English Folk Dance – Swords, Sticks and Ribbons
Posted on 27th April 2015 at 14:30
There is a huge variety of dance associated with English folk music, some of it quite alien to modern culture. Folk music was either written as song or for dancing, and the dances have deep roots in the social history of England, as well as offering an insight into agriculture, industry and cultural diversity.
Our English Folk and Ceilidh workshops at the Music Workshop Company explore the music of England through dance and song.
Ceilidh, an accessible social dance typical of Ireland, Scotland and England, in which participants learn the patterns and steps of traditional dances from a caller, has recently become popular for weddings and parties, but there is much more to folk dance than a good old barn dance.
On the first of May, May Day, celebrations were typically held to mark the arrival of spring. A young girl from the town or village would be selected as May Queen, and crowned to preside over the party, a bit like the Prom Queen at a modern high-school. A maypole decorated with garlands of flowers would form the centre of a dance, and dancers would circle the pole to music.
Later, long coloured ribbons were attached to the top of the pole, and the traditional and recognisable maypole dance was born. Each dancer would hold one length of ribbon, and they would weave in and out around the pole, in complex patterns, until the ribbons had been wound onto the pole. They would then reverse the dance to unwind the ribbons. The maypole was a source of huge local pride and competition, and it was common for one village to play a prank on another by stealing the top half of their maypole the night before May Day!
Maypoles and maypole dancing were declared illegal during the reign of Edward VI as the Reformation took hold, and the practice was seen as idolatrous and therefore immoral.
Many poles were destroyed, including the famous Cornhill May Pole of London, and the maypole at Castle Bytham in Lincolnshire was cut in half for use as a ladder. The practice was reinstated under Mary I, but never became as popular or widespread as it had been.
Morris dance is a form of rhythmic stepping dance, performed to traditional regional tunes. It is unclear where the dance got its name, although it’s possible it arose as part of the 15th Century fashion for “Moorish” spectacle. The dances have similarities with Italian folk dance. The dancers often wear costumes decked with colourful ribbons and tie small bells around their ankles for a percussive sound, and it was traditional for some dance teams to black-up their faces. It is unclear whether this is a reference to the Moors, miners or a common disguise used by beggars.
Morris dancers from the Cotswolds use handkerchiefs and wooden sticks as part of the dance, whereas Rapper Morris Men from Northumberland use short, flexible steel swords, blurring the line between Morris dancing and Sword Dancing.
The Long-Sword Dance is a traditional Yorkshire dance, using long, rigid wooden or metal swords. These dances came from the mills, the mines and in the case of sword dances, from military training exercises. They were danced in village teams.
Clogging, or English clog dancing is yet another form of traditional dance. Developed during the Industrial Revolution, it is thought to have come initially from the Lancashire cotton mills. Wooden-soled shoes were preferred in the mills, as the floors were kept wet to provide the humidity needed for spinning cotton. Workers would tap their feet in time with their machines in order to keep their feet warm. On breaks they would have competitions to see who could make the best rhythmic patterns.
Clogging is still a popular competition dance in modern traditional music circles. The dancer uses the heel and toe of the shoes musically to create rhythmic patterns on the floor. Clog dancing styles exist in Durham, Northumberland, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire and contain a wide array of techniques and rhythms.
Here’s a great short video of the Unthank sisters performing a traditional clog dance from Northumberland to some rather untraditional instrumentation…
he barn dance is a social tradition. This is the dance where everyone joins in, dancing together, like the Gaelic Ceilidh. Many traditional dances are based around introducing the men and women, so often dancers will start the dance with one partner and dance with many others during the set. These dances would facilitate the courtship and marriage of young people. In England the dances evolved slightly differently from the Irish and Scottish counterparts, using a slower tempo of tune and different variants of a step-hop step depending on region.
If you would like to find out more about English Dance from your region, contact the English Folk Dance and Song Society, who hold an extensive archive of tunes and information.
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