by Ruth Lawrence
Shimmy and shake your way into the new year across the dance floor! Ruth Lawrence discovers some of the styles on offer, why not try out some yourself this January for fitness, fun and frolics?
Now that the new year is here how about learning to lindy hop, find your feet at ballroom dancing or step out into folk or country dance? I spoke to some of Sussex’s keenest dancers to discover how you can get involved in any number of contrasting styles suitable for any age and level of ability.
One of the easiest and less strenuous disciplines is folk dancing. Keymer Folk Dance Club has been going since 1950 and meets two or three times a month in a social setting with teachers to show learners the basics. Organiser Sally Course explained that “it’s very accessible and we have wonderful styles inthis country that are great for all ages”. She added that the person in charge or the ‘caller’ walks people through the steps and as it’s a community dance, you don’t have to bring a partner, although many people do.
It’s gentle exercise and dancers constantly swap partners, which makes it perfect for getting to know people and making new friends – even complete beginners find the group welcoming and supportive. A two hour session only costs £1.50 to join in and all you require is a comfortable pair of shoes. Some of the dances are 400 years old, originating in England, Scotland, Ireland and the USA and sport evocative names such as the Hop Pickers Feast, The Duke of Kent’s Waltz and The Pawnbroker. Sally told me that her group are one of about 20 in Sussex; some of the larger clubs hold public dances once a month where a live band accompanies the dancers. Keymer Folk Dance is due to celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2020, which speaks volumes about how popular and enjoyable this style of gentle dance has always been.
Linda Williams talked to me about Scottish Country Dancing, which for the East Grinstead Country Dance members club takes place each Thursday in Ashurst Wood, there are clubs spread throughout Sussex though. Linda did barn dancing at school and a friend introduced her to country dance; learning the sequences is excellent for brain coordination and aerobic exercise as the Scottish style is more complex than the English equivalent. It only takes a few weeks to master the basic dances and each class is different as any one of three regular teachers will be explaining the steps. The club is closely involved with the Oxted Reel Club and dancers can attend a Burns Night Dance with a live piper and musicians.
Scottish Country Dance has ancient origins and differs from Highland Dancing; it’s an idea to research the different styles before attending the first class (which is free) and deciding if you want to take up membership or just attend on a drop in basis. Linda recommends wearing comfy, soft, flat shoes rather than trainers and she stressed that beginners will feel welcome as there will always be more experienced dancers to explain and support the new members.
Although both sexes enjoy country and folk dance, women seem to outnumber men; however the ratio is reversed for Morris Dancing where men tend to predominate, although it is no longer the male preserve it is often assumed to be. Sean Goddard of Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men started learning 36 years ago, following his father who used to dance in the 1950s. Sean teaches and researches folk and Morris Dance and told me that his group or ‘side’, as a collective of Morris dancers are known, are actively looking for new dancers and musicians. Musicians with small portable instruments such as the accordion, melodeon, concertina, fiddle or flute are always sought after.
One interesting feature of Morris dancing is that after WW1 when so many men were lost, it was the women that kept the dance going in village clubs and halls; it wasn’t until the 1920s and 30s that men started reclaiming the dance although after the 60s women in universities and towns began to take up the dance again. Morris dancing is perhaps the archetypal traditional English dance that people associate with summer and being outdoors. During the colder months, Sean’s side meets once a week to practise but summer sees the 20 strong group dancing in local pubs and fetes which is an important way to keep Morris visible and pass on its rich heritage to younger generations.
Most Morris costume originates from the early 20th century; in the 20s the white trousers of the ‘Cotswold’ type of dance came along with the bells and handkerchiefs that represent this style. Sean told me that his side also practice the North West style dance which feature more flamboyant costumes with britches, long socks, green waistcoats, embroidery and wooden clogs.
Anyone of reasonable fitness can enjoy Morris dancing. It’s fairly easy to pick up the basic steps and it’s a good workout for mind and body. The group pay a small contribution for the hire of the hall. Buying kit is the only other expense and beginners are always made very welcome.
If you are a couple and fancy learning to dance together, ballroom dancing has exploded in popularity after the phenomenon of Strictly Come Dancing. I spoke to Erica Cuthbertson who, with husband Peter, learned six years ago after seeing it performed on cruise ships when they retired. They quickly became hooked and Erica told me that the different styles are great for coordination and exercise with the added benefit of a great social life. Tango, quickstep, cha cha cha, rumba and samba all have different rhythms which, once mastered, enable you to adapt to virtually any type of music including jive, rock and roll and modern pop. Ballroom requires the man to lead and the woman to follow and predict what he is going to do next. With practise a couple start to move as one and it begins to look seamless once the man can give clear direction to his partner.
You have to be fairly fit to do the quicker dances although stamina builds with practice; slower dancing can actually be more taxing and requires more strength to slow down the steps. Erica and Peter taught themselves 12 sequence dances initially by watching online videos and enjoyed it so much they now do two classes in Burgess Hill and go on dance breaks with a class in the morning and a dance in the evening. Erica’s advice for anyone considering learning is to go on the internet and check out local teachers; there are several in Sussex and go along to see if their teaching style suits you. She recommends going 6 or 7 times rather than being overwhelmed by the first class and giving up prematurely; the moves soon sink in and it gets easier and more enjoyable. One of her favourite dances is a foxtrot danced to a big band although she loves the fun of rock and roll and cha cha cha. “We put records on and dance in the living room,” she told me. “Waltzes can be lovely to dance to with the right music.” She recommends that ladies wear light and flexible dance shoes and any outfit that allows movement while looking smart. A mid-calf skirt is ideal although Latin style outfits tend to be tighter and shorter while ballroom dresses can be full and more elaborate.
For something extra energetic why not try lindy hop, the grandaddy of modern jive? I spoke to Derek Harnden who has worked with the late Frankie Manning, one of the original lindy hoppers from Manhattan. When Derek moved to Worthing from London, he realised there was no lindy hop around in the area and decided to start the Savoy Swing Academy in Worthing. Although keeping true to traditional the Savoy stye continues to encourage its evolution. The small troupe offer regular beginner’s courses and intermediate classes and in February or March they will be putting on a tea dance in Worthing with a live band.
Derek recommends that beginners try modern jive; he equates it to a six lane motorway where everyone is going the same way whereas lindy hop is more like an open field and multi dimensional. Worthing Savoy Swing has a new season starting in the spring and although fit people in their 70s and 80s can dance lindy hop, he’s trying to engage younger people from colleges in Worthing to learn this multifaceted, highly engaging dance style. With wedding demos, appearances at local festivals and charity events, 2017 looks like a busy year for the troupe.
Step Dancing has been in Janet Keet Black’s family for generations; one of her distant uncles was a well-known stepper in the Gypsy community and she began stepping as her father before her. Stepping is a heel and toe form of dance (not to be confused with tap dancing) which produces a percussive accompaniment to polkas, hornpipes and fabulous old folk tunes played on fiddle, or squeezebox. One account tells of a Newick man stepping in a pub, while accompanying himself on the spoons.
Pubs were always the perfect place where folk songs and tunes would be heard, the ale would flow and impromptu stepping would come and go in the course of an evening. Pubs were also ideal places to step because of the sound of the hobnailed boots on the brick, wood or flagstone floors. In fact one of the things that affected the decline in the appearance of stepping in pubs was the arrival of carpeted floors. For this reason todays steppers bring their own wooden boards with them to a session. Most villages had a fiddler and each person could easily step in turn within the confined space of a crowded pub.
The fact little space is required to step dance made it ideal for sailors on board ship. The dance was perfect for the narrow confines of the ship and crew. We all know the famous Sailors Hornpipe, well now you can imagine how the sailors would have danced at sea.
Step dance is a freestyle dance, which is a big part of the appeal as steppers can improvise their own personal steps; some people step high, others low, some quick and some more slowly. Folklorist Mak Norman remembers seeing three generations stepping together in Suffolk in the 1990s, which gave him the impetus to team up with Janet, with a shared vision to bring stepping back to Sussex. It’s now garnering plenty of interest from people keen to keep traditional dance in an intimate community setting rather than on the stage. Janet and Mak aim to bring stepping into contemporary consciousness; Janet’s monthly sessions provide the perfect way to learn and practice in a noncompetitive, friendly setting and sometime in the new year she will be hosting a southern English step dance workshop (find out via email details below). There’s always boards provided at sessions, though Janet recalls seeing people stepping on tin trays and one lady even used to step on dinner plates!
Children love the spontaneity and instinctive quality of stepping, so much so it is now being taught in Hampshire schools and when youngsters try it, they love the opportunity to shine without having to learn routines or complex moves. It’s a dance that brings community and family together while being able to display individuality and that’s one of the reasons it’s so unique and enjoyable to do in a social setting.
With so many styles to choose from, why not make 2017 the year you fasten on your dance shoes and take to the floor for fun, fitness or friendship?
Keymer Folk Dance Club
East Grinstead Country Dance
Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men