New dancers 5

Our tutor Rod Downey gives new dancers some tips about Strathspey travelling step

The music
The step
Airs or pastorals

I have not yet talked about Strathspey travelling step. Strath (=area around a river) Spey (=a river in Scotland) so the origin of the term is the valley of the river Spey.

The music

The music for the style of dancing is 4/4 or sometimes 2/4, and usually has 4 very strong beats per bar. A traditional Strathspey, which I like very much, has to me an extraordinary drive. This is especially true on the first bar which is down when you dance it, usually mirroring the music.

A Mile to Ride, played by Peter Elmes and his band The  Scotsmen from our library of dance music is a traditional Strathspey which shows this drive. The Braes of Breadalbane as played in this old recording by Stan Hamilton and his Flying Scotsmen (a Canadian Band, which I love to use) also shows this very strongly. The first part is driving down.

Here is a lovely demonstration by of this to fiddle music, danced by the German men’s team at the Newcastle festival in 2017. (Strathspeys were originally written for the fiddle.) The demonstration shows the excellent covering in the rights and lefts and the 4 bar turns.

The step

The step is: *Down, close, step,’hop’*; or maybe *Down, close, step, through*

Beat 1

You begin (as always) in first position, and on the first beat the right foot drives forward by bending the standing left leg down. (Heel off the floor; heels being optional for Scottish country dancers whilst you are dancing. The ankles flexing are always the key.)  So ‘Down’ could be ‘Drive’.

Beat 2

The next part is ‘close’. You must keep your feet turned out from the hips, allowing you to close in 3rd position. That is, left foot tucked in behind right foot and both are turned out so that they have 90 degrees between them.

Beat 3

The next part is ‘step’. The right foot is extended from the standing left foot (which is not ‘standing’ as the heels are not touching the ground!). This part is not quite as long as the first step on bar 1, but is longer than most people do. Try not to have a second ‘down’.  (Don’t be a double dipper.)

Beat 4

The last part is ‘hop’ or ‘through’. The left foot is brought through and is just passing the right foot at the end of bar 4.  You will need a little hop here, and the foot is brought through in turned out position with the knee pointing out.

The single most important thing is that your left foot MUST NOT PASS the right foot before the END of 4.  It will be moving forward on beat 1 of the next bar. If you bring it through before that, where will it go? Answer: there is nowhere for it to go so you will be out of timing.

Below is a diagram of Strathspey travelling step from the side, and you should think of this as being like a dolphin, diving first (beat 1) and then coming up to the surface (beat 2), staying near there (beat 3) and then up for a breath (beat 4).

Below is the description from the RSCDS manual for teachers.

The Lower Hutt Teaching Tools have this step near the bottom of the page of teaching videos. Young tutor Andrea Wells (the one with the white top) has particularly good technique with lovely turn out and strong extension on beat 1.

Moira Stacey’s Class builds the step up. The older gentleman is a wee bit low in the heels (but we all get lower as we get older) but has very good foot positions, and the son lacks a bit of down and extension on beat 1.

If you have trouble with the rhythm, try walking it, which would be right, close, right and then as you move the left leg, it will be even with the right at the end of bar 4. Count it out first… 1,2,3,4.

Airs or pastorals

Strathspeys can also be danced to airs or pastorals, which can be quite beautiful but are harder to dance to as the rhythm is less well-defined, and are not really in the traditional style. A lot of recently devised dances use such tunes.

The Library of Birmingham with video has such a tune. In that video, the ladies dance beautiful Strathspeys with lovely extension on the first beat (as well as dancing The Rose Progression as it should be).

City of Belfast with video is another. In this video of the same dance, note how hard it is to keep the feet turned out, and to stay in time, which you really need to concentrate on. This is often easy when you practice it in a circle, but hard when you are concentrating upon a dance. Compare with the French ladies in the Library of Birmingham video.

Dancing City of Belfast at the Wellington Region Hogmanay in 2016

from Rod Downey
13 May 2020

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