Houston Area Traditional Dance Society

Contra Dan's Rehearsal Review: Jigs

Houston, we have a problem: our jigs tend to plod.

Basic Solution: less emphasis on the downbeats and more emphasis on the offbeats. To add even more lift and energy, also put some space between the notes.

I'll offer several examples using Captain Nemo, but the principles apply to all jigs that we play.

How to Plod: The rhythm section plays only downbeats

It's easy for the rhythm section to play only on the downbeats. Although that might be fine for some other dance styles where the tune is played at a much faster tempo, such as Irish step dancing or sword dancing, it's undesirable when played for contra at a comfortable contra dance tempo.

Jig with downbeats only

Imagine dancing to that. It's certainly doable, but when the music plods, it suggests to the dancers that they also plod. That's not what we want.

Solution: Rhythm section plays offbeats

For a jig, the offbeat that needs to be played is the last eighth note in each group of three. Or put another way: of the six eighth notes in a measure of 6/8 time, the third and sixth eighth notes are the offbeats.

Example of 6/8 time

For this example we'll have the rhythm section play both the downbeat and offbeat. The exception is the bass, which always plays the downbeat.

Example with offbeats
Jig with offbeats added

That's much better! The upbeats add lift to the music and to the dance. If we stopped here, all would be good. Everything after this is icing on the cake, but sometimes the icing makes a big difference!


Let's try putting a space between the first and third notes of each group of three.

Offbeats separated
Jig with separated offbeats added

It's a subtle difference and a challenge to do, but adds a crispness to the tune and more of a lift to the dance.


Offbeats without downbeats

This is harder. The offbeats need to be crisp, which is not easy for every instrument or player.

Jig with offbeats, no downbeats from the guitar.

Leaving out the downbeats gives a lighter sound, which if nothing else is a nice variation.


Another possibility is to play both the down and offbeats but accent the offbeat.

Downbeats and offbeats with offbeats accented
Jig with offbeats, no downbeats from the guitar.

Add a drum

A drummer plays both downbeats and offbeats and can easily separate notes and/or accent the offbeat. However, having a drum is not an excuse for the other rhythm players to slack off!

In this example, notice how the drum plays triplets when the melody comes to a stop every four bars. Although the melody rests, the tune and dance can't, and this is a good way to keep the drive going through the melody's siesta.

The drum is not limited to playing triplets only every four bars; it's fine to mix it up a bit. The one taboo: the drum should not play the rhythm of the melody throughout.

Jig with offbeats, no downbeats from the guitar.

Best of all worlds: The melody players do their part

In all previous examples the melody was played with no separation between notes, and the rhythm section was solely responsible for lifting and driving the tune. Sometimes that may be what we want—a smooth, connected, slinky melody over a driving or bouncy rhythm section.

But what if the melody players separated most of the notes? Bear in mind that there are times, especially in reels, when slurring or connecting notes is necessary or musically desireable.

This last example has all instruments putting space between notes, and is a complete change from where we started.

Complete score as a PDF.

Hope This Helps!