Every year the judges in the John Gasson jig competition comment on what makes a successful jig. Here are some of their comments from previous years, along with tips from past competitors.
By: Sally Wearing, Keith Leech, Phil Everitt, Tess Buckland, Emma Derby, Laurel Swift, Jameson Wooders and Simon Pipe
Sally Wearing, judging in 2003:
We wanted to see good balance and posture, and good contrast both in the music and the dancing … good light and shade. We wanted good use of the space, so the dance involved the whole audience, as far as possible.
We wanted to hear the musicians following the dancers and being part of the performance, so it’s not just them and us.
We felt some dancers were over-extending themselves and doing dances they weren’t quite up to. A few people danced quite close to the audience, so I guess some people weren’t able to see the footwork.
We wanted to see people who looked like they were enjoying themselves, because it comes across to the audience.
Keith Leech, judging in 2000:
We have always said people should look more relaxed.
Are we looking at a jig that would stand on its own merit on the street, or one that stands on its own on this stage? We did come up with an answer.
When you are judging a dance that is extremely difficult to do against one that is very simple, which do you go for? In the end, we went for technical merit.”
Phil Everitt, judging in 1992:
One of the things we felt quite strongly about was that much of the dance was as differentiated as it could be. There wasn’t as much variation in the dancing as we would like in the way the movements were put together. The dancing tended to be rather even and the music similarly so, and we will look in the future for dancing that can explore both the power, and gentleness in response to the power.
There were still people dancing into the ground and musicians playing into the ground. Many of us believe morris is about being light and getting into the air.
Tess Buckland, judging in 1993:
We enjoyed the high technical skill and great effort put into the dancing, but at the same time we would welcome people relaxing and enjoying it a little bit more, so that you communicate your enjoyment to the audience. Morris is not an endurance test.
We would welcome eye contact with the audience and if the dancers could position themselves so there are opportunities to acknowledge them and for there to be more rapport and eye contact between dancer and musician so that spark communicates itself to the audience.
Also, we would recommend that everyone dances within their body context, meaning people don’t try something just for technical skill and fireworks and then over-balance a little bit. Good dancing is not necessarily about who can jump the highest or dance the fastest.
As soon as you are announced you should be in performance mode, and the same when you exit … no shambling on or shuffling off.
Tess Buckland, judging in 1995:
Please loosen up just a little bit more when you are dancing. I know it’s nerve-wracking but try to enjoy it more.
Emma Darby, dancer:
Tracey Rose spent a lot of time trying to convince me that entering was a good idea, and I always felt under-prepared and under-confident, so I kept on saying No. In 2003 I finally gave in, and chose to do Old Molly Oxford as my jig, with Dad playing and a little bit of mollying thrown in. I didn’t do very well and watching the video I could see why – nervous face, dreadful kit (a hash of my Molly kit to be comfortable to dance in, but an absence of adequate underwear). Apart from how do you get better as a dancer, there’s the question, ‘What do I do this year?’ How can you be different from everyone else and from what you’ve previously done but without over-stretching yourself or doing something dull? I’ve tried changing traditions, injecting humour and devising really complicated sets of slows. In 2007 I racked my brain and remembered someone saying that they’d rather see a trad jig well-performed than innovation for innovation’s sake. Taking this to heart I went back to the Black Book. Ironically Dad and I finally won with the jig we first entered.
The other big challenge is how do I go out there and face an audience who know their stuff – it’s terrifying but absolutely exhilarating, and nothing beats people who actually know what they’re talking about, telling you that you were good.
Practising beforehand might ruin the fun but it is essential. Having a good musician isn’t just about technical proficiency, it’s about them understanding you and what you’re going to do – it helps if you’re a regular pairing. Remember they’re as much a part of the jig as you are – it’s a team effort, and you should try and maintain some contact with them whilst you’re dancing, even if it’s just the flicker of a smile as you shoot past them.
Think about your kit – it’s more important than you might imagine. Don’t give up after your first attempt, even if you’re not the best new entrant. Watch the other dancers and learn from them (and not just from their mistakes).
Laurel Swift, dancer:
Work with your musician. Take the music seriously and practise in advance. Not that I ever take my own advice of course… Pick someone who makes you feel like you’re flying when you dance to them. Play to your strengths – do things you can do well, rather than things you may not pull off. Think about what the audience is watching.
Think about kit – small things are more noticeable when there’s only one of you, rather than a whole team.
Enjoy yourself – treat the competition with respect but don’t get too serious!
The competition is about raising standards of jig dancing – so take the judges’ comments on board and come back again and again.
Jameson Wooders, dancer:
Save yourself: sometimes, I had been too busy dancing on the seafront beforehand and hadn’t eaten anything, so had simply run out of energy by the time of the competition.
I competed in the first double-jig competition with my brother. We weren’t especially serious about it, but just wanted to dance as we would out on the street. I think that was one of the reasons we won!
We were more serious the second time. We practised it virtually every time we went out that summer, not just to learn the steps but to improve stamina. Even so, my brother still managed to fall over at the end! Fortunately, he contrived to fall on top of me so that it looked like we had deliberately ended up having a bundle. We couldn’t believe it when it was announced we’d won.
I think the personal relationship with another dancer is probably more important in putting on a good performance than the extra possibilities in terms of shapes and figures (note: three of the winning pairings in the double jig competition have been blood relatives).
Musicians are the unsung heroes of the jig competition, and their role is vital in putting on a good performance. Dancer and musician rely on each other, so there has to be complete trust that each will fulfil his or her role. Whilst it is possible for a good dancer and a good musician to work well together with very little practice, it is obvious that practice also makes perfect. Many good dancers have come unstuck because the musician played a B music when they should have played an A, or vice versa.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! You become better and more experienced at performing jigs. You get to know your audience, and they get to know you. You relax, and eventually you might win.
Simon Pipe, dancer:
Go for it. The jig contest audience is one of the best you’ll ever get. They’re willing you to do well and if you fluff, they’re with you.
Remember: you’re dancing, not merely demonstrating technique.
Judge the venue and work out where you’re going to start, and where you want the musician to stand. In the early competitions, dancers often performed on the spot and faced their musicians, which meant the musicians had their back to the audience; nowadays, the musicians for the best-scoring jigs stand behind the dancer or to one side, so the audience get a clear view of the dance and see the musician too. If possible, pick a spot where the musician won’t be blocking the view of anyone at all – especially the judges.
Work through the jig with your musician and adapt the jig to their playing and their suggestions; a real marriage between music and dance is about bringing them together, rather than forcing one to fit the other. The musician can see what the dancer can only feel – they’ve got a lot more to contribute than the music.
Practise at least one small piece of interaction between dancer and musician, even if it’s only in the coming-on or going-off. Work out how you’re going to come on and leave. It may be the only thing that seperates you from a rival in the judging. Also, practise looking happy and think about opportunities to connect with the audience.
Play to your strengths. In recent years, most winning jigs have been personal to the dancer, not taken straight from the black book. If there’s a step you’re good at, you could build the dance around that. I put hocklebacks into a jig that was largely based on a tradition that doesn’t have them; but when I danced a Sherborne jig, I left out the split jumps because I’m rubbish at them, and they hurt.
A jig is your own. If your team’s style isn’t exciting, don’t feel tied to it. If the kit counts against you, maybe you should change it. One dancer was marked down for wearing a T-shirt – the judges didn’t know that was her side’s kit. Lucy Cunningham’s team dances in long skirts; the year she switched to britches, she won.
Think about what might go wrong, and have a strategy for dealing with it. If the musician plays the wrong part of the tune, don’t just stop dancing: adapt. It’s possible to dance four slows to normal-speed music. But if there’s a risk of it happening, make sure you’ve agreed which one of you will adjust. An obvious mistake will count against you but you’ve still got an audience – play to it and you might yet get the audience prize.
Don’t chew gum while you dance (it’s been done); make sure your shirt is ironed and will stay tucked in.
Don’t dance high and slow at the start if you’re then going to struggle to get through the final capers … it’s better to build up the energy, rather than gradually flaking out. And make sure you’ve got a finish, even if it’s just a very big grin.
Don’t get too hung up. In 2008, a certain young man walked on to perform and asked the audience if anyone had seen his musician. She was elsewhere, looking for him. They won.