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Sir Roger de Coverley - James Prescott

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Sir Roger de Coverley

Reconstruction copyright © 2004, 2005, 2011 James Prescott

 

One of the highlights of Christmas season cheer is the dance at Fezziwig's premises described in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The highlight of the dancing was the finishing dance "Sir Roger de Coverley". Michael Pollock, the caller for the Calgary Contra Dance, wondered what they would actually have danced, and asked me to look into it.

 

Here is the dance as described by Charles Dickens.

 

But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up "Sir Roger de Coverley." Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

 

But if they had been twice as many: ah, four times: old Fezziwig would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs Fezziwig. As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that's not high praise, tell me higher, and I'll use it. A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig's calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn't have predicted, at any given time, what would become of 'em next. And when old Fezziwig and Mrs Fezziwig had gone all through the dance; advance and retire, hold hands with your partner, bow and curtsey; corkscrew; thread-the-needle, and back again to your place; Fezziwig cut – cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.

 

The first problem was to find if any published version came close to the dance as described by Dickens. There seem to be at least three distinct choreographies for dances called "Roger de Coverley" or "Sir Roger de Coverley". The closest approach to Dickens may be found in Thomas Wilson's The Complete System of English Country Dancing, published circa 1814.

 

The second problem was to match the figures as described by Dickens with those in Wilson.

The "advance and retire" matches Wilson's first figure exactly.

The "hold hands with your partner" matches Wilson's fourth figure exactly, and can easily be stretched to cover the second and third figures.

The "bow and curtsey" is a bit of an orphan, as Wilson's fifth figure is an "allemande round each other", which according to Wilson was a back to back in 1814.

The "corkscrew" can easily be imagined to match Wilson's sixth figure. I have chosen what I feel is the best interpretation of Wilson.

The "thread-the-needle and back again to your place" can easily be imagined to match Wilson's seventh figure. Some other versions of the dance include an arch here, which would perhaps match the "thread the needle" better, but the arch is not in Wilson. I have chosen what I feel is the best interpretation of Wilson, without an arch.

 

The third problem was to match the dance and the music. The music is in slip jig time with the form AABBCC. There are 72 jig steps, or skipping steps, in one repetition of the music. Dickens makes it clear that it is a longways dance for as many as will, and that it could be walked instead of danced (thereby taking twice as much music for each figure). The corkscrew figure especially requires different amounts of music depending upon how many people there are in the set.

 

It is thus clear that can be no constant correspondence between the music and the dance. Fortunately the music is relatively homogeneous. If a couple requires a few extra steps to complete a figure, that is no problem.

 

The Fezziwig party description is of one enormously long line of couples (23 or 24 couples were there according to Dickens). The top and bottom couples (the diagonals) dance the first five figures; then the top couple dances the sixth figure; then all couples dance the seventh figure, leaving the former top couple as the new bottom couple. The old top couple then takes part as the new bottom couple in the first five figures of the second repetition of the dance. With 23 or 24 couples, no wonder the Fezziwigs required stamina!

 

My interpretation of the dance for a longways set of 24 couples is that a single repetition of the dance requires exactly six repetitions of the music (about five minutes). If all couples take their turn as top couple, that's 144 repetitions of the music (about 120 minutes). The first top couple would dance continuously for nearly eight minutes, and then spend the rest of the two hours doing very little, dancing for thirty seconds every five minutes. Did they do 24 complete repetitions of "Sir Roger de Coverley" at the Fezziwig party? I doubt it.

 

Because of the distances and skip steps involved, the dance works best with a multiple of six couples in the set. For the purposes of the Calgary Contra Dance, I proposed sets of six couples. A single repetition of the dance then requires one and a half repetitions of the music. A set of six dancers requires nine repetitions of the music (about eight minutes).

 

Sir Roger de Coverley

 

A longways set for six couples, proper, facing up, each lord on the lady's left. See Note 1.

 

The dance can be done using a jig step, but I teach it as a simple skipping step. There are six steps to every musical phrase. The music part A has two phrases, and part A is repeated twice. So are parts B and C, giving 12 phrases or 72 steps for one repetition of the music.

 

1 advance and retire: The top lady and the bottom lord ("first diagonal") advance and meet in the middle of the set, and then retreat to their places. Then the top lord and the bottom lady ("second diagonal") do likewise.

With six couples, this may be completed in 12 steps, music first A. Each diagonal does three skips forward, three skips back.
2 right hands: The first diagonal advance and meet in the middle of the set, turn right hands, and then return to their places. Then the second diagonal do likewise.

With six couples, 12 steps, music second A.
3 left hands: The first diagonal advance and meet in the middle of the set, turn left hands, and then return to their places. Then the second diagonal do likewise.

With six couples, 12 steps, music first B.
4 both hands: The first diagonal advance and meet in the middle of the set, turn both hands, and then return to their places. Then the second diagonal do likewise.

With six couples, 12 steps, music second B.
5 back to back: The first diagonal advance and meet in the middle of the set, go around each other back to back clockwise, and then return to their places. Then the second diagonal do likewise. See Note 2.

With six couples, 12 steps, music first C.
6 corkscrew: The active (top) couple cross touching right hands above the second couple then cast down outside around the second couple (six skips total); then cross touching left hands above the third couple then cast down; then similarly with the other couples; and finally with an imaginary extra couple at the bottom of the set, meeting in the middle at the bottom of the set and facing up, proper (with an odd number of couples, also cross to get to the proper side). See Note 3.

With six couples, this may be completed in 36 steps, music second C, A, and A.
7 thread the needle: Inactive couples face down. The active (top) couple (currently at the bottom of the set) take crossed hands (in "skater's hold") and lead up the middle of the set, followed by the other couples coming down on the outside and joining crossed hands at the bottom of the set in sequence; then the active (top) couple cast out at the top of the set and lead down the outside of the set, followed by the other couples casting out at the top of the set in sequence, until the active (top) couple reaches the bottom of the set. All couples stop at the same time, so that the former second couple is now the new top couple, and the former top couple is now the new bottom couple. The new top lady and the new bottom lord stand ready to begin the dance again.

With six couples, this may be completed in 12 steps, music first B.

 

Note 1: With the dancers divided into sets of six couples, having sets of five couples or even four couples on the floor at the same time is also feasible. The shorter sets will be slower paced and can be used to accommodate the less energetic dancers. With four couples it is almost possible to walk the dance rather than skipping it. Having mixed set lengths does complicate the job of the caller, because after the first five figures the sets will begin to fall out of synchronisation with each other. With a bit of extra practice beforehand the dancers are able to manage on their own. Without a caller to give them the timing, even multiple sets of six couples will begin to lose synchronisation with each other during the corkscrew figure.

 

As this dance is mostly for the top couple, more than twelve couples in a set is probably too many for an ordinary Contra Dance crowd, testing both the stamina of the top couple and the patience of the side couples.

 

Note 2: I am grateful to Robert Messer who was able to point me to a complete facsimile of Wilson, which I did not have access to when I first did this reconstruction. This has enabled me to resolve the meaning of "allemande" in 1814, and to adjust the reconstruction accordingly.

 

Note 3: In my reconstruction for a set of six couples, casting around an imaginary extra couple gives a neat multiple of 12 steps, but this additional cast is not in Wilson. If you do not mind if the dancers get out of synchronization with the music, you can omit this additional cast. Wilson says in connection with the corkscrew that if there are a lot of couples in the set, the active couple may choose to cast around two couples at a time (e.g. initially casting outside around the second and third couples, and so on), thus reducing the number of steps required for this figure (e.g. from 36 steps to 24 steps for a set of six couples).

 

 

 

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