English country-dancing, folk-dancing, barn- dancing, call it what you will has embraced many influences old and new. This has given us a great variety of dance styles to choose from. I am sure that each of the many U3A dance groups all have their own distinctive programmes.
Thomas Hardy gives us descriptions of the sort of dances which were done in West Country farms. Cider and ale were in plentiful supply at the Harvest Supper and Dance described in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. This really was danced in a barn. The dance described was ‘ Soldier’s Joy’. It is a dance which is still danced today. It has a very lively tune, so lively that Hardy’s dancers apparently kept going for ‘three quarters of an hour of thunderous footing’.
One imagines that the dances performed by the characters in Jane Austen’s books were rather more sedate. When Fanny Price is at her first ball in ‘ Mansfield Park’ her uncle notices that she is walking the dances rather than doing the steps. He thinks she must be tired and insists that she sits down. It is 3 o’clock in the morning so perhaps this is not surprising. At that time being a good dancer was an important social asset, though not as much as a large fortune! In Regency dances you usually go down the set dancing with one’s partner and then one’s neighbour. This gave every opportunity for some discrete flirting with a number of people. You have seen the films, it is all done with the eyes.
A popular dance in the 18th & early 19th century was the ‘Quadrille’. It was done by 4 couples in a square. Lewis Carroll’s walrus and carpenter enticed the young oysters to join them with the chorus ‘will you, won’t you join the dance?’ The dance was the ‘Lobster Quadrille.’ Quadrilles were danced all over Europe and were taken to America with the settlers. They were brought back to us as the ‘Square Dance’ and soon we were doing our do-si-do’s and swinging with abandon. With the Square Dance came the use of a Caller. This proved to be very popular mainly because you don’t have to remember the dances. The independent Scots eschewed the services of a caller and still commit their dances to memory. Mind you they are not averse to carrying around a few written instructions.
English country dancing has evolved into something which is eminently suitable for all ages. U3A members find it particularly enjoyable. The dances are walked. There is no fancy footwork. You just need to be able to walk in time to music. If your U3A has a folk dance group I urge you to go and join the dance, it will give you many hours of pleasure, maybe even sheer delight. If your U3A does not have a folk dance group and you would like to start one, contact me. I can help you.
See Ann’s page on the U3A website for English Folk Dance.