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Ellington Park: Country Dancing

Joining the war effort was seen, by many young people, as a great adventure. The dangers of war, and the farewell from loved ones, paled before the colourful exuberance with which contributing to the war effort was celebrated.Communities were brought together in this moment in ways they hadn’t been for a long time:

‘I wonder whether it’s too much to hope that afterwards, when all the horrors are over, we shall be able to conjure up again the feelings of these first few weeks, and somehow rebuild our peacetime world so as to preserve everything of war which is worth preserving? What we need is a kind of non-material war museum, where, instead of gaping at an obsolete uniform in a glass case, we can press a magic button and see ourselves as we were while this revealing mood was freshly upon us. I know that sounds silly and there are no magic buttons. The nearest approach to them, I think, are poems and articles — and even the letters and chance phrases — which are struck out of people like sparks at a moment like this’. From ‘Mrs Miniver’ by Jan Struther.

By introducing country dancing to the event in Ellington Park, we invited the audience to come together in an activity that echoes this sense of togetherness — alongside the touching bunting messages, sent from far afield, that had converged on the bandstand at the heart of the park.

I began to develop the idea of country dancing as a participatory aspect of the performance in Ellington park, by following an instinct. At London’s Cecil Sharp House I found a generous and nourishing environment in which to learn more, both about the dances themselves and about their history. Here I was able to establish much deeper links that confirmed for me the decision of integrating country dancing within the event.

The early 20th century saw a resurgence of English Country Dance as a popular pastime. Cecil Sharp, the founding father of the folklore revival at this time, collected traditional English songs and dances and founded the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), with summer schools in traditional dance being run across the country. These may well have been accessible and familiar to Clarice and her friends. Sharp’s work is preserved to this day at Cecil Sharp House in London, and passed on through teachers there, who generously dedicated time to Resting Place.

Contact with members of the EFDSS revealed further connections between country dance and the war effort: In 1917, dance teacher Daisy Caroline Daking travelled to the war camps in France and began teaching country dance as form of entertainment and recuperation to the forces — another kind of nursing. Daking reported:

‘The comments that the men made were illuminating. The big, rather solid man who said, after going through two or three longways dances, “I’m going to take this up, it will keep me off the booze.” The little group in that other camp who said it had felt like paying a visit to Blighty… No.5 said he had enjoyed it ever so much. He wanted to apologize for his bad dancing, but he had had a toe amputated, and was still in bandages, and his boots were new.’ D.C. Daking, 1918

In recent years, Deborah Denenfeld has revived the idea of using country dance as a means of rehabilitating soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, through Dancing Well: The Soldier Project in the US.

Roanna Mitchell, PhD

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