The Dorset Four Hand Reel
This dance, published in the EFDSS
Community Dance Manual volume 5, is loosely based on a traditional
dance. There was some discussion about the dance on the news group
rec.folk-dancing, and I was
involved in some correspondence on the subject. Here are some
extracts from the group and that correspondence:
Excerpted from an article posted to rec.folk-dancing on Fri, 10 June 1994 17:37:36 GMT by Chris Brady :
- Forget the Community Dance Manuals [when looking for traditional
English dances]. Most of the dances in these are Scandinavian
circles dances, American, or simple made up 'fake' dances. And
anyway the CDM's lack the traditional detail of the dances, that
is the dances in them have all been homogenised, sanitised, and
stylised out of all recognition. Dorset Four Hand Reel a la CDM
is a bastardised version of at least three collected versions.
The EFDSS teaches a north-eastern rant step to what is essentially
an indigenous southern dance. There are over 20 southern steps
which should be done with DFHR, none of which are taught by the
Morpeth rant is indigenous to the north east, but was collected
in the village halls in a different form to how it is danced
today. When Sharp's disciples went to collect MR they found a
number of different versions. They brought them back to London,
worked on them and published a definitive sanitised version.
They then took their publication back to the locals and said
something like "look what we have done to your dance, we
have published it, aren't we clever," etc. And the locals
took one look at the printed version and said "oh, is that
what we are supposed to do," and promptly changed their
own local version to that of the bastardised one.
However what was *the* most popular form of home grown
entertainment throughout the British Isles up until the first
world war was - step dancing. Most country pubs had a special
flag stone in the back bar for step dancing on. Most of this
tradition has gone now, but you will occasionally still see it
in Suffolk, Dartmoor, Cornwall, and Southern Ireland (*not* the
embroidered little girls variety I hasten to add). Step dancing
is still an activity of the Romany's but outsiders will rarely
In style English step dancing is an early form of Appalachian-type
flat-footing. The music was usually reels, jigs, waltzes, polkas,
hornpipes, in fact anything the local musicians could play!!
Communities which had an active step dance tradition
included: farm labourers, canal boatpeople, dock workers, hop
pickers, Thames bargemen, wherrymen, Irish itinerants (canal,
railway, road navvies), sailors, Romany 'gypsies', itinerant
fisherfolk - especially from Scotland, miners (coal, tin, lead,
etc.), woollen/cotton mill workers, etc., etc., etc.
Many of these practised or performed their steps whilst
executing figures in social dances, especially during (real)
reels. A reel is a set dance figure, followed by a bracket of
stepping, followed by the same or another figure, followed by
stepping, etc. Dorset Four Hand Reel is a typical case. So is
Morpeth Rant. The 'reel' does not necessarily mean that the music
is in 4/4 time, nor does it have to be a figure 8-type movement.
If you really want to know what traditional English
social dancing was like you should read Tom and Joan Flett's
"Traditional Dancing in Lakeland" and their "Traditional
Dancing in Scotland". Both are in print. You should also
seek out Tom and Joan's articles in the EFDSS
"Folk Music Journal", EFDSS's "English Dance &
Song" magazine - especially those from the 1940's and 1950's.
An article posted to rec.folk-dancing on 13 Dec 95 02:40:55 PDT by Hugh Stewart :
- Dorset Four hand Reel
Keith >> was a competitive dance usually dance by
is not strictly true.
I found its history interesting when a lady with very
white hair stood up at some discussion at Sidmouth festival and
explained that she was part of the original display.
Each year the English
Folk Dance and Song Society has a National Gathering when
all the members (well, a small proportion these days -- all wouldn't
fit) descend on London and have an evening of dances intermixed
with displays from each district. Way back when (about 1950)
the Dorset group invented Dorset Four Hand Reel based on a description
of some dance in a Thomas Hardy book; since the dance as displayed
is a good one to use in a community dance it got into the Community
Dance Manuals and is still popular.
Of course Thomas Hardy may well have been describing
the sort of competitive dance Keith is thinking of, but the impression
I got was that the Dorset district was looking for a display
dance and the "based on Thomas Hardy" bit was quite
Excerpted from an email from me (Rhod) to Chris Brady:
- I was interested to see your post on the Dorset Four Hand
Reel. Of course I know all about the EFDSSified version we do
today, but what I had been told does not seem to agree with what
you said. The way I learned it was at a workshop in the Drill
Hall at Sidmouth quite a few years ago - I'm afraid I can't remember
who ran it, but they taught a variety of steps and the story
I remember was that it was some sort of drinking dance -- you
tripped somebody you bought a round of drinks, and so the evening
degenerated. The travelling sections of the hey were done with
a fairly heavy stamping step and then for the stepping section
you chose your own step and they showed us a variety. I've got
no chapter and verse on this, so I'd love to find the truth one
way or the other.
And from Chris' Reply:
- That was David Townsend's workshop. I was there too. We joked
about it afterwards. The drinking game is the 'Sheepskin Hey'
which features in Playford's 'Picking Up Sticks'. It was usually
done around bottles, tankards, or chairs. The first person to
go wrong bought a round of drinks ad nauseum. In 'PUS' it is
done around the opposite line of partners. It is quite unique.
It is not a the same as the 'hey' in three, four, five, six,
eight, etc. hand reels.
DFHR is an amalgamation of versions collected in and around
Dorset. Today it is very much EFDSSish. Originally it was danced
throughout without hands. And the stepping was neater and less
stylish. And of course people did not rant - that was a Northern
step. When I've been to Co. Clare and talk to older dancers there
and shown them Dorset steps they have said "yes, we do those
too!!". There are also similar dances in Scotland and Cape
Breton. Once again I refer to Tom & Joan Flett's books "Trad.
Dancing in Scotland (& Cape Breton)" and also "Trad.
Dancing in Lakeland".
Reels have been written about in early copies of the
EFDSS magazine and also in private correspondence with Joan Flett,
Chris Cawte, Ian Dunmur etc.
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