Dance rhythms fight back: the 9/8 hornpipe

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The Serag's Hornpipe, from 1721 (17th edition) Playford

A while back I started collecting examples of ‘dance rhythms to annoy your music teacher with’. Nothing makes me more frustrated than the term ‘dance rhythms’. There are several generations of dance teachers who’ve been told somewhere along the line that a hornpipe goes like this, a waltz goes like that, and a tango goes like that. One of the reasons that music for ballet classes is so often as terrible as it is, is because pianists try to recreate music based on these formulas, and then this music becomes the model by which the theory is ‘proved’ and exemplified. For some reason, whoever started this decided to ignore all kinds of uncomfortable truths about dances that were really danced, as opposed to being clapping exercises.

For this reason, one of my favourites pastimes is to collect examples from the real world of dances that buggers up the theory. Here’s a nice one from the 17th (1721) edition of Playford’s Dancing Master, a hornpipe in 9/8. Stick that in your hornpipe and smoke it.



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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist