Why do local English Folk dance clubs fail to excite people? Why is English Country Dance these days generally viewed as dismal, slow and unexciting? A discussion - including a contrast to Irish dance.
NOTE: split this page into several pages sometime. Updated Sept 2022.
Dismal, slow, unexciting and boring?
The image of English Country Dancing (folk dance) is simply one of boredom. I have sometimes thought this myself - and if it were not for attending various dance festivals I might have given up the hobby many times.
The example of Totnes Folk Dance Club, and others in Devon.
One example from my early years as a dancer is a useful illustration of the problem. It is centred upon the now defunct Totnes Folk Dance club in Devon.
In their final ten or more years of existence, Totnes Club was not renowned for liveliness. One evening I drove alone to a Saturday night dance featuring the Dartmoor Pixie band. It was probably around 2007. As usual the dance was being held in the Totnes Civic Centre, an expensive venue with problematic parking in the centre of town. I arrived at the hall a few minutes late. The dance had not yet started.
I looked around the hall for any likely partners. There was an assortment of glum looking couples, all over 80 years old (or dressed and behaving as though they were over 80), sitting as still as still could be. The band was playing. No-one was dancing around the room - not even to the Dartmoor Pixies who are about as 'danceable' as any local band. Further glances around the room did nothing to change my view that I'd be better off at home - so for the first time in a folk dancing career spanning over a decade, I walked out and drove home. The air of boredom, lethargy and overall weariness was palpable. This - so it seems - is also the typical image of English Folk Dance clubs.
Some years later (and to no-one's surprise in the local folk dance world) Totnes Folk
Dance Club closed down after a few decades in existence. The people running it and all or
most of those attending simply got too old and too satisfied with their own increasingly
slow way of doing things - and they never bothered or wanted to attract any newcomers.
Several other local clubs have gone the same way. My local club at
Sidford may soon follow
- as of 2016 it had about 24/28 regular attendees - down from 60 to 70 ten years earlier.
Post-Covid however it is still going, with about 16 to 20 people attending. In the list of local failures can be listed Budleigh, Honiton, Lucky Seven (in south
Devon) and Totnes. Exmouth Folk Dance Club was set to close at the end of 2016 but
was revived for a further year.
Many clubs seem to fail when numbers attending regularly fall below 20. Certainly it is difficult to do some types of dances with fewer than 24 to 30 people. Sometimes a club will dwindle to 8 to 10 members before being wound up - the Lucky Seven was one example. In general, numbers below 20 indicate the club is on life support. Against that, a few small Irish Set Dance clubs and American Square clubs survive on 8 to 10 attendees if they can obtain a modestly priced venue and if they have organisers who are so keenly interested in promoting dance that their enthusiasm rubs off. In these cases, the only cost is often the venue - the organisers provide the PA and do the calling for free and (crucially) the dances are all done is squares of 4 couples so 8 to 10 people is an adequate number.
In one or two cases organisers expended considerable effort to obtain new recruits, in others, the club closed simply because no-one wanted to take over from organisers who had grown weary. This pattern has been repeated across the UK and was a recurrent theme in Set and Turn Single magazine - this ran as a paper edition for 17 years and with some lively cut and thrust debate especially between 2011 and until July 2016 when the last issue appeared. It was replaced by an 'on-line forum' which, to no-one's surprise, has failed to generate a fraction of the interest of the paper based magazine.
Social, Fun and Flirting - the key ingredients?
So why are folk dance clubs in the UK
closing down? One letter in Set and Turn Single issue 74 (from
Tony Weston who says he has been dancing for over 50 years) laid bare the perceived
problems of image. In the next issue a spirited dancer and caller,
Linda Selwood, used three words - social, fun and flirting to say what dance used to be -
and maybe still should be.
It is (I would argue) the latter that is especially missing from so much English Folk Dance despite that (at Chippenham Festival a decade or so ago) a dance instructor taught that dance is in essence flirting - a mating display - as in peacocks. One sensual dance move (if done correctly) is the gypsy (see here for a copy of the instructions from Cambridge) yet I sometimes get abrasive comments from people about 'being too forward' - yet I get more comments from women along the lines of 'how nice to have a man who looks at me properly' - this letter from STS82 gives details. Many women (and men) complain that English dancers refuse to engage with their eyes: instead of looking at their partner they look at the floor.
Quite recently a dance display by a bird of paradise was filmed for the first time for a BBC nature programme. This link might work. Earlier, it was reported:
"Darwin thought that dance was a part of the mate selection process and more recently two groups of researchers (Brown et al., 2005 and Fink et al., 2007) suggest that the way we dance might be influenced by our hormonal and genetic make up, such that we use dance to communicate the quality of our genes to potential mates."
For some years, and especially after I became 'well known' via STS I have experienced hostility to my deliberately outgoing 'style' of dancing - to flirt as much as is reasonable. Yet it is (arguably) what is so much needed in clubs to revive them - and they need new and younger members. In essence therefore it is dancers themselves (or at least some of them) who are imposing a restriction on the 'fun and flirt' aspect of English Folk dancing.
Dr Clio Cresswell (youtube screenshot)
|Flirtation is a key part of
what keeps people young. It has been the subject of numerous 'social science' studies.
What matters here is simply to admit that it exists and that it is a central part of many dance types. One of many 'how to flirt' discussions on TEDx is a talk centred on the HOT APE concept - it is in my view one of the least intelligent of all the TED talks I have ever watched. The presenter received only restrained and polite applause - in contrast to the standing ovations given to many TED speakers. Another woman who gave a 'sexual' lecture devoid of any real content was Mary Roach. - but do watch it if you wish to see a pig being artificially inseminated.There are dozens of similar TED talks, most of them by women and ranging from casual sex through to analysis of marriage.
Cresswell, a senior Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Sydney, gave a more
entertaining discussion of mathematics
and sex - but I doubt her ideas, equations or high heels will ever catch on amongst
At Lichfield dance festival in 2016 veteran caller Mark Elvins stressed the 'fun and flirt' aspect of Zesty Playford dance - as opposed to the perceived formality and correctness of conventional Playford. Playford dances are still well patronised - but it is a genre very much for older people. He didn't get much response from his Lichfield audience. Closer to home, Jane Thomas and Simon Maplesden (both callers at local clubs in the West Country) also often try to inject some light-hearted innuendos into their evenings - Simon sometimes exhorts dancers to 'feel the goods'.
The dullness and inhibition that some self-appointed arbiters of dance etiquette would see imposed on all dance clubs and festivals is in stark contrast to what happened in Ireland (and probably in England) in typically 1910 to 1960.
The 'social' aspect of dance is also important and is arguably a feature that made Gittisham Folk Dance Club so successful in its middle years when it was run by Douglas and Margaret Jones - it was in those days a club where people went to find friendship as well as dance. In the middle years of Gittisham club there were home made cakes and other treats every week - all freely given and eagerly awaited. Other clubs have very little 'social' aspect to them but thrive because they offer so much 'fun and flirt' - jive clubs often follow this route to success being (so I am told!) essentially a 'pick-up joint' and not only for younger dancers. This too has a long history as a part of English Country dance. The potential for song and dance to combat loneliness is also discussed in detail in my summary of folk festivals in 2016 - simply because the ideas occurred to me at a festival.
So - does the image of sheer boredom of English Folk Dance come simply from the lack of willingness to engage in what is a central theme of dance - flirting? It cannot be as simple as that - yet it is in my view a part of what needs to change. Other forms of dance such as jive and salsa that are more outwardly flirtatious used to attract hundreds of people. English folk dance clubs are lucky to attract a single new recruit each year. Contra dance is more overtly flirtatious: it is faster for a start and swapping partners is encouraged. There is also a lot of swinging - which can be done with partners quite close together. It is sometimes hugely popular at dance festivals yet very few local clubs of any size exist in the UK. Of those that do, some have become infected by 'politically correct' and 'woke' ideology that includes gender neutral calling. In this, people can dance whichever role they wish despite their biological sex - and it has become 'impolite' to refer to people as either men and women. Hence they are referred to as larks and robins, or larks and ravens (people on the left and right of a couple dancing as partners). This suits trendy and LBGT people but does not make dance appeal to the vast majority - and some dancers I know avoid Bristol Contra just for this reason. Gender neutral calling is further discussed below.
|One of the most admired and
energetic of English Contra dance bands - Vertical Expression - sell T-shirts
and bags emblazoned with their slogan "Dancing is the vertical expression of a
horizontal desire, legalised by music". Go back 50 or 100 years in England or
Ireland and they would have been banned, ejected from dance venues and condemned by
self-righteous priests. The expression is variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw and
to a US poet Robert Frost (1874-1963). There is even a music video, and numerous historical
accounts of how dance was equated to sin and the devil.
A related problem - highlighted in several places in my dance diary - is that once a dance club becomes 'overwhelmingly slow and old' it is then virtually impossible to attract and keep younger members. Ideally therefore, clubs need to try and attract new and younger members before they reach this 'terminal decline' phase.
Ireland and England - chalk and cheese?
I do both Irish Set Dance and English
Country Dance passably well. What has always struck me is the far greater emphasis on
dance as a part of Irish identity and culture compared to how English Country Dance is
viewed in contemporary England. It is more vibrant, there is more emphasis on teaching and
'getting it right'.
It is also unashamedly a part of heritage - witness the playing of the Irish anthem at the end of most Irish dance weekends - and the display of the flags of both Ireland and the counties of Ireland. There is nothing comparable in England. But why? English Country Dance - if the slow interpretations of the Playford genre are discounted - and if done with some enthusiasm, can be every bit as exciting as Irish Set Dance. Yet there are so few local dance clubs in which you can find good quality fast English folk/ceilidh dance - and many in which you can find dullness and age-related degeneration, often combined with incompetence.
I'm not a dance historian but surely there must be a few clues as to how English dance could be rescued from the doldrums - much as Irish dance in its several guises underwent revivals in the latter part of the twentieth century, and with interest having been maintained to the present day.
More often than not, the church (or people of a church persuasion who see themselves as arbiters or guardians of what is right and wrong) have been at the centre of trying to tell all other people how to run their lives - including which dances they were permitted to do, in which styles and even in which buildings.
|Often their 'moralising' has been presented as a desire to 'protect others' yet so often
seems to have been more of an excuse utilised by 'control freaks' to try and inflict on
others their own narrow minded preconceptions.
Quite recently (2022) 'making people feel uncomfortable' has become the favoured phrase of 'woke' culture - and in universities (to use a parallel description) 'cancel culture' in which speakers are denied a platform because their views might offend some minority view.
This example is from Oxford, another example is Nottingham where the Chief Constable (as was?) decreed that wolf-whistling at a woman (typically from a building site!) would be viewed as a 'hate crime'.
|The police have
embraced 'woke' culture probably because it is so much easier to deal with
trivial issues than address real crime.
No matter that violent crime is soaring, that burglaries are rarely investigated (and very rarely solved) and no matter that vehicle crime costing hundreds of millions of pounds is largely unaddressed - what matters is that people (often women with an oversized chip on their shoulder) should not be made to feel 'uncomfortable'.
In the area of folk dance, what many self-righteous staid dancers seem unable to tolerate is watching so many women having a whale of a time with a dancer who puts far more enthusiasm into dancing than they are capable of doing.
Examples of the 'control freak' mentality from Ireland in the last century are given below.
continues of course in Ireland with their arguably archaic abortion laws - but don't let's
get too far into that argument. A update article on abortion was published in the Guardian
on 24 October 2016.
The author, Una Mullally, a (lesbian) columnist for the Irish Times, argues essentially that the Irish abortion laws (like those recently advocated in present day (2016) Poland for example) have their origins in "Catholicism, misogyny and an obsession with control".
Una Mullally is a brave woman, and not only because of her writing on women's issues. She has also recently described being diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in 2015 - a type usually seen in men over 60. So far she has survived.
This photo is from her twitter account.
A later Guardian article outlined the scale of adoptions forced upon unmarried women by the catholic church even into the 1970s. Access to abortion was also central to a case brought in 2016 in the Supreme Court on behalf of women in Northern Ireland.
More recently of course (2022), ideological Catholics in the USA have overturned "Rode vs Wade", thus ensuring that a world that has far too many people already will have far more, and often born to parents who are less than wholly capable of looking after them.
History - and the 'joy of sets' :
In discussing what can be learnt from Irish dance I'll start with some extracts from a book on the social history of folk dance in Ireland published in 1999 - "The Story of Irish Dance" by Helen Brennan (ISBN 0 86322 244 7). The author describes the brutality of life in Ireland in the 1920's and earlier, the Dance Hall Act of 1935 that did so much damage to traditional Irish dance (the type and in the places where the people wanted to dance and the priests wanted to curtail) and finally the explosion of interest when the sexual side of Irish dance was finally unleashed in 'Riverdance'. It might make you wish to read a copy.....or maybe to see a similar revival in the fortunes of English Country Dance. These extracts are followed by some highlights from a recent BBC TV series - Dancing Cheek to Cheek - the history of dance in England over the last few hundred years.
The following extracts from The Story of Irish Dance are worth reading because they
give such a feeling for the historical context of the revivals. Both these extracts, and
my summary of the BBC TV programmes that follow, highlight that dance has always been
beset by rivalry and disagreements as to what is 'right and proper' - both in dance types
and in utilising dance as an expression of desire.
There are many films on youtube covering the history of Ireland - I'd recommend (part 1) and (part2). Each is nearly two hours long and best streamed to a large TV. Emigration to America to escape the poverty of Ireland a century or more ago is also covered in Helen Brennan's book.
|"THE STORY OF IRISH DANCE
is a serious study which succeeds in being both entertaining and stimulating." -
IRISH NEWS (Belfast)
"THE STORY OF IRISH DANCE is of interest to the general reader and as a source for scholars of Irish dance, dance anthropology, folklore and cultural studies" - IRISH TIMES (Dublin)
" .. a remarkable collection of anecdotes and well-researched background... a fascinating account." - IRISH INDEPENDENT (Dublin)
"THE STORY OF IRISH DANCE is a catalogue of extraordinary anecdotes, meticulous research and the rehearsal of acrimonious controversies whose effects linger on today." - THE EXAMINER (Cork)
"Helen Brennan has written a fascinating account." - R.T.É. GUIDE (Dublin)
"THE STORY OF IRISH DANCE really is a story to be read by anyone with an interest in any form of dance .." - DANCE EXPRESSION (U.K.)
"THE STORY OF IRISH DANCE is a must, not only for Irish dance fans, but also for anyone interested in Ireland's wonderful past. Helen brings history to life." - IRISH DANCING MAGAZINE
"This book not only weaves a social tapestry around the dance but is also a reminder not to lose sight of the basics. It is a 'must' for anyone involved or interested in Irish dancing." - SET DANCING NEWS (Ireland)
These quotes are taken from a review on Amazon's website. I'm assuming they are genuine.
He suggested that I call to see Jimmy Ward, a member of the Klifenora Ceili Band who lived locally, to see if he could help. Jimmy was happy to oblige and it was thus that I conducted my first interview on dance. In Jimmy's snug kitchen I listened fascinated as a whole world unfolded. He talked of a "fund-raising dance" during the 1930s when the "detectives" - members of the police force based in the area - raided the house and every man was punched and kicked as the dancers were ejected from the premises. Jimmy was spared a beating that time as he was a visiting musician from a different part of Clare. The police action was taken ostensibly on foot of the recently enacted Public Dance Hall Act (1935).
The act effectively banned dances in the houses of rural Ireland and put pressure on people to attend only formally organised dances in the newly built halls, most of which were run by the local clergy, and did not find favour with the people who had previously organised their own dances on all kinds of occasions. Jimmy went on to talk of happier events: card playing combined with dancing, "tournaments", "swarees", and "joined dances", when the jollity sometimes went on all night and the company returned to their homes as the sun was rising in the sky............
The tensions implicit in any national cultural organisation during a period of major change began to come to the surface, and it became obvious that the favourable reception of the Keating Branch to the London Gaels' programme of group or figure dances was not necessarily shared by the general membership of the Gaelic League.
During the early 1900s the great debate as to which dances were acceptable and which were not raged in the columns and letter pages of An Claidheamh Soluis, the Gaelic League's newspaper, as well as in other publications of the period. The weapons of political debate - vilification, ridicule, scorn and caricature - with their attendant power to wound and alienate, were all employed in the debate which surrounded the attempt to create a canon of Irish dance. The white-hot emotions which informed much of the contributions may seem, at this remove, somewhat over-stated and comical, but they provide a fascinating insight into what was, in essence, a cultural civil war with dance as the arena of combat.
When people would be going to America for the first time, there was nearly always a dance held in their parents house and their own people and friends and neighbours would be there.......... It was a lonesorne sort of dance because the son or daughter of the house was leaving to go so far away ..............And in many cases they were leaving, never to return, although they didn't think that at the time. You might say it was a dance with a gloom over it. The members of the family that were remaining at home would be the saddest of them all.........There was always a cloud hanging over a dance like that.
Weddings in general were celebrated with much dancing both in the future bride and groom's family homes and after the wedding in the couple's new home. A particular feature of some wedding dances was the abrupt arrival of strawboys, dressed in suits and masks of straw, who used their disguise as a licence to engage in all sorts of "jig-acting". It is said that occasionally a disappointed suitor of the bride would vent his spleen under cover of his straw mask. Such an intruder would often roughly claim a dance with the bride, even when she was unwilling. Tricks with sexual innuendo were often played, and since custom forbade the hosts to refuse hospitality to the intruders, an uncomfortable situation could arise until the strawboys finally melted away into the night.
These dance occasions which are now but a memory are looked back on with great fondness by all those who participated in them. The death of the country house dances is bitterly felt and their epitaph could well be written in the words of the late Junior Crehan of Mullagh, west Clare: "The country house was our school where we learned to play music and dance and it was a crying shame it was closed against the country people." Voices from all over the country would undoubtedly echo Junior's heartfelt statement. A way of life is now no more. Its demise was not gradual and natural. On the contrary, it was brutally and prematurely ended. All the more reason to lament its passing.
Another form of social pressure applied by some priests was the threat to refuse a reference to a parishioner who attended a dance proscribed by them.
Musicians who played for the dance were also a target. In Kerry, I was told of an instance when a local priest refused absolution to a musician he saw playing at a dance in the 1930s to put pressure on him to stop. So deep was the hurt and alienation felt by some musicians at their treatment that many of them left Ireland for good. Captain Francis O'Neill, the noted collector of Irish dance music, and himself a traditional musician, met many such men in America. Writing to Fr Seamus O'Floinn of Cork in 1916, he says:
"Not few are the pipers and fiddlers thus forced into exile by the unwarrantable harshness of the clergy who never outgrew the bitterness arising from their experience and to such a degree had the sense of wrong rankled in their breasts that some now in Chicago and in the enjoyment of prosperity decline to figure on the programmes of church entertainments."
Such was the fear engendered by the priest's perceived power that his authority was rarely challenged. occasionally, however, he might meet outright opposition. A story is still told in west Clare about the travelling dancing master Pat Barron, who persisted in teaching dancing and holding dances in a disused house despite the priest's disapproval. One day the priest threatened him. "If you don't cease to promote dancing in my parish against my express wishes, I will have no alternative but to turn you into a goat." Quick as a flash Barron replied, "if you do, Father, the first thing I'll do will be to puck you in the arse."
Because the dancing masters were often the focus of dance activity in an area, they bore the brunt of clerical disapproval. Johnny Leary "kept dance schools" in the Kilrush district of County Cork in "any old vacant house that he could get ... It was often very hard on him because the priests often objected to his dance schools."
In the 1920s the Church leaders' opposition to dancing focused on condemnation of privately run dance halls. The Catholic archbishops and bishops of Ireland issued a statement on the "evils of dancing" on 6 October 1925, which was to be read at masses during the Ecclesiastical Year. They advocated the strict supervision of dancing and warned of the "occasions of sin" involved in night dances: "Given a few frivolous young people in a locality and a few careless parents and the agents of the wicked one will come and do the rest."
An Irish Times editorial of 2 March 1929 echoed the bishops' statement:
"The clergy, the judges and the police are in agreement concerning the baleful affects of drink and low dancing upon rural morals. Further restrictions on the sale of drinks, a remorseless war on the poteen industry, the strict supervision of dance halls and the banning (by law if need be) of all night dances would abolish many inducements to sexual vice."
Another target of the moralists was "imported dances of an evil kind", or so-called "dubious dances". The bishops' pastoral of 1925 urged the populace to confine themselves to "Irish" dances, which have as one of their chief merits that "they cannot be danced for long hours ... They may not be the fashion in London or Paris. They should be the fashion in Ireland." Giving their apostolic seal of approval they conclude: "Irish dances do not make degenerates."
On 19 October, a letter in the same newspaper from "Exile on the Continent" declares that the "dance craze rampant in Clare and Ireland is both scandalous and mystifying ... Even in Paris or Monte Carlo where there are dens of vice dances would never continue to 5 am."
The first prosecution in Clare under the Dance Hall Act was in November 1935. The case was reported under the heading:
TALE OF THE FLUTE PLAYERS
'A BOB A HEAD'
KEEPING OUT THE COUNTRY BOYS.
M.M. of Kilkee was summoned for holding a dance contrary to the Dance Hall regulations.
Sergeant Carroll stated that on the 1st of August he was on duty in Kilkee in civilian attire and was accompanied by Guard Kiernan. When passing the defendant's house he heard music and noise as if a dance were in progress. He went to the door and it was opened by a man called M.M. who greeted the witness with words, "Pay up: bob a head". Witness paid 1/- and went in and found five boys and five girls sitting around the kitchen. There were two flute players present. Mrs M. was also present. When approached she claimed the dance was free and "that she had told the man on the door that if any 'country boys' came to say that the charge was 1/- per head, just to keep them out."
The judge imposed a fine of £3 reduced to £2 on the appeal of Sergeant Carroll who said that the defendant was a very poor man.
As stated elsewhere, it was not uncommon for poorer families to run dances in their homes for which admission was charged in an attempt to supplement their income. The conviction in the Kilkee case showed that the new legislation made this practice illegal. However, the reports of prosecutions under the Dance Hall Act show that even private functions such as a dance given by a farmer for the workers who had helped him save his crops were to be subject to licence. It can be seen from these reports that even the judge appears to be somewhat mystified by some of the ramifications of the new act.
M.W. of Shanaway West was summoned for having a dance in his house without first having obtained a licence.
Sergeant Murphy said that he had not been at the dance himself but after the dance he went to the defendant's house and having cautioned him he made a statement admitting that he had held a dance at which 26 girls and 40 boys attended. There was no charge for admission and tea was supplied at the defendant's expense. He got up the dance for his neighbours who had helped him to save the crops.
The case was dismissed.
D.D. of Dunsallagh was also summoned for holding a similar dance without a licence.
Sergeant Murphy said he took a statement from the defendant who admitted giving a dance to the boys and girls who had helped him with the turf and potatoes. The Justice asked the Superintendent why the case had been brought at all when there was no question of payment. The Superintendent said that if dances were allowed in houses of this sort without licence everyone could attend for miles around and the Act would be defeated altogether. If he heard there was a dance in a country house there was nothing to prevent him going if these things were allowed to go on. The defendant said he was ignorant of the law on the matter or he would not have allowed the dance. He gave an undertaking to the court that he would not offend in that respect again.
The justice found the charge proved and, dismissing it, said that "this type of dance was absolutely illegal and in future there would be severe penalties for getting up a dance such as the dance in the present case and in the previous case too, probably. It would be the last of those cases that would be dismissed under the circumstances."
A further instance in which the 1935 act made inroads into long-established social custom and practice was a prosecution for holding a "gamble" - a night of card-playing with prizes for the winners, which was particularly popular coming up to Christmas. It seemed that even such domestic festivity was not immune from prosecution.
In Ennis District Court on 10 January 1936, M.K. of Clonbooly was summoned for having a dance in his house, "A gamble for turkeys was also held in the defendant's house on the 11th December." The guests paid 1/- each for the gamble. When the gamble was over, they took part in a dance which finished about 4am. About thirty people attended and there were three turkeys. The man of the house provided tea with bread, butter and jam. The defendant said that his daughter had asked for a few "sets" and he agreed. Superintendent Keenan said similar things were happening all over the locality. The justice said it was happening in every locality in the county. The defendant was found guilty and the Probation Act applied.
The 1 February 1936 edition of the Clare Champion contains a report from Sixmilebridge Court which provides an unusual insight into the tensions which were beginning to surface around the operation of the Dance Hall Act. In open court, the justice makes the following remarks:
"It was a very invidious thing for the Parish Priest to write to me and say that if I granted any more licences I would hear more about it. I hope I will get no more letters of that description from that quarter or from any other quarter either."
Such a public rebuke must have caused raised eyebrows in court, at the very least.
The year 1936 saw a continuation of prosecutions under the Act. The long-established practice of running informal house dances was not easily relinquished and the interference of the state in domestic merrymaking continued to be challenged. A widow living in Cooraclare was summoned in February after the sergeant was passing her house at 1.30am and saw a lot of bicycles and heard music. In the kitchen there were about thirty persons. Some present had come from long distances, as far as Kilmihil, some twelve miles. A set was in progress, dancing to the music of a flute played by a young chap who was sitting in the corner. There was no one at the door and no charge. The defendant held dances regularly in her house, before and after the act. She did not charge as she had no need of money. She ran dances for neighbours who helped her with her farm. The judge expressed surprise that:
"... this lady, whose dancing days in the natural order of things should be over, had organised a dance and invited people there. She was not very flush in the world's goods; still she could bring people there and have a dance in her house. He could not see what amusement she got from watching people dance up to 2 am when she should be in her bed."
The judge's bewilderment was addressed by the solicitor for the defence, Mr T.F.Twomey, who told the judge that "it was a general thing in the country to set a house or two aside for this sort of thing and the defendant's house was suitable and was one of these houses. As a rule people did not frequent houses where there were young children."
The judge is still unclear as to why the defendant - an elderly woman - should wish to be out of her bed at such a late hour watching dancers, and demands an explanation. Her solicitor continues that "she did dance in her day herself and on this occasion it was Christmas time and it was nothing unusual to have a dance up to that hour. On the occasion of the Sergeant's visit, the dance in progress was the last dance of the night."
Various witnesses who were present on the night were called and a spirited defence of the night's fun was mounted. It was stated that "all the people who attended were present on the invitation of some member of the family", contrary to the evidence of the sergeant who had maintained that it was an "open" dance. The judge, in his summing-up, said that the legislature never intended that a person could not invite a few neighbours to his house for the purpose of having a dance. He dismissed the prosecution. This judgement was important in that it finally recognised the nature of many informal nights of social dance which had been severely curtailed by less liberal interpretations of the act. Notably, the defendant in the case was at pains to state that she was not running the dance for economic reasons. This was one of the factors which swayed the judge's decision to acquit her.
Contrary to the perceived notion of County Clare in this period as being entirely composed of cosy homesteads and well-stocked barns, the reality was that unemployment and poverty were rife in both rural and urban areas. Initiatives by the local authorities to alleviate appalling overcrowding in towns such as Kilrush and Ennis, described as "slum clearances" by the contemporary local press, were constantly in the news. An issue of the Clare Champion of 1936 refers to a demonstration of the unemployed led by bands in Ennis to demand relief and records heated scenes at the December meeting of Clare County Council when 300 unemployed men pleaded for Christmas dinner for their families. In this context, it is not surprising that when Mr P.C. of Considine Terrace, Ennis, applied for a licence in September 1936 to hold a dance in his house because "he was out of work and wanted to pay his rent", the judge granted him an 8pm to 12arn licence because of his situation.
However, in some quarters, the economic climate was secondary to the perceived danger to the moral health of the nation. Opposing a proposal to hold a regatta dance in Courtrnacsherry, the local parish priest declares:
"Revolution and the overthrow of law and order do not happen overnight but are the result of long sapping and mining the foundations of Christian behaviour immorality and impiety are the twin dangers which Christianity must overcome in the new world which is now in the making. Is it not a moment for us in Ireland to weaken any of our defences, to make light of the immodest dance, the startlingly nudist costumes that confront one in every street, the still more flagrant nudist bathing costumes on every seashore."
The controversy surrounding the morality of dancing continued into the 1940s and is reflected in views such as the following, published by the Gaelic Athletic Association. Condemning many foreign dances as "negroid imitations", the writer, who may have been expressing a personal view, recommends the promotion of Irish dances in that 'It is a fundamental characteristic of Irish dancing that the nearest approach to contiguity is the joining of outstretched hands. They should secure universal and parental approval." The dances referred to in this context are the group dances fostered by the Gaelic League which were confined to organised ceilithe.The popular dances of the period were the sets, which were dismissed by the Gaelic League as "foreign dances".
In a typically irreverent account of the dance customs deriving from the notion of dance as an ideological battleground, the writer Flann O'Brien proclaims:
"Irish dancing is a thing apart. There is perhaps one "ceilidhe" held for every twenty dances. The foxtrot and the Fairy Reel are mutually repugnant and will not easily dwell under the same roof. Very few adherents of the "ballroom" canon will have anything to do with a jig or a reel. Apart from the fact that the Irish dance is ruled out in most halls by considerations of space or perspiration, there is a real psychological obstacle. It is a very far cry from the multiple adhesion of enchanted country stomachs in a twilight of coloured bulbs to the impersonal free-for-all of a clattering reel. Irish dancing is emotionally cold, unromantic and always well-lighted."
O'Brien, moreover, was well aware of the to-ing and fro-ing involved in the administration of the 1935 Dance Hall Act:
" Some district justices have a habit of taking leave of their senses at the annual licensing sessions. They want Irish dancing and plenty of it, even at the most monster "gala dance." They believe that Satan with all his guile is baffled by a four-hand reel and cannot make head or tail of the Rakes of Mallow. I do not think that there is any real ground for regarding Irish dance as a sovereign spiritual and nationalistic prophylactic."
The iconoclastic views of Flann O'Brien were probably not very well received in official circles at the time, but they could, in retrospect, be seen as providing an antidote to the painful political process which underlay the turbulent years of the 1930s.
As we have seen, Irish dancing on stage had largely come to mean a stiff-backed performance by a troupe of young dancers wearing the regulation dance dresses rigid with embroidery. An honourable exception to this is the Siamsa Tire show in Tralee, County Kerry, which has incorporated steps from the older traditional dancers in the area into its repertoire.
Yet here in the 1990s, in the unlikely setting of the Euro-extravaganza, appeared a totally new dance phenomenon produced by RTE's Moya Doherty. It featured a veritable chorus line of attractive young women with long flowing hair, clad in short velvety dresses and partnered by young men in fashionably cut black trousers and flowing shirts, who provided the choreographical accompaniment to the leading pair who danced a love duet, Irish style. The familiar batters, shuffles, drums, rocks and cuts were all there; the dancers wore the specially engineered black footwear which had hitherto seemed so unglamorous. But this was Irish dance as it had never been seen before: an unashamedly spectacular display which, for once, accepted the sexual undertones of the dance and revelled in its power. The sound was magnified to a volcanic rumble by the combined power of the dancers' feet. The accompanying music by Bill Whelan had Irish overtones but was obviously newly composed. Its rhythms underlay the thunderous footwork of Flatley and the balletic movements of Jean Butler. The result was electrifying. Ireland was agog. The familiar had been utterly transformed. Riverdance was in spate. Its power could turn a generating station, let alone a mill. In the years since 1994, the Riverdance show has become the single most successful production using Irish dance as its centrepiece. Acres of print have been produced, analysing and commenting on the Riverdance phenomenon, most of them eulogising its achievements, although occasionally a dissenting view has bubbled to the surface. Currently, the commercial success of Riverdance continues unabated with three separate troupes under the names "Lee", "Liffey" and "Lagan" (the names of Irish rivers) touring the world to continued acclaim. With Michael Flatley's break from Riverdance came yet another large-scale stage presentation using the vehicle of Irish dance. Flatley's Lord of the Dance was created as a showcase for his particular tap-influenced style. The costumes and settings were pure vaudeville......The former much resented image of the Irish male dancer as a sissy in a skirt has been replaced by the iconography of black-leather sheathed thighs and oiled pectorals.
Street Games, County Louth, undated.
One of many photographs of historical interest in Helen Brennan's book.
After Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, registrations in Irish dancing schools more than doubled..... The world of the Irish dancing schools is largely the preserve of children..... this contrasts very much with the other main dance event of the recent past, namely the revival of set dancing....One of the key elements in the tremendous success of the set dancing movement was, undoubtedly, the presence of a generation who had grown up during the Irish music renaissance of the 1960s and 70s and had experienced the music as merely passive listeners to a performance... they could, for the first time, really participate in the world of Irish music, even if they didn't aspire to play a note.
The initiation of classes in set dancing at the 1982 Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown, Malbay, County Clare, was, more than anything else, the spark that lit the revival's fuse..... Manuals of set dances were produced and collecting trips were organised to talk to older dancers and piece together sets which had fallen into disuse.... the old plain set which had died out in Clare, was revived by Connie Ryan in the 1980s.
At present (1999) there are over seventy set-dancing classes running weekly, as well as countless workshop weekends and literally hundreds of ceilis and set sessions. There have never been so many people dancing in Ireland, never so many experiencing the "joy of sets".
In the nearly twenty years since Helen Brennan's book was published, several Irish Set dance groups and organisers have used the 'Sets / Sex' connotation including of course, Sets in the City.
Doing proper Irish 'steps' is very difficult. Try these : steps1 and steps2 . There are dozens of examples on youtube.
|Thus both the old 'stepping'
type of Irish dance and the 'sets' that are nowadays so popular across the world underwent
revivals and became a part of present day Irish identity in a way and to a degree that has
not happened with English Country Dance.
The 'folk hero' status of Irish dancing masters is well illustrated by the reverence in which people like Connie Ryan are held, even decades after their death.
This photo from Connie Ryan's funeral in May 1997 is available on the internet.
Connie Ryan lived largely before the internet and youtube age - there are therefore few recorded examples of his teaching - here is one
A tribute from the Irish Times is here.
The history of dance in England was covered in a recent BBC TV series 'Dancing Cheek to Cheek' with the serious discussion being provided largely by Dr Lucy Worsley, an academic historian.
Here are some notes from the series - if it is repeated on television at some stage be sure to watch it!
In C17 (seventeenth century) dancing was considered to be dangerous and debauched - yet within 150 years it became an essential social skill.
In effect, dance moved from being considered as 'the work of the devil' to a desired form of 'high art'. Dance had always offered the prospect of romance - a rare chance to 'get to grips' with the opposite sex.
In C17 the 'cushion dance' was popular but frowned upon by the clergy especially as 'raunchy and dangerous to public morals'. Some likened it to prostitution, yet it remained a firm favourite dance in England. In 1633 the puritan William Prynne published a 1000 page denunciation of both dance and stage plays. Publication of his Histrio Mastrix was however seen as a veiled attack on the royal family - so he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and his ears were cut off.
Maypole dancing was effectively banned during the English Civil War (1642-1651, although actually a series of three shorter wars and involving the whole of Britain and including Ireland) yet in 1651 John Playford published his book of dances - The English Dancing Master. It was a brave thing to do at the time but his intended market was the Gentlemen of the Inns of Court and the landed families who took up dancing (and fencing) as social skills.
Interestingly, the start of the 'English Civil War' can be traced to a rebellion in Scotland in 1637 and centred upon the attempted imposition of a particular version of religion - no surprise there then! The period 1651 to 1660 was characterised by political uncertainty and infighting and includes Oliver Cromwell's period as 'Lord Protector' until his death in 1658. In 1660 the monarchy was finally restored under Charles II - and a 40 foot high maypole was erected in central London, giving the royal seal of approval to what had previously been a questionable pastime. These decades were also the time of the Levellers and the Diggers.
Playford's dances were taken to France and from there spread throughout Europe - and further afield. The influence of the court of Louis XIV was strong - and this became a golden age of dancing, one in which the Minuet Dance became the height of fashion and achievement. It offered similar chances of flirtation as did the cushion dance - there was lots of eye contact and some touching - but it required learning some fancy footwork. It was a sort of equivalent to Scottish County Dancing - difficult to do properly yet performed in front of a crowd.
It was an age of rigid social customs - yet dance offered a chance to push the boundaries. Dr Ricardo Barros of the Royal Academy of Music, interviewed by Lucy Worsley put it thus:
This was a far cry from the views of the clergy both in England and Ireland - as indeed it is today from the views of the boorish self-appointed arbiters of folk dance etiquette in the UK.
Dr Barros is also on the staff of musicdevon.com - who offer "music lessons with inspiring teachers in Devon". (I live in Devon yet I'd never heard of them before!)
For two centuries, dancing masters became central to English Society. Many of them were both French and despised. Some had a sleazy reputation, but anyone who was anyone had to dance the minuet - and that required proper teaching.
In 1732 the grand Assembly Rooms opened in York - these were the most magnificent in England and Britain's first purpose built dance hall. Amazingly it was built using what might these days be called 'crowd funding' - but ability to pay was the key to admission despite it's egalitarian leanings. For the 'refined and correct' Georgian era it became an elegant 'meat market' with plenty of liaisons outside of dance - and well as much wheeling and dealing for business people, maybe much as jive dance is today for liaisons and golf is for wheeling and dealing?! Yet this was still an age of 'correct behaviour' and guide books were available on 'genteel behaviours' - all of which has now died out.
Yet people tired of the difficulty and formality of the minuet - they wanted something that was more fun and physical. In any case men had started to desert the dance halls and in the Victorian Age - characterised by so many rapid innovations and changes - dance became "fast, frantic and giddy".
Thus in the C17 society split between those who danced and those who didn't (or who deeply disapproved of the whole process). By the C18 dancing had largely lost its dubious reputation - but new dances were set once again to be condemned. The polka - with its rustic peasant origins became a new craze for the upper classes. The waltz, originally developed in C18 in Europe shared one feature with the polka - that of holding ones partner scandalously close - something you could not do in the minuet!
Following on from the opening of 'Assembly Rooms' dance clubs were opened in London and elsewhere - one of the most famous being Almacks in St James. It offered little by way of food or dance but was 'the place to go' to meet people - maybe an early form of speed-dating? It was the 'hottest night-spot' in Regency London yet when the numbers of men dwindled the owners (a group of ferocious women) introduced quadrille dances to lure them back. When that didn't work they introduced the new 'dirty dance' that had been sweeping Europe - the waltz! It became an all-consuming passion for some members of high society, including Lady Caroline Lamb.
Scandals surrounding the waltz and what it would do to public morals boiled over in the Times newspaper in 1816 - where it was denounced as a 'fatal contagion'. But by 1844 the polka was first performed on stage and by 1850 was (together with the waltz) hugely popular. Attention then moved for a while to Scottish dance - the eightsome reel and similar - yet by the end of C19 men had retreated from dance, even from the polka. In England an 'anti-dance' attitude amongst men has to some extent been maintained to the present day - in sharp contrast to the popularity of Irish dance in Ireland - and elsewhere in the world.
Yet by the turn of C20, Victorian ideas and dances such as the waltz were considered a bore. New forms of dance were desired and were imported from the Americas - ragtime (1890 to 1910), Charleston (1920s), Argentinian tango (1912 -). The latter especially had sexual overtones that (once again) were too much for the church and for some people in 'polite society'. Here was a dance in which men and women were holding each other as never before on the dance floor - and it had to be stopped! Even the Pope got involved - denouncing the tango as the new paganism. But people couldn't care less what the Pope thought - they all (or most of them) danced the tango. 1915 saw some of the first dances to be filmed - high society continuing much as before despite the horrors of war.
Maybe as an antidote to all the 'newness', a charity worker, social reformer and suffragette Mary Neal - who according to one of her descendants has been almost written out of history - started to promote song and dance amongst the poor. Her contributions to Morris dance were mentioned by Lucy Worsley but are discussed at length here. It is an article well worth reading. as is a website devoted to her life. This was the age of Cecil Sharp and EFDSS but without Mary Neal much of it might not have happened.
English dancing was seen as 'rooted in the countryside' as opposed to the 'new fangled imports'. Whilst Cecil Sharp has long been accorded god-like status for his work in folk song and dance, Mary Neal was largely ignored - owing to a rift that developed in 1907 - but she was awarded the CBE in 1937. The cited article explains the background - and highlights that folk song and dance, like so many other hobbies and activities, is not immune from feud and vendetta.
After the 1914-18 war, people wanted to dance like there was no tomorrow. The Hammersmith Palais accommodated 7000 dancers - doing the quickstep, the two-step and the new waltzes - earlier versions having been a simple turning dance. No longer were formal 'dance masters' needed - people just danced. By the 1920s seemingly everyone wanted to dance - hence the popularity of the Charleston. It also allowed women to break free of any male dominance and enabled individual self expression through dance. Yet teachers wanted to reassert their authority and organise 'standardised dances' - a parallel development perhaps to what happened in Ireland in 1935 with the Dance Hall Act. This 'standardisation' reduced the appeal of dancing, so by the late 1930s ballroom was considered boring (and too complicated). So another new generation of 'silly dances' were introduced - including the Lambeth Walk.
Today, Irish Set Dance continues to have a strong link to tradition, despite new dances being created. There is a strong appeal for the older dances, and for doing the older 'correct' steps. In England, Morris dance is viewed as a somewhat 'odd' pastime and in many areas dance clubs centred on 'English Country dance' have all but died out. Ceilidh dance remains popular in a few cities - sometimes aligned to a strong university folk dance club, yet it is often necessary to travel a long distance to find a good 'ceilidh' on a Saturday night. There are dozens of small 'folk festivals' throughout England - yet of these only a handful offer any good quality participatory English dance. Notable are Chippenham (often regarded as the best but it needs larger venues), Sidmouth, Eastbourne, Lichfield, Broadstairs, Towersey and Whitby. At others, even if there are dances or ceilidhs the quality can be poor. Some of these festivals are reviewed here.
Morris dancing is more widespread - but that is only to be watched. Part of the problem is that it is more expensive to provide good quality dance venues than it is to provide venues for concert attendees - and there are so few accomplished dancers left anyway. You meet many of the same people at major dance festivals. There is also some open hostility to Morris dancing and other street displays. I'm not sure I believed it but I was told recently that during Wadebridge Folk Festival some town shops have been known to display notices 'No Morris Dancers'. Other people complained there were too few dance displays in the town. In Sidmouth there have always been strong 'pro' and 'anti' folk festival arguments.
Time to bring back fun and flirting?
The potted history of dance as given above has a recurrent theme - the denunciation of aspects or styles of dance not only by factions within the dance movement but also by outsiders (often the church or people of a church or similarly self-important disposition). Within some English dance clubs there is also now a tendency (resulting perhaps from the age of many participants) to denounce any aspect of 'fun and flirting' and this is arguably one factor in their decline.
Yet other types of clubs are also in decline - the overriding factor may be that so much 'social interaction' is nowadays conducted online instead of in person. You can now play bridge online, you can chat online and you can play chess online - and of course you can flirt on-line via scores of 'dating' websites. The on-line 'pornography' industry is also vast - and much of it is free to view, paid for by advertising. It is also all too easy, on a dismal winter's evening, to stream a Google Streetview image of Switzerland, Romania or the Scottish Highlands from an iPad to a wide screen TV - so you can go on a tour of a scenic location without leaving the comfort of your armchair. Or you can select from hundreds of intellectually challenging TED.com talks. There are nowadays so many reasons simply to stay at home. In future, risk of infection may be an additional reason.
In past years (and centuries) moralists and religious zealots sought at every opportunity to curtail dance or aspects of dance. Today, the church has little or no influence in England. As a social force it has been replaced by 'political correctness', 'militant feminism' and similar movements that seek to exercise control. These find expression in seeking to curtail fun and flirting. Feminism is discussed here - and by a woman.
Modern dance crazes include 'zumba' - where you never touch anyone - and this is apparently hugely popular amongst young women. It may hark back to the 'freedom' women found in the 1920's in the Charleston - they didn't need men any more. Nowadays, instead of 'being seen at a dance' all sexual contacts can be satisfied via dating 'apps' on smartphones. In respect therefore of what used to be one of the principal purposes of dance - meeting people of the opposite sex (or these days of the same sex?) - it has simply become redundant.
This point was made some years ago in my study of internet dating sites. I argued in sts80 that were a tiny fraction of the money and effort devoted to internet dating to be diverted into folk dancing, and if meeting other unattached people could become once again a central feature of folk dance (and other types of dance that are also in decline in the UK such as American Square), then the prospects for a revival might be much brighter. See also a discussion of music and dance to counter the 'epidemic' of loneliness in the UK (song and dance to combat loneliness).
The effects of loneliness on old people was starkly illustrated in a 'money' programme on BBC Radio 4 in late January 2017. The discussion was on how to protect old vulnerable people from various financial scams. One type of lucrative scam is to send people letters saying they have won a prize, but they need to send £10 or £20 as a registration fee in order to claim it. Relatives of one elderly person had tried to stop him or her responding but the victim felt it was worthwhile losing money at regular intervals because they enjoyed receiving the letters - because it made them feel as if someone in the world was taking notice of them. Other lonely people send themselves a Christmas card (or two) just so that they don't feel so left out. There are many examples where (usually) women have been conned out of large sums of money via fake dating website profiles. In some cases losses have exceeded £200,000.
Gender Neutral dancing - a manifestation of political correctness?
Other very recent developments in the UK (and elsewhere) include 'gender neutral' folk dancing. Here, traditional folk or contra or ballroom dances are danced as before but without any differentiation between men and women. For some dances it makes little difference - they can just as easily be done with any mix of the sexes. A related development is the introduction of LBGTQ (Lesbian, bisexual, gay, transvestite, queer) ceilidhs to the UK where the emphasis is on attracting people who lead 'alternative' sexual lifestyles as opposed to the ancient custom of a man being attracted to a woman, and vice-versa. I mentioned a few of these events to some of my (female) dancing partners. So far their reaction has been 'No thank you!' LBGTQ events have (unsurprisingly) been common in the USA for years (where the term Queer is freely used).
Both of these developments seem to have limited appeal at the present time in the UK albeit they are centre stage amongst the 'politically correct'. Bristol Contra is apparently one example - as of 2022.
I'll outline 'gender neutral' folk dances elsewhere but basically, instead of a man's line and a ladies line in a longways set there is an A line (used to be men) and a B line (women). Anyone of any gender can be in any line, we are all just 'people' now!
In a square set, 'couples' are an A on the left and a B on the right. So what used to be called as a ladies chain is now a B chain - and the people in the B positions go into the centre of the set to take right hands - etc. The more unusual man's chain is now an A chain - and the people in the A position go to the centre of the set and give left hands. Except in many Irish Set dances where men's chains are done with a right hand, just to confuse the issue. Thankfully, Irish Set dance seems not yet to have been infected by political correctness - men dance wherever possible as men and women have to dance sometimes as men simply because there may not be sufficient men to go around. Quite often there are too many men, which is an appalling state of affairs.
Additional interesting videos and links - some of them about dancing. Recommended viewing for despots (and normal people).
If you wish to see the possible future of gender neutral 'liquid lead' ballroom dancing, try this TED talk.
Or for a brief history of social dance in 25 moves - (rather too energetic for most folk dancers!) watch this.
Here is a politically correct discussion including dance for fat people (yes, really!)
My next recommendation for broadening the minds of people in the folk dance world is a talk by a truly inspirational Canadian woman. It has nothing to do with dancing or disputes about etiquette but everything to do with how women can show they don't need preferential treatment or mollycoddling - just equality. If only there were more like her in the world. She's one of the most amazing people I have ever seen on TED.com and a worthy winner of the Canadian kickass award.
Criticism of some expressions of feminism were also given Camille Paglia, a renowned and contentious American academic. She discussed the logic of feminism in an article in the Spectator (UK) in 2016. An excerpt and discussion of the sexual roots of dance is here.
Here is a 'financial' TED talk by a man. It shows the bravery and dedication of people who confront real evil, as opposed to control freaks and despots who moralise about different dance styles. It shows how dedicated journalists helped unravel the story of the Panama Papers.
The next example (by a woman) is centred on misuse of money on a large scale and the role of western banks in colluding with dictators (add link) . I gave some lectures on charity funding about 20 years ago that included the same ideas. (link to charity section)
My dance diary for 2016 - and highlights
Folk dance section (local club venues and dances)
Some of my letters and articles on folk dance published in Set and Turn Single, 2011 to 2016.