Folk Dancing Experiences

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Page updated 11th January, 2015.

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Blue Mountains, Australia

Julia and Rupert Ermert

The first items we packed for our overseas trip were our dancing shoes. After that, there were lists of festivals, schools and other happenings. We didn’t dance as much as we’d hoped, in the end, but there were several memorable occasions.

Our first Friday in England saw us attending a ‘Knees Up’ at Cecil Sharp House , along with our English friends, both keen dancers. They hadn’t done English Country Dancing, but were game for anything, and curious to see a place they’d only heard about. Just as well, as the evening was a bit of a shock! The noise rushed up the stairs to meet us as we paused to admire the commemorative quilt hanging in the foyer, and it got worse as we descended.

The band was good, but much too loud, the leader had to scream her directions, and everyone talked -- or rather, shouted -- all the time. Beer was served, and the floor was soon awash from spilt glasses. Smokers stood in the doorways where the smoke blew straight in, until it was as hard to see as it was to hear. We joined in several dances, picking up the steps by some kind of osmosis: longways, sets for three, circle ... But the only name I managed to hear was ‘Drops of Brandy’ (aka ‘Strip the Willow’). The others were simple but boisterous. My friends were politely horrified; I had to explain I’d simply picked the time off the monthly programme. When an unidentified liquid began to seep across the floor from under the door of the men’s room, we decided to leave.

My first thought was that Madam would have been most displeased, but then I remembered the burly young man who would have swung me off my feet if I hadn’t leaned well back ... And wondered if things had changed all that much.

Our next dancing experience was very, very different. We attended the Easter school of the Wessex Round Folk Dance group (actually just after Easter), kindly arranged for us by London Abbey Girl, Sally Phillips. This was in a beautiful old Listed building near Sidmouth, Devon, and had once been the home of the Earl of Buckingham. We danced in the music/ballroom, with French windows, high vaulted ceiling with bosses and frescoes, lovely polished floor and grand piano. The house, ‘Sidholme’, is now administered by a Christian Holidays group.

No one dared to talk during the teaching here, much less shout or smoke, and it was all we could do to snatch a sip of water between dances, as we were kept hard at it. I still found it difficult to hear what the dances were called, or to pick up all the instructions, because of the teachers’ regional accents. But I recognised some ‘Abbey’ dances -- Oranges and Lemons, Heartease, Never Love Thee More, the Alderman’s Hat -- and was delighted to learn the steps at last. I also enjoyed Dick’s Maggot, Lasses of Portsmouth, Resolution, Canterbury Lads .. And when someone asked me, over lunch, if I’d done ‘The Battlefield of Bosworth’, I thought at first that must have been another dance whose name I hadn’t caught! Our favourite teacher, Pat, or She-who-must-be-obeyed, a fierce old lady with a stick, obviously a wonderful dancer in her day, was very clear and easy to follow; I thought of Madam as she might have been in later life. Pat took a great interest in us and ran two requests: Newcastle and Shrewsbury Lasses. She also told us about fan dances, the ‘cheat sheets’ of the day. The ladies in Regency times had the diagrams of the popular dances drawn on their fans, so now we know how Lizzy and Darcy managed without even a recap!

When we said we needed to learn Running Set, special classes were arranged for us by Eileen Sutherland, an ‘Abbey Girl’ from Bath. There wasn’t time for much, but we got an idea of it; even did wild Goose Chase. There were Rapper classes, but they were so far advanced, we felt it would be unfair to try to join them ... Even if we’d had the energy. One of our group was Abbey Dancer, Hazel James, who invited us to her London classes, but sadly we never made it.
Rupert and I were afraid we’d be a handicap to the class, as they danced together regularly, and we don’t really know very much, but they were very welcoming and patient, and we kept up fairly well. Indeed, I think that particular school will go down in their memories as the one with ‘the Aussies’, as they called us. They were very pressing in their invitations to come again next year, and we said we certainly would .. If we won the lottery!

The Lichfield Folk Festival was our next memorable occasion. We chose this one from the list as it’s what is known as ‘a dancer’s festival’, compared to others which concentrate on singing and playing. We had to find our own accommodation this time, and we happened on a I6th century black and white timbered farmhouse, Thimble Hall, at nearby Yoxall (near Abbot’s Bromley). The house had been haunted until the landlady got the local vicar to exorcise it and stop the guests complaining. To make up for the lack of excitement, she drove Rupert into town to collect our tickets in her white Jaguar coupe.

The dance venues were scattered throughout the town and often difficult for us non-locals to find, so we missed some, but enjoyed what we could. Once again, the music and teaching was of a high standard, but we still found it hard to hear, and partly because of the constant talking. And this was in spite of one leader’s admonition: "Put tongue into neutral and brains into gear" -- quite worthy of Madam. So we did more dances than we can name, but remember Spring Wedding, The Optimist, Trafalgar Day, A Measure for Margaret, William Marshall’s Maggot, and especially Tony Royle’s delight, although that one couldn’t really be named for my cousin!
We were also able to enjoy several displays, and admired a local morris group dancing Three Jolly Aardvarks to an accompaniment of sally-type tambourines, some young girls performing a Broom Dance and the older women, a Bottle dance .. Both originally factory workers’ stuff. Another class was called Houses Galore as all the dances had ‘house’ in their name, and, thanks to Patricia Early, we actually knew one of them: Hundson House Alas, the only other name I caught was Hatfield House. We’ll never forget the last dance that day, Winter Memories. We had been listening to a handbell concert, and they played the tune for us -- it was magical.
The Sunday, Father’s Day in Britain, began with a Folk Service. The hymns all mentioned dance in some way and the theme of the sermon was participation, in order to get the best out of anything: "You must learn the dance, learn the song". As an offering, two couples, dressed in what we’d call Colonial gear, danced Rufty-Tufty. I felt honoured to be asked to give one of the readings; the vicar though an Australian accent would be exciting. (It was interesting to observe how exotic everyone found us. Although there are crowds of Australian tourists in Britain, it seems they’re rarely found on the folk circuit.)

Back in London, my last dance experience was as-- well -- different as the first. Went with my friend to her group, Balkanplus, and spent an evening trying to find my way through the winding figures and staccato rhythms of Armenian dances taught by a Dutchman. I thought it only a fair recompense for exposing her to the rowdiness of an EFDSS Friday night special. The two men stayed home and watched the footie.

(This article first appeared in The Abbey Guardian, December I998 issue.)

by Julia Ermert

It was May Day, it was perfect ‘Abbey’ weather, there were morris dancers in the streets of Hastings .. And I was there. It was a dream come true.

Never mind that it was actually a week later than May day, as the Powers-that-be had changed the holiday weekend to coincide with VE Day. Never mind that we’d had to rearrange our schedule to accommodate this, and so cut down our time in Cornwall. Never mind that I didn’t at this time know there were Abbey groups all over. I was here, after waiting for years to be able to visit England in the Spring, to see May Day celebrated.

We were staying in Battle to avoid the seaside crowds, but arrived in Hastings in time for the church service that began the day’s festivities. The Church of St Clement and All saints is in the Old town, and could be any typical English village church, except that it was full of morris dancers -- men and women in white and colours, bells and garlands -- and the hymns were accompanied by a morris band of fiddles, accordions and pipes. Just before the gospel, the vicar said: "As David danced before Saul for the glory of God, so Peter will dance before us today." With both reverence and excitement, I watched my first solo morris jig.

The vicar wove it all into his sermon: how joy was a gift from God, how dance was a way of expressing joy, so needed in a world full of tears, conflict and abuse, how we were celebrating the end of hostilities fifty years ago, how music and dance could help us get in touch with the world and its rhythms. He joined it all to a greater tradition - "a time to go forth in the dance".
And go forth they did, afterwards, and all afternoon - first in front of the church, and then all up and down the winding streets of Hastings Old Town. There were women’s sides as well as men’s, and some mixed, but we actually saw more of the women. The men tended to dance once and then pause for refreshment at the many pubs! The women danced on tirelessly. Of course, I thought of them all - Joan and Joy, Jen and Cicely, Ros and Maid. But I think morris has changed since their day! One or two sides were pretty and ladylike - -. I admired Bedfordshire Lace, who wore flower-trimmed straw hats, navy-blue lace-trimmed pinafores over long-sleeved pink blouses, and little brooches of the famous lace - and Liddington Hall, dressed in frilly white gowns with tabards of rich blue, and bright red stockings, ribbons and hankies.

But most be as boisterous as the men. I thought of the ‘snap and vigour’ Avis Everett put into her dancing; I could see it here. Many women had painted faces - blackened in masks, patterned like webs, or half Welsh green. New Esperance Morris wore breeches (like the girls at Woodend?) And the suffragette colours of purple, green and white. Would Mrs Shirley have approved? There was also a new style dress called ‘rags’ (but I believe it’s very old). These dancers trimmed their jackets with torn-up strips of cloth, some in woodland greens and browns, some all colours of the rainbow.

The men were less varied in their dress. Unless they wore ‘rags’, most would have been familiar to the Abbey Girls, in white shirts and trousers and coloured baldricks. I saw many old customs: the men’s sides were often accompanied by a man-woman (like the ‘Betty’ Jen heard about) wearing a skirt and bonnet over his dancing clothes. I believe this is supposed to signify the now-very-modern idea we all contain both male and female, and are incomplete unless we express both sides.

Sometimes this character, or one dressed as a Fool, carried a balloon (a pig’s bladder?) With which he bopped the onlookers ‘for luck’. In actual fact, he should have so blessed only the young women, those of childbearing age. His counterpart in the women’s sides carried a coloured brush which she brandished in our faces.

We watched stick dances and handkerchief dances, rappers and swords, solo Cotswold jigs, wild Border morris and quaint Appalachian line dances. Everywhere bells jingled in the streets and strange costumes paraded unselfconsciously, while the usual tourist hordes - the bucket and spade brigade, the black leather bikers - sunned themselves or stared. There was so much noise I couldn’t hear the names of the dances as they were announced, and the only one I could recognise by its music was - thanks to Damaris, and Percy Grainger - Shepherd’s Hey. But I enjoyed them all.

Next day brought the grand procession. Along came Jack-in-the-Green himself, in a wickeshape some ten feet high, covered with leaves - rhododendron leaves, the programme said, and it took six to eight sacks of them, and two hours to dress him. He wore a crown of flowers, and was escorted by the two local sides: Mad Jack’s Morris, and Daisy Roots, the women’s team. After him came all the folk characters Cecil Sharp ever knew of, and some he probably didn’t: Green Men, giants, ‘osses, jesters, monks, pirates, cavaliers, cowboys.

And a May Queen! I was relieved to see she was not a Beauty queen but just a fresh and pretty young girl of maybe twelve or thirteen, in a dainty white dress, with flowers in her hands and on her long fair hair. It could have been little Mirry. She and her maidenly attendants tripped along, rather lost among the dancing, singing, energetic hordes, with their decorated garlands and hats, their big boots or clinking clogs, their parti-coloured faces and fantastic garb. I spoke to a strange, blue and black figure with a webbed face, and was astonished to be answered by a pretty, cultured female voice - it had to be joy! Into my mind’s eye swept another procession - White Queen, Gold Queen, Strawberry ... Green ... Violet ...

At the end of the proceedings, Jack-in-the-Green’s leafy covering was plucked away and distributed to the crowd, thus releasing The Spirit of Spring. I shuddered a little to remember that, once upon a time, someone would actually have been sacrificed ... perhaps torn to pieces by the frenzied mob ... But that time seemed very far away in the bright spring sun and amongst the happy faces. The dancing was to go on long into the night, while we set off for our delayed Cornwall trip ... but that’s another story!

(This article first appeared in The Abbey Guardian for December I995.)


Julia Ermert, first published in the Abbey Chronicle.

I've always loved dancing. My first proud memory is of being picked to 'show off' my command of the polka step at dancing school; perhaps I was six. Soon after, the lessons ceased -- my first real grief. I eventually asked my father, not long before he died, why this had happened. He said the school had closed. When I asked why I hadn't been sent anywhere else, he said I had never asked. I certainly wasn't an outgoing child.

But I never forgot the satisfying feeling of fitting movement to music. There were bits and pieces of dancing, here and there ... and one wonderful day, the third grade teacher decided we would perform a maypole dance at a Spring Fair. We were all put through our paces, and how I hoped to be chosen ... and I was! My two best friends weren't, but they got to wind up the gramophone. I can remember the tune now: Oh can you dance the polka ...? We wore white dresses, sashed with pink or blue crepe paper -- these were the war years -- and how our mothers hoped it wouldn't rain. We performed the most intricate plattings and threadings without a hitch; how hard that teacher must have worked. Soon after that, I discovered The Abbey, Girls and I lived in an imaginary world of ruins and folk- dancers and country rambles. My father was English, so there were books to look at, and I could imagine how the Hall might appear, and find the different flowers -- even Traveller's Joy -- in his mother's old botany book. But very few dances, Folk-dancing in Australian schools is international; an English dance will turn up only occasionally, and depending on the teacher's tastes.

The closest I could come was Scottish Country Dancing. -The Scottish immigrants cling fiercely to their traditions in this new country, and there are groups everywhere, thick with accents which carry one straight back to Scotland. I joined wherever I could, and my husband with me (his mother was British). In little ways, I could now feet kin with Joan and Joy, Jen and Jandy (how I used to hope a Julia would turn up amongst all those Js, but she never did) -- after all, the movements were somewhat similar: set and turn partner instead of set and turn single, and a hey was called a reel ... and some of the dances even had the same names: Flowers of Edinburgh, Circassian Circle, None So Pretty,. 'The Abbey Girls danced this,' I would whisper. 'Who?' my bemused husband would answer. Now he knows!

Then I began teaching circle-dancing (but that's another story) and two of my group went bush-dancing. This is what Folk is called in Australia -- the kind of dancing that went on in the woolsheds after shearing. And they were learning Sellenger's Round.' Two days later, we were at the class. I already knew the music, thanks to Madeleine's wonderful tape

and the books had familiarised me with arming and siding. Scottish Country dancing is technically rigorous enough to equip one for anything. Into the set we went and danced with the best of them; in fact, so well that we were immediately drafted into the demonstration group for the coming Spring Fair! The wheel had turned full circle.

How can I explain my feelings as I danced that so well-known and yet unknown dance? I remembered how Cicely asked Joan to dance it with her, at the beginning of The Abbey Girls Go Back to School. Joan agrees, saying it is a special dance for her, 'a very -- very intimate kind of dance ... I always want to keep it for very special people.' And here I was, dancing it with my Very Special Person, some fifty years later.

It was a little different ... somewhat rowdier (bush-dancing is like that) and the figures were in a different order. I knew the second figure should be the one where we run into the centre, throwing our arms up, but here it was the last figure, and we all shouted 'Whoosh" as we did so. I nearly told the teacher, 'The Abbey Girls didn't do it like that,' but I decided against it!

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