I have a feeling that, along with music, all human cultures have some form of dance – well, all human cultures except me… Until now?
This blog has documented a few encounters between my body (and the passenger mind) and the general concept of dance, with various attempts at vaguely rhythmic movement while music is occurring in close proximity. These are generally sabotaged by my tendency to over-think things coupled with my status as a klutz. Nevertheless, one should not be put off by the first few (or indeed, many) failures – if all else fails, one must merely redefine the parameters of the whole concept of dance and then attempt to enforce these on the wider population (by brutal military conquest, if necessary).
I had a tango lesson about a decade ago, so on my typical form another lesson is due in the mid 2020s. Sometime around the turn of the millennium (the most recent one), I went to one (maybe two) ceilidh(s) (I strongly suspect this is not how a Gael would form a plural) in that hotbed of Celtish culture: Camden Town. I remember these as being enormous fun and I clearly remember winning a box of porage oats which I carried proudly home on the bus (134 or 43): what I don’t recall is how I won these oats, but I like to imagine it was for my prowess on the dance floor.
If you now turn your mental clocks forward to the start of this summer, a friend and I went to a ceilidh in Winchester – in the rather grand surroundings of its Guildhall with the excellent Threepenny Bit providing the tunes. Despite being ‘called’, i.e. someone with a mike telling you what to do, this was not an unmitigated triumph. There seemed to be quite a bit of jargon and I feel things went badly wrong when multiple willows were being stripped in at least two directions at the same time. At this event, a number of flyers were available (I suspect pushed on unsuspecting attendees) one of which was for an organisation named FASH (less sinister than it sounds) which seemed to promise potential learning experiences for the novice dancer in the autumn (and beyond). My friend and I resolved to attend the first of these and try and become less embarrassing (and embarrassed) participants in future ceilidhs. This was quite the commitment as it promised 5 hours of dancing with only an hour off for lunch – an exhausting prospect – but fortune favours the brave (allegedly)!
The summer whirled by and all too soon 8 October arrived. My friend and I headed to Twyford and its Parish Hall, wearing loose clothing and comfy shoes, in the hopes of becoming the skilled (or at least marginally less useless) dancers that I felt was what destiny intended for us.
As at Winchester, I knew some of the band – Mrs Savage’s Whim on this occasion (the precise nature of her whim remains unknown, but it is commemorated in dance) – but this did not entirely compensate for two minor problems with our plan. Firstly, the session related to English folk dance which has some importance differences to the form of dance that the Scots (and wannabee Scots) practice at a ceilidh. Secondly, whilst the day did have an educational element it was to teach different interpretations of a number of dances – not to handle the needs of a pair of complete rubes!
It would seem that much of the canon of English folk dance comes from The English Dancing Master written (or at least assembled or claimed) by one John Playford in the 17th century. This is a splendid resource, but was written for an audience well-versed in the dance of the day. As a result, it is (to put it kindly) exceedingly unclear to the modern reader, lacking access to a TARDIS, how the dances worked. Various people have attempted to put some clarifying flesh on Mr Playford’s terpsichorean bones, meaning that there are several competing forms of each dance. Our day in Twyford was designed to explore these variations by means both scholarly and physical. This had some advantages for the novice as we had a chance to try each dance several times, but also the disadvantage that on each run through the dance had changed from the previous iteration in subtle (or rather substantial) ways.
This description might make the day seem like a write-off, but nothing could be further from the truth. The good folk of FASH could not have been more welcoming to the two incompetent cuckoos they found, unexpectedly, in their nest. I do have the feeling we may have been the first new blood seen since the end of the Peninsular War! They were so patient and helpful with us, that in almost all cases we found ourselves reaching at least modest mastery of each dance and its allotropes. I think we might also have provided a useful ‘excuse’ for the regulars to ask the caller to explain a particularly abstruse element of his dance plan again. Still, by the end of the day, despite exertions both mental and physical, neither my friend nor I needed a stretcher. We both left invigorated, feeling like we understood far more of the basics of English folk dance (and by extension more of ceilidh) and having had a great time and keen to return to the (folk) dance floor.
My opportunity may come this Sunday, when I have been invited to a Morris Dancing Taster Workshop. I think I have been promised sticks (or at least stick!) which is a major incentive: who could say no to dance with a weapon! There is a certain degree of challenge returning from Lewes (where I will awaken on Sunday morn) in time, as there is a replacement bus service operating between Angmar and Barad-dûr: something about Nazgûl on the line. (OK, the engineering work is between Angmering and Barnham – but how often does a chap get to reference the Witch King of Angmering?). Not sure I will ever go ‘full’ Morris – it does seem to come with rather significant laundry obligations – but it should be an entertaining afternoon and some useful exercise and offer further grist to my dance-mill.
So, if in future should you hear the sound of bells, be prepared to duck as a big stick may not be far behind!