Step Change

New views on Traditional Dance - Georgina Boyes, editor

Francis Boutle Publishers ISBN 1 903427 09 6

Even teachers of mainstream dance forms complain that there isn't all that much interesting written about dance - so how much more so is it true about traditional dance?  And this country supports only a small band of writers and researchers with the academic skills and the dedicated time to support a continuing dialectic around our traditional dances.  So this collection of essays considering issues around Morris, clog, sword, Molly and social dance is enormously welcome.  Cover pictureConference papers, monographs, and articles in journals such as Folk Music Journal keep debate and research alive, but a collective publication such as this helps us to see which way the broader stream may be flowing.

'The study of traditional dance has changed dramatically over the last ten years, bringing in previously unregarded types of dance and challenging the assumptions of the early Folk Dance Revival' claims the back-cover come-on.  However, (as is acknowledged in the book) the seeds of the scholarship flowering here were sown longer ago than that, reflecting attitudes that were certainly developing in the 1970s, and that perhaps had their first consolidation in the Traditional Dance Conferences of 1981-4 organised by Theresa Buckland, one of the contributors here.  What has happened, by now, is that a critical mass has been achieved and perspectives and historiogaphies can now emerge that put the work of the last 25 years into focus

One of the problems of studying dance is the difficulty of notation and the availability of notated text for comparative study; song and music have widely disseminated and understood systems of notation that make comparative analytical work on examples easy and useful.  Until the advent of film and video it was difficult even to notate dance (systems do exist, certainly), and little use has yet been made of video, to the best of my knowledge, as a tool for comparative textual analysis of dance.  Thus, most academic study of dance has tended to concentrate on the function of dance and the social and cultural position that it has occupied.

This is certainly true of the present collection of essays.  Apart from some brief and very generalised descriptions of Molly dances as loosely adapted social dances, and passing classifications of clog dances into broad categories such as schottische, waltz and hornpipe, there is no description whatever of any of the dancing considered.  The focus is either on how the dance operated socially, or how the dance has been studied, and how opinions have been formed and propagated.

I can't claim to be able to engage in academic debate with a range of expert authors; but I will certainly commend the whole as a fascinating read for all people with a serious interest in understanding traditional dance and how it has operated during the 20th Century.

The first article is English Sword dancing in a European context by Stephen Corrsin, an American Scholar with particular interest in Sword dancing and in the effects of ideologies upon the study of traditional dance forms.  Establishing the English study of sword dancing through Sharp and E K Chambers, and comparative European work by R M Dawkins, Corrsin moves on to look at German and Austrian visions of the sword dance as a characterising motif for Germanic nationalism over the centuries, and culminating in its appropriation by National Socialism via the work of Richard Wolfram.  The essay is a convincing brief historiograhy of the ways in which a dance form has been academically and politically interpreted, and is a useful keynote statement for the present collection.

In the area of study of sword dancing as a male social-group activity in England, a potentially interesting text which has not been referred to is Cindy Shugrue's doctoral dissertation at Sheffield University (unpublished, 1988) which examined the history and present structure of Grenoside longsword team.

Prof Theresa Buckland's article discusses Ownership and control in an English dance custom, taking the example of the collection and would-be validation of the Bacup Coco-Nut dance initially by Maud Karpeles and later by Douglas Kennedy.  It is a focussed and detailed account of the process by which a self-appointed arbiter attempted to gain rights to a traditional event, and the agreements by which the owners of the dance tried to retain their rights and control, while still giving their tradition additional exposure and status.  Prof Buckland has a long personal association with Bacup herself, and is well-placed to provide a sensitive and detailed account.

Elaine Bradtke contributes Molly Dancing: a study of discontinuity and change.  The first part of the article gives a general history of the development of Molly dancing in Cambridgeshire up to its near demise in the early 20th Century, perhaps emphasisng the riotousness and misrule aspect more that others have; the second part of the essay, however, takes on the interesting challenge of presenting recent events from a historical perspective, trying to give a coherent version of a selection of events that many MT readers may well have participated in themselves.  Describing the revival of Molly from the 1970s onward, and using The Seven Champions side as her cornerstone, she still has access to memories of specific acts of dissemination - workshops, festivals etc - and even includes references to a group in the USA learning a couple of dances from videotape.  Her style is factual and apparently dispassionate in keeping with the rigour of current academic practice.  What of course is interesting in the inclusion of an article of direct primary research in a collection such as this, is how will this study appear in a hundred years time, when subjected to the kind of historiographical scrutiny such as applied in Stephen Corrsin's article?  Fascinating …

Caroline Radcliffe's account of The Ladies' Clog Dancing Contest of 1898 is a rivetting piece of newspaper research that reminds us, perhaps for the first time, just how important important women clog dancers were on the stage.  The 'Great Tradition' of clog dancers is often perceived as predominantly male - Dan Leno, Charlie Chaplin, Norman Robinson, Sam Sherry, Johnson Ellwood, Jackie Toaduff - but this research puts beyond doubt that women dancers had starring roles on the Victorian and Edwardian stage.  There were, of course, many women clog champions, and many of the tradition-bearing researchers and teachers were likewise women - Sally Nutter and her daughter, Pat Tracey; Violet Marhoff, Marion Cowper, and many more lost to our knowledge.  To which we should probably add that most of our best contemporary clog dancers are women.............

This is a well-written and readable essay, full of fascinating information, and with lots of valuable contextualisation and background, and which quotes my favourite literary description of clog dancing - from Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger - "The clog, the very emblem of servitude and the squalour of brutalised poulations, was changed, on the feet of this favourite, into a medium of grace…." However, there are a few points that, while not wholly inaccurate, are not expressed as clearly as could be desired in an academic context.  For example, Pat Tracey certainly does illustrate steps which imitate and are named after cotton-weaving technology; however, these are not 'common to all dances'; and Bill Gibbons danced in time to the rhythm of the boat engines, rather than 'imitating' it.  I also think it may be contentious to claim that most steps used on the stage originated in Lancashire: the North-East and the Lake District have contributed much.  And although the claim is made that most stage dancers were from Lancashire, the list of names includes only two out of eleven from there.

And who won the Contest?  Step forward Minnie Ray from Manchester, with Miss Liscombe from South Shields 'an easy 2nd'.

'A Very Celebrated Banbury Character' : Reconstructing working class biography - the case of William 'Old Mettle' Castle is another piece of classic newspaper research, building up a picture of the life of 'Old Mettle' using (almost exclusively) contemporary reports from a variety of sources to build a documentary biography.  Born around 1793 and living until 1841, William Castle had a colourful and eccentric life, and was occasionally known to the law, with the result that many local publications - press, local histories, reminiscences, court records etc - carried frequent references to his escapades.  His relevance to the present collection is that for many years in the earlier part of the 19th Century he was active as fool to a number of local Morris sets - Adderbury, Bloxham and Kings Sutton.  This is an immaculate and detailed piece of research, giving a vivacious and pell-mell story through a multi-facetted prism; in the short introduction Keith Chandler draws attention to the mediation that has already been applied by the contemporary references, and carefully avoids adding a further level, adding only occasion items of factual information that help to clarify details or specify individuals.

There is plenty of detail here to interest Morris enthusiasts; but the main thrust is to further the viewing of the dance aspect of a person's life as part of a wider testament to social history, and to help the imagination to picture, in a particularly intimate way, the tenor of rural life, as lived, in a pre-public transport age.

Allison Thompson's sidelight on Sharp and the First Revival is a new one on me - Meeting the prophet: Cecil Sharp and the English folk revival as seen by Elsie J Oxenham.  Elsie J Dunkerley (who also adopted her father's nom-de-plume, Oxenham) was the author of more than ninety books for schoolgirls and young women, including the 40-volume 'Abbey Girls' series, in which ghastly problems were solved with the socialising and healthy virtues of folk-dancing.  What is fascinating here is that the author was a devoted disciple of Sharp (who actually appears as 'the loved Prophet' and 'the Director'), and that the dance and the attitude is described in faithful and accurate detail, and with a prescriptive certainty for style.  A wonderful section is quoted, where a group of e-ceilidh roughs invade a D4D gig:

Couldn't they hear the beat?  Or had they never been told?  But worst of all, there was no sense of beauty in anything they did; it was all just a game.  They took stately dances like "Hunsdon House" and "Oranges and Lemons", and raced through them at double speed, they left out "honours", messed up their heys, cast off all over the place, turned their backs on their partners in siding, and, of course, their setting was dreadful; there were several distinct varieties, and one girl was most particular about pointing her toes.
Allison Thompson's explication of the work is clear, unpatronising and engages with the books on their own terms, and enables us to get a very clear feeling of the motives and emotions that drove much of the First Revival.  What it doesn't do is to analyse the socio-political assumptions of the author and the revival.  This, of course is widely done elsewhere; but to omit the view from the late 20th Century does give the article a somewhat cocooned feeling.

The final article, by the editor of the volume, Georgina Boyes, is a confident commencement on the rehabilitation of the reputation of Maud Karpeles.  Pulling no punches, Boyes turns the searchlight on the internal politics of EFDS/EFDSS during the second quarter of the century to understand how one of the most thorough and forward-thinking of the earlier collectors and administrators ended her life with a reputation as the upholder of the more retrogressive aspect of the mid-century society.  The mid-century, of course, is the time when many of today's academics and practitioners were first becoming aware of traditional music, and the structures that surround it, so it is appropriate that this generation should now examine the prevailing opinions of that time.  Also that enough time has passed for us to begin to separate the achievement of the work from the perception of the personality.

Some of the claims made - and they appear to be well backed up - seem genuinely shocking, such as the influence of Rolf Gardiner, or the sidelining of Karpeles from the end of the 30s; and without doubt, Karpeles' achievements in the field are shown to be enormous.  The story also prompts a re-reading of the curiously detached obituary in Folk Music Journal, written by her brother-in-law Douglas Kennedy, a former director of EFDSS , which concludes that "For me her opinions and attitudes were at times too rigid, and I was never in doubt but that I had married the right sister…."  This article makes the case for a longer study of her life and work.  Funnily enough, it is also a timely reminder that in recent years, we have been seeing further by standing on the shoulders of giants, flawed though some may now seem to be.

The illustrations throughout are fascinating and appropriate, if slightly grubbily reproduced.  Some are familiar, like the Homer Sykes picture of Bacup, part of which is also used on the cover, and that of GB Shaw and Maud Karpeles; some are original and others, I guess, are newly turned up - some great pictures in the clog article.  There are rather more proof-reading oversights than their should be in an academic publication.

The imprint, incidentally, was new to me, and seems to be one worth watching.  Clive Boutle, the publisher, is an antiquarian bookseller and enthusiast who has started his own imprint.  The catalogue now extends to more than twenty titles, many of which appear to fall in the area of social, cultural, regional and local history, and give a voice to offbeat projects that may find it hard to find a home with conventional publishers.  I understand he is (or has been) actively involved in traditional dance, though this is the only music or dance title to date.  I spotted another title from FB on a stall at the English Country Music Weekend at Stowmarket recently.

If you're interested in dance, this is worth the money.

Published by Francis Boutle Publishers, 23 Arlington Way, London EC1R 1UY   Price £10.00

Barry Callaghan - 11.7.01

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