English Country Dancing

Today I finally attended an English Country Dance at Cecil Sharp House. The two hours were really fun and accessible and friendly (it was the end of term Christmas special which may have helped too). People were really welcoming and it seemed pretty easy to pick up the basic steps (I think my dance training made this less scary) with a caller and obliging partners, although I imagine there are many refinements that take much longer to learn. I enjoyed the democracy of it – anyone can dance (I joined on the last day of term) or come along and play an instrument and choreographies are held and shared by the whole group. There seemed to be a charming process of asking people to partner so we switched around frequently. The group was generally older than me (mostly in their 60s I would guess) although there were about ten or so people in their 30s so it was pretty mixed by most standards.

There was also a dance called Byron’s Mallet which I though was amusing.

That said it was (unsurprisingly) very white and heteronormative. Like many social dances, there are distinct male and female roles and while women can take the male role (wearing a tie to indicate this) this is only because there are slightly more women who attend. When I suggested dancing with a man, no one made a big deal but someone quickly found a pair of women for us to be spliced with. That said there was one dance which involved a solo role that got swapped around so genders did get mixed up. One caller suggested that the men would get a dance because they are probably engineers which my partner and I furrowed our brows at quizzically.

English Country Dance originated in village greens and is the kind of dance that features in Jane Austen novels. It would have played an important social role, not least because it allowed single men and women to come into physical contact with one another. As Cecil Sharp wrote in The Country Dance Book in 1909:

“No special dress is needed, not even holiday clothes. The steps and figures are simple and easily learned, so that anyone of ordinary intelligence and of average physique can without difficulty qualify as a competent performer. (…) It has always been danced purely for its own sake, for the pleasure it afforded the performers and the social intercourse that it provided.”

Some of the remnants of this seem a bit cheesy now, like one dance that involved beckoning your partner towards you, although everyone seemed to know this and do it with an ironic distance.

I wondered if it is possible to make a few tweaks to make it less heteronormative. Or perhaps these things are more deeply embedded and embodied in the dances.

English Country dancing is something I’ve wanted to try for a while now since reading Social Choreography by Andrew Hewitt. In the book he makes the claim that “choreography has served not only as metaphor for modernity but also acts as a model for thinking about and creating social organization”. He goes on to use English Country Dancing as an example, referencing this quote from German poet, philosopher and historian, Friedrich Schiller:

“I can think of no more fitting image of social conduct than an English dance, composed of many complicated figures and perfectly executed. A spectator in the gallery sees innumerable movements intersecting in the most chaotic fashion, changing direction swiftly without rhyme or reason, yet never colliding. Everything is so ordered that the one has already yielded his place when the other arrives; it is all so skillfully, and yet so artlessly, integrated into a form, that each seems only to be following his own inclination, yet without ever getting in the way of anybody else. It is the most appropriate symbol of the assertion of one’s own freedom and regard for the freedom of others.” 

Black Nag by John Playford. Source: Youtube

Black Nag by John Playford. Source: Youtube

It was helpful to finally experience this physically and get a deeper sense of the way that such dances enact some of the values of citizenship (as we might now describe it).

Many of the dances reminded me of gifs, something I’ve been working with recently (particularly in relation to THIS MOVEMENT). All the dances consist of simple sequences repeated to circulate people around circles or up and down parallel corridors in ways that could theoretically go on forever; the perfect gif movements. And like a looping gif this repetition had a delightful calming effect.

Perhaps this is a kind of predictability and collectivity is no longer popular in either concert or vernacular dance. But I found it quite democratic in its conservatism and wonder if there is something in there to be explored.

I also have something of a renewed interest on discovering that the seminal book of English Country Dances – John Playford’s The English Dancing Master – was published in 1651, the same year as Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. I’m not yet sure what the connection means other than that these two contemporary texts suggest two different ways of modelling and creating social relations, one through words, the other through movement. I am fairly clear about how problematic the former is but for now, retain some optimism about the latter.


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