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Steps in time: Dancing through history

Lucy Worsley explores how five influential dances made their marks on British society – from the 'depravity' of the German waltz to the swagger of the Lambeth Walk...

Morris dancers perform
Published: October 10, 2014 at 10:28 am
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This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine


17th century: The Joan Sanderson

The public courtship that enraged Puritans

The ‘Cushion Dance’, as it’s also known, was one of the many dances enjoyed on village greens and in churchyards by the ordinary people of Tudor and Stuart England. Its tune and some rudimentary notes are to be found in the later, expanded editions of a key source for the history of dancing, John Playford’s The English Dancing Master (1651), but he calls Joan Sanderson an ‘old’ dance so its origins must date from much earlier.

The dance is really quite ridiculous, and lots of fun. First, participants divide by gender. One of the men skips forward with a cushion, and picks his chosen lady – ‘Joan Sanderson’ – to kneel upon it. They kiss and skip off hand in hand before she offers the cushion to another man of her choosing.

This is basically ritualised courtship. Dances such as this, performed in public places, were sanctioned by parents as a safe way for young people to interact.

But the dance’s alternative name of ‘Kissum’ rightly suggests that there’s quite a lot of kissing involved, which was offensive to the socially conservative Puritans. One 17th-century critic even referred to Joan Sanderson as being typical of the “pretty provocatory dances” used by prostitutes to attract their clients.

It might even seem surprising that Playford’s book was published in the middle of the Commonwealth period, which was noted for crackdowns on dancing and maypoles.

Yet the Puritans were not entirely opposed to dancing – they simply believed that it should be reserved for private, not public, occasions. Unfortunately for ordinary villagers, the only dancing opportunities to be had were public ones, simply because their houses weren’t big enough for private events.

18th century: The minuet

A stately dance for the socially ambitious

The minuet had an unusually long reign as the most popular dance of its day – over a century. It began life at the French court at Versailles in the 1670s, during the reign of the dance-mad King Louis XIV. By 1700 it had reached Britain, where it quickly became the most important dance of the 18th century.

As on Strictly Come Dancing today, the ‘ballroom minuet’ was performed by just one couple while the rest of the company, whether in a private ballroom or a public assembly room, looked on.

Kellom Tomlinson’s The Art of Dancing, published in 1735, was the most important minuet manual written in English, though his book was really an advert for his services as a dancing master to the socially ambitious. Georgians in search of gentility needed to know the minuet. Ironically, though, the true aristocrat would have learned it in childhood, and therefore didn’t need a manual.

The courtier and politician Lord Chesterfield believed that everyone should learn to minuet, simply for the poise it required. He even went so far as to say that one should “do everything in minuet-time; speak, think, and move… equally free from the dullness of slow, or the hurry or huddle of quick, time”. This was the stately Georgian minuet elevated to a whole way of life.

19th century: The waltz

The ‘depraved’ dance that could draw blood

By the end of the 18th century, the sedate pleasures of the minuet were swept away by a new craze in 3/4 time: the waltz. A lively peasant dance in origin, when it appeared in Regency society the sight of male and female dancers clasped in each other’s arms – as opposed to dancing at arm’s length – led many to condemn the German dance as depraved.

Waltzing provoked sad moments in Lady Caroline Lamb’s on-off relationship with Lord Byron, who was unable to dance because of a club foot. He made her swear she would never waltz with anyone else, because it made him so jealous. After their break-up they ran into each other at a ball, and Caroline said bitterly that she supposed she might waltz now. Yes, Byron replied, she could dance with “every body in turn”. Devastated by this definitive proof that their relationship was over, Caroline cut herself with a knife, spilling blood over her gown.

Despite Caroline’s antics, the waltz was already on its way to becoming the dance of the century. The Viennese waltz made the new crinolines look wonderful as dancers whirled round the floor.

20th century: The morris dances

The nostalgic dance craze that swept Edwardian Britain

We’re familiar with the suffragettes of the early 20th century, but one of the lesser-known consequences of their efforts was a female-led revival of the antique English art of morris dancing.

Mary Neal was a charity worker committed to improving the lives of the poor sewing girls of Somers Town in London. In 1905, she took charge of the Espérance Club – an evening club for the girls – and decided to teach them how to morris dance. She contacted Cecil Sharp, a prominent historian and collector of folk songs, to ask him for some good ‘olde’ music. It soon emerged that, though Sharpe had gathered plenty of songs, there were many folk dances still uncollected, and this became Mary’s passion.

Astonishingly, Mary persuaded a selection of aged morris men to travel from various Midland villages to grimy, inner-city London to teach her girls how to dance. Many of the girls themselves became teachers and, aided by Neal’s Espérance Morris Book (1911), they kept a dying dance alive. Neal’s best pupil, Florrie Warren, even travelled to the US and performed at Carnegie Hall.

20th century: The Lambeth Walk

The ‘cockney’ dance that rallied a nation’s spirits

If you’d arrived at the Royal Opera House in the middle of the Second World War you’d have found it devoid of ballet or baritones – but full of thousands of people performing a fake cockney dance called The Lambeth Walk.

In the late 1930s, dancing socially was more popular than ever. By then, as part of a general commercialisation of leisure activities, dance halls had become big business, and during the war the Mecca chain took over the Royal Opera House for this mass-market entertainment. On the crowded floor, clients enjoyed wartime novelty dances such as The Blackout Stroll (the lights went out and you seized any partner you could grab).

Another favourite was the Lambeth Walk. Originally this had been a dance from a musical, but the enterprising Carl Heiman, a director of Mecca, realised its potential as a social dance. He promoted it as a traditional dance from the Lambeth area, and indeed recorders from the Mass Observation project found Lambeth residents ready to swear to its antiquity.

But in fact it was a 1930s confection, designed to make money and to make people feel good. It was effective too: patriotic British dancers were only too glad to strut like Cockneys and shout ‘oi!’ to keep up their spirits.

Released at the height of the commercial dance-hall boom of the 1930s, the Lambeth Walk is possibly the most-performed dance in British history.


Lucy Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces and a regular presenter on the BBC.


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