Stepdancing

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What is Stepdancing?

Stepdancing is a vernacular form of tap dancing, where individual dancers improvise a sequence of steps, most frequently to a hornpipe tune. The sound of the steps is probably the most important aspect, and the dance, although energetic is not particularly dramatic. Dancers are usually self-taught, and dance in informal settings mostly in pubs and other social gatherings where there is a suitable atmosphere and music. If more than one dancer is present, they will often dance in turn. These days, stepdancers often carry a wooden board with them, as so many floors are carpeted. Some dancers add blakeys to their shoes to enhance the sound, others prefer a pair of leather-soled shoes.

Where can you see stepdancing?

In East Anglia, stepdancing survives outside the rarefied air of the folk festival and club, and is still danced freestyle in pubs and village halls wherever there’s some music. Some of the events are listed on our website, and others organised by Rig-a-Jig-Jig in Norfolk or in Suffolk in village halls and pubs will include stepdancers. Our Traditional Music Day attracts many stepdancers every year, and we run several events during the day where you can watch stepdancing, talk to the dancers and have a go yourself, although there is no formal teaching.

Since 2006, we have also run a Stepdance Day in the summer, which is a magnet for dancers from all over the region, and includes informal dancing and competitions. See HERE for Stepdance events present and past.

Outside East Anglia, you are most likely to find stepdancing in Devon – the Dartmoor Pixies are a good contact point, featuring Jason Rice in their line-up, and the Dartmoor Folk Festival includes workshops and a competition. There are now pockets of people who are researching and learned traditional stepping – Kent / Sussex / Hampshire being a current hotbed of interest. The research organisation Instep has a website in development which should be helpful in finding such groups around the country.

Aside from that, most north country clogging is found in folk circles, and there are plenty of opportunities to learn Lancashire and north east clogging styles: a good starting point to find your local teachers or teams would be to look at your local folk magazine or telephone the English Folk Dance and Song Society (020 745 2206).

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East Anglian stepdancing on film

Neil Lanham of Oral Traditions of Suffolk & Bordering Counties has produced a number of interesting books, CDs and DVDs having devoted much of his life “to the spoken word of the vernacular indigenous people and all that it passes in terms of Traditional Song, Story, Wisdom, History and Cultural Identity – Folk Life, Folk Song & Folk Story”. On stepdancing, he has produced the DVDs below and several of his CDs capture the tradition of “diddling” which was a common form of accompaniment to stepping. His website, Oral Traditions is well worth a look.

Steve Matthews and Lennie Whiting – The People’s Music
This DVD was filmed and produced by Neil Lanham in 2014. “Here Steve talks of the ways and days of the old people that he learned from both in button accordion playing and song.  He demonstrates then plays and sings for us.  Lennie steps in the same manner that his family have throughout living memory, then tells us of others who influenced him and sings two songs that as a boy he learned off his Father whilst, well fortified with good ale, driving the pony and trap home on Saturday nights from Debenham”.

Mose AllumBorn on a Bow Top – Stepdance, Story & Song of a Bygone Age on the Road
“The Gypsy life is one of rejoicing and celebration and Mose tells us of the fun around the amp fires and in the pubs where he would sing and step dance, and he still does.” Another DVD produced by Neil Lanham in 2012 with popular stepdancer, Mo.

Cromer lifeboat crew
This film was made by Anglia Television in 1976 in the Bath Hotel in Cromer, and features members of the Davies family dancing to the music of Percy Brown on melodeon. The dancers are: Richard Davies, Dick Davies, Jack Davies, Friday Balls Davies, Shrimp Davies. Members of Richard’s family still dance: his daughter Fiona and, on occasion, his grandchildren Ben and Emily.

The Barley Mow
Made in 1955 by Peter Kennedy, this captures something of the atmosphere in a rural pub on a Saturday night, with plenty of songs including old ballads and rousing choruses. With stepdancers Geoff Ling, Eli Durrant, Peter Jay and Lily Durrant dancing to Fred Pearce’s melodeon.

There are many short clips on YouTube, here are some of the best:

The Worlingworth Pony and Trap day, 2009 A short film by Michael Osborne showing some stepdancing from all ages. Watch out for some familiar faces!

Traditional Music Day 2010
Filmed by Friend and volunteer John Hought here is Percy West with Katie Howson playing Albert Hewitt’s Hornpipe.

Diss Corn Hall 2013
Dominic Smith followed by Percy West with Lindsay Want, John Howson and Katie Howson playing. We were invited to play and dance in the foyer as a warm-up act for John Spiers and Jon Boden’s “Backyard Songs” tour -everywhere they played the invited a local traditional musicians in and also played some local items themselves – there is stepdancing from this tour in Devon and Hampshire on YouTube as well – interesting to compare! At Diss, young stepdancers Ella Beal, Catrin & Rhys Pena also danced on stage.

Traditional Music Day 2014
A youtube clip courtesy of James Macdonald featuring Alice Cade stepdancing to diddling.

See also the Old Hat Concert Party page for some clips from the 1980s featuring Font Whatling and Cyril Barber.

If you came to Stepdance Day or Traditional Music Day in 2010, you might have seen some filming going on, and you might even have spotted two famous folkies, Rachel and Becky Unthank. All this was to do with a BBC4 programme about traditional dance across the UK. It was first screened in December 2010 and has been regularly repeated – look out for “Still Folk Dancing After All These Years”. Look out for Percy West, Leo Baker, Lenny Whiting  and other stepdancers from the east – we’re about half-way through it.

There is also more information about East Anglian stepdancers on our “profiles of Traditional Musicians” section. See nos 14 – Geoff Ling; 19 – Dick Hewitt – this now includes some sound clips of Dick dancing and his father, Albert, playing;  28 – Font Whatling; 30 – Old Hat Concert Party and 31 – Cyril Barber.

Rig-a-Jig-Jig researcher and fiddler Chris Holderness has written some extended articles about traditional musicians and dancers in north Norfolk. These are published on the Musical Traditions website. Click here for a direct link to his article about the Davies family of Cromer.