Personal Viewpoint

From English Dance and Song Vol XXX1 No 2 Summer 1969

The first of the EFDSS' ten objects (for the other nine write NOW for your copy of 'Memorandum and Articles of Association of The English Folk Dance and Song Society') reads in part as follows: 'To preserve English folk dances .... and to encourage the practice of them in their traditional forms.'

English folk dancing is a stepping tradition (see what Pat Shaw had to say about steps, particularly the 'Walk,' in the last of his three articles on 'The English Country Dance' in English Dance and Song, Autumn 1966, pp. 101-102). The dances we do to a polka, a rant, a hop, a skip and a jump substantiate this by their quality, quantity and variety. Morris would be inconceivable without stepping. So would clog, rapper, the broom dance, bacca pipes jig, and most of whatever is left.

Bearing that in mind why is it that so many of our M.C.'s subscribe to the view that "if you can walk you can dance" and proceed to spend the best part of the evening marching around as if it was the Changing of the guard? They prostitute the tradition and completely change the character of English folk dancing. When they realise it doesn't really work for English figures they have to include a number of American squares and contras in their repertory by way of consolation. Everything is reduced to the level of a mid-Atlantic stomp.

I suppose in an urban-based revival it is not to be wondered at that sophisticated town dwellers are inclined to regard the gallivantings of our rustic forbears as a little lacking in decorum-yet nobody would suggest walking morris figures instead of stepping them although morris was exclusively a dance for the 'peasants' when it was collected. Why then should we want to take the stuffing out of social dancing by doing it to a walking step? Traditional country dancing should be earthy and uninhibited, giving physical pleasure and mental relaxation. It is unnatural and uncomfortable to walk to music under any circumstances and when we do so in dances such as the one we call Circassian Circle (published as the Big Circle and Collected in ranting country) or the one we call Yorkshire Square, quite apart from any traditional considerations, we are depriving ourselves of part of the enjoyment and benefit they could give. We are in danger of turning our country dancing into a mere mental exercise.

It would be unfair to lay the blame for this state of affairs entirely at the door of today's M.C.'s. If we look at what Cecil Sharp was up to sixty years ago we find that he was far less conscientious about the traditional aspect of social dancing than he was about morris and sword. He published six Country Dance Books of which one contained dances from America, while four others were devoted to dances from books in The British Museum. Only No. 1 contained traditional folk dances he had collected in England - in five counties to be precise and only eighteen dances at that. So Sharp can hardly be regarded as an expert on what the English folk were doing in their country dancing at the beginning of the century.

In her biography of Sharp ('Cecil Sharp, his life and work' Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1967. See pp. 106-7), Maud Karpeles makes no attempt to explain or justify his neglect of the tradition in social dancing. What is infinitely worse, as Douglas Kennedy admits on p. 87 of 'English Folk Dancing Today and Yesterday' (G. Bell & Sons Ltd., London, 1964), is that "unfortunately" - the biggest understatement in the history of the revival - Sharp had adapted the dances in Country Dance Book No. 1 to suit young schoolchildren. This meant that there was no standard reference for traditional style, so Sharp and his disciples "evolved a new style of country dancing." An admission like this in what is allegedly a tradition-based revival makes the whole movement meaningless. The Society has never given the tradition a chance.

The time has come to rethink all our ideas about country dancing, and it's up to the EFDSS to cultivate a comparable understanding and respect for tradition as exists in the morris and song clubs. New morris dances are being invented and old ones adapted to suit each particular team's style, and in the song clubs there are many excellent new songs being sung beside older favourites and standing up well to the comparison.

In the same way, once we have got our social dancing on a firm traditional footing (literally!), there is plenty of room for originality and local variations. A lot of fun could be had experimenting with different steps and rhythms for dances which at the moment are walked through. How about ranting American square figures? or skipping through Jack's Maggot? or hopping through Devon Bonny Breast Knot in hornpipe time? It's written as a hornpipe anyway. If you are happier with life at a walking pace then The British Association of American Square Dance Clubs is just made for you. While our Society is still The English Folk Dance and Song Society let's do all we can to fulfil its aims and preserve the traditional character of English country dancing. Dancers of England Unite! Stamp Out The Stomp!!!