Cecil Sharpe house library
Freelance Life

The Lost Dances of Northumberland, England

Did you know that there are hundreds if not thousands of social dances that are possibly forever lost?

 

Did you know that some of the dances that are lost, in their heyday took over a year to learn with men, women and children practising them every day?  And more than that, tens of thousands of people came to know certain dances.  They taught these dances to everyone they knew and right here and now today no one in the world knows how to dance them?

 

old book of Northumberland folk stories
Northumberland folk history – secrets and lies…?

Did you know that only a handful of decades back, couples met each other at social dances in England?    They learnt dances together and sometimes because of that fell in love… simple.

We don’t always know where dances originate because evidence is found of them in multiple places with that particular town feeling ownership over a piece of music and it’s accompanying steps.

 

What is Folk Culture and why is it important to us?

 

There is a tonne of fascinating folk culture in Northumberland.  Hobgoblins, apple pips burning in the fire, witch-craft, worms and more.

 

Folk story, folk song, folk dance and folk music is described by The English Folk, Dance and Song Society as ‘Folk Arts’.   Usually rooted in ceremony, tradition or superstition folk exists in all of us even if we have long forgotten the embodied experiences to which it connects it us to our landscape.

 

A well travelled path but in a modern world is folk so far-away from us all?

 

My mum used to remind me often… “Don’t put shoes on the table” – I would never put a box of shoes on the table.  We didn’t do ‘first foots’ at New Year in our home but I was often the first foot for my friend at primary school.    Are these North East superstitions?    Where did they come from?  Who started them and how far did they travel from their original source?

dance notation
Dance notation – how dance was recorded…

My friend told us two years ago to never to buy him shoes for in his culture it was seen as he might run away from the person who bought the shoes and he wanted to stay close to us always.  We didn’t buy the shoes but we havent seen him in over three years

 

A trip to understand more about Cecil Sharpe

The largest collection of Folk Culture exists within a building thanks to a fascinating fella called Cecil Sharpe who a whole museum space is named after.

Cecil was a collector of all things folk… his collection started with books and the museum now houses over 5000 books on folk culture from across Europe.

I have always felt European and not British because of the influence on my heritage and life experiences.

I can easily imagine a Claire who lived in a much earlier decade with more of a nomadic experience than mine.  Perhaps moving as part of one of the regularly moving dance troupes that moved from village to village across Europe.

 

Zooming out to zoom in – Being in London, pre Brexit. 

We met Nick Wall, Senior Archivist on a beautiful summer’s day.

Eight of us took the 6.55 train from Alnmouth in Northumberland to London Kings Cross.  We walked the 28 minutes rather than take the tube and arrived to beautiful music being practised by an orchestra beyond reception.

Nick talked to the group broadly about the museum, showed them some secret rooms, artefacts and the biggest collection of records any of us have ever seen.

He also spoke about the continued popularity of Folk Music and Song…. “The pendulum has swung towards Folk Music with it becoming increasingly popular where as I am sad to say the history of dance is less understood”

Sign on a sunny London day.

Part of the reason is that before relatively recently we didn’t have an accessible way to record dance.

How the world has changed – HELLO Instagram stories… we can safely say with young people as young as 7 or 8 using smart phones we’ve now got recording EVERYTHING covered!

Nick also explained alot of dances came from Europe, were taught by travelling folk and lived on and became rooted in the communities they found themselves in.

The young people have really started to realise the crushing reality of the importance of the work they are doing as part of their Heritage Lottery Funded project.  The interesting thing is that dances are not necessarily lost more lost in translation  as some are recorded in dance notation/ diagram form (see images).

They are beautiful, extremely beautiful and incredibly confusing!  Luckily our incredible artistic director Emma Hardman has already deciphered a lot of the code.

What’s next? 

Watch this space for more on our Lost Dances creations as we create a new dance for Northumberland and bring some stories about where they came from back to life.

A dance remembered…

“Our day in London gave us so much to think about and we are now super excited to work towards communicating more about lost dances through re-creating dances from dance notation and creating our own dance.”  Participant

Some of our dance group ready to perform

There’s space for us all to tell our version of the stories we care about most and that’s pretty refreshing in my eyes.  You can follow along with The Lost Dances project on Instagram here.

 

 

The Lost Dances is led by Emma Hardman in partnership with Equal Arts funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, Northumberland Arts Development at Northumberland County Council.

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