Discussion about variations in the Gay Gordons

Compiled by by Irene van Marseveen from postings to the Strathspey mailing list for RSCDS Pretoria Branch Newsletter, November 1997.

"Right", says the MC, "all take partners for the Gay Gordons." "Oh good", you say; "at least that's one dance I do know." Oh yes? There might be a surprise or two in store, though, as some of us discovered last month in Strathspey (the SCD discussion group on the Internet) and at the Highland Ball in Johannesburg.

Let's listen to some of what was said in Strathspey.

Ellen Aaron asked:

Does anyone have written instructions for Gay Gordons? The question has arisen regarding with which foot each dancer begins.
Becky Sager replied:
Collins Pocket Reference has "outside foot". I always teach both start on right foot.
Bryan McAlister said:
As with most old time dances that I am aware of, the man starts with the left foot, the lady with the right. This means that if they take up ballroom hold and move forwards or backwards (i.e not sideways) they will be using the complimentary feet, like a poussette or a two/three step in Country Partner Dancing.
Mel Briscoe agreed:
I think it is much nicer for the man to use the outside (i.e., left) foot for everything, completely mirroring the woman, including the pas de basque turn-under. ... And the polka part is _much_ nicer if started that way.
Then, from Jim Healy:
I agree completely about both starting with outside feet, _but_ what's this pas de basque doing in the Gay Gordons??
That comment caused some puzzlement! We'll come back to it later.

Andrew Smith offered:

Here are some opinions from printed sources (note: printed, not authoritative!)

David & May Ewart - Scottish Ceilidh Dancing (1996)

"Both lady and gent dance the same steps (with the same foot)...(left, right, left)"

The Ewarts have the man walking forward for bars 9-12, while the lady turns, but they do give an alternative version where _both_ lady and gent pas de basque for four bars.

Victor Sylvester - Old Time Dancing (1952)

"The lady's steps are exactly the same as the gentleman's for the first 8 bars....."

Sylvester has the man starting with the left foot. This version has no pas de basque, but has the dancers facing each other, side- on to the line of dance, the man doing a step-together routine while the lady turns.

I have danced bars 9-12 with pas de basque, rather than a walk forward in Scotland, but I now can't remember if this was how I was taught at school, or whether this was a style we did at university (St. Andrews). I've certainly done it both ways in Scotland.

From Oberdan Otto:
In our area we do the first eight bars with an Allemande hold and we pivot in parallel (without releasing hands). I don't think it matters which foot you start on. I find I can easily pivot while stepping onto either foot. To do a polka, however, your footwork must mirror your partner's. As you finish the polka, you both have the outside foot free, so if you're not both starting with the outside foot, somebody has to do a little shuffle. Mel's suggestion of using mirrored footwork throughout avoids all foot changes.

The Gay Gordons is one of the traditional "Olde Tyme" dances that never went out of fashion and was never in danger of being lost, as were the longways country dances. I think it has been the subject of a "Folk" process that has resulted in local variations. While some folks have written down instructions for it, I think it is doubtful that there is a universally accepted formal definition for the dance. Sometimes it is even done progressive (progressing during the lady's turn) which is nice mixer.

Since it is a couple dance, it is really up to the couple how they manage the details as long as they don't interfere with other couples.

Courtney Cartwright added:
I once went to a weekend international folkdance workshop and saw that Gay Gordons was listed on the program (as a mixer). I asked a newish dancer to dance with me; having spent a good deal of time with Country Dance, I knew I could get her through this - even the mixer version as described by Oberdan Otto. To my utter horror and amazement, the entire room struck up a dance that I had never seen before, or since, come to think of it. Apparently, one of the local teachers had gone to a Christmas workshop at Berea College and had brought this dance back with her. It was supposed to have been observed and recorded in an Appalachian community. What did I do? I just danced my partner out of the dance floor and we continued the more well known version on the side, picking up a few converts along the way...
Kent Smith's opinion:
I like doing it as Oberdan describes, and with both the man and woman starting with the outside foot to avoid the man's having to make two weight changes. There's also something nice about starting back with both inside feeting pointing forward next to each other.

However, I have known Scottish transplants to the US and Canada who are adamant that _both_ start with the right foot, with the man changing at least for the polka and then back again.

I recall that Ruth Jappe's old time collection has both starting on the right and has a step-close step-close in line of dance at some point, I believe replacing two of the polka steps. I've never seen anyone else do it as she describes, and when I've tried it, my partners and I have agreed that it lacks the spirit of the "traditional" way.

Hanny Budnick suggested:
Instead of allemande hold, if you use the varsovienne position, i.e. the lady raises both arms and the gent reaches for her hands behind and above her shoulders, then a simple 'stretching' of the bent arms and 'bending' of the straight arms makes for an easy transition to facing the opposite direction.
And from Jeanetta McColl:
I had a good chuckle when I read Jim Healy's comment re pas de basque in this dance. When I came to the US many moons ago, I said the same thing.

When I learnt the dance in the late forties, both men and women started with the _left_ foot, as if one was marching. The men continued marching while the woman did four pivot turns under the man's right arm. They would then join in a ballroom hold, not for a polka type step, but for a waltz step made into a two step rhythm, the secret being to keep the shoulders level with the floor at all times. The _woman_ has the foot change.

To this day, if I can find a partner who will indulge me to dance the Gay Gordons this way, I will dance it. Otherwise, I prefer the sidelines!

Now let's go back to Jim Healy's comment mentioned above:
What's this pas de basque doing in the Gay Gordons??
Mel Briscoe replied:
I have always assumed the purpose of the pas de basque was to make the dance inaccessible to all those folks who really ought to be out there doing it instead of watching it....

One of the best things about the Gay Gordons is that it _is_ a folk dance without special rules and with regional variations, and it is done by real people with real shoes on.

Jim Healy again:
Thank you Mel for noting that I had my tongue very firmly planted in my cheek when I raised the question of pas de basque in the Gay Gordons.

I think I have done every variation mentioned by the many contributors including skip change _and_ pas de basque in 6/8 jig time (St Andrew's Uni has a lot to answer for, Andrew) but the one advocated by Jeanetta is what I learned at school and what I still much prefer as either or both of a social and a warm up dance. We did have one teacher who insisted on the Victor Sylvester version as being the best because it made the man look at his partner as she showed off her turns, but shuffling sideways never seemed to bring out the best in the young men!

But the point I was getting at was exactly that made very eloquently by Mel in his originally private posting to me. The main purpose of these old "marche militaire" dances is to get those that do not normally dance onto the floor and in my opinion adding fol-de-rols is counter-productive.

PS - I really don't like it as a progressive dance.

Some more from Oberdan Otto:
I know of a Gay Gordons variant in which the partners are mirrored. I picked it up about 20 years ago while visiting in the area of Sydney, Australia.

Vanessa and I were looking for some kind of dancing in town and saw a posting at the Ulladulla community hall for "Old Time Dancing". It wasn't at all what we were expecting. They were doing what we now identify as "Round Dancing" - Ballroom (couple) dancing in which everyone dances the same pre-choreographed sequences.

One of the dances on their program was "Gay Gordons, Country Style". We thought "OK! We know the Gay Gordons. We can do this". We were right (that we could do it), but it was a great simplification and included a progression.

The dance starts with the couple facing line of dance, nearer hands joined, outside foot (neither Allemande nor promenade hold). Walk forward, pivoting toward your partner on step 4 to face reverse line (changing hands!), continue walking (backwards) 4 steps toward line of dance. Do the same toward reverse line. Facing line of dance, nearer hands joined, balance away, together, away, and together (a very understated pas de basque). Gentleman marks time, drawing the lady across in front of him. She takes his free (left) hand in her right and releasing the other hand, passes under his left arm to progress to the man behind. That's it! No pas de basque with lady twirling and no polka. Much better as a warmer-upper, very social, and (Hey, Jim!) very accessible.

Anselm Lingnau added:
To me this sounds a bit like the 'Gay Gordons Two-Step' that I've seen used occasionally for warm-ups.
And from Martin Sheffield:
Oberdan's Australian "Gay Gordons" is danced in France under the title "la Chapelloise" and is quite definitely a _French_ dance :-) (add a smiley to indicate I don't actually believe what I'm quoting, and hope no-one is offended)
Stefan Barthel endorsed:
Yes, I know the dance "La Chapelloise" as well. It's quite popular at many "Bal Folk" events in Germany and known as a French dance - and yes, it's much fun. But (again) it's slightly different to Oberdan's description above...

The first part is the same as Oberdan's walking part. But then: balance together, away, man drawing the lady across in front of him to his left, changing hands. Then again: balance together, away and the woman passes under the man's left arm to progress to the man behind.

And Keith Grant offered:
What Oberdan describes is a very common mixer done in the San Francisco Bay Area Scandinavian dance community as Alleman's March. It's one of several easy mixers for beginners to pick up that gets interspersed among significantly harder couple turning dances. I have to be vigilant when doing Gay Gordons that my ingrained Scandia kinesthetic habit doesn't start me balancing away instead of together.
Martin Mulligan contributed:
I have not seen mention of one other variation of Gay Gordons which took me by surprise when I moved from Boston to Pittsburgh many years ago. The tradition then in Pittsburgh was to dance skip change of step instead of walking during the first 8 bars. Exhausting!

Here in St. John's, Noreen McLennan has mentioned the variation which sounds very much like the one that Jeanetta prefers. I think that I have thought of it as a sort of two step. It is in many ways preferable when teaching beginners - the couple rotates in a much more controlled fashion which our new dancers find less confusing.

Anselm Lingnau again:
I've seen the skip-change done by some of the (very energetic) folks from a University group in another German town - they put their nearer arms around their partner's waists, do two skip-change of step, pivot towards each other, and do two skip-change of step backwards etc. It looked uncanny, at least the bits I could see from behind the piano (in a darkish room), but then of course it was New Year's Day at about half past one in the morning ...
And from Stefan Barthel:
Turning towards each other in the walking part works when using hip/shoulder hold and also in promenade hold. Maybe local variations? But they are all alive and done!
Leaving the Internet discussion for a moment:

The variation that Brian and Jean Christie brought back from a holiday in Scotland, and which we saw danced at the Highland Ball in Johannesburg:

The first eight bars is danced as usual, in allemande hold and walking alternately forwards and backwards. Instead of the pas de basque and polka during the second eight bars, the couple keep left hands joined and, while walking forwards, they change places with each other by passing one in front of the other under the raised left arms, four times.
The video "Step We Ceilidh", produced by Anita Mackenzie, shows two alternatives:
In both variations, the first eight bars are walked in allemande hold as usual, with both the man and the woman starting on the right foot. Incidentally, the demo couple in the video does the right-about turns when stepping onto the left foot (ie the 4th step of the first four bars) and the left-about turns when stepping onto the right foot (ie the 5th step of the second four bars).

The two variations differ in the second eight bars. In the first, both take two walking steps per bar, with the woman turning halfway round under the right arms on each step (ie four full turns in four bars). In the second, both do pas de basque, with both starting on the right foot, and the woman turning twice round in four bars. For the polka, the man changes feet.

Finally, as Becky Sager said:
Goodness! What a lot of opinions and variations! Isn't SCD great (and the Internet)!
And, as Kate Gentles put it:
For me, one of the fascinating things about this discussion is that it _hasn't_ been about the right and wrong way to do the Gay Gordons, but a discovery, and acceptance, of the numerous variations.

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