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What's Your Element?

Some years ago, during a long car trip, a square dancing friend of mine explained how he classified dancers into the four classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. He illustrated his theory with examples from among our mutual friends. I can't quite do that to the members of BACDS (or not by name -- but some of you may recognize yourselves anyway), so I'll try to give you the general idea.

Earth dancers, as you might expect, are solid. Not necessarily slow, but their feet are on the ground. They give weight -- plenty of weight -- and they start every movement at the beginning of the musical phrase (regardless of when, or whether, they finished the previous one). They are completely immune to your mischievous attempts to tweak them off course. They do not do extra twirls, and indeed some of them don't do any twirls.

Earth dancers like to dance with each other or with Water dancers; they get nervous around Fire or Air dancers (though they can be good foils for inexperienced Fire dancers). At their best, Earth dancers can be lifesavers when you are too tired, dizzy, or plain spaced out to do the dance yourself; they are excellent for lending confidence to beginners. At their worst, they can leave you thinking how much fun it would have been to stay home and deal with the dirty dishes.

Air dancers are the opposite of Earth dancers. They drift like a breeze across the floor, touching your hands now and then when it seems polite to do so, but not putting any weight on them; they barely seem to be subject to the laws of inertia or gravity. They never apply any forces that deflect you from your chosen path through the dance, and in some curious way, it also seems impossible for you to deflect them. Perhaps this isn't so curious: as Isaac Newton would doubtless point out, you can't accelerate something that has no mass. (But not all lightweight or slender dancers are Air dancers; see below.) My theory is that they were ballet dancers in their previous life.

I'm not sure whom Air dancers like as partners, or indeed whether they have any preferences. At their best, they are quite graceful, and are remarkably little trouble or effort to dance with. At their worst, they leave you wondering if you have a partner at all.

Water dancers don't just flow, they believe in flow and live for it. They probably do start every movement at the beginning of the phrase, but you can't tell, because they blend their moves together so that no single one is ever finished, just continued. Water dancers hate to stand still for more than half a bar, and if the dance requires them to do so, they get this vaguely uncomfortable look on their faces, or start swaying in random directions just so as to be moving. They also don't like to move fast, unless given several beats in which to speed up and slow down again. Worst of all they hate sudden changes in direction, and will re-interpret the figure to replace these with loops or twirls.

Water dancers are happiest by far when dancing with each other, but will cheerfully put up with Fire partners; indeed, Water dancers sometimes metamorphose into Fire dancers. At their best, they can make you feel as if you are floating through the dance in a much lower-impact way than you had believed possible. At their worst, they can be icily unforgiving of any roughness in your own style.

Fire dancers sparkle and glitter and are full of energy. To them, every dance is an opportunity for daring improvisation, let's see if we can do an extra twirl here (quick now) and too bad about that Earth dancer who only knows one way to go. Many of them wear eye-catching clothes or ornaments, the better to attract an audience. Few and far between are the Fire dancers for whom their virtuosity is its own reward; they need to be appreciated. They vary widely in other ways: some express themselves in flamboyant gestures and postures that dazzle even non-dancers, while others try to improve on the caller's version of the dance, aiming to impress only those who understand how hard this is. You can often tell the latter kind by the puzzled expressions on their partners' faces.

Experienced Fire dancers can have a great time dancing with each other; less experienced ones definitely need someone more predictable as their partner, such as a Water dancer or perhaps even that Earth dancer. At their best, Fire dancers can make you shine with reflected glory, or glow with pride; at their worst, you wonder whether they even realize they're dancing with you. Worst of all is when a beginner gets burned.

So what's the good of all this? Perhaps it's just the understanding that the world really is made up of all four elements, and each of these four approaches to dancing has its merits. Maybe it will help you think about your own dancing and how you respond to a particular caller, tune, or partner. Most likely, of course, it will just be another source of gossip and rumor. Because you don't know what element you are; you need a detached observer to tell you. Entrust this delicate judgement only to graduates of an accredited school of Dance Chemistry ... classes start in the autumn.


Copyright (C) 1995 Richard Treitel.

Permission is granted for non-profit folk dance organisations to copy and publish this article provided that the above copyright notice is included. If you're not sure whether your organisation qualifies, please ask me.