Folk Dance History
Written by Roy Smith of Hoghton Folk Dance Club
Natural spontaneous behaviour on festive occasions has been the source of song, music and dance since time immemorial. Through years of performance English Folk Dance has become an established and recognised part of local tradition. Local inventiveness has developed its special characteristics so that the dance, like language, comes in many varieties. There have been several main strands to its development, social dancing (men and women together); Step dancing; Morris dancing; Sword dancing - and each of these strands can be further subdivided.
In Medieval times people would 'carole' i.e. link hands in a line or a circle and sing as they danced to provide their own accompaniment. The introduction of musicians enabled them to save their breath somewhat! Other dance formations developed and social dances, even from Tudor times, have been preserved. Also available are many of the printed dance collections from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. Needless to say, at the time of the Commonwealth the Puritans considered dancing a sin and tried to stamp it out altogether. However, it is known that even Oliver Cromwell danced until the early hours of the morning at his daughter's wedding!
We can read descriptions of certain country dances in the works of writers such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Although the Victorian era saw a shift towards couple dances brought in from the continent eg the waltz and the polka, there was a strong revival of interest in traditional English folk dance, song and music in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries with the work of Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal being of particular importance.
Until relatively modern times folk dances (or Country Dances) were a part of Court life, just as much as of peasant life. Continental influences were successfully assimilated, just as some aspects of folk dancing have, in turn, been incorporated into other later forms of dance. Anyone joining in the 'Conga' or the 'Hokey Cokey' is simply reflecting the activities of the medieval carollers, whether they know it or not!
English Folk Dancing is still around, with a sizeable minority of the population interested and regularly involved. A much greater proportion comes into occasional contact with it - as shown by the regular demand for bands and callers to run barn dances, hoedowns, knees-ups and ceilidhs. Charities, schools, churches, social groups and wedding parties are frequent 'customers'.
Besides belonging to a local folk dance club one has the opportunity to attend Saturday night dances, day and residential courses, and there are longer folk dance holidays on offer for those who seek the winter sunshine of the Mediterranean. Some groups of people also come together to share in 'special interest' types of folk dancing such as Historical Dance; the dances from John Playford's 'English Dancing Master' of the seventeenth century; dances from the collections of dancing masters such as Walsh and Kynaston, and dances done to the tunes of Henry Purcell. Costumed Balls held at appropriate venues such as the Ashton Memorial, Lancaster; Towneley Hall, Burnley and Tatton Park, Knutsford have become a popular feature. Dedicated devotees regularly travel much further afield to such places as Bath, Norwich and Bury St Edmunds.
Morris, Sword, Clog and Step dancers are often to be seen at festivals, fairs and fetes - and town-twinnings have brought an unexpected boost to many.