- Era: 1910s
- Dances: one-step, tango, half & half, hesitation waltz
Why, in fifteen-plus years of dancing ragtime socially, had I never done the eight step? It's not an obscure step; it's the first variation world-famous dance couple Vernon and Irene Castle give for the one-step and is also mentioned by them in their descriptions of the tango, half and half, and hesitation waltz. And yet somehow I'd neither danced it nor reconstructed it until late 2007 when I was looking for interesting one-step moves for some new dance students.
Looking back at the sources, the obvious reason would be that while the Castles were great dancers, they were terrible technical writers, and I could not previously make heads or tails of their description.
The Eight Step
...the gentleman, who should be walking forward, turns the lady so that she is facing in the same direction as himself...They then walk forward two steps on the first step of the figure - the gentleman on his left and the lady on her right. Without loosening the hold any more than is necessary they both turn on the third step, making a revolution toward the inside. After that the arms, which hitherto have been extended straight in front of them, are at the back, and they look over their elbows. Then they walk two more steps, the lady leading with the left foot, the gentleman with the right foot. On the third beat of the music they turn as before, but this time the movement is toward the outside, and again with only an almost imperceptible loosening of the hold. This brings them to the first position of the step, which they may continue any number of times.
Modern Dancing, Vernon & Irene Castle, 1914
The sequence is clearly step-step-turn, step-step-turn. The rhythm is unclear - if each step or turn is one beat, this is a six-beat sequence, which leaves one off the phrase. Likewise, the direction and amount of the turns are completely unclear - how much of a revolution? Turn toward the inside of what? Despite its name, it is not eight steps, nor is it particularly like a figure eight. Fortunately the Castles continue a bit later:
The figure should be danced in a square. If you take the four walls of the room as your guide, you will find the step much easier to learn.
Indeed! Combined with one of their helpful little filmstrip sequences illustrating the move, and their note that this is a move borrowed from the tango, light dawns: the eight step is virtually the same as the move Newman describes in one of his tango choreographies!
The Tango Square
Face outside of an imaginary square, or better still draw the diagram on the floor and start from the upper left hand corner of the square. [N.B.: Newman really means the upper right hand corner of his diagram, shown below.] Step left foot to side (1), right foot crossed in front (2), left foot to side (3), turn a quarter to the right (face inside of square) and lead off with right foot to side (4), left crossed in front (5), right foot to side (6). Repeat the first three steps to left, count (7) (8) (9), then the next three with right foot (10) (11) (12), which will bring you completely around the square in twelve counts or six measures. In this square the lady also crosses in front.
Dances of To-day, Albert W. Newman, 1914
There are some differences. The Castles are clear that both partners are facing the same direction and step forward, whereas Newman describes and clearly diagrams sideways steps done while facing one's partner:
In their description of the use of the eight step in the tango, the Castles seem to agree with Newman:
In the Tango it is exactly the same except that instead of the dancers looking over their elbows, as in the One Step, they remain as much as possible facing each other...
So we have two versions of the figure: the one-step version, with the dancers side by side walking forward either toward their extended hands or over elbows, and the tango version, with the dancers facing each other and stepping sideways.
Performing the Eight Step in the One-Step
Newman's diagram really provides all the instruction needed for the tango (sideways stepping) version; holding the diagram in front of you and matching the gentleman's feet to it will work. Ladies should be sure to always cross in front rather than behind, mirroring the gentleman's steps. Lacking a diagram for the one-step (forward stepping) version, here is a brief explanation of how to perform the step:
Start with partners in ballroom hold but turned so they are side by side facing forward along line of dance, joined hands outstretched in front. Starting with gentleman's left foot/lady's right, take three steps forward. On the third step, the gentleman steps with his left foot forward and slightly around the lady while she steps straight forward with her right foot, causing them to pivot one quarter clockwise. If the dancers then look at their elbows and dance in that direction, they will continue starting gent's right foot/lady's left for three more steps, on the third of which the woman steps left around the gent and the gent steps right forward, resulting in another clockwise quarter-pivot. This completes two sides of the square; if you imagine a diagram, you are starting at the bottom right corner, dancing up the page to top right, and then dancing across the top of the square to the upper left corner. Repeat this entire sequence again to make the full square.
At this point I was sufficiently fascinated by the move to go looking for more descriptions of the eight step. The Castles offer yet another description in a small pamphlet of dances done for a record company:
Cross Eight Swing
Man starts with left foot, woman with right walking forward 1-2-3...both man and woman turning in on third step walking forward, man beginning with right, woman with left walking 1-2-3, both man and woman turning in on third count...walking forward, man with left woman with right 1-2-3.
Three Modern Dances, Vernon & Irene Castle, 1914
The elisions are pointers to frames of another of their filmstrip sequences. Despite the different name and language, it is clear from the filmstrip that this is the same step described in Modern Dancing. The counts given are interestingly unclear - should it be 1-2-3-pause to fit the music squarely (is that why it has the word "swing" in the title, for the foot briefly swinging free?), or simply a 1-2-3-1-2-3 sequence, traveling across the phrase of the music? Newman is clear that his version is the latter, but the former presents the interesting possibility of a dramatic pause at each corner, a variation especially well-suited to the tango.
I was able to find one more description of the eight-step:
The One-Step Eight
The One-Step Eight, so called from the number of beats it occupies, is distinct from the Tango Huit, described later, which describes a figure 8 on the floor. The eight of the One-Step is a simple walk, with turn.
The man's steps are the converse of the woman's; she pivots on her right foot, he on his left foot. Executed in closed position of the couple.
Social Dancing of To-Day, Troy Kinney and Margaret West Kinney, 1914
The Kinneys are not exactly among the shining lights of technical dance writers either - for starters, the move seems to occupy only four beats, not eight. They do provide a diagram; unusually, it shows the woman's steps rather than the man's:
The dancer is moving forward (as the Castles describe for the one-step) rather than the tango-style sideways motion, and the move appears to be the first four counts of the Castles' square figure. Given the unhelpfully brief description it's unclear whether step four is the first step of another three-step "side" of a square (which would give a six-count step, not an eight count one!) It seems unlikely that the move would end with a single step over elbows, but we can only speculate as to how they intended to continue the figure.
Traveling with the Eight Step
Doing the full square figure is not always practical on a crowded dance floor; Newman helpfully addresses the situation:
Note that it is not always practical or even possible to execute these steps in a square formation when the ballroom is crowded. The gentleman must then guide his partner around without coming in contact with the other couples on the floor by turning a little more on every third step and changing the design of the figure. The steps can be done in a straight line if necessary.
The implication of the final sentence is that one may extend the turns from the relatively sedate 90 degrees of the square to a full 180 degrees and travel along the line of dance. I highly recommend this variation - it is tremendously fun to dance at either tango or one-step tempo!
Using the Eight Step in the new waltzes of the 1910s
As with many other 1910s-era dance figures, the eight step moves gracefully from one dance to another. Along with the one-step and tango, the Castles note that
(Click on the quote for a picture of the Castles meditating on the subject while dancing!)
Each "side" of the square would consist of a single "Half step", meaning three steps on counts 1, 4, 5 of the music. The step pattern will be the same as in the one-step and tango; the only difference is the hesitation on beats 2 and 3 drawing it out.
The Castles also describe the use of the eight step in their hesitation waltz, which is danced with steps on four beats followed by two beats of hesitation (two bars total). The description leaves out some important details, such as starting foot:
The Eight Step - in the Waltz
The man, who should be going forward, turns the lady so that she will be facing in the same direction as himself. They do one Hesitation step forward, finishing with the weight on the outside foot--that is, the man on his left and the lady on her right. Without loosening the hold any more than necessary, they both turn, making a revolution toward the inside. After that the arms, which hitherto have been extended straight in front of them, are at the back, and they look over their elbows. Then they walk one step, the man with his right and the lady with her left, and continue the Waltz step with the inside foot. After finishing the Waltz step they turn as before, only this time the movement is toward the outside, and again with only an almost imperceptible loosening of the hold. This brings you to the first position of the step, which you may continue any number of times.
This pattern differs slightly. The gentleman should start on the right foot and the lady on the left. Both take four steps forward, pivoting on the fourth step (gent steps left around the lady; she steps right forward; pivot one quarter clockwise). Then take one step in the new direction (gent's right, lady's left). My interpretation of the timing is would be to do the first four steps on beats 1-4 as usual and that last step on beat 6. Now start a new hesitation step on the gentleman's left/lady's right foot. Step four steps forward and quarter-pivot clockwise again, this time with the lady stepping on her left foot around the gentleman while he steps forward on his right. Step once more in the new direction on beat 6 with the gent's left/lady's right foot. This completes half the square and frees the original starting foot to repeat for a full square.
It is quite possible to do 180-degree turns and travel along the line of dance in either the hesitation waltz or the half and half as well.
The eight step is a beautiful, enjoyable, and sadly neglected step. So next time you get out on the dance floor at a 1910s event, give the poor, overlooked eight step a try!
Special thanks to Irene, Max, and Lynn for being my reconstruction test-victims for the eight step and Abi for proofreading this post!