand.
  • You could dance the steps for them while they are learning how to play new tunes to help them to get the feel.
  • It helps enormously if the musicians are circle dancers too and know how the dances feel when they dance them.
  • The speed of the dance doesn’t have to be the same every time you dance it. The speed can match the needs of the dancers especially if the dance is new to them and they are just learning it.
  • Musicians can start slowly and build up to the “correct” speed once the dancers feel more confident.
  • Sometimes live music can sound very different from the recording and feel different to dance to.

Some of the benefits of live music

Musicians can:

  • Remind you of the tune.
  • Play as you teach to give dancers a better feel of the dance as they learn it.
  • Over-emphasise the rhythm at first to help the dancers learn new dances.
  • Vary the length of the music.
  • Vary the speed of the music.
  • Put in signals to let dancers know a dance is about to start or finish.
  • Provide an alternative to your recorded music, especially if it is too long, too short, too fast, too slow, you don’t like it or it’s just unusable.
  • Together with teachers and dancers, create an extraordinary, reciprocal and harmonious feel. Just magical!!