Dear Readers, this week’s post is a covid-related detour: due to an early retirement plan offered at my place of work, an option for which I missed the bar by three months, I have now taken on additional duties there and am wearing so many hats that it interferes with my blogging as well as my desire to watch all the seasons of Laurie & Fry playing Bertie and Jeeves. So, while I continue to work on two long posts on both Camp Fire mysteries and the next Abbey Girls installment, An Abbey Champion, here is a little digression on Captain of the Fifth (1922), the second in the Swiss Series and one that shows Anastasia (Tazy, or “Taisez-vous”) Kingston, teaching the Kirkby Malzeard and Flamborough sword dances to the girls at St. Mary’s School in the Swiss Alps. Most of the focus is on the first dance.
My copy of Captain of the Fifth came as a freebie with another purchase—a freebie because it arrived in a plastic bag as a pile of sheets of photocopied paper that had been painstakingly folded and then glued together page back-to-back with page and also along the back spine in a sort of DIY perfect binding. With all the copying and folding and gluing, the pile is about four inches thick, with well-worn edges. It is falling apart, and leaves have detached, and the ardent Reader who put this together actually in some cases pasted the photocopied pages onto pages from a real paperback book, so in a way it is like a modern palimpsest. If she had copied it on A4 paper she must have had to trim all the sheets to make it fit, so it was quite an art project. It is also slight moldy and allergy-provoking. It sparks joy in me that a Reader cared so much about the story to do this.
—This copy’s physical appearance connects nicely with another book that I am re-reading: Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts; Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World. I recommend book this highly!—
While I am not going to provide a synopsis of the plot, it is a fun read in which EJO provides her ideas on the best ways teenage girls and boys can interact with each other—needless to say it is the natural, English way!—and also how pairs of brothers and sisters support each other. It is a pleasure to reencounter bubbly and slightly careless Tazy and her quiet and thoughtful friend, Karen Wilson. Tazy has now been chosen by the girls to be co-captain of the sixth form (meaning that she is jolly and popular), while Karen is the mistress’ choice for co-captain (meaning that she is steady and wise). As is the tradition of the school, the two captains work together, but Tazy is Head of School and head of all the games, the highest rank a girl can achieve. Thora Erikssen is the captain of the fifth form; she has a problem which will be resolved in the course of the story. Captain of the Fifth takes place shortly after Tazy and Karen attended Cecil Sharp’s Vacation School where they met the Abbey Girls. They mention the School and their teacher the Pixie, but not the girls. The dances they learned there are fresh in their minds, so it is natural for Tazy to teach girls sword dances for the great school competition.
Before we go further it might be as well if you watched a bit of the dance itself. Disclaimer: This is not an essay on the best way to dance the dance, or who “owns” it, or anything else. I have selected a performance that I like and one that conforms to my memory of how I learned to dance it, including the speed. Here are the Newcastle Kingsmen performing at Dancing England in Sheffield, 2017. A note: if you are unfamiliar with sword dances be aware that a dancer does a movement such as go under a sword with all the dancers following; then this figure is repeated in turn around the circle. Then comes another figure. Some people find this repetition slightly dull to watch, but I love sword dances. They are great fun to dance when you get into the zen of the movements—almost mystical—and they require a higher degree of coordination than most other forms of traditional dance. I once had a (hard) contact lens knocked out while learning the dance (picked it up, licked it off, and stuck it back on—yes, totally gross!); my sister was hit in the head when someone did a back-flip in a rapper dance; I have seen other dancers bloodied by similar moves. Take that, Team Morris! A bump on the knuckles, tchah!
Here the girls are learning the dance:
Karen [the fiddler, gave] them all the music they wanted, and played with a vigour and “snap” which showed that she had danced herself. They ran through the “Kirkby” dance, and then worked hard at the “Flamborough,” with rest intervals, which Tazy filled in with stories of folk-dance friends in England, and tales she had heard of these dances as taught among the troops in France and Germany during and after the war. The girls sat round her feet and listened enthralled as they heard how the Tommies had danced these very dances in the camps: how Tazy had seen the Durham miners do their wonderful dance with swords of bending steel, which she called “rappers” or rapiers. She told of demonstrations of folk-dancing on the college lawn, of country-dance parties out on the grass in the evening, and made the girls stand up and dance a couple of country-dances under her directions.
Now comes the big day of the St. Mary’s School competition. All the boys from St. John’s School are in attendance, and all the “stunts” given by each grade or form are a surprise.
Karen, in her white frock, came marching in, her fiddle against her shoulder, playing “The Girl I left Behind Me,” Following her came the six “men” chosen for the team, wearing blue school tunic-frocks and neatly plaited hair, wooden swords on their right shoulders. Wide-eyed, the rest of the school, the boys, and the visitors stared at the swords, and wondered what was going to happen.
Standing in a line facing the platform, the six waited while Pauline, marching to and fro, sword on shoulder, sang the doggerel “Captain’s Song,” and pointed to each man in succession as she accused him of some crime or ill-doing. She sang with spirit, and her voice was good, the wording clear. The audience laughed, but the girls stared in front of them steadily, with faces as nearly expressionless as they could compass, though Guly’s lips twitched when her turn came, and Madge caught Dick’s eye, and to Guly’s look away sternly and very quickly. There was a smothered giggle [from some boys] as Guly was introduced as “a ranting young lad,” and Madge as “cruel as cruel can be;” Greta, coming next to Thora, was described as “his brother—you might think they were twins” and [two boys collapsed with laughter] as Greta was as unlike Thora in looks as she could be; Sally was pointed out as “a man of so much milder blood,” and Babette as “the first breeder of strife” and “no better at all than the rest.”
Obviously, this kind of song worked well with an audience and a readership who knew the girls’ characters, just as it worked well in its original village setting when the intros could be tailored to the vagaries of each dancer. Let’s continue:
Then, as Pauline [the Captain] stepped back, and Karen, standing at the side, changed from the song-tune back to her first air, the dance began with the vigorous clashing of the swords, and boys and visitors alike grew tense with surprise and anticipation. Nothing like this had ever been seen at a school festival before. The noisy clash [of the raised swords] gave way to the silent, swift, bewildering movements of Single Under and Over; and Tazy, watching keenly with a leader’s eye [from the side-lines], knew that the dance had gripped the audience as no play or drill or action-song could ever have done. The girls felt it, too, in the tense stillness which surrounded them; they put a vigour into their work they had never shown at rehearsals, and swept triumphantly through the difficult “Two Swords” figure, and heard the gasps of amazement as the circle untied itself successfully each time from what had seemed an inextricable tangle, and yet never broke the ring of swords. The stately processions under and over the swords in couples were well done, and the captain’s face showed her approval; then Thora went whirling over her own sword, Greta followed, and each man in turn did the same, twice round, and yet with the ring unbroken, and the audience gasped again. When all six drew together for the lock, and Thora held all the swords aloft, securely linked together, in one hand, the astounded audience stamped and clapped and shouted its applause; then, determined to get every ounce of possible enjoyment out of her great moment, Tazy slipped into the centre of the ring, the lock was lowered over her head and held at the level of her throat, and on the last triumphant note the swords were drawn and flourished overhead, and the “victim” died gracefully, and lay flat on her back in the midst. Sally bent and prodded her with her point, while a shout of delighted laugher went up . . . .
“Beat that with your choir stunts if you can!” [Tazy] challenged the Fourth [form], who were going to sing. “I think we’ve on that prize, men! You’re sports! You danced better than you’ve ever done. You all dance like English girls; I can’t say more than that!”
With this presentation, EJO is quietly making several points. First, that sword dance is hard work, like cricket, but worth it. This was undoubtedly a novel concept for its time—and it still is as attested to the plethora of Disney-type movies in which the kids who put on the successful high school musical suddenly become as revered as those who play in the state football competition. Second, it is English, and the highest compliment Tazy can make to some of the foreign girls like Greta is that they dance as well as English girls—with statements like this we must recall the strong nationalistic drive of folk-dance and -music collecting in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cecil Sharp was out to find English dances and songs for English people, and EJO’s early descriptions of these activities reinforce this vision. EJO informs us that the best musicians are those who know how to dance. And—this is an inchoate thought that I am still meditating on—by calling the girl dancers “men,” I think she is hinting at a sort of mystic connection to a masculine spirit of the dance that is independent of gender.
Lastly—and this is one of Elsie Oxenham’s great strengths as a writer and her great gift to Readers—she makes it fun! Don’t you want to go dance it? Just think, if we got six-foot swords, we could dance socially distant!