People dancing a reel

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 EFDSS.

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 see this.

 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 four men.
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 loose.


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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Rhod Davies

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