Elsie J. Oxenham published a number of short stories in her long and complicated career. Many of them eventually became chapters in books; apparently only a few were stand-alone. Based on the only two that I have read, I don’t think her skill was in the classic short story; she needed the broader canvas of a full-length novel. But these two stories, published in 1921 and 1923, are of interest to the folk dancer, although one of them, at least, is weak as stories go.
—And here I apologize—I should have written about them around the time that I posted on A11_The Abbey Girls Go Back to School, but forgot that they were in my box of treasures! Mine are photocopies without provenance that Monica Godfrey supplied me with, but Waring and Ray in their study of Oxenham’s works, Island to Abbey, provide the dates of publication.—
Dancing Honour (1921) and Honour Your Partner (1923) were published at the height of EJO’s obsession with folk dancing. They appeared in the British Girls Annual, big fat books stuffed with stories and poems which came out every late fall and were designed as Christmas presents—remember that few if any books were published at the time in anything other than hardcover. They are in the “school story” genre, which is not familiar to most American readers, but which features girls at a boarding school, and which are intended for the ‘tween reader who herself is still at school.
While the first to be published, “Dancing Honour; How a Girl Nearly Obtained her Wish—and Then Was Sorry,” comes second in story order. Seventeen-year-old Margaret is heading into the twice-weekly folk dance classes that she has enjoyed for the past two years, and that were introduced to the school by a new young gym mistress. Margaret loves the dancing:
. . . with its rhythm and free, natural movement, Margaret had found something which filled a want in her nature. She was musical, and each of the quaint old airs was a new delight. She was graceful, and each fresh movement was a new joy. To watch her dance was a joy to onlookers also, but that did not appeal to her at all. When she was dancing she was too full of enjoyment to have thoughts for anything or anyone else.
All well and good, but Margaret also nurses a schwärm or pash for the gym mistress, Miss Hilary Branson. She can hardly take her eyes off her idol. This kind of emotion is something that EJO clearly thinks can sometimes be helpful to a girl if her idol is worthy, but which is generally not a good thing as it is “unbalanced.” In this case Margaret will have to struggle with her feelings in order to follow the right course.
The girls are working up special dances for a big demonstration at which “a lady” who is a great authority on folk dancing will be present. Miss Branson asks the girls—who have worked on definite positions in the sets—to be careful that they don’t injure themselves and throw the sets out of order. She says that if the performance is good, she herself might be able to get a good post in London. She then tells the girls, who are resting after an energetic set of Goddesses (entirely skipping step, if you recall), to perform Grimstock, a three-couple dance: “. . . ‘first couple, do remember—left shoulders first in your hey’ don’t mix it up with the one you’ve just done. Sets of six. Thanks!” to the pianist.” (Grimstock has three different heys: the one Miss Branson is referring to is that of the third figure.)
Margaret is desperately unhappy at the thought of losing her idol, even to the point of not wanting to, as the best girl dancer, perform the morris jig Princess Royal with Miss Branson. After their private practice of the jig Miss Branson urges Margaret in particular to be careful, as she is the leader of the senior morris side and the longsword dance and is a leader in the country dance. Then Miss Branson says she has a special reason for wanting the London post: there is a special someone whom she wants to spend more time with.
Margaret is devastated at the thought of losing Miss Branson and of having someone else teach folk dance and she decides to pretend that she has sprained her ankle. She knows that she is not “playing up,” but sticks with to her decision until she asks herself if she could truly be happy if the performance failed and Miss Branson remained lonely and alone at the unnamed school. She asks an “invisible presence” and pleads for help and finds a ready answer: that she’d always feel “mean” about the deception whether Miss Branson knew about it or not. Margaret decides to do the right thing and not fake an injury, but is still depressed and withdrawn at the thought of losing her idol.
At the last practice before the show a letter comes from Margaret’s mother: her sister’s wedding has been moved to the day of the performance because the fiancé is suddenly ordered abroad. Now Margaret has her excuse ready-made! She tells Miss Branson what she had intended to do, and of her decision now to skip the wedding in order to “play up and play the game” and dance in the show. After some protests, Hilary happily accepts the sacrifice The great lady observes the dancing and has no criticisms—“’. . . that is unusual, I assure you!’” she says to the gym mistress—and adds something about Margaret’s excellent dancing. (Could this lady have been Madam? (Helen Kennedy North))
When it is all over, Hilary Branson tells Margaret that she has obtained her great wish—the London post—and that the lady is offering Margaret herself when she turns eighteen a scholarship to pay her fees at the college where Miss Branson is teaching. They will share rooms together. Miss Branson says: “’ I don’t promise. . . . that all through life your good deeds will find their reward so quickly! But this time you have certainly ‘made good,’ and I congratulate you!’”
So, OK, a classic school story: conflict, resolution, reward. The moral is pretty heavily laid on! What’s here for folk dancers is the matter-of-fact inclusion of dancing, including a mention of Margaret leading her seven “men” through the “threading” of the unnamed sword dance, into the story. What is threading? Why are they “men”? What is a hey? Why does the shoulder matter? Why is dancing a part of a P.E. curriculum and why would you drop to the floor panting after dancing Goddesses? We know that Cecil Sharp and EFDS began granting Certificates of proficiency in 1912, but I don’t know how rapidly folk dancing actually permeated the girls’ school curriculum. Probably many girl readers, especially the younger ones, had done some dancing. Perhaps more had seen it, or heard of it, just as one had heard of flying an aeroplane or riding a horse, even if one hadn’t done either thing.
Honour Your Partner is a much more satisfying story, qua story, and is of greater interest to dancers as well. It has a classic school story trope of the shy, newcomer Fifth Former, Janice, and how she will overcome her diffidence to lead the school to victory. It also features two older girls, formerly pals, but now on the outs with each other.
Janice (who we will see is a worthy precursor to Jansy, Littlejan, and the rest of the young teachers who we will shortly meet) is new in school, although Miss Branson can easily see that she is a trained folk dancer and often uses her as a demo partner. Janice might be an EJO avatar like the Writing Person or Mary-Dorothy Devine: she is described as small, with brown bobbed hair and a childish look; not pretty except when animated by dancing. She is in no way, says the author, a rival to tall, fair, pretty Margaret, the leader of the class who always takes the first man’s role. Janice, however, is a more versatile dancer than Margaret:
. . . Janice dropped into any vacant place and partnered with anybody, changing sex as requested; but—and this meant much to those who understood—she never lost her head, though sent suddenly from end to side couples, even in “Newcastle.”
The challenge of the last figure of Newcastle, of course, is forming those lines up and down the hall and then across it. The point we are to get is that Janice is not constrained by gender roles and can dance in any place in the set of any dance that Miss Branson teaches.
Back to the story: Margaret (of the above story) always used to partner exclusively with Ruth, but now they are quarrelling. In the gym class, Margaret asks Janice (who has longed for this moment, as Margaret is her idol) to dance with her as her lady while Ruth dances as woman with a third girl, Doris.
Miss Branson sees and is troubled by the obvious quarrel of the girls and introduces the new two-couple dance, Lady in the Dark, making Margaret and Ruth and their partners form the set together, so that the two are “opposites.” Here’s where things get interesting for the dancer-reader: this is the only time, as far as I know, in the 65 or so books that I’ve read of EJO’s total output, that this dance is referred to. Lady in the Dark comes from the third edition of Playford (1665) and appeared in several other editions until 1690—that is, for twenty-five years. The dance appears in Cecil Sharp’s Country Dance Book, Part III, published in 1912. It’s an interesting choreography with a pretty tune (although it is another dance for which you must play the same eight-bar phrase twelve times through) and deserves to be brought back into the repertoire! The big deal about this dance, and its specific use in the story, is that one ends up dancing slightly more with one’s opposite than with one’s partner and, in fact, the whole dance ends, most unusually, with an honor (bow/curtsey) to the opposite, not the partner. And here’s how this girl’s school story, starts, Boom!, right with the figures of the dance:
“Honour your opposite!” said Hilary Branson. “Then side and honour with your partner. No, opposite first, Margaret! It’s unusual, but this is ‘Lady in the Dark.’ With your partner last.”
That’s the opening! Who is Hilary? Who is Margaret? What’s an honour? What’s an opposite? What’s going on? It’s actually a rather catchy opening! I can imagine being a girl reader on Christmas morning in 1923, taking another choc from the box and snuggling under the covers to find out more.
I’ll come back to the dance later, but let’s carry on with the story. There is to be a big inter-school competition in a fortnight (two weeks) time. Margaret suggests that they ask Miss Branson, the gym mistress, to teach them that sword dance she’s been promising them. Shy Janice raises her voice to say:
“People here haven’t an idea what an English sword dance is like. They think of a Scotch one, and say: ‘I suppose you have the swords on the floor, and dance across them?’ When you say you have the swords in your hands and are linked together by the, they think you’re crazy.”
Margaret asks if Janice has seen the dance and Janice quietly (and modestly—a Lady never brags about what she can do) says that she has. Miss Branson begins to teach them the eight-person Flamborough sword dance but then injures her knee! And falls into a fever and can’t be consulted! Consternation! Janice summons up all her courage and says that she can coach the older girls. She says:
“My home’s in Cheltenham. Last August there was a dancing school held there, and mother let me go. I was heaps the youngest, of course most of them were teachers or students from college. But they let me join. I saw Miss Branson there; she was teaching, though I was never in her classes. . . . We did two sword dances, and then revised [intensively reviewed] them. I think I could show you how it goes, if you’d let me.”
Janice is, of course, referring to the Vacation School that Oxenham herself attended! She teaches two teams of girls, and will dance as number One in the show group. She puts Ruth as number Three and Margaret as Eight—a key position in the circle figures. The two are happy to be separated, but what they don’t realize is that there will be figures in which they will have to work together. Margaret laughingly tells Janice to be more bossy and direct, the way Miss Branson (obviously a worthy disciple of Madam!) is, once again showing us the expected style of teaching. Janice stands on a chair and directs very competently. There is even a funny bit—I haven’t previously discussed EJO’s humor, but she can be rather funny!—when Janice must fly to take care of the second set, who have somehow turned themselves inside out, that is, they are still linked together but facing outwards. (I remember with love the fifth-graders I taught doing this! They were so perplexed! How did it happen? Like Elsie’s characters they couldn’t figure it out either.)
Janice’s stock rises with the girls, especially when they learn that she has danced with men—and that once when she was One—they had to dance every position in the set—and had to raise the lock how they all laughed because she was the smallest in the set. She says: “‘Men do swords far better than girls, of course. It’s topping to have a man for captain! He makes it go so rippingly.’” She has them do “threedling” and “double threedling”—neither of which are explained—and then they get to the figures in columns for which she has sacrificed her desire to have Margaret partner with her as Two, but in which Margaret (Eight) and Ruth (Three) will have to work together: the double cast off, the spins, and the poussettes. At first the two try not to look at each other, but this interferes with their dancing, and Janice stops the pianist—live music!—and stamps her feet.
“Can’t you hear the beat? You must spin to the music! One, two, three, four! How can you mess it up like that! Now cast off again, you two, and for goodness’ sake keep with the music! Margaret, I don’t know how you can! Don’t you feel it? That was simply awful!”
The two quarrelers laugh and the ice is broken. They realize that Janice put them together for a reason, and call her “Little Boss.” They “bury the hatchet”—that’s the phrase they use. I hadn’t realized until I typed it that it is a phrase we no longer say in the U.S., for whatever reason, but Elsie was already a Camp Fire Guardian, and perhaps this came to her from that context.
Needless to say, our girls win the competition. When Miss Branson can receive visitors, Margaret tells her of Janice’s exploits and also that she and Ruth are reconciled. Miss Branson notes that Janice was well aware of the quarrel, and adds: “‘Perhaps when I’m well again and you have shown me the sword dance, you’ll ‘honour your opposite’ [i.e., Ruth] properly!’” Margaret responds seriously that she’ll honor her partner, too, and “‘jolly well mean it this time. . . . She’s a little brick. . . . She pulled us all through, and won the shield for the school, Ruth and I are going to take turns in dancing with her after this. We’ve told her so, and she looked awfully pleased.’” That is the story’s concluding sentence.
Classic and satisfying school story ending! For the good of the school, Janice has overcome her shyness to teach the older girls and to bring them together. And classic EJO as well—Janice sees her way and the girls rally not because a grownup told them to, but because of their inner strengths. Margaret, well-aware of her position as leader, is still able to honor the younger girl for her talent and brickiness.
Lady in the Dark is another dance that has fallen out of the repertoire—or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it was never very firmly in it; it is not, for example, in Sharp & Karpeles’ Graded series of dance books. It is a USA dance (Up a double & back, siding, arming) with a different chorus following each figure, but actually it was Sharp that put in the siding and arming! You can see the original here, where it simply says for the first two parts that the couples “meet.” Did Playford and his son, who were music publishers not dancing masters, simply forget the figures? Or assumed that the reader would know to put them in? Or did the dance really not employ them? Whatever the answer, Sharp’s choreography is a satisfying one.
Generally, in two-couple dances, one dances the figure first with one’s partner and then with the opposite, but in this dance, that convention is reversed. You can see the whole dance and its music here, but here is the third and concluding figure to give you a sense of why Miss Branson chose it:
A1 1-4 Each man arms the contrary woman with the right.
5-8 Each man Set-and-honour with the contrary woman.
A2 1-4 Partners arm with the left.
5-8 Partners Set-and-honour.
A3 1-4 Circular hey, with hands, two changes each man facing his partner
5-8 Partners Set-and honour.
A4 1-4 Circular hey, with hands, two changes, to places, each man facing his
partner [to begin].
5-8 Each man Set-and-honour with the contrary woman.
The take-away points of these two stories for the dancer are first, that there is a pianist playing for both the country dances and the sword dance—imagine the logistics of arranging that, when folk-dancing is presumably only a portion of the gym curriculum! Second, EJO is relying on some fundamental knowledge of dancing in her reader. Third, it is evident from her sure handling of the details that she was a competent dancer and teacher.
Finally, a comment on the illustration of Honour Your Partner—and an apology for its quality: this is a scan of a second- or third-generation photocopy. If Cecil Sharp had seen it, he would have been very annoyed, as this is an artist’s representation of the “airs-and-graces” style of dancing that he abhorred. Note the pointed toes, the hand on the breast of the bowing girl, the daintily uplifted skirt, and the general air of gentility. Margaret is facing us, with her hair hanging loose; Janice has bobbed hair. The girls are wearing pumps and “afternoon” or dancing frocks, rather than the gym tunics that the first story specifically mentions, citing the ease with which you can plop down anywhere, including a dusty floor, in your gymmie. The artist is trying to show an “honor” to the partner, but here’s how Sharp instead describes “the movement of courtesy” that he wanted and promulgated:
This is a formal obeisance made by partners to one another at the conclusion, and sometimes in the course, of the dance. The man bows, head erect, making a slight forward inclination of the body from the hips; the woman, placing her left foot behind the right, makes a quick downward and upward movement by bending and straightening the knees.
The honour should always be made in rhythm with the music and, if possible, in conjunction with some corresponding movement of the feet. The exact way in which this is done depends upon circumstances. The usual method is to place the right foot on the ground twelve inches or so to the side say, on the first beat of the bar, and to bring up the left foot beside it—or, in the case of a woman, behind it—on the following beat when the obeisance is made.
This is an honor that fits into his vision of natural, un-fussy dancing. As described it is not, in fact, the kind of honor that actually would have been done in Playford’s time—Sharp took this courtesy from early nineteenth-century sources—but that is no matter: this is the style of the folk revival that Sharp created and that Elsie J. Oxenham loved so much.
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