Stepdance Day 2017 (16th July, Occold, Suffolk)
A ‘brilliant and delightful afternoon’ according to one new-comer. With its usual easy-going atmosphere, Stepdance Day this year included the best of local stepdancers alongside people trying it out for the first time, although the youngest participant, 4 year-old Lewis, was a veteran from last year and returned this time with proper dealer boots and bags of confidence!
Ella Beal and Doreen West O’Connor kicked off the workshop, with contributions from Simon Ritchie and after everyone had had a go and some refreshments, the competitions got underway.
Eighteen people took part in the Steve Monk Memorial Stepdance Competition, with music provided by Katie Howson, Simon Ritchie, Lindsay Want and Otis Luxton. The overall winner was Leo Temple Baker, runners up were Ella Beal and Lenny Whiting and the best newcomer was Millie Jarlett. The Font Whatling Trophy was also won by Leo Temple Baker! Second was Lenny Whiting and third was Pam Russell. The Percy West O’Connor Plate was presented to Simon Ritchie with James Abbott and Sue Mitchell also receiving medals.
Double winner Leo Temple Baker is pictured receiving his trophy from Marilyn Monk. Photo by John Halliday.
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 below for details of this year’s event, and previous ones.
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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Information about Stepdance Day
Until 2004, the Steve Monk Memorial Championship was run by the Delarre family in Moreton near Chelmsford in Essex. In 2005 they invited EATMT to run it together with them at the Eels’ Foot in Suffolk and in 2006 EATMT stepped in to run it without the Delarres when it would otherwise have been cancelled. Many thanks to Steve, Jayne, Dave and Jamie for setting it up, keeping it going and passing it on! From 2007 to 2015 it was held at the Worlingworth Swan in central Suffolk. The famed stepdance Font Whatling lived just opposite the Swan, which unfortunately closed in 2016 (see Village Portraits page for an article about the pub).In 2017, it took place on Sunday 16th July at Occold Village Hall, Occold, near Eye. IP23 7PN.
Events kicked off at about 2pm with an informal workshop, followed by two competitions, as detailed below. We were once again made very welcome in the village.
Although the competitions are the main event of the day, stepdancing is not usually a competitive activity, and there are always demonstrations from some of the best dancers and some informal dancing after the competitions as well.
We do not run a separate children’s competition, as many of the youngsters are as good as the adults. The Steve Monk Memorial Competition has three times been won by under-16s: in 2005 teenager Jessica Chilvers won and in 2011 and 2013 it was won by Ella Beal aged 11 and 13. In 2012 eight year old Alfie Matthews won Best Newcomer.
The event is free, but we do try and sell you a programme and some raffle tickets in order to cover costs and maybe raise some extra for the Trust. Donations of raffle prizes are gratefully received, either before the date, or on the day.
The day is usually enhanced by a few tunes, songs, and food and even a bit of beer! There is an introduction to stepdancing at around 2pm, and then there are two competitions open to all-comers, starting at around 3pm. It’s a very informal day, when you are assured of seeing some of the best dancers around, and if you would like to have a go, it’s a good chance to do so, even if you’ve never done so before!
Steve Monk Memorial Competition
Open to allcomers – even if you’ve only had a go for the first time in the preceding workshop, you’re encouraged to enter this competition. Dancers have a free choice of music and musician for this competition – there are always several really experienced stepdance musicians around!
“Monkey’s” family came from the Framlingham area, and he moved back here from Essex in the 1990s. He was a gifted entertainer, with a relaxed and humorous approach to the sessions he ran. He died suddenly in 2000, and Jayne & Steve Delarre felt it would be a fitting tribute to set up a stepdancing event to encourage other people to take part. One of Monkey’s best mates, Simon Ritchie, a fine stepper himself, remains at the centre of this event every year, and Steve’s widow, Marilyn chairs the judging panel.
Font Whatling Trophy
Started in 2008 by EATMT in memory of the Worlingworth Swan’s resident musician and stepper (1919-1998) who was also for a number of years a member of the Old Hat Concert Party and became well known at folk festivals around the country. The aim of this competition is to keep the older style of dancing with hard-soled shoes going and encourage a higher standard. Entrants are not permitted to wear clogs or tap shoes, and have to dance to two specific tunes: Pigeon on the Gate (hornpipe) and Oh, Joe, the Boat is Going Over (polka) played by the same musician for all dancers.
Font lived for many years in the house just over the road from the Swan, and played and stepped here on many occasions until his death in 1998. He became interested in playing the melodeon through Walter Read, a renowned local player. Read was blinded in the First World War, but had a tandem, and Font would often steer the two of them through the lanes to a pub that welcomed music. Later he teamed up with Wattie Wright and Eddie Woolnough as “The Three Ws”. Font and Wattie were known for their habit of stepping together, with their arms on each others shoulders, but Font’s personal party piece was to play the melodeon and step at the same time. His stepping style was very rhythmic, and is evident in the dancing of his sons. Font came to wider attention through recordings and books in the 1970s, and through outings around the country with the Old Hat Concert Party in the 1980s and 90s. Font’s son Brian is usually on the judging panel for this competition.
Dancers are welcome to enter both competitions.
Judging panels include winners of last year’s competitions.
See the link at the foot of this page for more photos of previous Stepdance Days.
East Anglian stepdancing on film
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.
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:
Traditional Music Day 2010 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.
Milton Gypsy Festival, Cambridgeshire 2010 featuring Leo Temple (Baker). The clip is mainly singing (which you may well enjoy too!) and Leo dances – as ever, very briefly – to diddling by Yvette Gaskin at 3.42. (Update, November 2015: we seem to have lost this link, you may find it through a search on Youtube).
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.