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The Dancing-Master

Portrait of Billy Purvis - Dancing-Master
Portrait of Billy Purvis - Dancing-Master


Not so long ago, certainly within living memory, it was the case that children of a certain age would be expected to learn to dance. In the more remote areas this practice was facilitated by traveling teachers, or dancing-masters, who would set up temporary schools in the villages. The youngsters were taught to dance and entertainment would be provided for the adults in the form of night time dancing. The whole affair would conclude with a Grand Ball at which the children would show off their newly learnt steps in a series of vignettes. Such items as the jockey dance, tambourine dance, Highland fling and other costume entertainments would be presented, often with the two youngest children dressed as the king and queen.

There are records of dancing schools and of children's balls in England and Scotland from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards. However, in the South, the activities of the old style dancing master ceased at an earlier period than in the north. In the 1960's and early 1970's J.F. and J.M. Flett collected a wealth of information about this area of traditional dance. Their excellent book 'Traditional Step-Dancing in Lakeland' is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the importance of music and dance in the North of England.

In this short audio clip, recorded in 1971, Ada Reed of Dinnington describes learning to dance, sometime before the First World War.

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These traveling dance teachers were very much a part of Northern life, certainly well into the 20thC. In later years the motor car made travel a lot easier, but in years gone by, these singular characters tramped from town to town teaching dance steps to the youngsters and offering rudimentary instructions in musicality. Often their rural visits would result in great excitement in the evenings with the establishment of a temporary dance hall.

A Fortnight's Ramble In the Lakes - description of an 18thC dancing-Master.

A chance encounter with just such an event is well described in "A Fortnight’s Ramble in the Lakes" written by Captain Budworth, alias Joseph Palmer, in 1792. He and his colleague describe how they visited Heversham and while staying at the Eagle and Child they were intrigued by seeing a number of boys' shoes and hearing the sound of a fiddle in the barn. On investigation they witnessed about 30 boys and girls assembled for dancing lessons. The master, noted the writer had "more the appearance of a man than of a dancing-master, although he was well qualified for the latter in the opinion of the children's parents. One of the boys danced a hornpipe with hat aside, and stick under his arm, tipping most vehemently with head and toe but in very good time."

Budworth continues: "as I wished to take in all I could I observed a wooden hoop with three tin sockets hanging in the centre of the barn to be ready any evening for a village dance." Following the boy nine girls danced a cottillon, and - what Budworth thought had a singular rustic effect - while they were going in pairs, the odd number stepped into the centre, pulled a red rose from her breast, which she held up as she danced.


Billy Purvis - perhaps the best known of the 19thC Northumbrian Showmen.

Billy Purvis, perhaps the best known of the 19thC Northumbrian Showmen, numbered amongst his many skills conjuring, clowning, fiddling and bagpipe playing. He was however also known as a skilled teacher of dance.


Description of how the Polka was introduced to Newcastle.

Purvis was not the only person to teach dance or to run a temporary dance hall. Witness the following account of the introduction of the Polka to Newcastle:

The polka, a favorite round dance, is of modern origin. It was first introduced into Newcastle about fifty years ago, when Thorne's show used to stand in the Spital. It was customary at that time for all the performers, both male and female, to appear in full theatrical costume on the stage outside the show, and, after promenading for a short time, wind up with the "Haymakers," "Speed the Plough" or some other popular country-dance. Large crowds used to assemble nightly when it became known that the Polka was to be danced. Mr. Henderson and Mrs. Grainger, dressed in full Hungarian costume, were the dancers, and they received unbounded applause for their performance.

The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend July 1891.


Ben Wells, for fifty years dancing Master and fiddler to the country people of Cumberland.

Similarly over in Cumbria we find the following account describing the antics of the rural 19thC dance teacher Ben Wells:

The people of Cumberland and Westmorland, as is well known, are very fond of athletic exercises, and extra ordinary powers are still developed among them. During the long life of Wordsworth in this region, there was one man more famous among the common folks than he, namely, Ben Wells, for fifty years dancing Master and fiddler to the country people of Cumberland. Ben was the kind of man who, in primitive times, gave country folk their legends. Mr. Craig Gibson, wrote a lyric in 1869 about him, and in a note says:- "The last time I met him was about twenty years ago in the bar parlour of an inn in the Southern part of the Lake District, where the strains of the fiddle, produced at my request, caused such excitement that a general and very uproarious dance (of males only) set in, and was kept up with such energy that, the space being confined, the furniture was seriously damaged and Ben was at last ejected by the landlady , as the readiest - indeed the only - method of putting a stop to the riot. He was light muscular and springy, and in earlier years wonderfully swift of foot, so much so, that the late Dr. Johnson of Cockermouth told me that he once (at Scale Hill) saw him, without assistance, run down and capture a wild rabbit - a proof of activity rarely paralleled." The following is a verse from Mr. Gibson’s poem in the Cumberland dialect on this celebrated character:-

Ben Wells fiddle many a neet
Gev well oiled springs to t'heaviest heels,
For few cud whyet hod the'r feet
Whe Ben struck up his heartnin' reels.
Wid elbow room and rozel't weel
Swinge! how he'd mak fwoke kev an' prance;
An' nowt cud match t'sly fiddle squeal
At signal'd kiss i't cushion dance.

The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend Nov 1891


It is perhaps significant to note the influence that these traveling music teachers must have had in transferring and maintaining the repertoire of traditional dance, providing new tunes and dances and ensuring the continuation of more established forms. In the case of Robert Whinham his influence as a teacher of musical literacy is without doubt and it is of no mere coincidence that his tunes and compositions are carefully noted and attributed in many of the handwritten collections of 19thC fiddlers. Indeed George Hepple, the well known Nothumbrian fiddler from Haltwhistle, recounts how Robert Whinham had been born in the 1800's and that his grandfather had been taught to step dance by him.

In this short audio clip fiddle player George Hepple, from Haltwhistle, talks about Robert Whinham and describes how his grandfather was taught to dance by him.

This short audio clip is available in Mp3 or Real Audio format.

play real audio

If you select the RealAudio option the clip will play in your RealOne Player (If you do not have RealOne Player, follow the link below to download).

play mp3

If you select the Mp3 option playback will be through Windows Media Player or any other Mp3 player that you have set as default.

Download RealOne Player
To download free RealPlayer click here.


To find out more about how FARNE audio files have been created follow this link - Audio Technical Notes.



References

  • Traditional Step-Dancing In Lakeland - J.F. & J.M. Flett (Published by the English Folk Dance and Song Society)
  • Remember Me - The Fiddle Music of Robert WhinhamGraham Dixon (Pub. Wallace Music)
  • The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend: 1891(Bound Volumes - Robinson Library, Newcastle)
  • Two North Country Dancing Masters by Joan Flett(Article copied from English Dance and Song)
  • The Almost Forgotten Musical Heritage of Lake District Reels and Hornpipes by Dr S. T. Chapman(English Dance and Song October 1990)








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19th Century influences
19th Century influences
Ballroom dances

Dance Technique
Dance Technique
The Rant Step

The Dancing-Master
The Dancing-Master
learning to dance

Social dance
Social dance
traditional dancing in Northumbria


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