Useful articles from Devon Folk

Band Aid 

Compiled by Colin Andrews

Thinking of starting a folk dance/ceilidh band?
New to playing for folk dances/ceilidhs ?
Keen to try your hand at calling for dances?

The Band

Competency of musicians
An obvious point
Musicians in the band should be competent with their particular instruments. Someone with experience only in other genres (e.g. jazz, pop, classical) will need to adapt their style when playing for folk dance.

Size of Band
No hard and fast rule.
Two musicians can provide very good music for dancing.
Bigger line-ups are not uncommon.
One rarely sees an ensemble in double figures.
Check the overall balance of the sound, between melody and rhythm instruments whatever the size of band.
It is not necessary for all musicians to be playing all the time. The larger the band :-
the greater the need for good communication between band members,
the more people there are to share whatever fee is negotiated
the longer it will take to set up for a gig.

Sheet music or not?
A matter of personal choice. Some successful bands always play from sheet music but many do not. Familiarity with the all the tunes to be used is essential if no sheet music is used.
One tune or more per dance? Changing tunes
Some bands only use one tune per dance.
Consider variety in the instrumentation and arrangement when a tune is likely to be played at least six times through, and probably many more! Many bands use two or more different tunes for a dance.
The tunes used need to be compatible in rhythm and length.
A change of key from one tune to another is fine, and often used. The musicians need to be comfortable with the intervals on the change
A different key must be appropriate for the instruments. E.g. F is unsuitable for a D,G melodeon.
When to change tunes should ideally be agreed beforehand
The band leader needs to give the other musicians a clear signal in advance to change.
Twice through each tune is quite common, possibly going back to the first tune, as appropriate.
Changes after more times through is fine, though should take into account the length of the dance and the number of times the caller is likely to repeat the dance sequence.
Changing tune after once through is not generally a good idea though there are exceptions
You are unlikely to play for more than 6 dances per hour, except perhaps with experienced dancers Aim for a minimum repertoire of 24 different tunes/tune sets These should include a variety of rhythms and tune lengths. 32bar jigs and reels are the most commonly used types of tune used for dances Many bands also have some instrumental sets to play while dancers are taking a breather.
Tune to fit the dance
Matching a tune to a dance is probably the most common hiccup with inexperienced bands.
Many folk dances require a 32 bar sequence.
Many folk dance tunes are also 32 bar sequence, often 2 x 8 bar 'A' followed by 2 x 8 bar 'B' Some popular dances require a 48 bar sequence – ideally a 3 part tune 2xA, 2xB, 2xC sequence though once can get by with 2xA,2xB, A, B, or even 3xA, 3xB
Less common are 40 bar dances, 64 bar dances (for which 32 bar tune twice through works well), Step-hop hornpipes or waltzes may have 16 bar sequence.
The main types of tune
The main types of tune used are:
JIG a tune in 6/8 time single jig has dum da dum da rhythym double jig has da da da da da da rhythm - includes many Irish jigs. Beware of mismatch of single and double jigs if using more than one tune
REEL a tune in common 4/4 time or 2/4 There are several different kinds of rhythm under this heading The reel needs to match the dance Ensure compatibility ifusing more than one tune.
Smooth reel (American type )
Rant a 'one,two,three and' strong rthymn.
Polka similar to a rant Some tunes can be adapted easily to fit more than one category
HORNPIPE Popular in ceilidhs for step-hop dances again 4/4/or 2/4 time signature Strong emphasis on 1st & 3rd beat (mostly 2/4 time signature). Some hornpipes, particularly Irish ones, are more notey, and no emphasis on the 3rd beat. Beware of mismatch if using more than one tune. Some reels can be used as hornpipes if played 'dotted' (e.g. substitute dotted crotchet & quaver for two crotchets in sheet music) Some hornpipes can be played 'smoothly' as reels
SLIP JIG A tune in 9/8 time (dum da dum da dum da, or da da da da da da da da da) Often requested for strip the willow type dances. Usually have 4 bar A & B music WALTZ Tunes in 3 /4 time. Some have 16 bar sequence, some 32 bar sequence. Beware of mismatch if using more than one tune Don't assume that because a tune has hornpipe or jig etc in its name it will necessarily be of that particular rhythm.

A useful basic repertoire of 24 tune sets could contain one-third 32 bar jigs, one-third 32 bar reels some 48 bar jigs and reels some hornpipes at least one waltz
Some dances require a specific tune. Ideally an unfamliar caller should check with the band in advance if intending to call a dance with its own specific tune.
The speed at which the tunes are played may need to be adjusted to suit the clientele. Try to keep an even pace throughout. Agree with the caller a signal to speed up or slow down.
It's probably easier to start slow and speed up if necessary.
Some bands begin with a chord
Other bands begin with four or eight bar introduction.
The caller – and the clientele – need to know what to expect.
Most bands finish with a chord.
A few bands purposely slow down on the last few bars – but it is not always appropriate.
The musicians will need to get together to work through tunes and arrangements.
The band members need to agree on signals from the leader.
It would be unrealistic to expect a band to have practised to become absolutely note perfect on everything they do.
Mixers, amplifiers, speakers, microphones need to be adequate for the purpose.
Some bands will have a 'sound engineer' to set up, and monitor the output through the speakers, Many bands have one musician in the band responsible for the job.
Getting the balance between the instruments, the clarity for the caller's microphone, and the overall sound level is very important.
Sufficient time should be allowed to set up and do a sound check before the dancing starts
The volume level needs to be set at a level which allows dancers – and those sitting out the dance – to talk without raising their voices, unlike discos or rock bands
If the client asks they band to turn down the volume the band should comply without question.
In between the dances
Some bands will automatically play instrumentals while dancers are resting.
Sometimes this may not be required.
Bands should however be prepared to do a few instrumental sets.
Bands should avoid experimenting with other tunes, even with P.A. turned off between dances.
Communication with caller
This is VERY important
Some bands will work with only one caller and vice versa, in which case rapport will soon build up.
Where band and callers are unfamiliar with each other then procedures need to be agreed:
How much notice before the end of the dance (last time through, last 8 bars, or whatever) with clear signal from the caller.
A signal to slow down or speed up.
A 'cut' signal to stop playing immediately.
Different callers will have different repertoires and the same applies to bands.
The band need to know what kind of tune, its length and preferably how many times through.
One cannot assume that a particular dance will always be matched with the same tune, although there are some common dances that do have well-recognised tunes.

Sample Tunes


Communication with band
Absolutely essential to get this right. See the notes above under band.
Give a clear signal or phrase, e.g. 'Away we go' to the band when you are ready for them to start playing
It is not essential to have own P.A. - but a small amp is recommended. Check that band has a microphone available if needed
Ideally caller should have own microphone
Check that microphone can be plugged into band's P.A.
If more than one radio mic is used there may be a problem of interference Check in advance that the band can play any 'special' tunes for specific dances or acceptable alternative.
Communication with organiser
Check with the organiser about start/finish times, the timing of any breaks for food etc, and any other 'spots' - song spots, speeches, raffle, cutting a cake etc.
Familiarity with dances
It's unreasonable to expect callers to carry details of every dance in their heads.The use of small prompt cards is fine
Try to be confident of calling several dances without prompt notes
Familiarity with types of tune to suit dance
Know the length of the dance - most are 32 bars
Know what kind of tune best fits the dance. Jig or reels can be used for many dances although one may work better than the other.
Vary the type of tune required for the dances – too many consecutive jigs or reels may get boring for the clientele and risk the band running out of options.
Matching dances to audience
Start the evening with a relatively simple dance to get a feeling for experience of clientele
The clientele are basically there to enjoy themselves
Avoid doing a whole evening of very basic dances with people who are clearly more experienced
Avoid introducing too complicated figures to novices.
Be prepared to modify/simplify some dances particularly if there are many young children, handicapped people or intoxicated people on the dance floor.
Walk through – clarity of instruction
Be prepared to explain, or, better still, demonstrate even simple figures.
(Do-si-do might be meaningless to the uninitiated and back-to-back is surprisingly open to unexpected interpretation!)
Simple figures which novice dancers will usually manage happily include: Do-si-do,
Right and left hand star
Circle left and right, r
Right and left hand turn (avoid allemande word with beginners)
Balance and swing
Some figure which may require more explanation or demonstration include:
Ladies chain
Grand chain
Hey Right and left through Strip the willow
Avoid spending an unreasonable amount of time walking through
The dance should last longer than the explanation!
Try to get the sequence of figures in the correct order when calling - nothing is more confusing to the dancer to hear ' oh I forgot to tell you to …. before ….'
There are several common formats to folk dances :
Circles all facing centre (Circassian circle formation)
all facing partner (one person – usually gent – with back to centre)
all facing counter-clockwise, partner by side couple facing couple (Sicilian circle formation)
Square four couples in square formation
Longways 'short set' between 3 and 8 couples in one set 'for as many as will' - usually multiples of 2 couples
duple minor - all gents on same side facing partner,
improper - alternate couples gent & partner have changed sides
Try to provide a variety of formats during the evening.
Short set longways for 3, 4, 5 or 6 couples work better with novices Longways 'for as many as will' duple minor or improper can be confusing for beginners. Be sure to tell couples to take one turn out when they get to the top or bottom of the set. But be prepared for beginners to forget to take a turn out.
For 'improper' longways dances, remind dancers to change sides when they get to the end of the line.
Big circle and sicilian circle formations and simple square work well with novices
With mixed couples, remind dancers that conventionally the lady stands on the right of the gent in mnay circle and square dances.
In squares remind couples of their number in the set (1,2,3,4 or heads and sides as appropriate).
Calling during dance
It's helpful to call all the figures the first couple of times through.
It is usually unnecessary to call all the figures all the way through the dance but short prompts may be necessary.
Time the call just before the dancers need to do the figure but not too early otherwise some will abandon what they are legitimately doing to comply with the new instruction.
Keep an even calm voice even if you think you've got a group of complete wallies
Never lose your temper with a dancer.
Length of dance
Short set longways and many square dances have a finite length, for each couple to take the lead. Three couple sets can easily be done 2 or even 3 times through (6 or 9 times through the music)
Longways for 4,-6 couples are best done no more than twice through (music 8,10, or 12 times)
Beware of making the dance too long with more than 2 repeats, particularly with 48 or 64 bar tune. Avoid stopping before every couple has had the same number of turns at the lead.
Circle dances and full set longways can be done as many times through as seems appropriate
Be aware that dancers may start flagging or getting bored after 8 or 9 times through.
Dancers getting across the music
This will inevitably happen from time to time, particularly with inexperienced dancers.
Strip the willow dances are especially prone to this phenomenon. Unless there is absolute chaos and most dancers are standing still bewildered, keep going !
If you have a sympathetic band request an extra A or B music to bring the dancers into sequence. Otherwise choose an appropriate moment to bring the dance to an end when the music comes to the end of a sequence.
Know-alls from the floor
Someone from the floor may tell you that you are calling a dance incorrectly.
They may be right but politely remind them that it is your version rather than the familiar one.


Use a returnable booking form to get written confirmation of a gig
The client should specify start and finish time
The fee should be clearly stated, including any deposit
The procedure for settling balance of fee should be specified – cash on night, BACS or cheque
Any cancellation penalties should be clearly specified
The form should determine whether food and drinks will be provided for band
What if timings go awry?
Arrive in time to set up and start at scheduled time
Be prepared to wait if set upstart is delayed - this often happens with weddings.
If clients requests later finish due to their own late start, you may agree but have no obligation to do so.
If client wishes to finish earlier than scheduled time you are still entitled to receive your full fee.