The headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society in London has a foundation stone which reads:
“This building is erected in memory of Cecil Sharp who restored to the English people the songs and dances of their country.”
It is dated Midsummer Day, 1929
I never knew Cecil Sharp for he died before I was born, but he restored to me the songs and dances of England. For that I shall always be grateful.
I came into my folk inheritance with the help of many people and I would like to remember them, in pleasure and gratitude.
First, in my elementary school days, I had a teacher who had clearly been caught by the work of Sharp. I remember asking my piano-playing mother (for who would ask the teacher?) what a particular tune was that we heard together at some school function. It was the Headington Morris Dance “Country Gardens” – probably as arranged by Percy Grainger – and my teacher, Violet Bush, played it almost every day as we filed out of the school hall after assembly. She played it well and with enthusiasm. She also taught us dancing – as part of the curriculum – and I remember being uncertain about how I felt about it. After all, it meant DANCING and with GIRLS. Boys did not do that. Reluctantly admitted perhaps, but there were some dances I liked and others I did not. In country dancing we did The Old Mole, Picking Up Sticks, Haste to the Wedding, Black Nag, Gathering Peascods, Bonnets so Blue, Durham Reel, Brighton Camp, Three Meet and probably others. But Violet Bush also taught us Morris—Headington dances: Bean-setting, Rigs o’ Marlow, Rodney and, I think, Hunting the Squirrel—all stick dances. We also did the Flamborough sword dance. I even danced in the school side at a festival or two in 1937 and 1938.
Several years later in 1942, I was re-introduced to English dancing by Lila (Hannay) Fraser whose enthusiasm and high standards made graceful and competent dancing an absolute necessity. Cecil Sharp House was bombed and unusable so there were regular EFDSS Saturday dances (held in the afternoon because of the war-time blackout) at the Swedish Church Hall just off Baker Street. Accompanied by Lila and sometimes by her sister Helen, I met real dancers and real dancing. Marjorie (Kahn) Penn was Organizing Secretary of the EFDSS and often called the dances, but I remember most the incredible playing of Elsie Avril, known affectionately as Ruby, on what she termed her “fiddle”. She, unknowingly, helped me in a very personal way for she said to someone that I “moved like a dancer.” This remark was passed on and gave me courage to persist. It meant, in part, that I moved from the hip and thigh, I gathered. Men dancers were in short supply so when a new man showed up I suppose he was noticed. Later I became enraptured by the exquisite and playful piano playing of Everal de Jersey who played tunes like Orleans Baffled and Beggar Boy with complete authority and beauty while doing The Times crossword carefully poised on her music rest
Other teachers included Marjorie Sinclair, Olive MacNamara and her sister Rhoda, and, very occasionally, Douglas Kennedy. The latter was considered a great treat. All of these people had danced and played under Cecil Sharp’s direction.
The program usually consisted of a mixture of traditional and Playford country dances, and many of the traditional dances were what were then called “polka” dances. I remember being mortified at being invited by Marjorie Kahn to dance The Morpeth Rant (I believe) – a dance whose name and steps I did not know – and to have her say in a disappointed tone “Oh! I thought you would know how to polka”. We now say “rant” instead of “polka” and the step is different –and true to the folk tradition.
While the war was still on there were few men dancers available—although there never had been enough, as far as I could make out—but the EFDSS was encouraged by government to prepare dance programs for entertainment in the public parks. I was invited to be a member of a scratch “demonstration” side. I cannot recall how I was re-introduced to the Morris but the leader of this scratch side was Richard Callender who stood at about 6′4″ and had played soccer for one of the London clubs, had been in one of the crack Guards regiments and had first seen Morris at a vacation course or school at Chelsea Physical Training College. He had been involved in their athletic program in some way unknown to me, and had been walking through the building when he heard the sound of music and bells. Through an open door he saw the Morris and immediately decided, then and there, that it was for him. Poles apart from Douglas Kennedy in many ways, he shared with him a love of the dance, each loving in his own way; as Douglas Kennedy did more and more of the organizing and verbal public presentations, Richard Callender became leader of the EFDSS Morris side and Sword team.
Under the leadership of Richard Callender we began a strict regimen of practices. There were barely enough men at some practices, but I remember that I learned the Newbiggin Rapper Sword dance and the North Skelton Sword dance. I later learned more of the latter from the traditional melodeon player from Skelton, George Tremain, who used to play very fast – a speed I was not used to, at all. I later learned that locally he was always known as Trampy Tremain
The Morris “program” that Dick Callender had chosen was, as I recall, Brighton Camp (Eynsham), Shooting (Brackley), Trunkles (Bledington—but with galleys not hooklegs), Leapfrog (Bledington), Lads a Bunchum (Adderbury), The Queen’s Delight (Bucknell), Constant Billy (Adderbury), Step Back and Dearest Dicky (Field Town) and some others. All were spectacular—even if I wasn’t—but it was a weird introduction to the Morris and quite contrary to the customary way of the EFDSS which had passed people through graded classes, usually starting with a thorough dose of Headington. I recall some strange little episodes. Waiting outside St George’s Church Hall in Southwark after a practice session for the last bus to take me home (at about 10 p.m.), I was passed by a curious policeman on the otherwise totally deserted street just as I finally learned to polka in the approved Morpeth Rant fashion. I was not arrested—not even questioned, although why not I cannot imagine. It must have looked as if I had St. Vitus’ dance. It might have been communicable, who knows.
Another lesson I learned well was always to have my stick up in Lads a Bunchum (Adderbury) high-clap. I always danced No.2 opposite Dick Callender (probably so he could look after me) and his view was simple: he hit, you had your stick up – and if you didn’t, he hit anyway. That happened once. But only once. He didn’t even apologize.
Leapfrog was another stumbling block—quite literally. No.2 leapfrogs over No.l in the dance and that meant that I went over Dick Callender—at least, that was what was required. Dick made few concessions and bending low was not in his repertoire; getting over him was no easy task. I think that I knocked him over once (that made us even) and walked round him once (which amused the crowd), but otherwise we compromised: I leapt higher.
Our Newbiggin was a wonder to behold. We danced in black knee breeches with white stockings—except on one occasion one of our dancers forgot his white stocking so danced bare-legged. It looked strange even to us.
It became the demonstration side, taking the temporary place of the old Headquarters Demonstration Team (HQD) and we did some good shows—and some good dancing.
As the war came to an end, Cecil Sharp House was repaired and I remember going to its re-opening. Douglas and Helen Kennedy were putting a lot of energy into community dancing—slightingly referred to as calamity dancing by die-hard Playford fans—and into the Square Dance Band. I liked square and what we called Kentucky Running Set but was fascinated, perhaps very privately, by Playford. In any case, Morris and Sword began to be taught again at the House and at vacation “schools”. I remember attending Morris classes with Marjorie Sinclair, who allowed me to call her “Sinner” eventually, with Olive Macnamara, and I also attended schools at Reading, Stratford, Felixstowe, Cheltenham and London.
It was at the Reading school that I met and talked with William Kimber for the first time. I had seen him at a distance two or three times in a large group, but he came to Reading to do some teaching and I was in his Morris class. Dick Callender was also there and after one evening session the three of us went to the local—the name “The Fox and Grapes” is in my mind but it may be wrong –just to have a Morris ale. During the course of a pint or two I collected the only folk-dance I ever collected from a traditional dancer. The dance was “Double Lead Through”—and, in fact, it had been collected previously but, as far as I know, never published. I had never met it before. Anyway, the three of us worked out the figures on the floor of the public bar—Dick being somewhat impressive in size and demeanor made clearing a space quite easy. There was some heated discussion between Kimber and mostly Kimber about whether you advanced first and then retired, or whether you retired first and then advanced. The outcome is about as foggy in my mind now as it was then. At eleven o’clock the pub closed and we all walked (stepped?) merrily back to Reading University where we were staying, and found that we felt slightly hungry, Now, it happened that in my room I had a fair-sized fruit cake, so the three of us carved ourselves large hunks of it and sat and talked to the wee hours. When Dick and William finally got up to leave, William’s eye caught sight of the snare drum that I often played leaning against the wall. Now Willy had been a drummer-boy in the army back in the 1880s and this was too good an opportunity to miss, so he slung the drum round his neck and the three of us solemnly paraded down the hall to their rooms, beating tattoo the while. It was impressive and we may have broken into a step or two of the Wheatley or Bonny Green (or maybe Abbots Bromley?)—I was hazy at the time, so cannot rely on my memory now—but no one opened a door to be impressed by this new ritual processional. We probably woke the hounds of hell . . . . and next morning I would have preferred them, being confronted at breakfast by other dancers with the fact that I was the only person in the building with a drum. What had I been doing? And would I NOT do it again. I could not—would not—say that I may have had the only drum but I wasn’t the only drummer. Dick and Willy just laughed.
I lived in France after the war, mostly Paris, for about two years and met Miss A.M. Pledge who, if she had a first name, never divulged it to me. She was of the May Gadd vintage—and in fact had danced together with Gay under Cecil Sharp. She had lived in Paris for many years, including through the war, but had never been successful in founding a continuing dance group. When I left Paris in 1947 she and the group we founded gave me a beautiful book about Paris and inscribed “from the first Anglo-French dance group”. . . I still have the book. We used to meet every week at L’Atelier du Pere Castor at 131 Boulevard St. Michel in Montparnasse; it was a small group, never more than enough for two square sets, but we did a number of dances from the basic Playford-style repertoire –and I seem to remember The Dressed Ship and Fandango as being favorites. We also did some traditional—maybe half a dozen of the “rant” dances. And occasionally, by popular demand I would like to think, I danced a Morris jig. I only remember one person’s name—that of an anthropologist Jean-Michel Guilcher, who was kindness itself to me. Miss Pledge thought him most important and, indeed, he was or became a distinguished anthropologist and folklorist.
One Christmas I spent in Holland with Richard Callender teaching at a vacation course or school. I think it was 1947 – and I remember doing Ladies Pleasure (Bledington) for the course members. Dick claimed he was too old – and he might also have said that I was too young. Morris may be a young man’s dance – and the young-ness is important but so is the man-ness. I also played the drum there, I recall.
As a result of that experience in Holland (and the recommendation of the Dutch Minister of Education who happened to be present) I was invited by the Control Commission, Germany (as it was then called) to help with re-education courses for what had been the Hitler Youth. So I visited a Jugendhof in Vlotho, on the River Weser, a number of times over a two year period. I taught English dancing and learned German songs. It seemed far removed from the recent war.
What was just as important as the classes I took at the House or in vacation schools, was the dancing with men’s sides that had begun again after the war. I danced with Greensleeves (one of the oldest revival sides, maybe the oldest, and one of the original Morris Ring sides) and later with the newly-formed Ravensbourne Morris Men. Joe Whiddett danced with both sides and his wife, Dorothy, was a member of the “ladies” counterpart of Greensleeves, Lumps of Plum Pudding. I still remember Rhoda MacNamara explaining their name to me with a wicked twinkle in her eye. I envied Joe his musicianship—he played the concertina as well as danced—and he and Dorothy gave me my first set of Morris bells, which I still have. In Greensleeves there were members of the pre-war EFDSS national team (HQD), Gordon Neal and Willie Ganiford—and in Ravensbourne another member, Geoff Metcalf. Seeing Willie Ganiford dance middles in Headington How d’ye do, Sir was sheer delight and I shall always remember Geoff Metcalf doing the Bucknell jig, Bonnets so Blue.
Another member of the EFDSS national team but with whom I danced only occasionally was Ken Constable. He is pictured in Douglas Kennedy’s book “England’s Dances” (inside, but also on the dust-jacket) dancing No.l with a freedom and grace of leg and arm movements that is seldom equalled.
When I went to university I danced occasionally with the Cambridge Morris Men, including Russell Wortley and Arthur Peck, (and more frequently with The Round), but danced with Greensleeves and Ravensbourne when I could in London. The EFDSS had a training course for area organizers and I was tempted to take it—if they would have accepted me—but I was not a part of the pre-war movement and the post-war movement had not taken form—and what I could see of it did not coincide with my estimate of my abilities and interests. I think that I was right in my intuition—which is all it was—but have a twinge of regret that I did not devote my life to the dance. I really did not know enough—but, then, who did?
A couple of incidents I recall with famous people. One was being present (as reserve) when Douglas Kennedy put together a Morris side to show Zoltan Kodaly what English ritual dancing was like—so similar to dancing in the Balkans. I made an effort afterwards to listen to Kodaly’s music, and especially liked—who wouldn’t—the Hary Janos suite; it starts with a tremendous musical sneeze (since in Balkan folklore whatever follows a sneeze will be the truth). I remembered that much later when I wrote the masque John Barleycorn for the Boston Arts Festival (see below). It was frustrating being only a reserve—I only remember one dance, Constant Billy (Sherborne), that was done, the wonderful double stick dance, and I can recall feeling annoyance at being the reserve, acceptance of the justice of it for I did not know the dance well enough, frustration at not having and at not having had the opportunity to learn more Morris, and some confusion about how hard it was to learn and whether, indeed, it was—on some cosmic scale—worth learning. Nobody in my life would have thought it worthwhile to devote one’s life to learning DANCING of all things—or, at least, so I thought. In a way it was a kind of turning point in my relationship to the dance. I went to Cambridge instead.
The other episode was with Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was the grand old man –although anyone who can produce as much music as he did at that time could not be old –and he had some honorific title with the EFDSS. He came to Cecil Sharp House (CSH)—a very rare occurrence—and gave a lecture, after which we took refreshment and had a discussion. I do not recall the subject nor the people present, but I do recall being asked to accompany RVW to Waterloo station where he would take a train to his home near Dorking. It was in my direction but it was an honor to be asked to escort him. He was about 76 years old, an imposing, craggy man, physically dominating, but clearly exhausted by his efforts of the day and evening. We got a taxi outside CSH and took off for Waterloo station—a ride of about about 25 minutes. After a silence, getting RVW’s breath, we talked a little bit about dancing—my dancing and my interest in it; then we lapsed into silence. A few minutes later, I asked something—I don’t remember what— about his Aristophanic suite, The Wasps; he answered, and we lapsed again into silence; then I asked him about his Cambridge days, for The Wasps had been composed while he was at Cambridge; he answered briefly, and we lapsed into silence; then I ventured to say that I was up at Cambridge then. He made some remarks about his experience at the University, and I felt that we had hit on something that might sustain a conversation for the remaining part of the journey. He was, comparatively speaking, quite animated for a minute or two, and then we lapsed back into silence. As I was losing heart altogether and feeling considerable dismay at my own social ineptitude, HE offered something—a question, “What College?” I answered “Pembroke”. He had been at Trinity. And we lapsed back into silence. But we were crossing the Thames and only a few seconds away from Waterloo. I assisted him out of the taxi (for which he insisted on paying, of course) and walked with him to his platform, and saw him onto the train. What I would give for another such opportunity now.
At the Swedish Church Hall and, later, at Cecil Sharp House there were some special people. Lila Hannay, as she was then, and her sister Helen Davis, and Hamish Fraser, Marjorie Kahn, Eileen Sutherland and Elsie Ball, my special partner Joan Killick, Brenda Wall and Freda Pash, and later Bob Parker, Marjorie Fennessy, Ron Smedley. Other people, not so regular, were Derek Frome and Harry Cowsill. Eileen Gunnell photographed me with the National Team at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1948 as the Fool, hoisted at the end of Brighton Camp, and Sybil Lightfoot who was Secretary of the EFDSS was kind to me on many occasions. There were many others. And I do remember one lady, just enough older to make her unattainable, but with the most exquisite face and the loveliest of dark eyes. I did dance with her occasionally, but then, she only came occasionally.
The Stratford “school” was not really a school—it was a festival, and it was Douglas Kennedy’s “new look” for the EFDSS. Dance was to be displayed and shared, it was for participation not for academic study. I enjoyed dancing for myself and for an audience—but I really needed instruction. There was so much to learn and seemingly so little opportunity to perfect, to understand. Many people found the diminution of “standards” unacceptable, but others found the abolition of graded instruction liberating. Stratford pleased me for a particular reason, namely, that I met both Billy Wells, the almost blind fiddler from Bampton, and Sam Bennett of Ilmington. I was not at all sure of Sam Bennett—he did a Broom Dance but it seemed more like vaudeville than ritual dance, but, in all fairness, he was eighty years old, he didn’t have a side to dance with and so he may have been a fine Morris man.
At one of the Christmas schools held at Chelsea Polytechnic (where Sharp had originally taught dance), I recall practicing, with my ever-present mentor Dick Callender, for some demonstration we were putting on and finding that we did not have enough women on hand to rehearse the country dance portion of the program. Dick cheerfully made me dance as his partner—I always danced No.2 in Morris, as I have said, so I was still opposite him—but I was confused. I never danced woman, that is, WOMAN. I felt I should have been outraged—but I wasn’t; I felt my sexual identity should have been threatened—but it wasn’t; it was also a dance I didn’t like too much anyway—Picking up Sticks—so I would have been pleased to sit it out, demonstration team or not. But I didn’t then. I rehearsed with Dick.
Some time during those years I remember going to see Maud Karpeles at her home in North London. I had some idea of putting together a collection of Morris jigs and as I look back I can understand why I wanted to do it. First, I wanted to LEARN more Morris and it was hard to do it—I needed an instructor and a side; but there was no side generally available and The Morris Books by Sharp were very difficult to get hold of and even more difficult to decipher. They were poorly organized and the indices were unreliable; there was no intelligible order . . . and so forth. Second, jigs could be done alone. We talked about it and I went away with a clear view that I did not really know what I was doing. . . and, as it turned out, I didn’t do anything.
Olive and Rhoda MacNamara encouraged me to make Princess Royal (Bampton), my jig, but I never had the opportunity to master it then. Dick Callender recommended The Sherborne Jig (Sherborne)—but he could carry it off. I was not at all sure that I could. But other things—not in my control—took my mind off Morris jigs.
When I first came to the US in 1951 I did enjoy some dancing at the University of Chicago for about a year but then got involved with other things and in other places where there were no dance groups. I did not dance again until I moved to New York in 1959. I had really missed the dance and knew vaguely of the existence of the Country Dance Society. I phoned and went to the Metropolitan Duane Church on 13th Street where they danced and met May Gadd—about whom there was nothing vague at all. After a short time I went to a Hudson Guild weekend and remember dancing Lads a Bunchum in my familiar spot of No.2 opposite Bob Hider, and with Ken Knowles and Russ Houghton in the team.
That year I taught Newbiggin at a weekend in Pinewoods, meeting, of course, the Conants. I met Lily on the porch outside the camphouse, I did not know her. But I had arrived early and had to wait for people to arrive, even at the office, so I walked over to look at Long Pond. And there was this graceful and elegant lady calmly sweeping the porch. There should have been “Lull Me Beyond Thee” as background music. We exchanged some pleasantries but not names . . . until later that evening.
That was my first teaching at Pinewoods, but I was invited back that summer and for several summers following. Dancing at Pinewoods, as everybody knows, is magical. Over the next few years, I taught Rapper sword, Long Sword (North Skelton, Sleights, Ampleforth, Kirby Malzeard, Askham Richard amongst others) and Morris, usually the advanced group. I recall we did Field Town, Bledington, Bucknell, Headington, Longborough and, I believe, Sherborne. I think Gay (May Gadd) only asked me to teach country on one occasion. I don’t think that she objected to my ideas of teaching country (she did ask me to give several talks in the morning and evening sessions and to demonstrate) but she thought “it was better if a man taught Morris.” And there were not many men.
The Morris involved people like Arthur Cornelius, George Fogg, Gene Murrow, Peter Liebert, Eric Leber, Renald Cajolet, John Shimer, Shag Graetz, Larry Jennings and many others. Women did Morris, too, including the incomparable Genny Shimer, Helene Cornelius and Sue Salmons—Genny knew far more than I, but attended my classes and was tactfully helpful when I needed it most.
In the midst of all this activity, I danced country and some contra and square. It was only gradually that song, music, square and contra (in that order) were welcomed by Gay into the official canon of CDS (later CDSS) activities. There are so many people to remember but I must record Louise Chapin, Mireille Backer, Nancy Nichols, Josephine Giarratano, the Van Cleefs, the Helwigs, Mary Judson, Ann Soernssen, Ellen Mandigo, Merlin Cajolet, Diane Lockard, Priscilla Raymond, the Houghtons, Dick Forscher, Betty Norton and, for super music, Marshal Barren.
Loking through one of my old Morris Books recently, I came across an old Pinewoods “class list”—it is headed Morris, Ampleforth, John Bremer, Mus?—then the names—N. Nichols, M. Judson, A. Soernssen, H. Cornelius, L. Kulbach, J. Redfield, J .Wilk, J. Shimer, J. Hodgkin, G. Fogg, E. Leber, P. Liebert, P. Rogers, M. Gratz, T. Kruskal. E. Murphy, M. Bixler, M. Knowles. D. Nelson, G. Murrow, I. Calk, G. Shimer. The date is unknown but was probably 1961 and the heading is in May Gadd’s unmistakable handwriting.
In 1961 I was asked by the Boston Arts Festival to write and direct what came to be called “A Masque: John Barleycorn” The dancers were drawn from CDS New York and Boston and the Morris dances included I’ll Go and Enlist (Sherborne), Brighton Camp (Eynsham), Trunkles (Bledington), Shooting (Brackley), The Queen’s Delight (Bucknell), Lads a Bunchum (Adderbury) plus The North Skelton Sword and Rapper, plus the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance music. The country dances were The Morpeth Rant, Cumberland Square Eight, Corn Rigs, The Slip, Greensleeves and Yellow Lace, Jenny Pluck Pears, Step Stately, Haste to the Wedding and Barrack Hill. These were woven into a story which was narrated by John Langstaff, who also sang, with his wonderfully compelling and straightforward manner, accompanying songs—Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron, The Girl I left behind me, All Round my Hat, The Riddle Song, John Riley and the title song John Barleycorn. James Quillian, Walter Lob and Eric Leber provided the music under extremely difficult conditions. Afterwards, Gay asked me to compose another “masque” for presentation in New York. I think that she was somewhat miffed that (a) I—and not her—had been asked to direct for the Boston Arts Festival, and (b) that it was in Boston and not New York. I thought about it for some time and settled upon something based on the May carol “I have been wandering all of the night . . . .” I made extensive notes—then condensed them into a short summary and gave them to Gay. I never heard another word.
I was at Pinewoods in 1961 when Douglas and Helen Kennedy visited and I remember them talking with me about Douglas’ forthcoming retirement and the future of English folk-dancing. They were kind enough to encourage me to be interested in becoming a candidate for the EFDSS director’s position, but I knew that I didn’t know enough to do what was necessary and I was also not sure that it could be my life. I had, I thought, other interests.
John Langstaff’s recordings meant a lot to me through all this time. I still have them—including the tribute to John Powell which he gave me, handsomely inscribed, when I went back to England in 1962. His singing is so honest—and the accompaniments played by Nancy, his wife—that I still delight in them.
In 1962 I returned to England and danced a little, but no Morris or Sword. When I finally returned to Pinewoods in 1984, Shag Graetz was kind enough to celebrate the occasion by writing a beautiful dance called Mr John Bremer’s Return to Pinewoods. It is still danced occasionally in the US. But my work and living made it impossible to take up dancing again, and it only resumed somewhat when I lived in Australia from 1980 to 1983. There was a small country dance group in Sydney (which I ended up teaching) and, of course, the Sydney Morris Men. But I could not dance regularly.
I returned to the US in 1984 and helped the Morris side in Houston, the Shambles they called themselves then, which was great fun and exhilarating. I later worked with Morris men and women in Atlanta. But I knew that I needed more beauty in my life and that English dance could—and should—provide it. In 1988, I heard that there was to be the customary Christmas vacation course at Berea College, Kentucky and that Genny Shimer would be teaching the Advanced Country, so I decided that I would go. I had known Berea people—like Ethel Capps from Pinewoods, and some of the Ramseys had been in my Morris classes so that I would know some people, I thought. It turned out that they had an emergency and needed someone to teach the Introductory Ritual Dance course and at lunch on the first day, John Ramsey graciously asked me to do it. I agreed and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. People were most kind to me and some suggested that I should go to the Nashville Playford Ball at the end of January (which I did), and later went to the Berea Valentine’s Ball as well. I had not danced so much in years. The repertoire had changed and some dances were done that I had not even heard of—but many of them were beautiful.
There was no doubt that it was Playford (or the Playford style dances, if you prefer), the beauty of the melodies and the gracefulnesss of the dances, that attracted me. The Nashville Ball program was most satisfying: St.Margaret’s Hill, Childgrove, The Shrewsbury Lasses, Orleans Baffled, Newcastle, Sellengers Round, Waters of Holland, Trip to Tunbridge, Jenny Pluck Pears, The Corporation, Nonesuch, Knives and Forks, Installation, Take a Dance, Halfe Hannikin, Irish Lamentation, Adson’s Sarabande, Dargason, Well Hall, Drapers Gardens, Hey Boys Up Go We, Hambleton’s Round O, Jacob Hall’s Jig, Sally in our Alley. Who could ask for anything more?
Finding that I could still dance—and, in a way, with more fulfillment—I took courage and decided that I would devote a lot of my energies to dancing again. It chanced that I had to be in Washington, DC at the end of that February and found to my delight that Genny Shimer would be having a workshop on Saturday, 25 February, followed in the evening by a dance. My meetings occupied much of the day but that evening I found my way to a school on the northern edge of the DC area. Knowing hardly anybody I was a little reticent but was talked into dancing Newcastle by one of the organizers “just to make up a set”. To everybody’s surprise it turned out that I knew it.
I think that I have been doubly fortunate: first, in being introduced to the dances of a country with a very long and relatively stable tradition, in which the folk have had time to do their work of beautifying, and, second, in not having any physical injury or handicap. As I have got older, the satisfactions of dancing have changed as my physical abilities have changed—I cannot leap as I used to in Morris but, on the other hand, the smoothness of movement has increased and I probably dance Playford now better than I ever have. I can only recall two injuries, both doing Morris. One was at Pinewoods when I hurt my left ankle after slipping in CSharp pavilion during a final Saturday morning demonstration; it was badly sprained and swelled up to the size of my knee, it seemed, but it got better. The other time was in Australia. I had unexpectedly dropped into the Sydney Morris Men and casually got up to do The Queen’s Delight in loose fitting moccasins—how foolish can one be?—and I capered and my left shoe didn’t. The compromise was painful and I had a long hairline fracture in my left ankle so the x-rays said. I walked with a crutch and then a stick for about three weeks—painfully for the first week, but after that I recovered smoothly. And with no noted after-effects. I do not notice it now.
When my family, the two Annes, arrived in Australia six months after me—the Sydney Morris Men, in full regalia, were at the airport to welcome them. They did The Queen’s Delight and Lads, and I did the Field Town jig, The Nutting Girl. I was Education Editor for The Australian, the only national daily newspaper, at the time, so I was very amused when a reporter, stationed at the airport to gather news for a rival paper, The Sydney Morning Herald, asked me what the dancing was all about. I told him and he got pictures. It was a good story and the pictures were excellent. But finally my better nature prevailed and I told him that I didn’t think that he wanted to have my picture with the Sydney Morris Men all over the front page of his next day’s edition—I was an editor of his competitor. It was tempting not to tell him—what a coup it would have been to have been promoted by the Herald—but it seemed unfair for he would never have been forgiven.
People tell me that I dance gracefully, or move gracefully, and I believe that they think so: they have no reason to lie to me, and it happens much too often for it to be casual politeness. So I suppose that they think so, but it puzzles me. There are things in myself that I am conscious of while I am dancing: the concordance with the music, the smoothness or flow of my body, the willingness and ability of my feet to keep up with my body and to avoid hindering it, the use of the whole body and especially of the arms and hands, I am aware of breathing in time with the music, especially at the beginning—forward and back a double in Playford, or in Once-to-yourself and foot-up in Morris both begin with a preparatory deep breathe-in, an in-spiration; I am also deeply conscious of something akin to what Douglas Kennedy always said for as long as I knew him—that dancing is a movement of the whole body, originating and centering in the chest, the lower chest, that is, and the solar plexus. I am not sure where to locate it, but it feels as if my chest is being borne along—supported by what (air?), but buoyed up by something—and unimpeded in its movements horizontally or laterally, with vertical movements taking place between ground level and the extent to which my muscles will lift me against gravity.
But in this game—and it has a playful quality about it in spite of the seriousness with which I regard the dance—the vitality shows itself aesthetically, as it were, and not athletically. The vital quality is not determined solely by the height of the spring: it is a factor, but not the most signifiant factor. Some dancers just have “magic”—I just do not know what to call it; a graceful concordance with the time and space structures of the particular dance, within the limits of the body’s possibilities, and yet with the hopefulness that goes with the promise of transcending them; it is both an acceptance and a going-beyond. What it is, I cannot say nor have I ever heard it said—and yet I recognize it when I see it, and I believe we all do.
Whether I have that magic when I dance I cannot say. I have always been complimented on my dancing for as long as I have done it, but I am not at all sure that I would like my dancing if I ever saw it. Of course, video makes it relatively easy to see oneself—and yet I am not anxious to do so. And I am not sure why. What would I do if I did not like myself dancing? What would I think about the people who have so kindly complimented me? But above all, I already dance for myself—and I do not mean that I have no care or concern about what others think about me or how my movement affects them—but I know that I am dancing right for me, the best I can do, and I accept that; I would not want to dance knowing that I was on camera, I am not an actor in the sense that I know how and am able to dance FOR the camera. Somehow that seems not right, not honest. If some one videos or films me when I happen to be dancing they will get whatever they get—and it is, in a sense, accidental. There is a part of me that says the dynamics of my movement (and anybody’s movement, but I am talking about me) cannot be captured on film, cannot be captured. It seems quite primitive as I think about this as I am writing it—but I can feel for the “folk” who have been reluctant to be photographed or, for that matter, “collected”.
I do not believe that the true folk were self-conscious, and self-consciousness spoils the dance. There really is something sacred about the dance, and I do not mean an empty universal “dance”, but mean the actual dance that I am now doing. What is the essence of it? There is the “mystery”, and doubtless it is best if the “mystery” goes hand in hand with the “mastery”. But the “mastery” is easy to talk about: I need to know the movements that are possible for my body and within the conventional movements of our society, within the time and space constraints formalized by the music, and within the physical and social limits set by having a partner and other couples to dance with. But this is a not very satisfactory statement—and I even began to get tired of it as it drew towards its conclusion, like a disappointing dance. The formalized constraints provided by the music are not just given—the musician has some latitude in how the music is to be played, the quality of the floor or dancing surface is also variable, and so forth—so that, in a way, the mastery is not so clear cut as I had hoped or expected. I think I should know the tune—and I do know, in principle, that the tune and the dance are inseparable.
I find that I can be impatient with country or contra-dance callers who never tell you the dance name nor let you hear the tune until after they have told you what the dance figures are. It is absurd. The music is more important than the steps and figures. Anyway, I should know the tune and be able to prepare my body to move in cooperation with it—that kind of mastery comes with experience, but is not reducible to absolute rules. But knowing as well as possible the tune and the dance steps and figures does not make the dance; they mark off the limits of possibility within which the dance can be created.
This seems most important to me. Within the limits of possibility, the dance is created. It does not pre-exist, nor is it constituted by the figures and not even by the tune—these are its pre-conditions but they are not its essence. The essence, the mystery, is what I, as dancer, create within those limits. They are the womb or matrix within which life is generated by the people called dancers—but strictly, according to me, if they do not generate the life then they are not really dancers, or are dancers in name only.
In most dances, where there is a repetition of figures, for example, in the successive fours of a duple minor longways-for-as-many-as-will, each group of two couples creates its own miniature life, and then each couple moves on to the next couple, to repeat the process, making a NEW miniature life. But this is more fundamentally true for each individual dancer, who creates with his or her partner something different with each successive couple they meet.
For myself—and I cannot say this is right for everybody—but for myself, I am never sure what I am going to create. I have an obligation to master those things that can be mastered (the tune, the steps and figures and so forth) but they are mastered so that within them I can create whatever I CAN create in the particular circumstances (my partner being one of the most significant of those circumstances). I am not a mass-production machine and my dancing is not standardized—each turn of the dance and each time the whole dance is done is different because it is continually being re-created. And this creation is out of myself.
How to tell the dancer from the dance?
I find that I object to two of the pet principles of some callers and dancers—that we should give weight and that we should maintain eye-contact. I find them mechanical, and as much bad dancing goes on between people staring at each other as ever went on when they seemed indifferent to each other. The simple fact is that eye-contact is only one out of many modes of interaction with and awareness of others. I am always aware of my partner (or at least, I am always aware as long as my mastery of the conditions of the dance is sufficient to allow me to be aware), I know the space she is in and how she is holding her body, and how she is moving and in what direction—and mostly without even looking at her. As I adjust myself to what she is doing (if I am willing and able to do it, if I think it right to do it), then I can certainly share my eyes with her and, she, if she chooses, can share hers with mine. But sharing by looking only has meaning as we share by not-looking. The true dancer, I believe, does both.
The mastery of the dance, this or that particular dance, is the pre-condition for paying full and adequate attention to my partner and the other couples that we meet. Good manners requires that I know the dance—in an ordinary dance setting, not in a class—so that I can share with my partner. HOW I do that, how WE do that, will vary, but if I have to be constantly thinking which foot I should be on or what the next (or, sometimes, the last) figure is all about, then I cannot share, not even if I stare at my partner until she is cross-eyed.
Similarly with “giving weight”. My partner is not a fulcrum against which I lever myself around. Part of my mastery of the externals of the dance means that I ought to be able to perform every single step and figure without ever touching another person. I must master my own bodily control and weight distribution so that I can execute all of the movements by myself. Only then am I FREE to share my body’s weight, and my playing with it, with my partner. I am FREE because I do not HAVE TO DO IT. And therefore it can be creative. If I HAVE to have my partner to act as a fulcrum, then I am treating her not as a human and I have no alternative—I MUST, and that destroys creation.
It is possible to be a neat and tidy dancer and I would not despise that, but it is not the essence of dance. It is the pre-condition of it, perhaps, at least for some people, but it is not the essence of dance. To know the steps and figures and to be able to fit them to the tune is valuable, but it is not enough. The repertoire or range of the dance THEN comes into play. I am not sure that I am a neat and tidy dancer—or, if I am, I do not believe that that is all I am. I certainly hope not. Creation is beautiful—maybe is beauty—but it is not always neat and tidy; there can be a dramatic quality, a certain flamboyance about it—and much else. It cannot be stated, for it will be itself, whatever that turns out to be. But the neat and tidy dance of economy can turn into elegance.
What I have said applies mostly to Playford and Playford-style English country dancing. This is a most subtle and sophisticated art-form which permits and encourages a wide range of communication and sharing but refined to within very delicate small variations of movement and gesture. The same is not true of English traditional dancing nor of American contra-dancing, both of which have vigorous folk qualities inherent in them but which are not sophisticated. This is not a fault in them nor do I mean to be criticizing; it is simply that they are fitted to provide different kinds of satisfaction—and that they make different demands upon us, and give us different opportunities from Playford.
There are many movements and styles in Playford as it is now danced which I do not admire and which are imported from contra-dancing and elsewhere . . . one of the most pronounced is the exaggerated movement of bending towards each other as partners cast away. The movement is performed as if there were only one last, longing moment of acknowledged recognition before oblivion, whereas the whole point of cyclical or repeating figure dances is that we leave to return, and return to leave again. When the bending of the body has added to it the soulful expression of eyes glued to each other and the consequent twisting of the neck so that the head turns and the eyes are held in contact-cement for as long as possible, it appears to me physically ugly, emotionally immature and socially vulgar. This tortuous mode implicitly denies the incredible serenity of the Playford dance world.
It is, of course, play-acting. When I see it, I know that I am not watching dancers, but people who are playing at being dancers. Somehow I feel that is a pity – the dance is self-subsisting, in a way, and it can lift us out of the limitations of our fantasy life into our reality. Play-acting betokens unwillingness to mature—not, of course, any and all play-acting, but play-acting as a way of life. People find satisfaction in rehearsing for the umpteenth time their fantasy of themselves in the dance, but it is using the dance for unnatural ends, just as it is an example, when we do it, of us using ourselves unnaturally.
It seems strange for me to be saying it, but it now seems to me that the dance is our means to self-understanding and maturity, it is the opportunity for us to experience what a mature relation with others is like. This is partly because we are both the medium and the message—there is no separation between means and ends. That is why it is natural. At the same time Playford’s Dancing Master was going through its many editions, Congreve wrote a play called “The Way of the World”; it depicts the relations between people and how they can be structured (in a world of selfishness, greed, duplicity and distrust) in order to preserve the feelings of love that we can have for one another. Playford dances are like that. While we can twist and torment the dances into something else, the fact seems to be that they provide the structures, the formalities which will support us if we choose to be human, if we have enough wit and morality to see it.
Perhaps my insistence upon maturity of relationship in the dance can be misunderstood. Another way of trying to say what I have in mind, is that the dance removes all extraneous elements from the relationship so that it can exist in an ideal or pure form, supported, however, by the orderliness of the music and movements. I suppose only a Platonist could write that, but it is said that Socrates danced regularly until he drank hemlock in his seventieth year. If music is the numbers of the soul, perhaps dance is the numbers of the body.