A townsman’s life is even,
Like the dust upon the road;
Not changing with the seasons—
Just fortune’s fickle load.
But sitting on my step
And bending hide and thread to task
I saw the first man walking,
I saw the first man walking.
I saw the first of many walking past.
I love this song, the music and the message, and it was only a few measures into my first hearing that I was seeing dimly the dance hiding behind it all. The music set the frame for the dance, five strains, each four triple-time measures long. But what should those four measures hold?
The song itself is written in the style of the songs of the Sephardim, of Andalusian Spain, with echoes of Arabic music driving the tune forward. This gave me both the period and cultural clues as to what might be most appropriate.
Early dance divides itself into two camps, the one courtly, often done to instrumental music, and called the dance, the other popular and social, done to vocal music and called carola or carole. This carola was also most often identified with line dances and with circles which result for joining the ends of lines together.
Given past work on line dances which use the pattern of one single to one double, I at first tried to force this on Santiago, but to no avail. Even ignoring the phrasing of the music, which appears to have been a common practice with these sorts of dances, it just would not parse.
Then it hit me to look at other dances that used triple-time music with singles and doubles, and by virtue of corrupting the bassadanza I came up with my answer. I say corrupt because in the bassadanza two simples take the same time as one double, two steps to three, but I decided that I needed more distinction between the two and set one single an entire measure in which to be done, and doubles the same. At that point my original goal of pairing one single with one double could be accomplished, with the pattern of: single, double, double, single—except that treating the doubles like bransle doubles of just three steps--well, it was falling apart again.
Then the song, not to be denied its dance, struck again, doing its best to determine not just the steps but the way in which they were to be done. The phrases began and ended with music that begged the singles to shoulder shade, to sway. The music for the doubles in its time begged for the dancers to travel, and there was only one way to accomplish that. Instead of being anything like later doubles these turned from two phrases of three steps each into a single phrase of six steps, done as a grapevine: left, before, left, behind, left, before, followed by the coda of the final single. That final single, to the left, dictated that the first single should be done to the right, not only to balance the two singles, but also to give a tip of the hat to the folk dance tradition of dances starting to the right and at the same time to blur the ends of the phrases by tying what could be take to be a single dance phrase over the end of the musical phrase, unifying the dance as a whole.
Six people helped me guinea pig this at Pennsic 2005, which is where the grapevine standardized by beginning left/before instead of left/behind. The dancers’ feet just naturally fell into left/before, and I only fight the inevitable when I’m feeling particularly martyr-like. Today was not the day.
So, this gave me the final dance:
Slow single right – in three beats
6 grapevine steps left – in six beats
Slow step left – in three beats
It worked, it was easy, it evoked the music and the intent of the song, and it answered something that I have been trying to incorporate into my line dances, community acting together towards a single goal, dance ordering society as Arbeau maintained it should.
And so I laid my work aside—
The day’s long toil would keep
For what was said? “A man must sow
If he intends to reap”?
And so with a laugh
I set to putting blisters on my feet
As I joined them on the road to Santiago!
Note: Bridges in the recording were kind in that they were also built in multiples of four measures. The only exception is the long bridge after the fourth verse which is twenty-six measures long, six times through the dance and two measures to do an extra two singles.