“You’re a very good swinger,” my partner enthuses before grabbing me from behind, one hand squeezing my waist tightly. There is a perfectly innocent explanation for this; it’s not a scene from some bacchanalian love-fest but merely a brief flirtation with the recent renaissance of English Dancing. Swinging is a dance move; I am a swinger, pivoting around on my right food and bobbing up and down to the twangs of the mandolin.
English dancing is enjoying a comeback of sorts. BBC Four broadcast a special Christmas documentary on clog dancing, whilst last year saw a threefold increase in the number of blogs and forums dedicated to the quirky hobby. So, always one to follow up a hype, I find myself at the home of folk dancing, Cecil Sharp House, to sample the delights of the English Country Dance. Indeed, Cecil Shap was the ultimate Comeback King of folk-dancing; travelling worldwide during the mid-19th century reviving the phenomenon.
Needless to say, I am in the hands of experts as I walk through the doors into the old, wood-panelled hall. Although the class is in the throes of a ‘Riverbank Ramble’ it is not long before their circle formation disperses and I find myself approached by an older gentleman: “Would you care for the next dance dear?” As a girl who is normally propositioned with a wink and a cheeky grope, I am rather taken aback. I forget that this elegant dancing was inherited from ladies and gentlemen of the court of Queen Elizabeth I and continued to grace ballrooms throughout the Baroque and Regency eras.
My partner leads me to the centre of the room where I take my place in the line of women standing parallel to their partners. “And now for Mr Beveridge’s Maggot,” announces the instructor. We all run through the skeleton of the dance before launching into the full shebang; violins, mandolins and all. After a customary bow, I am instructed to take my partner’s hand on the diagonal and walk in a circular motion, clockwise then anti-clockwise. Next we pass around each other in a figure of eight, ending up where we started- not somewhere across the room, as befell many.
The line splits in half, the women pass their partners on the underside and resume a position one head further down the original parallel line. This sequence of moves is repeated as you work you way down the line. It sounds complicated but after the standard initiation process of toe-crushing and limb-lashing, the experience becomes far easier. As long as you listen to the phrasing of the music you can place where you are in the routine and recover any bodged moves.
Over the course of the evening I am introduced to a whole host of dance terms that, to my surprise, become second nature to me promptly. An hour in and even I astonish myself by springing into a polka when the instructor cries, “Rings and Swings!” Although many of the class were experienced jiggers, there was plenty of time for beginners to practice their moves without feeling like an inconvenience. Frequently members of the class sidled off to perfect their do si do’s and chassé s, rejoining when they felt confident enough to last the whole routine.
Once you get the hang of it, the dancing itself is massively enjoyable albeit exhausting. I wonder how Lizzie Bennett managed to hack it whilst playing coy with Darcy and battling a corset. Indeed with all the prancing about and sticking to the routine, the dance requires an incredible level of energy and mental engagement. It’s far better than any yoga class I’ve ever been to.
The final dance has us all stood in a large circle, weaving past one another before stopping at the seventh person along. On instruction I launch into a jig, swinging my left leg waist-high and hopping, then repeating the move to my right. All is well until my partner coos “Ooh don’t grab there.” I turn a bit pink and chant “What would Lizzie do,” to myself a few times. About time for the cream tea methinks.
Where? The beginners English Country Dance class meets every Thursday, 7.30pm at Cecil Sharp House, Regent’s Park Road, Primrose Hill, NW1 7AY
How much? The class costs £4.50 for adults, £3.50 for concessions
How do I book? Call up in advance on 020 7485 2206 or email info[at]efdss[dot]org
Did you know? The cast of the BBC production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice were taught their English Country Dancing by experts from Cecil Sharp House – the scene can be viewed here.
Examples of the dance from 2005’s Pride and Prejudice can be viewed here
This post is by Olivia Wakefield – you can read her blog Olive On A Plain and talk to her on Twitter: @OlivesW