About the Language of Folk Dance

Like many areas of life, folk dancing has its very own language that can baffle the uninitiated. A good caller will explain these phrases to a new crowd but where there are novices and experienced dancers together the temptation is to cater for the latter and ‘expect’ the former to know instinctively what is being said. I know this because I was that novice once! Now that I am a caller I occasionally fall into the same trap.

Find below some of the more common terms used that will help you navigate your way around the dance floor (hopefully) frown-free. From there you will quickly pick up some of the more common dance ‘moves’ or figures.

I am a great believer in not reinventing the wheel and so I direct you to some of the great websites out there which explain in greater detail other terms commonly used – check them out from my ‘links’ section.

The Basics

keyBefore the music starts the caller will go through the entire dance until everyone knows what they are doing! This is called the ‘walk-though’.

When a caller announces a new dance they will ask dancers to arrange themselves in a certain shape – a group of dancers on a dance floor is called a set.

A set may consist of one large mass of dancers (e.g. one large circle) or several distinct sub-groups (e.g. square sets). There are many set formations, some of the more common ones are listed below. To assist understanding I have included a few diagrams to illustrate these, using the key  above to help you.longways set

This is a longway’s set (right) of 4 couples. It comprises of dancers facing across the set with their partner opposite them. Note that the top of the set is always nearest the band/caller, and the bottom is furthest away.

A longway’s set may consist of a limited number of dancers eg. 3, 4 or 5 couples or may be unlimited, with as many as want to dance joining the line.

Gentlemen traditionally stand on the left of their partner and on the left hand side as they face the band when in a longway’s set.

Often in large longway’s sets, couples will dance in groups of 2 couples all the way through the dance (i.e. sub-sets will form with groups of 4 people).  To achieve this, at the start of the dance the caller will announce “take hands 4 from the top” meaning the top 2 couples join hands to form a 4 person sub-set. Other couples then follow their lead all the way down the line. This initial hand holding only serves the purpose of identifying which couple you are dancing with! The couple in each sub-set nearest the band are usually called ‘Couple 1’ while those furthest away from the band are ‘Couple 2’.

a longways improper setIn the set pictured left, every other couple in the line has swapped sides with their partner – the set is now described as ‘improper’. To further complicate things, some longway’s formations will have couple facing couple up and down the line rather than across the set – this will be explained to you during the walk through.








Another set formation is the square. Four couples position themselves around an imaginary square, one couple on each side of the square. square setThe man always stands to the left of the lady.

Each couple usually has a label. ‘Head’ couples face to and away from the band, ‘side’ couples face across the room. If each couple is numbered, couple 1 usually has their backs to the band, numbering then passes anti-clockwise around the set.

The person standing alongside you (on the opposite side of you to your partner) is called your ‘corner’. Your ‘opposite’ is the person standing directly opposite you.







circle set

A circle set (left) is one of the easiest dance formations for us to imagine – everyone has danced the Hokey Cokey before! Couples form one large circle facing inwards. As usual, the gentleman has the lady to his right.













More complicated than a circle is the ‘Sicilian’ circle. Strictly speaking this is a double circle dance. Each couple faces another couple around the room. Those facing clockwise are usually couple 1, couple 2’s face anticlockwise. The gentleman stands to the left of his partner and once again the person standing opposite you is your opposite!

You will progress through the dance in the direction you face, always meeting a new couple coming in the opposite direction. There are many different set formations using double circles and even triple circles. Sicilian circles are some of the most enjoyable set formations in folk dance.

Having got into a set, it’s now time to actually do some dancing. Each dance is split into several defined movements called figures. Spinning your partner is a figure, as is the most well recognised folk dance figure of them all – the do-si-do (the one where you pass back to back with your partner, remember?).

There are literally hundreds of figures, some easy, some more difficult – all explained on various websites (see the ‘Links’ section). But the best advice I can give is to get out and actually learn them by doing them! Far more fun.