Welsh Dance – A Living Tradition

Music holds an important place in Welsh national identity – so much so that Wales is traditionally referred to as the ‘Land of Song’. However, despite the positive implications this moniker has in terms of the Welsh affinity with music, this is actually a modern stereotype based on the importance of 19th century choral music and 20th century male voice choirs, and in some ways it clouds a long and unique musical and social history. 

[Image: National Assembly for Wales]

Like Ireland and Scotland, Wales has its own history of folk music, its own cultures and its own dances. The music has distinctive instrumentation and song types. It can traditionally be heard at a twmpath (folk dance session), gŵyl werin (folk festival) or noon lawen (traditional party similar to the Gaelic ceilidh). The fact that Welsh music is less familiar than that of England, Scotland and Ireland is simply due to many years of suppression.

The main reasons for this effectual annihilation of Welsh history were politics and religion. Various Acts of Union, and in particular the 1707 Act that formed the Kingdom of Great Britain, promoted the English language and the eradication of Welsh culture, and the rise of the Methodist Church in the 18th and 19th century further silenced Welsh voices. 

The fervent zeal of the religious revival of the latter part of the last century and the early years of the present century, persecuted and exiled old traditionally Welsh dances.

A Welsh Folk Dancing Handbook by A E Williams

Wales is a small country. It stretches only 130 miles from north to south with a population of around 3 million. Its initial loss of independence came with the fall of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd during the 13th century. In 1536 Wales was brought under the laws and customs of the English crown and the Welsh language was outlawed. The nationalism prevalent during the 18th century went some way to encourage Welsh patriotism, which slowly grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. St David’s Day celebrations became common, the red dragon (the royal badge of Wales since 1807) and an unofficial national anthem (Hen Wlad fy nhadau or Land of My Fathers has been used since around 1905) returned a sense of national identity and pride. But much of what could be interpreted as Welsh patriotism was a tourist-orientated and romanticised ‘Victorian’ version of the country’s genuine culture.

In recent decades much work has been done to advance the Welsh language and the customs of Wales. Radio and television channels transmit in Welsh, the country has an increasing presence in parliament from members of Plaid Cymru, and in September 1997 a national referendum furnished Wales with its own elected assembly. Thanks to the work of individuals and societies like the Welsh Folk Dance Society (formed in 1949) there is an abundance of Welsh folk dancing today. 

About the dances

Welsh folk dancing encompasses several forms of dance – set dance (couple dancing), Morris dance and clog (or step) dance.

Clog dancers create rhythmic sounds by the placing and timing of their steps, manipulated with foot, ankle and shoe, a wooden-soled clog. Clog dancing differs from tap dancing in that it relies on the use of the whole foot rather than the ball of the foot, but like other forms of dance it includes the use of improvisation. Male dancers would often perform solo step dances in the local village pubs, competitive displays of virility, strength and agility. Women’s solo step dances were generally more controlled and portray aspects of folklore such as the ‘Mother of Wales’ and local customs such as courting rituals.

Set dancing is a kind of dance where everyone can join in and the dance can often be learned quickly. If you have ever learned a ceilidh dance at a wedding or party this will be a familiar concept. Folk dances are social by nature. This can be seen in the Children Festival, Gwyl y Plant, where children from all over Wales come together to dance the simple twmpath dances.

Some dances, including court dances, are much better suited for display and are most often seen at Eisteddfods where the dance itself and the skill of the dancers is important. In fact, these competitions have helped to raise the standard of dancing. Dance performances must be based on traditional patterns and steps, though it is argued by some participants that this hinders the natural development of a living tradition.

Morris dancing also exists in Wales. Dances are associated with important festivals and days including Christmas and the New Year.

Welsh folk dancing only saw a revival in the early 20thcentury, making it a relatively young tradition. Its survival and progression relies on its popularity with younger generations. The tradition was suppressed for over a century, and there is no way of fully knowing what a folk dance looked like. The music and dance styles from other countries and regions within the British Isles will have influenced Welsh dance in the meantime, and these influences are as integral to the tradition as they have been to the history that built it. Old manuscripts, notations and visual recollections provide clues but no absolute points of reference that a dance was ‘exactly’ one way or another. In some ways this gives the opportunity to look at where Welsh dance fits in Wales today, rather than holding onto an authentic version of its steps, styles and meaning, opening the way for the true continuation of a living tradition. 

Welsh folk dancing only saw a revival in the early 20th century, making it a relatively young tradition. Its survival and progression relies on its popularity with younger generations. Dancing in Wales was suppressed for over a century, and there is no way of fully knowing what a folk dance looked like. The music and dance styles from other countries and regions within the British Isles will have influenced Welsh dance in the meantime, and these influences are as integral to the tradition as they have been to the history that built it. Old manuscripts, notations and visual recollections provide clues but no absolute points of reference that a dance was ‘exactly’ one way or another. In some ways this gives the opportunity to look at where Welsh dance fits in Wales today, rather than holding onto an authentic version of its steps, styles and meaning, opening the way for the true continuation of a living tradition. 




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English Folk Dance – Swords, Sticks and Ribbons

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.

800px-Morris.dancing.at.wells.arp

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!

MaypoleDanceWinterbourneHoughton2006

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_dancing_outside_the_Gerneral_Havelock,_HastingsMorris 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.

Sallyport_morpeth

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…

The 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. Contact the Music Workshop Company to book one of our English Song and Dance Workshops.

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