Up till a few years ago it was commonly believed that the English race was the only one in Europe that was unable to make any contribution to the literature of folk-song. Opinions may still be divided as to the artistic worth of our national folk-songs, but their existence, and in great abundance, can no longer be disputed.
A similar misconception with regard to English folk-dances awaits refutation. Maybe, the contents of this volume, following upon the issue of The Morris Book and other similar publications, will aid in the work of that enlightenment.
In justification of the attitude of apathetic indifference which, until recently, we held towards the folk-music of our own country, it should be remembered that since the days of the Restoration the musical taste of the upper classes in England has been frankly and unashamedly cosmopolitan. This strange preference for foreign music and prejudice against the native product has been, however, characteristic only of the more educated. It has never been shared by the unlettered, who have always sung the songs and danced the dances of their forefathers, uninfluenced by, and in blissful ignorance of the habits and tastes of their more fashionable city neighbours. But this is, unhappily, no longer so. The State schools, the railways, and the hundred and one causes which have led to the depopulation of the country villages are rapidly changing, some would say debasing, the taste of the present generation — of those, that is, whose ancestors were both guardians and inventors of our traditional music and national pastimes. In the village of to-day the polka, waltz, and quadrille are steadily displacing the old-time country dances and jigs, just as the tawdry ballads and strident street-songs of the towns are no less surely exterminating the folk-songs. Fortunately, there is yet time to do for the dances what has already been done so successfully for the songs, namely to collect, publish, and preserve the best of them for the benefit of our own and future generations.
But national prejudice dies hard; more especially when it is perpetually being nourished by those who profess to instruct. “We cannot now find among the rural population (of England) any traces of what may be called a national dance”, says the author of a recent History of Dancing — one, moreover, who lived in the centre of that district where, perhaps, the old dances flourish more vigorously than anywhere else in England. A few months ago, too, the foreign correspondent of one of our chief daily journals, after giving an account of the Northern Games at Stockholm, innocently remarked: “It would be a merrier and better England which could produce dances of this kind as a spontaneous and natural growth”.
This perverse indifference to facts is all the more remarkable when we remember that in the early days of our history we were renowned throughout Europe for our dancing no less than for our singing. “In saltatione et arte musicâ excellunt” is an oft-quoted tribute paid to us by Hentzner in 1598; while Beaumont spoke of the delight which the Portugese or Spaniards had in riding great horses, the French in courteous behaviour, and the “dancing English in carrying a fair presence”. But there is no need to labour the point. The fact that we once held this reputation is not questioned. The error has been too readily to assume, with our author of the History of Dancing, that because the upper classes have forgotten their native songs and dances, the peasantry have been equally neglectful.
This is especially unfortunate, for we happen to poses in England, in the Morris and the Country dance, two folk-dances of unusual interest, not only to the archaeologist and student of social history, but to the lover of dancing also. They represent two generically distinct types, of which indeed it might be said that they differ in almost every way that one dance can differ from another.
The Morris, for instance, is a ceremonial, spectacular, and professional dance; it is performed by men only, and has no sex characteristics.
The many curious customs — as well as the extra characters, e.g., the squire or fool, king, queen, witch, cake and sword bearer — which are commonly associated with the dance, all indicate that the Morris was once something more than a mere dance; that, originally, the dance formed but one part of what may very likely have been an elaborate quasi-religious ceremony. An analysis of the figures of the dance leads to the same conclusion. This may equally be true of many of the folk-dances of other nations, but very few bear upon them, as does the Morris, such clear and unmistakable indications of derivation from the primitive nature ceremonies of the early village communities.
And those qualities, which the Morris derived from its ceremonial origin, it has never lost. As practised today it is, as throughout its history it always has been, a formal, official dance, performed only on certain days in each year, such as Whitsun-week, the annual club feast, wake or fair-day.
The village Morris-men, moreover, are few in number, especially chosen and trained, and form a close society or guild of professional performers. Admission into their ranks is formal and conditioned. It is not enough that the probationer should be a good dancer, lissome and agile; he must, in addition, undergo a course of six weeks’ daily instruction at the hands of elder dancers. Upon election, he will be required to subscribe to sundry rules and regulations, and provide himself with a special and elaborate dancing dress, every detail of which, though varying from village to village, is prescribed by tradition.
The Morris, too, is remarkable for the total absence of the love motive from all its movements. There is scarcely a single dance in which the performers so much as touch each other, while “handing” is quite unknown.
Finally it must be understood that the Morris is not, primarily, a pleasure dance. Its function is to provide a spectacle or pageant as part of the ritual associated with the celebration of popular festivals and holidays.
The Country Dance, on the other hand, possesses none of these special characteristics. It has played altogether another part in the social life of the village. No ceremony or formality has ever been associated with its performance. It was, and so far as it is practised it still is, the ordinary, everyday dance of the country-folk, performed not merely on festal days, but whenever the opportunity offered and the spirit of merrymaking was abroad. So far from being a man’s dance, it is performed in couples, or partners of opposite sexes. 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.
Nor has the Country Dance ever been regarded as a spectacle or pageant, like the Morris. It has always been danced purely for its own sake, for the pleasure it afforded the performers and the social intercourse that it provided. More than a hundred years ago a French author drew attention to the point in the following passage: “Au village l’on danse pour le seul plaisir de danser; pour agiter les membres accoutumés à un violent exercise; on danse pour exhaler un sentiment de joie qui n’a pas besoin de spectateurs”. The same idea was expressed by Edward Philips, Milton’s nephew, in The Mysteries of Love and Eloquence, or The Arte of Wooing and Complimenting, when he makes the dancing master say, “Ladies, will you be pleased to dance a country dance or two, for ’tis that which makes you truly sociable, and us truly happy; being like the chorus of a song where all the parts sing together”.
It is a moot point whether or not the Morris owes anything to Moorish or other foreign influences. No such question, however, arises with the Country Dance, which is wholly and demonstrably English. This, it is true, has been disputed even by English writers, who, deceived by a false etymology, have sometimes derived it from the French contredanse. This “brilliant anachronism” has been effectively refuted by Chappell and others, by a reference to dates. They have shown that the contredanse cannot be traced back further than the seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries; and that it is not even mentioned by Thoinot Arbeau (1589), or by any of the early French writers on dancing. On the other hand Weaver, in An Essay towards an History of Dancing (1712), p.170, says, “Country Dances . . . is a dancing the peculiar growth of this nation, tho’ now transplanted into almost all the Courts of Europe; and is become in the most august assemblies the favourite diversion. This dancing is a moderate and healthful exercise, a pleasant and innocent diversion, if modestly used and performed at convenient times, and by suitable company”. Essex, too, in his Treatise on Choreography, or the art of dancing Country Dances (1710), writes: “This which we call Country Dancing is originally the product of this nation”.
The evidence is quite conclusive. So far from deriving our Country Dances from France, it was the French who adapted one particular form of the English dance, known as “A square dance for eight”, developed it, called it contredanse, and sent it back to England, where in the Quadrille, one of its numerous varieties, it still survives.
Although the Country Dance originated with the unlettered classes it has not always been their exclusive possession. Just as the folk-songs were at one time freely sung by all classes of the community, so the Country Dances were once performed at Court and in fashionable ball-rooms, as well as on the village green. In the reign of James I. it was said that it was easier to put on fine clothes than to learn the French dances, and therefore “none but Country Dances” must be used at Court. This, however, never became the invariable practice. The custom seems to have been to begin the ball with the more formal and, for the most part, foreign dances, e.g., the Courante, Pavane, Gavotte, and so forth, and afterwards to indulge in the merrier and less restrained Country Dances; just as, up to a few years ago, it was customary to finish the evening with the popular “Sir Roger”. Dancers of the present day might do worse than revert to the old habit and substitute for the Quadrille and Lancers one or more examples of the more ancient and far more sociable Country Dance.
The dances and tunes in this book have been collected in Warwickshire, Derbyshire, Devonshire, Somerset, and Surrey. It will be noticed that, like “Sir Roger”, they are all danced in the familiar formation of two parallel straight lines, men on one side, women on the other. This is what was called in the old dancing books “Longways for as many as will”, and it is the only formation in which, apparently, the Country Dance is performed by country folk of the present day. But this was not always so. Playford’s English Dancing Master (1650-1728) and other similar publications contain many dances directed to be performed in other ways. There are many Rounds for “four or eight dancers” or “for as many as will”; the “square dance for eight”, already mentioned as the prototype of the Quadrille; while in the once popular “Dargason” the performers started in a single straight line, the men and women in different groups. Many of these older dances are extremely interesting, and some of them, deciphered from the old dancing books, will be described in the second part of this work.
Note: the following paragraphs were deleted from the second edition, edited by Maud Karpeles after Cecil Sharp's death
It is impossible to close this chapter without reference to the revival of folk-dancing in England, which has lately attracted some attention.
The revival, it should be pointed out, is not peculiar to this country. A similar movement is being prosecuted with like enthusiasm in the United States of America, as well as in certain European countries. The movement has, no doubt, for its chief objective the quickening of the national spirit, and this will most certainly be one of its immediate and most beneficent effects. But there are other motives as well. Educationalists, for instance, advocate folk-dancing in schools for the sake of physical exercise that it promotes under the guise of recreation, seeing in it a corrective to the “hockey walk”, the “rowing slouch” and the wooden stiffness of bearing induced by military drill.
The movement in England has of course its critics. There are those, for instance, who point out that the primitive race which evolved the folk-dance is now in a state of decadence. Starting from this premise, which is quite unassailable, they then proceed to argue, very illogically, that for this reason the dances themselves are decadent; that they are out of tune with the spirit of the present day and deserve nothing better than to be relegated to the lumber room together with old and useless products of a past age.
Others, however, attracted by the simple, rhythmic beauty of their movements, and of the tunes to which they are allied, think that these ancient national dances are on their own merits far too good to be lost, and advocate wholeheartedly their revival and practice, particularly in the schools and by young people.
Among those who take this latter view must be reckoned the Educational Authorities, who, in their new Syllabus of Physical Exercises, propose that the Morris and Country Dances shall forthwith be placed in the curriculum of the elementary school.
The official recognition thus accorded to the educational value of our two national dances marks a new and almost revolutionary departure, and discloses a vista full of interesting possibilities. If, however, the scheme is to yield the best and fullest of results, it must be administered with caution and wisdom. It is, for instance, of paramount importance that the dances should be translated into the schools as accurately as possible in their native and traditional forms; otherwise their educational as well as their artistic value will be seriously discounted. To do this effectively will need an adequate supply of trained teachers and a staff of qualified inspectors.
Teachers, too, must realise the very different qualities which characterise, respectively, the Morris and the Country Dance, if they are to assign to each its own proper place in the educational scheme.
The Morris is the more difficult dance of the two. Its especial purpose in education is the development of physical qualities. Its movements are strong, vigorous, at times almost violent, and demand great agility and flexibility of limb. Nevertheless, they must be executed easily and gracefully and without apparent effort or physical distress; and the ability to do this can only be acquired by constant and assiduous practice under expert supervision. Vigour under complete control is the dominant note of the Morris Dance, as it is also its chief claim to educational recognition. The greatest care must be exercised lest, on the one hand, the dance degenerate into a disorderly romp, or, on the other hand, curbed by too rigid a restraint, it become tame and lifeless. Much drill and discipline, too, will be needed if the performers are to keep their lines straight and even, and to maintain the prescribed distances from each other. Finally it must be borne in mind that the Morris is not so much a social, recreative dance as a physical exercise, and a very strenuous one.
The Country Dance is a quieter, more reposeful dance. It is more easily learned, and is physically far less exacting than the Morris. It is, primarily, a social recreative diversion, in which both sexes take part; a homely, intimate, and above all a mannered dance. By its means many valuable lessons may be inculcated — in grace of manner and dignified behaviour, especially between the sexes; in the art of moving easily and naturally, and maintaining a fair presence and courtly bearing. In the words already quoted, the Country Dance is a “moderate and healthful exercise, a pleasant and innocent diversion, if modestly used and performed at convenient times and by suitable company”.
So far, we have considered the educational worth of the folk-dance as a physical exercise only. But it is something more than this. It is an art, and a highly expressive one; an art, too, like music, to which children are peculiarly responsive. On this ground alone its introduction into the schools may be justified; for educationally speaking, the quickening of the artistic sense is at least as important as the developing of muscles. Consequently, in placing folk-dances in the schools we are, or should be, introducing not merely a pleasurable form of physical exercise, but an art, something that is at once healthful, beautiful, and expressive. No one who has closely studied the best folk-dancing in England would hesitate for one moment to dignify it by the name of an art, nor deny that it seems to give to those who practise it an ease of manner and an air of refinement which are very attractive. It is something more than mere sentimentality that would connect the upright bearing of the Morris dancer with the uprightness of his character. To those whose experience is limited to the cake-walks and skirt-dances of the music-hall, or the monotonous circlings and “kitchen” lancers of the drawing-room, this view may seem fantastic. But this is only because dancing has in our time become so debased that most of us have forgotten that it is one of the most elemental and universal of the fine arts.
Ease of manner, grace and dignity of carriage, upright bearing, and so forth, can scarcely be said to distinguish the age we live in. And yet, it is not so very long ago since “the dancing English” were renowned for “carrying a fair presence”. Is it too much to hope that, with the revival of folk-dancing in the schools, these very desirable qualities may in the next generation once again be characteristic of the English nation?
Page transcribed by Hugh Stewart