Murder on the Dancefloor: St Andrew's Ball

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We're fools whether we dance or not, so we may as well dance – Japanese proverb

The St Andrews Ball

The 30th November is St Andrew's Day, in honour of the patron saint of Scotland, and Caledonian groups around the world celebrate this day. For my Scottish Country Dancing group, it is one of the highlights of the dancing calendar. Much anticipation had preceded this year's St Andrew's ball: indeed, the tickets were so highly sought after that at one stage they were described as being like hen's teeth (ie very rare).

It was being hosted by the Helen's Bay branch, to celebrate the 50th continuous year of teaching from their class teacher. That is an astounding achievement indeed, and well worth applauding.

Everyone had made an effort to look their best: some ladies wore full length dresses, and I wore a black frock trimmed with a beaded peacock design on the fluted hem, which fell just below the knee. All the men were looking very dashing in their dress kilts, some with formal jackets, others with ghillie shirts and leather weskits, though that must have been very warm when dancing. The live band performed marvellously: it makes such a difference to be dancing to real musicians rather than a CD or iPod.

We had an all too brief demonstration from the children's class, and they looked marvellous in their short white frocks with tartan sash. Their dancing was step perfect, testament, I'm sure, to hours of practice and work.

Some dances have been around for centuries, but there are always new ones being created, often in honour of a special occasion. And one of the new dances on the programme for this ball was called '50 years on'. I'd practised it at several of the classes I'd managed to get to during the dark autumn evenings. It had an unusual beginning in that the 3rd and 4th couples swapped places before starting the dance proper.

Another dance that features frequently on programmes in this part of the world is 'City of Belfast', a lovely strathspey which was created for the 60th anniversary of the Belfast branch in 2008. It's one of my favourites to dance.

One dance that I go out of my way to avoid (I think it's the only one I dislike intensely) is 'The Irish Rover'. Dances are notated in a strange shorthand, and the instructions for this dance look like this:

THE IRISH ROVER (R8x32) 3C (4C set) J Cosh 22 SCDs+1

1- 4 1s dance down below 3s and cast up to 2nd place own sides

5- 8 1L dances RH across with 2s while 1M dances RH across with 3s

9-16 1s dance ½ diagonal reel of 4 with 1st corners then ½ reel with 2nd corners and ½ turn LH in centre to face 1st corners

17-24 1s dance reels of 3 across giving LSh to 1st corners ending in 2nd place own sides

25-32 1s dance Diagonal RandL (1M crossing diagonally down and 1L crossing diagonally up to start)

This tells us first that it's a reel, and is a dance to a tune made up of 8 repetitions of 32 bars. It is danced in a four couple set, but only three couples will be dancing at any one time. The first eight bars are fairly straightforward, but then the trouble starts. In bars 9 to 16, the first couple are weaving diagonally with the couple on one pair of corners, and then with the remaining couple. They then have to weave some more, but this time across the dance, not up and down or even diagonally. Finally they have to do 'diagonal rights and lefts'. Rights and lefts are easy enough – you and your partner describe a square with the couple next to you, by crossing with alternately your right and then left hand, starting with the person facing you. For diagonal rights and lefts you need to work out whether it's the person one up from the person facing you, or one down. After you've just been reeling diagonally and then horizontally. And it's fast.

I can usually pick up dances quite quickly, largely because I can see the patterns being formed in my mind's eye. But this one has so much reeling, where dancers are weaving in and out of each other the whole time, that it gets very messy unless everyone knows it well, and it's almost impossible to catch up once you've gone wrong. I was intrigued to learn during conversation over supper that I was not the only one who deliberately sits out this dance. As I sat in my seat and watched the various sets all come to grief, some of them stopping dancing completely, I was glad I'd given myself that break.

However, I did come a cropper in another of my favourite dances, Polharrow Down. It's a slightly unusual 5 couple set, and everyone is moving but doing different things at the same time: as the caller explained 'It's like the Scots themselves, you're being invaded from all sides!'

If you're in 5th position when the reeling starts, you have to make your way diagonally to the 3rd position. And then immediately diagonally but in the other direction on to the 1st position. During classes I'd got the hang of this dance quite quickly, and I couldn't work out why, during the ball, I was making such a hames of it. Until I realised that I'd never danced it before as a man, so I was constantly looking in the wrong direction. Ah well!

The supper was delicious, and the Helen's Bay class had obviously gone to a lot of effort to make the place look special, with little floral decorations on the tables, and a display board highlighting some of the teacher's achievements via news cuttings and old photographs. It made for fascinating reading, and I was full of admiration.

I felt a little like Cinderella when I realised that it was 11.15, and I'd said I'd be home 15 minutes ago! So although the hall was still packed with merry dancers, I dashed out into the pouring rain. The journey home was rather scary, as the torrential rain had caused flooding on the windy back road I was driving on, and I was worried that I might be stranded.

But I made it safely home, and treated myself to a large glass of Glenfiddich as I regaled the family with what a memorable evening I'd had.

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