The current theme of this blog is an examination of Elsie J. Oxenham’s 39-book Abbey Girls series plus some Connectors, in reading order, focusing on the folk dance aspects they contain. With A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School, we hit the richest vein of description of Cecil Sharp and his teachers. This volume was published in 1922, and EJO may well have been planning or drafting it while she attended Sharp’s Vacation School at Cheltenham in 1920—it resonates with her now passionate involvement with English folk dance and her admiration of and attachment to Sharp and two of his teachers. If you are a folk dancer and can only read one Abbey Girl book (or wish to only read one!), this is the one to pick up. The book is dedicated thus: “To Helen Kennedy North and D.C. Daking with thanks for all they have given to me.” Helen Kennedy North (sister of Douglas Kennedy, who ran the EFDS after Sharp’s death) is found herein as “Madam” and Daisie Daking as “the Pixie.”
As I’ve remarked in several previous posts, Oxenham was a detailed observer and a careful describer of scenery, accents, dances, and more. For example, her reporting on the Handsworth sword dance and the costume of the dancers is very recognizable. Thus, I think we can reasonably rely on her accounts of the dance school and the teachers at it. We can certainly get from it the heady excitement of those early years!
Above image from a reprint shows Jen wearing her dancing frock which is very similar to that of the EFDS demonstration team: blue, loose-fitting, high-waisted with white stockings and flat shoes with criss-crossed ties.
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School runs from November of 2019 through January of 1921, Abbey Time. Nineteen-year-old Joan Shirley visits the Hamlet Club’s President and Golden May Queen, Cicely Hobart. Each has bad news: Cicely’s father wants her to come live with him in Ceylon again and she would rather not; Joan tells her that sixteen-year-old Jen Robins will be taken out of school by her parents to live with them in Yorkshire, as her father’s health is delicate. Her parents “don’t care much for education”—as long as Jen has some French, a smattering of culture, good manners, and her graceful carriage (thanks to folk dancing!), that’s enough for them. The two are disapointed as they had had hopes that Jen would be elected the next May Queen of Miss Macey’s school. (By the way, and this blog is nothing if not filled with by-the-ways, the school has no name; it is just referred to as “Miss Macey’s.” There is no “Abbey School.”) There is to be a farewell dance, and Cicely says that she’ll teach the Hamlet Club some new dances that she’ll learn “from books.” Joan wonders if they are missing subtle points by doing this, but Cicely has no doubt of her ability!
Jen is unhappy about leaving school, and there are no girls of her age and social standing near her parents’ house. Instead, below the agricultural village near The Grange there is “Tin Town”—huts for transient workers on the dam. The villagers and the workers do not get along. Joan sends Jen a gramophone and some folk dance records. Jen teaches country and morris dances to the young people of both groups, keeping them separate at first. The old police constable plays the concertina for them and is useful in keeping the boys in order. After a while the youngsters’ love of folk dancing brings the two groups together; this will be explored in more detail in the next installment.
At Christmas, the guisers and their entourage visit The Grange and put on a mummers’ play in the kitchen. Jen is entranced. Her father suggests that she dance a morris jig. Jen notices two strangers in the crowd—clearly brother and sister, both with dark hair and blue eyes. The girl says that Jen’s side-step is “rotten” and quickly demonstrates better form. She says that herself is a folk dancer and that Jen had “better come to Cheltenham” in August, but doesn’t provide any further details. She leaves without giving her name and Jen calls her her “Blue-Eyed Stranger”—this is a title of a morris dance.
Some time later, a letter comes from Cicely saying that she, Joan, and Joy are going to the four-week dance school at Cheltenham in August. Jen receives permission to go. Her “husband” Jackie-boy Wilmot also attends, as do two new girls, Tazy Kingston and Karen Wilson (we had part of their story in last week’s installment), an experienced dancer whom they call Miss Newcastle or “Advanced Certificate” (a real-life teacher from Newcastle named Catherine Ord), and a “A Very Young Lady” who turns out to be sixteen-year-old Tormentil (Tormy) Grant, with three books in her own series. All room together. Jen meets her Blue-Eyed Stranger: she is Avice Everett, attending with her brother, Dick, as well as his friend, Captain John Raymond. There is much dancing and all of the girls, especially the rather cock-sure Cicely, are chastised for the quality of their dancing. They are eager to improve though, and their teachers admire their spirit and dedication.
(This image is the frontispiece of my edition although it is also the dust jacket of other editions. It shows the girls bombarding Joy with pillows (much is made of midnight feasts and other girlish stunts while at school). You can see that Joy is wearing a business-like tunic; that of the girl in blue shows how short they were. I’ll talk about “gymmies” another time, but let’s press on with the story!)
Dick and John are taken with Cicely and Joan, respectively, and scarcely dance with anyone else. The two men, as well as Joy, have motorbikes with sidecars, and there is much racing about in them, Joy driving Jen. There is an accident; Jen is badly injured and all fear that she might never walk, let alone dance, again. The sometimes careless Joy is sobered by this event—EJO frequently uses a shocking external event to cause a girl to grow and mature.
Jen does recover and there is a big dance at the end of the book in Dorothy Darnley’s barn, which Madam and the Pixie attend to show the Hamlet Club girls some morris dances and the Kentucky Running Set. Cicely announces that she is to be married to Dick Everett in a week; Joan is also engaged. These make the third weddings of the Hamlet Club—the White Queen, Miriam Honor, was married some time ago, giving up her possible career as a singer.
The Pixie wonders what the students all think of and say about the EFDS teachers at the school, and Cicely tells her that someday, if she has time, she’ll write a book and put them all in it—obviously this is what EJO has done!
For Folk Dancers
There is so much in this book that it is difficult to summarize—I’ll just give some highlights.
Jen’s teaching of the young people of Tin Town and the village is sympathetically drawn. The records she receives have one dance per side: Sellenger’s Round, The Butterfly, Rufty Tufty, Hunsdon House (which Jen doesn’t know), The Old Mole (“how topping!”), Sweet Kate, Newcastle, If All the World were Paper, Mage on a Cree, Hunsdon House and more, plus the morris dances Rigs O’ Marlow, Jockie to the Fair, the Helston Furry Dance, and Old Mother Oxford (23, 29). These tunes were recorded by a brass band under Sharp’s direction. While she is demonstrating these dances to the cook and the maids, the guisers come in to do their play. After they are done the cook says scornfully that “’They be-ant good guisers!” as they don’t have a sword dance as they do in her village, where the men dance it “champion.” She offers to take Jen to see it, and here we have a fairly clear and exciting description of the Handsworth sword dance, danced by eight “burly colliers,” mostly quite old. Jen describes the dance to her parents.
“In big boots, you know, father! . . . . And great big heavy men, miners all of them, and mostly quite old. Some were gray and some were bald! But the way they did it! The—the energy and fierceness of it; and the wonderful time of their feet! . . . I could have shrieked with excitement! And the crowd felt it too, though they see it every Chistmas. You could feel the breathlessness—everybody on edge and—and tight with excitement! At the end they just yelled, and I’m afraid I yelled too! . . . I didn’t know men’s dancing could be like that. They went over the swords, sometimes over one and sometimes over two; and under arches of swords; and they did a rolling kind of procession, in twos, over and under one another, rather like the second figure of ‘Grimstock,’ or the changes of the Ribbon Dance. And they clashed the swords together; and then they fixed them somehow, all in a second almost, into a kind of star and held them up, all the eight in one man’s hand; and they never fell to bits—they were quite firmly fixed! I’d love to know how they did it!”
Her father tells her it was a “lock,” and that his grandfather had told him that there used to be sword-dancing in the village near The Grange, but it had died out, as no one had thought to train the young men. Jen says: “If only somebody could see them, somebody who understands, and write the dance down, so this it shouldn’t be lost, Daddy!”—and of course that somebody is Cecil Sharp, whom Jen has not yet met. Between 1911 and 1913 Sharp published the three volumes of The Sword Dances of Northern England. The Handsworth dance notation is found in the third volume.
Jen says that she’ll go see the dance every Christmas and then describes the costume:
“They were all dressed up, like soldiers, you know, mother! Black velvet coats with heaps of silver braid, and white cotton trousers tied on behind—so funny! And big black bootrs, and gaiters up to their knees, and weird little crimson caps with rosettes at the sides and ribbons down the back. They looked gorgeous!” She adds that the men held the strings of the caps in their mouths. She also adds that “You wouldn’t make dancers like that in a year or two. . . . And then they were men! Girls could never be the same. But I don’t see why they couldn’t learn the dance and to it in their own way. (49-52, passim)”
Very evocative writing, isn’t it? From its details I assume that Oxenham saw the dance herself, as she doesn’t provide such details for any other sword dance, and she did spend time in Yorkshire. EJO doesn’t name the team, but they are the dancers from Handsworth, near Sheffield in Yorkshire. Watch the dance (and note the drop on the right foot; I remember how tiring this was when learning it!). Look at this picture of them, taken sometime in 1910 or after. We might be seeing the same men that Oxenham (and therefore Jen) saw!
Oxenham tells us that the Vacation School has 400 students, all in graded classes held in various locations in the city. The Hamlet Club girls’ first teacher is Madam, who is described as “big and fair and jolly, with a very emphatic air of authority, and eyes which missed nothing.” When she first sees Cicely, Joan, Jen and Joy dance Newcastle, dancing as side couples opposite each other, she tells the whole class that they were all generally very bad, and says to the Hamlet Club girls specifically:
“You got your places all right, but you made your lines frightfully badly. You were all wrong in the second figure too; you four, the side couples. Turn your backs on one another and lead to your places, left hands; don’t fall back. Go to your positions for the arming; now turn to the person whose hand you’re going to take. Never turn your back on her; it’s wrong, and very ugly; and anyway, it’s frightfully rude. You four in this set were wrong, every one of you.” (106-7)
At this time—indeed up until the early 1980s—the tradition was to dance right-hand-in-right, meaning that the woman’s hand crossed her body. This kept the couple closer together than today, when we dance holding inside or nearer hands. In dances like Newcastle or Rufty Tufty, one of the tricky bits—almost certainly part of the certificate exam!—was knowing which hand was to be used when. In the second part of Newcastle, two couples led in towards each other with right hands joined, then turn and led out, with left hands joined, still keeping the woman’s arm crossing her body. You won’t see that detail in this video of Newcastle, danced in the modern style, but here is a nicely-danced version (despite one or two bobbles that Madam would have pounced on). It is danced slower here than it was in Sharp’s day.
Madam further scolds the class, adding something that every teacher today still feels strongly about: “’Don’t talk when I’m teaching you; don’t talk! . . . . You’re so busy telling one another what’s wrong that you won’t listen to me.’ (108)” The girls call her She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed
—She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is Ayesha, the title character of She, the 1887 adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard. Ayesha is a powerful, 2,000-year-old sorceress who racks up quite a kill count before dying herself—
—and Madam makes them dance the two-couple dance, Hey Boys, Up Go We, under her critical eye. Joan is very struck by Madam’s beautiful movements, whether walking or dancing. She shows them how to do the “gypsy” and Cicely realizes just how bad her own teaching has been. She confesses to Madam and asks to be held to a high standard. She also says that she will go back to the Hamlet Club, admit to her faults, and teach the girls the right way to dance. Later, the girls discuss the fact that Madam knows “’just whom she can make fun of, and which are the ones who simply couldn’t stand it.’” Cicely adds that she was struck “by the way she let some people off altogether and was awfully gentle with others, and yet went for some, like me, all the time, because she knew I didn’t mind a scrap. (131)” Cicely is deeply moved by the beauty of all the dancing, especially Madam’s; these are clearly Elsie Oxenham’s own feelings about Helen Kennedy North. Even so, Cecily gives a slightly exaggerated version of Madam’s teaching:
“This is Madam, at the end of a dance, when she’s really worked up! ‘I won’t have it! You dreadful people! Not one of you ever listens to a word I say! I don’t know how people can be so stupid! You haven’t danced for me once yet all this week! Go right back to the beginning and do the whole dance over again; and do think what you’re doing! You simply don’t use your brains at all! You have the most complicated sort of minds! If there is a difficult or awkward way to do a thing, you invariably choose it! Now try to show me a dance, for once!’ (197)”
—As a long-time dance teacher, there are times when I think something like the above, but in the U.S.— whenever we can dance again! —it would be a fatal teaching error to actually utter the words. I still remember my shock and horror at hearing May Gadd pick out one dancer in a crowd of 100 at the Berea Christmas School and criticizing her. As I recall, seeing my distress, another dancer said that it was all right, that Gadd knew that the picked-on dancer (I think it might have been Joan Carr), could take it. I don’t think I believed this statement then, although now I see that it fits this teaching style. Today most dance teaching in the U.S. is oriented to ensuring that people have fun, rather than holding them to rigorous technical standards. Elsie Oxenham will actually explore this tension between pleasure and inclusiveness versus beauty and correctness in a Connector book, Marjory Meets the Roses. Which side do you think she will favor?—
There is a big demonstration every week, which starts off with singing folk songs: As I Walked Through the Meadows, Admiral Benwo, Banbuy, Spanish Ladies, Midsummer Fair, the Crystal Spring, some sea shanties, and “Shanadar,” which I believe is a phonetic representation (in an English accent) of the American folk song, Shenandoah. Douglas Kennedy (“Joshua”) sings, I spend all my money ‘long o’ Sally Brown, and the girls all admire his “topping” voice. There are demonstrations of morris dances: Madam and five other women dance the Shepherd’s Hey from Ilmington, and Jack points out one of the dancers, her teacher for beginning morris who is like “a jolly round chirpy little robin.”
“You watch her, Jen! She made us do morris step, all stnding in a big ring; then she told us to go forward doing it, and said, ‘You must travel on it; like this!—and, coo! She shot forward like a cricket ball! Tophole! She got across the room in three steps! And she’s awfully kind; she never laughs at you. She goes round watching your feet and saying, “It’s coming!”—I suppose she means the step! She sees every single person and knows just what they did . . .(164-5)”
This “Little Robin” or “Dear Little Robin” is May Gadd, long-time director of the Country Dance & Song Society of America.
Cicely tells Miss Newcastle that she has been taking the Flamborough sword dance (danced with wooden swords held in the left hand) from a woman teacher whom she describes as a little boy. “[M]y goodness! She’s smart! She’s just like a boy, awfully neat and slim and quick and dark, and sticks to business every minute—never suggests you might like to rest; and she jolly well knows what she wants—just like all the rest of them!’ (171).” Joy remarks that “she yells at you no end, though”—she had suffered. The “little boy” is “the little foot-page”: Sharp’s assistant Maud Karpeles. Here is video of the Flamborough dance—note the boys’ team!
In the second week, classes and teachers are changed around, and Cicely, who thinks she’ll never find anyone as marvellous as Madam, is placed with the Pixie, who is four-foot ten inches tall, and described, often, as a sprite. The Pixie has a great sense of humor and is particularly good with the men; she facilitates the dancing together of Joan and John, and Cicely and Dick. There is a lot of description of her work with the Tommies behind the lines, teaching them dancing to raise their spirits—a topic for another post. She doesn’t criticize as Madam does; she asks people to do the dance again, for luck. She calls the neutral couples the “dud” couples, and morris handkerchiefs “wavies,” and the girls find this and her relative gentleness charming.
The Prophet gives a lecture on the origin and folklore of the sword dance and the mummers’ play (we won’t go into his views right now, and they are not reported in the book, but they were highly romantic in a Golden Bough way). Jen is thrilled that now she knows why her village policeman had told her that the play was done every year “for luck” and why the cook knew that there should be a sword dance “though she hadn’t the faintest notion why” (156). She says that she loves the Prophet for telling them all about it.
Towards the end of the four weeks there is an evening dance for all out-of-doors, and once again Cicely is deeply moved by the sight of it. “For the closing dance, which of course was ‘Sellenger’s Round,’ the whole party, of several hundred, were massed in great rings, one inside the other, all revolving in alternative directions, the loved Prophet in the centre, smiling even more happily than usual” (260). “Joshua” (Douglas Kennedy, Sharp’s successor as director of the EFDS; in the Old Testament Moses appoints Joshua as his successor), goes around telling each group whether they are “clock” or “counterclock.” He tells the girls to wait until all the arms “go up” in the second figure—“it’s like a wave.” I think he means a wave of the sea. I believe that I dimly remember doing this in the late 1970s in dance weeks with May Gadd. My group currently doesn’t raise our arms as if ecstatically worshipping the Sacred Tree (or the Prophet) in the center, but apparently some do, occasionally with sound effects.
Sharp, who was 61 in 1920, is presented as a kindly and beloved grandfather or uncle to all the students. He urges the women to wear dresses rather than gym tunics in the afternoon, and the girls find this sweet although several of them, including Advanced Certificate, do not comply. But, apparently, he had a stricter side as well. Joan relates the story of how the Pixie saves the class from his criticism:
“She’s awfully tactful,” Joan laughed. “A frightful thing happened this afternoon! We were attempting ‘Hunsdon House,’ and you know the Director’s feeling for ‘Hunsdon House!’ We were not doing it well; and suddenly he walked in! We nearly died with horror at the thought of him watching us. But she knew! She told him we were just beginning it, and then she said it would be such a treat to us if he would just play it for us! The pianist jumped up, only too delighted, I’m sure, after what he said about ‘Hunsdon House’ in his lecture on accompanying the other day, and he sat down and played it perfectly for us. But the point was that he’d got his back to us! We could have hugged her! Then he went off, quite happy, and we felt we’d escaped, so we were quite happy; and of course she was!” (202-203)
Hunsdon House for four couples is complicated, but its chief challenge is that it was danced very, very slowly at that time. “Slow music exposes bad dancers,” wrote Regency-era dancing master Thomas Wilson, and he was and still is correct. It is very difficult to dance with “lilt” when the music is slow! Here is a video of the Berea College folk dancers at the 1993 Mountain Folk Festival performing first the American-style grand square figure, and then, around minute two, Hunsdon House with its similar figure, nicely danced although I think Sharp would have frowned at all the bowing & curtseying: unnecessary and affected. The video is introduced by the beloved Dr. John Ramsay.
Unlike EJO’s first book to explore folk dancing, A01_Girls of the Hamlet Club, in which no mention is made of different morris traditions (EJO had discovered folk dancing when this was published in 1914, but not Sharp and his teachers), The Abbey Girls Go Back to School is chock-a-block full of names: Bampton, Ilmington, Kirkby, Flamborough, Sleights, Mr. Isaac’s Maggot, Argeers, Greenwood, Chelsea Reach, the Running Set, and songs too numerous to list. Some girl readers at the time would have been familiar with some of these names, as the dances and songs were beginning to be used in the curriculum. Others, enchanted by these details, must have wanted to rush out and find a branch of the Folk Dance Society!
After the Vacation School is over, the girls attend the shorter Christmas School at Chelsea in London. A few weeks later Madam and the Pixie visit the Hamlet Club—whose members call Madam, “She-Who-Bossed-The-President” — Cicely tells Madam who her teachers were: “’For country and Running Set we had the Prophet’s ‘Little Page.’ . . . . I simply loved watching her; I’m more than ever sure she dances without touching the ground! . . . For morris and sword we had the Dear Little Robin. . . and I just loved her. She’s a sport, and topping fun; and just about as quick at seeing things as you are. It takes my breath away to hear her go round after a morris telling every single person what she did wrong; she never misses a thing; you can’t dodge her!’ (301-2)” Cicely adds that she will always connect the Robin with the sword dances Sleights and Haxby.
Madam dances several morris jigs for the girls, and Cicely tells the Pixie that she’d rather see it danced by her than by any man: “’I know I’m very improper, but I think Madam makes it a more beautiful thing than any man could ever do.’” The Pixie tells her that is “heresy” and what would the Prophet say? (305). The Pixie herself refuses to dance morris in public, partly out of principle, but also because she is so short and has danced so much with men that she would not fit in with a women’s side. (No mixed sides!)
The book ends with the girls dancing Sellenger’s around the two engaged couples and Madam and her new husband.
Goodness! I could go on, but I need to stop somewhere, perhaps with this summary of the folk-dance creed of the early years with Sharp:
- The dances and songs are English—they couldn’t have been created by any other nationality. Sharp felt that he was preserving English culture for the English. He was not a holistic song collector; if an informant had 20 songs in their repertoire and some of them were hymns or music hall songs, Sharp only notated the ones that seemed more “folk” to him, particularly if they were modal.
- The dances and songs were standardized by Sharp. There are no variants but only one correct way to perform them. This was to make it possible to get these items into the music and physical education curricula of primary schools.
- You not only shouldn’t, but couldn’t learn these things from books—you had to learn from a trained teacher. Sharp knew how to work his franchise! Gym mistresses with silver badges could potentially get better jobs in schools.
One of Elsie J. Oxenham’s great strengths as a writer is her ability to capture the motion, beauty, color, and sheer fun of folk-dancing. Thus, her contribution to the creed is that
4. English folk dance is jolly, happy, healthy, topping fun, with an ability to move some people, like Cicely, to tears with its beauty. People who engage in it are “balanced,” kind, healthy, and friendly. It can change people for the better; we’ll see a lot more on this theme in later books.
Next week we’ll take a look at where to obtain Oxenham’s books (and what to avoid!), as well as some useful resources for Abbey readers.