Elsie J. Oxenham’s fictional heroine Rosamund Kane holds her Elementary Certificate from the English Folk Dance Society (the precursor of the EFDSS) and has possibly also passed the Advanced Cert. requirements for country dancing, if not for morris and sword. Cecil Sharp began offering these certificates of proficiency in 1912 as part of his control over the repertoire and its pedagogy, and they continued to be offered up to World War II, when Douglas Kennedy abolished them as he felt they were inhibiting participation by men in folk dancing. I have long wondered what these certifications entailed.
I am deeply indebted to Derek Schofield, former editor of English Dance & Song magazine and now the Reviews Editor for the Folk Music Journal, for uncovering the three-page pamphlet of the certification requirements of 1912. They are found in the Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, reference AS12. Derek speculates that the dances required might have changed over the years as Sharp published Books III, IV, and V of the Country Dance series.
Before we get to the requirements themselves, however, I’d like to digress a bit to discuss repertoire. I’ve been teaching English country dance for 45 years and have seen the repertoire change significantly and expand exponentially from the Sharp-based rep of the Seventies. One thing that we callers (and some dancers) have noticed is that as the repertoire has expanded, and as, in the U.S. at least, the technical standards have been relaxed, people don’t typically dance as well as they used to have to under the eagle eye of May Gadd (The Little Robin), nor do they have the knowledge of a core repertoire that people used to have. You used to be able to announce—at Pinewoods Camp English dance week at least—that the next dance would be the rather complicated dances Fandango or Newcastle or Nonesuch For Those Who Know (i.e., neither taught nor prompted) and three-quarters of those present would stand up for the dance and perform it pretty well.
For most groups or clubs now those days are gone. This is the present outcome of the age-old battle between Descriptivism (the way things (especially but not exclusively) language) currently are and Prescriptivism (the way things Ought To Be as defined by the Powers That Be). Are we going to be Inclusive (teaching generally to a low—Oops! Value judgment!—an accessible common standard and not investing effort in complicated set dances that can take quite a while to teach and master and scarcely three minutes to perform) or Exclusive (the reverse). Adding to the tension, we know that we sometimes lose dancers in our groups because they are tired of easy dances and want something with a little more meat to it! Elsie J. Oxenham was well aware of this tension between beauty and perfection versus happy-joining-in, and her characters actually explore but do not resolve the issue in a couple of the later installments—we even saw a touch of it in A25_Rosamund’s Tuckshop when one of the school girls says, in effect, that she is sick of the two-couple set dance Rufty Tufty (which was taught at her school) but ends up enjoying Corn Rigs with its jolly polka step.
The preliminary comments to the requirements indicate that you could take the exam in any of the three weeks of the Summer School at Stratford and thereafter by application. The preface indicates that the candidate had to exhibit “practical and theoretical” knowledge, although this requirement is reinforced in a heightened fashion for the Advanced Cert. At least some of the country dances could be selected by the candidate, who had to submit her list in advance—it is unclear to what extent the examiners set the morris and sword dances, although Derek relates that he was told that the examiners would call for a set for, say, Shepherd’s Hey and tell you to dance fifth position in it. The preface also clearly states that holding either certificate was not a test of “teaching capacity” and that a list of “approved” teachers was kept at the EFDS Office. It is also not clear that you would have been required to hold an Advanced Cert. in order to be approved to teach—in a later installment, Elsie J. Oxenham gives us a jolly teacher (and old friend from the Swiss Series) who the EFDS Secretary says is not quite up to snuff to get an advanced group ready for an examination in something complicated like Chelsea Reach, but is well-suited for leading a dance party, and that she knows all the newer dances.
Elementary Certificate Requirements, 1912
For the Elementary Certificate, you would be expected to be able to dance in any position in any of the groups of dances itemized below, starting with the country dances—are these in your wheelhouse?
Book I Book II
- Any six dances from the Country Dance Books I and II (not more than two dances from Book 1, which were the easy, traditional longways dances). This is a total of 48 dances that you were expected to have mastered, although, again, it is not clear whether the candidate selected all the dances or whether the examiners set some. (Click on the images above to see the list enlarged; see the dance instructions and tunes at The Round.
- Any six of the following 16 morris set dances (both handkerchief and short- or long-stick)Beansetting (I) Old Woman Tossed Up (I)Laudnum Bunches (I) Black Joke (I)
Country Gardens (I) Bobbing Joe (III)
Trunkles (I) Shepherd’s Hey (III)
Rigs O’Marlow (I) Glorishears (III)
How D’ye Do (I) The Gallant Hussar (III)
Blue-eyed Stranger (I) Shooting (III)
Maid of the Mill (I) Brighton Camp (III)
- Any one of the following three morris jigs.
Old Mother Oxford (II) Lumps of Plum Pudding (III) Jockie to the Fair (III)
- Any position of either the Kirkby Malzeard longsword dance (for six dancers) or the Flamborough Sword Dance (for eight dancers). This means six or eight unique positions in two dances of a very different style (click on the links to view them).
Note that the morris dances listed above have the volume number after each title. Cecil Sharp and Herbert MacIlwaine published the first two volumes of The Morris Book in 1907 and the third in 1910, and Sharp produced revised and expanded editions of all three a few years later. He published his three volumes of Sword Dances of Northern England from 1911 to 1913. It was in these years that he was also producing his graded volumes of both country and morris dances—alas! I gave away my volumes of these a few years ago without examining them closely enough. I do not know if the grading was adult beginner to adult advanced or child to adult, but a dancer would at least have had a few more years to get Books I, II, and III under her belt than Book IV. But also note that the village tradition is not specified in the certification requirements above (or below)—you are expected to know it. For example, Beansetting, Laudnum, Country Gardens, Trunkles, Rigs, How D’ye Do, and Blue-eyed are all from the Headington tradition; Maid of the Mill is a linked handkerchief dance from the Ilmington tradition; Brighton Camp is from Eynsham; Lumps of Plum Pudding from the village of Bampton, and so on. You were expected to dance correctly in each style. Here’s what Elsie J. Oxenham, in a rare article printed in Every Girl’s Annual of, I believe, 1923 (my copy is undated, but she refers to having attended the Cheltenham vacation school in the prior year), has to say about the various styles; she begins by saying that each tradition has “peculiar points of its own” and continues:
Ilmington, in Warwickshire, has evolved an especially tricky, though beautiful hey or chain—“the thing with question-marks and tea-cup handles in it,” as I heard it described lately. Bampton, in Oxfordshire, has a peculiarly fascinating arm-movement, like the action of sowing seed or feeding hens—a real country movement, seen nowhere else—and gives us curious walking back-steps; also two very beautiful solo jigs. Fieldtown, in the same county, turns the back-steps into queer little hops, or sometimes into ferocious stamps, with quite a different arm-movement. Sherborne, in Gloucester, makes you move back in a weird shuffle, messes up its Morris step, and has one really dreadful track movement; Sherborne is a brute, but a fascinating brute! Bledington, in Oxfordshire, is very original, and makes you twist your hands in the opposite way from any other village’s hands, and creates new and extraordinary jump positions in its capers; so do Fieldtown and Bampton, for that matter.
You have to concentrate on all important points like these. If you put whole-rounds into Bampton, or half-rounds into Ilmington, you get well shouted at if “Madam” [Helen Kennedy North] happens to be teaching; it is a failing of my own, so I know.
Or you keep meeting new forms of old friends. Take “Shepherd’s Hey.” You learn it as an Ilmington dance, with stick-tapping and the funny hey; presently you come across it with Bampton arm-waves and back-steps. Then you find it is also a Headington solo jig, with hand-clapping, and then it turns up as a Badby dance, with sticks again, but quite different sticks. And last of all it is a Fieldtown dance, with handkerchiefs, as in Bampton, but no other likeness, either in tune or dance, to any “Shepherd’s Hey” you have ever met before.
The above is from a writer who clearly enjoyed these dances but, despite her understanding and her clarity of description, did not feel confident enough to essay the examination. But this is the level of mastery you were clearly expected to show! And, remember, in 1912 you would have been examined by The Prophet himself, or by the imperious and critical Madam (Helen Kennedy North) or Joshua (Douglas Kennedy). Nerve-wracking!
Advanced Certificate Requirements, 1912
The requirements for the Advanced Certificate were considerably more demanding and involved a significantly greater focus on morris dancing—no wonder Rosamund has only passed the country dance portion of the Advanced Cert. and the Writing Person (one of EJO’s avatars) never attempted to obtain a certificate at all. Unlike the Elementary certification, the requirements for the Advanced one begin with the re-statement that the candidate had to possess “a practical and theoretical knowledge” of the materials listed below. This theoretical knowledge presumably means that you couldn’t just show the movements and rely on muscle memory or subtle cues from a partner—you had to intellectually know everything cold and be able to explain all the fiddly bits. At the end of this post I am going to give some questions that I think could have been on an English country dance exam, whether on paper or viva voce. They are real questions with real answers—will you be able to pass the test?
- Any ten dances from the Country Dance Books I and II—and again no more than two from the easy Book I.
- Any six morris dances from the following.
Laudnum Bunches (I) Bobbing Joe (III)
Trunkles (I) Shepherd’s Hey (III)
Black Joke (I) Shooting (III)
Rodney (II) Brighton Camp (III)
- Any four morris dances from the following. Since these are from volume IV, they would certainly have been less familiar to the dancers, whether or not they are intrinsically more difficult.
The Cuckoo’s Nest (IV) The Rose (IV)
Constant Billy (IV) Bobby and Joan (IV)
Lads A-Bunchum (IV) Banks of the Dee (IV)
London Pride (IV) Dearest Dicky (IV)
Swaggering Boney (IV) Step Back (IV)
- Any two morris jigs from the following.
Princess Royal (first version) (III) Sherborne Jig (IV)
Jockie to the Fair (III) None so Pretty (IV)
I’ll Go and Enlist (IV) Molly Oxford (IV)
- Any two dances from the sword dance list. Again, this is any position in these very different sword dances. For example, the Earsdon dances is a rapper sword dance whereas Grenoside is a slow longsword dance performed with stepping in clogs. I encourage you to click on the bolded links.
Grenoside (I) Sleights (II)
Earsdon (II) Flamborough (II)
Do I think I could have passed these Certs? In my young and lissom days I danced English country dances, morris (many traditions), rapper- and long-sword (ditto), English clog, garland, Running Set, New England contras, Scottish country dances, Highland dancing, and some Vintage and historical dancing. I am confident that with a bit of swotting up on some of the less-familiar set dances—but remember, you weren’t supposed to learn from books!—I would have passed the Elementary Cert. with flying colors or possibly colours, but I would have had to study hard for the Advanced one—not so much for the country dances (that requirement is the same, although I think the performance/knowledge standards were probably higher), but for the morris and sword!
Allison’s English Country Dance Examination Questions
These are real questions, some based on the fiddly bits that I recall Genevieve Shimer (May Gadd’s successor at CDSS) and others of her generation insisting on. Not all the questions are based on the country dance books I and II!
Answer fully and completely, using a No. 2 pencil and making no stray marks on the pages.
In Prince William, describe the actions of the first couple and the second woman in the first strain of the A music of the second part of the dance. What does the second woman particularly need to remember to do?
What is the correct sequence of the hands given in the chorus figure of Rufty Tufty? Choose from:
RLRL RLLR LRLR LRRL Other
Which couple (using original numbering) initiates the progressive hey at the end of the set dance Nonesuch?
Describe/show the difference(s) between the pas de basque step and the polka step. What dance named after a member of the Royal Family uses the pas de basque step?
Mark the dances below in a round formation that number anti-clockwise rather than clock-wise.
Peppers Black Winifred’s Knot Sage Leaf
Mundesse Put on thy Smock on a Monday Jenny Pluck Pears
Describe the actions of the second chorus figure of the dance for two couples, Althea.
In which figure of Sellenger’s Round do dancers raise their arms, and why?
The second time the lines of four form in Newcastle, which way are they facing? Across the hall or up and down it?
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