I’m not much of a dancer, but I enjoy a good ceilidh and I appreciate folk dances… now. When I was at primary school, we had to do ‘Country Dancing’ which was excruciatingly embarrassing as we had to dance with boys. I’m not sure that the boys were that keen on the whole endeavour either, which resulted in a lot of small children shuffling reluctantly around the gymnasium to an old and scratchy folk record, desperately trying not to make actual physical contact with their partner.
I enjoy watching folk dances now, so I watched a couple of recent BBC Four programmes with great interest. In Still Folk Dancing After All These Years, folk singers Rachel and Becky Unthank toured England to find out about the different styles of dance that are still practised today. Some are recent inventions or reinventions (like a summer celebration in Cornwall), while others — like the Horn Dance in Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire — genuinely go back hundreds of years. In the latter dance, a group of dancers collect ancient reindeer antlers (which have been carbon dated to the 11th Century) from where they hang in the church, and do a rather stately, serious, weaving dance through the local villages, for hours on end. Meanwhile, a guy dressed up as a jester and carrying a real pig’s bladder on a stick uses it to whack anyone who appears to be taking it all too seriously. That seemed to be a bit of a theme: built-in self-deprecation. Another theme was the close correlation between beer and Morris Dancing, or indeed beer (or cider) and any kind of folk dancing. Those involved and those watching the dances are usually seen with a pint or two in their hands, even if the dances take place at ten in the morning.
Many of the dances featured in the programme were male-dominated, or explicitly male-only. One young Cotswold Morris dancer (who reminded me very strongly of Derecq Twist from Morris: A Life With Bells On) leaped joyously in the air in one dance in a manner very similar to young Masai warriors who compete to see who can jump the highest. Though I don’t usually approve of anything being restricted to one sex, it was quite nice to see men enjoying dancing.
Come Clog Dancing was a bit more balanced, gender-wise. Charles Hazlewood, with the help of clog dancer Laura Connolly, wanted to create a flashmob clog dance on the streets of Newcastle, getting members of the public to learn and then perform a giant clog dance on the streets. It really looked like tremendous fun, and the great thing about clogs is that they make a brilliant noise, particularly when you are dancing on an upturned oil drum. Shoppers looked initially baffled and then rather delighted by the spectacle. I particularly liked The Newcastle Kingsmen, who did a very manly and slightly dangerous looking dance involving swords, high speed spinning and a saying “Raaarr!” in a piratical manner.