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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. 




Irish Song – A Window on History

Irish traditional music has existed for centuries, with songs and dance tunes passed on from generation to generation through the oral tradition. This practice of learning ‘by ear’ is still common today. Despite the number of printed tune and songbooks, students of traditional music generally learn tunes by listening to other musicians.

The traditional music that developed in Ireland first arrived with the Celts. Until the last decade or so, scholars dated the ‘arrival’ of Celtic culture in Britain and Ireland to the 6th century BC. However, recent research has given rise to the idea that Celtic culture emerged in Britain and Ireland much earlier – in the Bronze Age – suggesting its spread was the result not of invasion, as previously thought, but of a gradual migration enabled by an extensive network of contacts that existed between the peoples of Britain and Ireland and those of the Atlantic seaboard.

The Celts were originally from Europe – countries including Austria, evidenced by rich burial-site finds, Northern Italy, and even as far east as Turkey. By the middle of the 1st millennium AD, with the expansion of the Roman Empire and extensive migrations of Germanic peoples, Celtic culture had become restricted to Ireland, the western and northern parts of Great Britain (Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall), the Isle of Man, and Brittany. Between the 5th and 8th centuries, the Celtic-speaking communities in these Atlantic regions emerged as a reasonably cohesive cultural entity, with a common linguistic, religious and artistic heritage that clearly distinguished them.

spring_hill_review_jan_-_june_1907_1907_14768255862The Celts were influenced by music of the East. It is believed that the traditional Irish harp may in fact have its roots in Egypt. In ancient times the harp was one of the most popular instruments. Harpists were employed to play for chieftains and to create music for noblemen. In 1607, native Irish chieftains fled under threat of invasion, leaving the harpists to travel the land as itinerant musicians, playing where they could. One of the most famous of these harpists was Turlough O’Carolan, a blind musician and songwriter born in 1670 who travelled throughout his life from one end of Ireland to the other, composing and performing.

There are several collections of Irish folk music from the 18th century, and by the 19th century ballad printers were established in Dublin.

Like all traditional music, Irish folk music has evolved slowly, and most of the folk songs around today are less than two hundred years old. Where the oldest songs and tunes are from rural settings and come from the Celtic language tradition, the more recent songs generally come from cities and towns and are written in English.

The ultimate expression of traditional singing is an old-style called sean nós. This is usually performed solo, or very occasionally as a duet. Sean-nós singing is highly ornamented, with the voice placed towards the top of the range. A true old-style singer will vary the melody of every verse, but not to the point of interfering with the words, which are considered to have as much importance as the melody.

Non sean-nós traditional singing, even when accompanied, uses patterns of ornamentation and melodic freedom derived from sean-nós singing. It also uses a similar voice placement. This song from the Irish band Altan shows a more modern take on the traditional style.

Caoineadh is Irish for a lament. There are many laments in the Irish song repertoire, expressing sorrow and pain, often of a person lamenting for Ireland itself, having been forced to emigrate due to political or financial reasons. Laments were also used to express loss of a loved one or have their roots in war or the various economic crises caused by both partition and war. This song, Far Away in Australia, is a lament as an Irishman leaves home to seek better fortune, but like many Irish ballads is imbued with hope for the future.

The song, Mo Ghile Mear, written by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill, is a lament of the Gaelic goddess Éire for Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was in exile.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley relates to the Irish Rebellion of 1778. Written by Robert Dwyer Joyce (1836-1883), it expresses a young man’s sadness at leaving his lover to join the United Irishmen, a sorrow that is cut short when she is killed by an English bullet

Other aspects of Ireland’s history are found in popular songs such as Whiskey in the Jar, which tells of the betrayal of highwayman Patrick Flemmen who was executed in 1650. This ballad became a signature song for The Dubliners in the 1960s and was even recorded by Thin Lizzy and Metallica.

If you would like more information about our Irish song workshops, contact the Music Workshop Company today.

Scottish Dance: A Rich Mix of Cultural Influence

Scotland is internationally renowned for its traditional music and dance, in particular the unmistakable sound of the highland bagpipes. But the pipes are only one aspect of Scottish music: They are often used to accompany solo and competition dancing, but music for social dancing is more likely to be performed on instruments including the accordion, fiddle and flute.

Image: James Geddes

Image: James Geddes

The folk music of Scotland, like that of other cultures, centres predominantly around songs or ballads and dancing.

Traditional dance in Scotland has a more formal history than that of England, which is reflected in the strict conventions of Scottish reeling. Just as the music of Scotland was heavily influenced by art music from other countries, and fiddlers aspired to the same technical expertise as violinists such as Paganini, dance was, to some extent defined by the upper classes as much as by the working people.

There are four main categories of Scottish Dance:

 

The Country Dance

Scottish Country Dancing is mostly used at social gatherings, although it is also sometimes performed. Dancers complete each dance in sets of three, four or five couples, arranged either in two lines with the men facing the ladies, or in a square. During the course of the dance, the dancers complete a series of figures enough times to bring them back to their opening positions.

In England, the idea of the formal country dance is thought to have derived from the French contra danse, where couples dance opposite each other in a  square, round or longwise set. This originated in England during the 17th century, although its roots go back as far as the Court of Elizabeth I. In 1651, John Playford, a bookseller to the Inns of Court in London, published a collection of country dances, the tunes for which were predominantly Irish and Scottish. By 1728 the book had run to its 18th print, and it is still available in various editions today!

During the 18th century, the Scottish city of Edinburgh rose in status. Formal balls became an important part of society life. Formal dance styles were also developing in the French court, and these were held by the English and Scots to be the highest form of the art in formality, gentility and style. The French dance style called the contredanse or cotillon formed the basis of the quadrille, which superseded the country dance in 19th century England. It is also considered to be the root of some styles of ceilidh dance.

Image Flikr/k4dordy

Image Flikr/k4dordy

The Scots, inspired by influences from Europe, began to modify the country dances, introducing more intricate steps. This precision of character and virtuosic footwork and figure became the hallmark of the many Dancing Masters in Scotland at the time.

Dancing Masters were travelling teachers who taught all of the current forms of dance; country dance, minuet, highland reels and highland dancing, which was known as ‘high’ dance. They would work in grand houses, instructing both the upper class residents and the servants.

highland dancing

The Dancing Masters of 19th century Scotland were professional dancers who had generally studied ballet in either London or Paris. They would create their own dances or dance steps, often dedicated to a wealthy patron. They introduced the five ballet foot positions into both the country dance and the high dances, creating the pointed feet and straight legged positions familiar to anyone who has watched Highland Dancing.

Here’s a great clip of a country dance jig:

And here is a video of dancers in the Eightsome Reel:

Highland Dancing

Highland Dancing is a solo style of dance. It is very flamboyant and colourful and has become a very competitive art. Here is a performance of the Highland Fling:

Cape Breton Step Dancing

Another form of solo dance, Cape Breton dancing is mainly used for stage performances. It almost completely died out in Scotland, but was preserved in Nova Scotia by Scottish emigrants. Cape Breton is a hard-shoe dance similar to those danced in Ireland.

Scottish Dance has remained popular in England, though it went out of fashion towards the end of the 19th century and during the First World War. It’s slide into extinction was to some extent prevented by the determination of Mrs. Stewart of Fasnacloich and Miss Jean Milligan, who set about collecting the dances, and formed what was the become the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS). The dancing has since seen a huge resurgence thanks to the popularity of the ceilidh and various reeling societies.

Ceilidh

Ceilidh dances are easy to learn and often look more difficult than they actually are. Musicians and fellow dancers are always happy to help beginners, and the dance is normally led by a caller who teaches the steps before it is danced. Ceilidhs are great social events and have become a popular choice of entertainment at weddings. The dances themselves are similar to those of the country dances, but less formal. They are distinct from the organised reeling balls in that they are suitable for total novices. At reeling balls, dancers are expected to have learned the dance and mastered the steps. The refinement of the art of reeling was such that clubs still exist in schools such as Eton.

Here are some examples of popular ceilidh dances:

The Gay Gordons

Formation: Dancers form couples in a circle , facing anti-clockwise with ladies on the right and gentlemen on the left.

Music: Tunes including The Gay Gordons or Scotland the Brave, march time (2/4 or 4/4)

The Dance:

  • With right hands joined over the lady’s shoulder (the man’s arm behind her back) and left hands joined in front, walk forward four steps, starting on the right foot
  • Continuing in the same direction, without letting go of the hands, pivot on the spot and take four steps backwards
  • Repeat in the opposite direction, four steps forward, four steps backwards
  • Dropping the left hands, raise the right hand above the lady’s head. She pivots or spins on the spot
  • Join hands in a ballroom hold and polka around the room
  • Reform the circle in your couples and start again

The Flying Scotsman

Formation: Longways sets of four or more couples, men on the right and ladies on the left as viewed from the band. Couples number from nearest the band

Music: A 32 bar reel

The Dance:

  • The first lady, followed by the second and third ladies, dances across the top of the set weaving behind the first man, in front of the second man, behind the third man and across the bottom of the set back to her place
  • The same pattern is repeated by the men starting with the first man
  • The first couple join hands and gallop (slip step) down the room for four bars, then gallop up to finish at the bottom of the set
  • All couples join hands and gallop down the room, coming back to arrive in order 2, 3, 4, 1 when the dance starts again with couple number 2 now in the top place

The Music:

The music for different dances includes a variety of reels, strathspeys, hornpipes and jigs.

Reels, strathspeys and most hornpipes are counted in four, that is, they have four beats to a bar. Jigs and waltzes are in three, although the speed, style and dance for a jig is completely different to a waltz. The sound of the strathspey is very different to that of the reel or hornpipe.

Reels are played quickly, with all the fast notes having the same rhythm. Hornpipes and strathspeys are usually slower. The main feature of a hornpipe is it’s dotted rhythm where the strathspey uses the Scotch snap, a clipped short/long dotted rhythm. Sections of the music will be repeated and the tune structured to fit the number of bars required to make the dance work. The name of the dance is often the same as the name of the tune, for example, The Dashing White Sergeant is both the name of the dance and the tune that accompanies it. This tune, a reel, will be played at the top of the dance and then followed by other reels of a similar structure, sometimes coming back to finish with the first tune within the strict structure of bars.

Here’s a video of a strathspey dance. You can see the hop movement that accompanies the scotch snap rhythms in the tune.

November 30th is St. Andrew’s Day; a perfect opportunity to explore Scottish culture. If you would like to talk to us about booking one of our Scottish Dance Workshops, please contact the Music Workshop Team.

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