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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Dancing on the side of a hill, and other hazards

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Well, that was fun! We’ve just had our first pub dance out of the year.  We were invited along by Somerset Morris, who had been temporarily kicked out of their practice hall due to the general election (it’s other alter ego is as a polling station). Our host pub was the Bird in Hand in Saltford, a great family pub down by the River Avon. We’ve only had one dance out so far this year, at the JMO Day of Dance in Bristol – we’re not one of the sides willing to get up at the crack of dawn to dance in May Day. This night gave us a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the vagaries of outdoor dancing instead of in our nice comfy practice hall.

P1180258As is normal, we had part of the car park cordoned off for us – which didn’t stop the usual customer deciding that the cones weren’t meant for him and he could park in the space at the top that had so conveniently been left when the rest of the car park was almost full. Luckily, one of Somerset Morris got to him before he’d even switched off the engine, and he moved the car off our dancing surface.  Now, we’re used to dancing on all sorts of surfaces that come in all sorts of shapes and sizes surrounded by varied hazards.  This car park appeared relatively benign. Until we started dancing.

A wall at the top of the slope had a set of steps down on to the tarmac delimiting one side of the space.  Cars lined the other side, so not much room off the arena allowed for overspill. Not usually a problem as most of our dances, being North West processional in style, are danced in a rectangular shape which fit nicely into the shape provided.  That is until we got to the final figure of one dance – Butterly Brick – where we all line up across the dance area… In which case our line ended up wider than the dance space available and Dr Mrs Wilkins ended up dancing on the bottom tread of the steps.  Well we are adaptable, but we don’t usually practice for these sorts of circumstances.

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Wearing clogs we need a hard surface to dance on.  The best is usually based on wood of some sort – we once had a particuarly bouncy surface at Beckington on a makeshift stage based on railway sleepers with plywood on top – as it has some give in it. More often than not we dance on tarmac, concrete or some other paving surface.  Acutally dulls the sound of the clogs slightly, and we often end up with aching feet by the end as there is very little shock-absorbancy in the wood on tarmac combination. So this car park is well within our usual limitations.

What we don’t usually specify is exactly what counts at flat. The tarmac was flat – it hadn’t got any potholes, gravel or even the frequently danced-around manhole cover – so that was fine.  What we don’t define is what angle of slope is acceptable.  I mean, we don’t go out with an inclinometer to check it’s acceptable. We usually find out as we’re dancing.  The first couple of dances are fine and we have enough puff to laugh about going uphill.  Towards the end of the evening we do tend to find ranting backwards uphill a little more troublesome.

So, if you see a morris dancer kneeling on the ground peering at a spirit level, then it’s probably Mrs Wilkins checking the angle of the slope is within acceptable limits.

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Blowing out the cobwebs

Welcome to the new year. I hope you are all back upright and raring to go for a new season after the revels and revelations of the holidays? I’m not. Takes me until about February I think even with the current gales to spur me on the way. But the dancing has restarted already.

P1130272Rewinding a little… We had a successful, slightly windy and (ultimately) sunny Christmas danceout on 7th? December. The crowds came and went as they negotiated the usual pre-Christmas shopping chaos and left us their cash for our nominated charities. I even managed to film a bit of the dancing this year and put it up on YouTube.

Our Christmas party marks the end of the year’s events for us – we don’t partake of Boxing Day or New Year dancing as most of manage to disperse to the four corners of the country, if not the world. We invade a kind member’s home for the party – the spouses make a hasty departure to a quiet corner as the rest of us has another good blether. I’m afraid it’s one of the side-effects of ladies’ sides – lots of talking. But the up side is that there’s usually good food around as well. By some telepathic process we end up with just the right balance of food to nibble (we save the cakes for other meetings…).

Just desserts left

Just desserts left

We also swap Christmas cards. To save the hassle of writing so many, or the embarrassment of forgetting someone, we have a unique way of exchanging cards (well, unique in my experience). We all bring a cards for ourselves then send it round for everyone else to sign. It’s a great idea – we get the card that we want, and no-one is left out accidentally. At the same time we send round a bowl to take additional money to add to the collection from the Christmas danceout. This year we raised enough between the two collections to send a cheque for £165 to each of the nominated charities – Prostate Cancer UK and the Jessie May Trust.

And now our clogs are firmly in 2015 it’s back to the dancing. The first dance practice of the year always takes a bit of getting used to. Blowing the cobwebs from the brain to remember the figures and warming the muscles up to remember the steps. So maybe it wasn’t one of our best practices. But we enjoyed it, which is the point after all.

Now that we’re all warmed up, it’s time to get some more dancers in to the practice. Our New Starters/Beginners/Welcome evening is next week(never quite sure what the title of this event is – it’s really just an excuse for more tea and cakes 🙂 ), and I have to work out what we are going to dance. What we, as a side, find easy, is not necessarily easy to a beginner. And some dancers find some dances easier than others, just as they find single step easier than ranting (at least to start with). Do you start with interesting, but a little challenging, to keep them curious enough to return? Or do you start with simple but a little staid and boring to give them enough confidence to continue and think that they can do this. It all depends on the individual, and we don’t know who’s going to turn up yet….

So, if you are already a Morris dancer or musician, I hope you have a good 2015.  I may even see you at the Morris Fed AGM and Day of Dance in September – yes, I will keep mentioning it for a while yet.  If you aren’t yet a Morris dancer, then may I encourage you to give it a go?  Great fun, good exercise, great craic, tasty buns and cakes, lots of pubs, new people and interesting places you never knew existed before.  Even better… if you’re in the Bath area, why not come along and visit us one Thursday evening in Batheaston.  Don’t worry if you can’t make the 15th January, we’re open to new dancers any time.

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Practice, practice, practice

Musicians gossiping as they wait (patiently) for us dancers to get our act together

Musicians gossiping as they wait (patiently) for us dancers to get our act together

I used to hate those words when my music teachers kept at me, but practicing is the price we pay for enjoying our dance outs and entertaining the crowds. Actually, nowadays practicing is a lot more fun generally as it is our chance to catch up with the gossip, gardening, families, and quilting. Well, we are a female side!

For the most part practicing at this time of year involves getting ourselves sorted for a dance out. Working out what we are going to dance and in what position (that last part can cause some real headaches). Occasionally, we get a break in the sequence of performances and we can start to learn another dance the whole way through. Learning a new dance comes in stages – it is, hopefully, all in the head of the instructor (who is usually the one who invented it, but not always), but often requires some tweaking as you go along when timings don’t work or steps don’t fit. As the dancers don’t have a picture of the dance in their head, they are feeling their way through the figures. We also rotate our dances – we don’t dance all of them all the time, so we revive old ones that only the longer-standing members remember (vaguely, often), as well as introduce new ones as we drop old ones.

Left or right?

Left or right?

Starting a new dance, first everyone has to remind themselves of which way is left, right, up, down, in and out (believe me, we have difficulty with these concepts at times), then we walk through a figure, dance it, tweak it, dance it again before moving on to the next figure. Well, that’s what happens theoretically. Sometimes the democratic process takes over and we can have a debate about shapes and timings, sometimes we have to live in a dictatorship and allow for the fact that the instructor knows where we’re supposed to be going with this… Actually, sometimes what would help most is if there was more listening going on, rather than discussions about the care of courgettes or hemming hangups.

It’s an interesting process to watch for a change as I discovered the other night when we were being taught Frenchay (a new dance named for the old, now closed, hospital in north Bristol). To see how to accommodate all the ways in which people process the figures, the directions they are to go in, how they interact with the people around them (right shoulder, left shoulder etc.) and then piece it together.

The Dance Instructor conducts the proceedings

The Dance Instructor conducts the proceedings

Mrs Wilkins the Aeronautical Engineer (retd.) is our current Dance Instructor, and I swear she bases her dances on engineering diagrams. Once I’ve worked out what piece of machinery it looks like, I can generally get a handle on the figures – cogs, flywheels, pistons etc. Once there, I can often move positions around the set as I will know where about on the diagram I am and what I need to do next. Not everyone sees a dance like that, which makes teaching it a challenge to accommodate the different memory techniques. Some people can move positions as they are learning (and find it easier to memorise the overall dance that way), some have to wait until they’ve got a good grip of it before they move around, some just can’t see the pattern as a whole and struggle to dance anywhere other than where they learnt it.

I’m sure all sides have their quirks about learning dances, or their timings for when they do it. We do it as time permits throughout the year – which can mean that some people learn it faster than others, depending upon when they attend practice and when we teach the new dance. I have known some dancers only ever to learn the first half of a dance and wait for a year to learn the second half.

Where next?

Where next?

BTW – we practice every Thursday night at Batheaston Methodist Church Hall 8-10pm. Drop us a line if you’d like to join in (female dancers only, but we are very happy to welcome musicians of all sorts and sounds).