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Is folk dance dead?

Folk Dance Remixed. Photo: Irven Lewes
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My experience of English folk dance is largely made up of maypole dancing at primary school and frightening my Kiwi husband with morris dancing in Sussex on our annual bank holiday jaunt to Alfriston.

While the history of these types of folk dances are fascinating and rich, the performances themselves are often less so. Seeing old men leap around with bells on their shins is bemusing, and antiquated to say the least. It’s an entertainment we all sort of suffer through, as we pay homage to 14th century customs and 15th century traditions. And the maypole is still the stuff of school fetes.

Is there not more to these dance forms than cultural context and seasonal or history lessons? The English Folk Dance and Song Society try their hardest to keep these arts alive, relying on funding, donations and memberships to fuel their library and archive, artist development resource and performances.

Folk music has certainly had a resurgence recently, with the British revival being coined ‘nu’ or ‘indie’ folk as clubs and festivals have seen a wave of progressive and electro folk music over the past few years. This is shown nowhere more clearly than on the UK summer festivals scene, with Glastonbury, Wilderness, Latitude, Green Man and Womad all home to oodles of excellent young folk bands and singers.

[pullquote]People have been worrying country dancing will die out since the 19th century[/pullquote]

But what of country dancing? Why is it so much harder to bring the traditional celebrations of agricultural society into the 21st century? It seems as though people have been worrying it’ll die out since the 19th century – which is exactly why Cecil Sharp, the founding father of the 20th century folklore revival, took it upon himself to preserve the different facets of folk. There are many thriving clubs and societies all over the UK, not to mention the current trend for a good old ceilidh, so it’s not that it’s on its last legs, more that it seems to make less sense to a contemporary audience.

Cue Folk Dance Remixed (FDR), a unique new company I happened upon at Wilderness which fuses folk dance and hip-hop. Founded by Kerry Fletcher and Natasha Khamjani, FDR have been going since 2010, mixing the traditional vocabulary of folk dancing with modern street styles to a live fiddle and banjo. It’s a really fun, exciting synergy that’s way more fun to participate in as well as really enlivening to watch. As well as participatory events and workshops, members of the group have also devised a full choreographic work, performed at the Olympic ceremony and created pop-up shows at many different music festivals.

Despite worrying a few folk dance purists, most are enthusiastic about updating this age old dance form. Quinton Cumbes, Squire of Great Western Morris has said of the group:

The beatbox was wonderful, it added a modern touch to some age old traditional elements woven into the show, and counterbalanced by a driving fiddle that I would love to morris dance to! A wonderful mix of old and new that was a delight to watch and well done for bringing that mix to an appreciative audience.

High praise indeed.

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