Getting ready for social dances: how to read Pilling and cribs


How to Read Pillings​​ Diagrams



The Pilling diagram system was first invented by F.L. Pilling (hence the name); his​​ first edition of the ‘little green book’ dates back to 1955. Since 1967, it has been regularly updated by a committee of volunteers. The book fits in the sporran, and one dance is typically described in one or two lines.





Here are the main symbols:


​​ Allemande


​​ Balance in line


​​ Back to back (‘Do - si- do’)


 ​​​​ Double Triangles




 ​​​​ Repeat previous movement


​​ Right hands across (in French: moulin main droite) / LA = left hands across


 Rights and Lefts (in French: chaîne à quatre)


 ​​​​ Set


 ​​​​ /​​  ​​​​ /​​ ​​ Turn left / turn right / turn both hands


​​ Cross right (X = cross)


​​ Lead down + lead back up, or dance down + dance back up​​ 


​​ Cast off (arrow on top) one place (‘1’)


​​ Lead (or dance) up (arrow below the figure) one place (‘1’)


​​ Turn corner, partner, corner, partner


​​ Grand chain

​​ Set (‘S’) to first corner (square angle on this side)


​​ Set (‘S’) to second corner (square angle on this side)


​​ Six hands round and back​​ 


​​ Half six hands round to the left (any symbol with a line​​ across the middle signals that you only dance half the formation. The tail indicates the direction for entry into the formation: here it is half a circle to the left)


​​ Half (because of the line across the figure) a diagonal reel of four


​​ Reel of three​​ on the lines (the tail gives the direction for the first man or woman. Here, the first man or woman is in the middle facing 3rd​​ position, and gives right shoulder)


​​ The symbol at the top signals that the 1st​​ man is on the ladies’ side (and therefore 1st​​ woman is on the men’s side).


​​ Reel of three across


​​ 2s, 1s and 3s advance and retire

By convention, men are circles, women are squares.​​ 



​​ Clap




Example 1:



A note about the title line: ‘J32’ stands for ‘32-bar jig’ (a reel is​​ indicated by ‘R’, a strathspey by ‘S’). Each box represents 8 bars of music. Where relevant, the top of the set is to the left, and the perspective is from the men’s side.​​ 

When no indication is given for a one-couple formation, only the 1st​​ couple is dancing.


The dance reads as follows:

Bars 1-81s cross giving right hands, cast off one place, cross giving left hands and lead up one place (it could have been ‘dance up’; this is specified by the full instructions for the dance).

Bars 9-16 ​​ 1s dance 4 hands​​ round and back (the formation therefore involves the 2s)

Bars 17-24 ​​ 1s lead (as specified by the full instructions) down and back up (it can be deduced that the dancers lead down for four bars, and up for four bars)

Bars 25-321s dance a poussette (therefore involving the 2s again). It can be deduced that on bar 24 (last bar of the previous phrase), 1s remained in the middle of the set and 2s stepped in, in order to be ready to dance the poussette.



Example 2:



Again, this is a 32-bar jig (‘J32’).

The dotted line within a box indicates half a series of 8 bars, i.e. 4 bars of music. The dance reads as follows:

1-81s dance right hands across (which has to be with the 2s), then 1s cast off one place WHILE (the accolade means that the two​​ formations are danced simultaneously) 2s lead up one place. Then 1s set.

9-161s dance double triangles (thus involving the 2s and 3s). This implies that the 1s will have finished the previous 8 bars back to back in the middle of the dance, ready for this​​ formation.

17-24 1s dance reels of three across (therefore involving the 2s and 3s again), 1st​​ man (symbol of the two circles) with the 3s, and so 1st​​ woman with the 2s. The tails give the general directions of the reels.

25-32The dance finishes with the​​ 2s, 1s and 3s (who are now in this order, i.e. with the 2s at the top of the set) dance six hands round to the left, then the 1s cross giving right hands. One can deduce logically that the 6-hands-round formation takes 6 bars of music.



How to Read Cribs



Cribs are a different encoding system, based on words and abbreviations. Here is how to read Charles Upton’s Minicribs; there are now other, slightly different cribs, such as those by Keith Ferguson.


Let’s start from an example:

THE STARRY EYED​​ LASSIE ​​ (J8x32) ​​ 3C (4C set) ​​ M Sprague ​​ RSCDS Bk 23

​​ 1- 81s+2s dance RH across, 1s cast down 1 place & turn about for Double Triangles while 2s lead up

​​ 9-162s+1s+3s dance Double Triangles, ending 1st Lady between 2s & 1st Man between 3s facing own sides

17-242s+1s+3s dance RSh reels of 3 across, 1s end in 2nd place opposite sides

25-322s+1s+3s circle 6H round to left (6 bars) & 1s cross RH to 2nd place own sides


- How to read the title line: the line specifies:

  • the name of the dance

  • the type of dance​​ and number of bars and times through: here, ‘J8x32’ means that the dance is a 32- bar jig danced 8 times through

  • the number of couples involved to dance it once through (here, 3 couples) and the total number of couples required to make up a set (here 4 couples)

  • the name of the deviser (here, Martin Sprague)

  • the book in which the dance was published (here, in book 23 of the RSCDS)


- How to read the instructions for the dance: the instructions make relatively easy reading. Here are the main abbreviations:

RH: right hand / LH: left hand

RSh (here, RSh reels of 3): right shoulder / LSh: left shoulder

2H: both hands (e.g.​​ turn partner 2H)

6H round: six hands round (= circle involving 3 couples)


© Laure Gardelle, RSCDS Lyon Branch - 2016