A spring in the step

It’s been a while. In fact, it’s been months. I’m afraid the collective Mrs Wilkins’ tend to hibernate over the winter. We have been known to pop our heads out around new year occasionally, but generally we hide away in our warm burrows until the daffodils come out, the weather warms a little and it’s past Easter. Well the weather, and thus the daffodils, aren’t playing ball this year: most of them were over and done with by the time of our first dance out at Oxford Folk Festival, and we were more concerned with whether it would snow than blooming flowers.

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We’ve had a successful winter. Steadily practicing since January – reminding ourselves which foot is left and which is right. And welcoming new dancers into the fold. Our ‘Give it a Go’ session in January surpassed our expectations. We’d normally be ecstatic if we got two new dancers. On that one night we had five. It was actually quite scary having to introduce six newbies into the fold on one night – a lot of assistance from the few Mrs Wilkins’ who weren’t involved in the dance helped it along. We chose a dance for four so we could do it for 12 dancers and spread everyone out a little. A nice single step dance to get the feet sorted and to help them concentrate more on where they were going. One slight issue which I hadn’t expected was the fact it is a left foot dance. This might not sound important, but the majority of our dances start on the right foot. This one, the Hindley Street Dance, doesn’t. It has had the unexpected knock-on effect that our new dancers seemed a little left-footed/left-handed as we moved on to other dances, which are all right-footed. Right seems natural to me, a right-hander, but I hadn’t realised how much the first dance you learn could affect subsequent assumptions on the part of a new dancer. Luckily, we’re now three or four dances into the learning process, so this issue has abated, but it was a valuable lesson for me.

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The ‘Old timers’, as I’ve come to call the ongoing members of the side, have been great at helping our ‘Newbies’ along and welcoming them in to the side. We’ve also introduced a couple of new innovations with their help. We now do a general warm up before we start dancing – even some of the musicians join in occasionally. It doesn’t seem to be a major innovation, and some of you who may be dancers are probably surprised that we haven’t done this in the past. It’s always been something that one or two of the members have tried to introduce, but having a Newbie along who had experience of doing such exercises helped the process. We now do it regularly, and it moves on to stepping practice, which we had done in the past, but not quite this way.

As I teach a dance, I notice what steps cause problems and where the co-ordination of hands with feet trip up one’s concentration on moving in the right direction. Stepping practice is a chance to address these issues – hopefully with a little fun thrown in. Whether it’s practice at keeping in straight lines, dancing backwards without hitting anyone or anything in the process, or working out how to rant sideways without turning your hips so your feet go forwards and your shoulders go sideways, it’s all valuable to everyone. It’s not until you teach a dance to a new learner that you might realise how often we take a few steps backwards in a figure, or have to, somehow, go sideways in a circle holding garlands above our heads.

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Now that the dancing season is really getting going – we have two dance outs this weekend – we can spend less time teaching a dance progressively. It’s another step in the learning curve for the Newbies as they have to dredge up figures for each dance from memory when we can spend less time taking them through all the figures before we start to practice. When you have to practice four or five dances in one night for two dance outs, there is little time left for the gentle reminders there have been so far. With the Oxford Folk Festival we’ve started this process. It’s another change in mind set for the Old Timers as well. We have to check our kit over, find the socks, iron the shirts and repack the bags to take out the remaining detritus of last season.

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Oxford got us off to a good start – we were dancing in front of the Ashmolean Museum on a lovely flagged surface that makes the stone ring as the clogs hit it. A hard surface to dance on, not just because it’s unforgiving, but because we love making a noise and tend to dance harder. The tingling feet at the end of the day often gives us a clue as to how hard our feet have been working. Hopefully the weather will be kind again this weekend – it’s been a little unpredictable so far this year. There’s quite a few dance outs lined up – including a few unusual ones.

Hopefully by the middle of the year our Newbies will no longer be Newbies, but fully-fledged Mrs Wilkins’ as they join in the dance-outs. We’ve started on the kit muster for them, usually involving detailed discussions on hem levels as the poor Newbie stands in stocking feet in a skirt in the middle of the room whilst the length of their legs and visibility of bloomers is under examination. Clog orders have been placed for those who need them, silk flowers are bought for the hats and long socks procured.

Perhaps a little more slowly than some sides, but 2016 is now officially underway.

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