OK, folk dancers, you’ve patiently sat through all the Romances and the set-up of the Second Generation series—now you’re going to hit dancing pay-dirt with A31_An Abbey Champion, published in 1946. Ruth Allen’s chronology shows the installment as beginning in August of 1932 and ending in July of 1933, when Queen Marigold begins her reign. It is an important book for the folk-dance reader, as it shows the expansion of the repertoire in the late Twenties and early Thirties; an expansion beyond Sharp’s exploration of the complex set dances of the early volumes of Playford’s The Dancing Master (published between 1651 and 1728) and into both late eighteenth-century dances as well as the traditional repertoire.
The cover is difficult to interpret until one has read the book, but it represents the performance of the Folk Play, with Littlejan as the Fool and the head girl, Alison, as the tall doctor behind her along with St. George and other characters from the play. The illustrator, Margaret Holder, met with Elsie Oxenham’s approval (she did not approve of all of illustrations her publishers gave her), but I don’t find this a particularly appealing image—without the inside information that the reader will have at the end of the book I can’t equate the jester that I see with the word “champion,” nor does this say to me either “folk” or even “Abbey.”
Plot Synopsis (Contains Spoilers)
Janice MacDonald Fraser (Jandy Mac) is visiting Joan Shirley Raymond who is currently living at Abinger Hall when she receives a letter calling her back to her husband who is now stationed in Ceylon. Joy, now Lady Quellyn, is to arrive home from New York City in a week and Maidlin’s wedding to Jock Robertson will be in two weeks. Jandy Mac’s thirteen-year old Joan Fraser (Littlejan, sometimes known as Joan-Two) is to stay with Joan and attend school at Miss Macey’s. Word suddenly comes that Joy has had both a premature baby boy and an operation and is desperately ill in New York City. Sir Ivor wants the nine-year old Marchwood twins and their nursery governess Belinda “Lindy” Bellanne to come to New York.
Maidlin and Jock Robertson arrive. Joan tells Jock the bad news and Jock takes Maidlin to the Abbey to tell her. She doesn’t want to get married without Joy present and says she would bring up the twins if needed; he doesn’t want to wait for the couple of years of celibate mourning that would apparently be considered necessary if Joy were to die. He suggests that they have a quiet private wedding (they are both rather famous and were not looking forward to the big public wedding in any case) and then be the “elderly married couple” who escort the girls across the Atlantic. Maidlin agrees.
Littlejan goes on a visit to Kentisbury Castle where she sees her friend Tansy, who is now at the gardening and cookery school Wood End. Littlejan tells Rosamund, who has had a baby boy, Hugh, Lord Verriton, that Rosamund is filled with the spirit of the Abbey, always doing nice things for people. Rosamund is pleased to hear this and feels that Littlejan herself has the spirit too. We hear that Joy and the baby boy are doing better and are out of danger.
Maidlin’s wedding day arrives. For their honeymoon she and Jock are going to tour the Cotswolds and look at the villages that have morris traditions—”Field Town, Longborough, Sherborne, Bledington”; as usual with Oxenham these are mentioned but not explained —while Jen stays at the Hall to get the twins ready for the trip. Littlejan and Mary Dorothy Devine have bonded. Now Rachel and Damaris Ellerton, Maidlin’s cousins, take care of Littlejan, who remembers to have the Abbey Bell, Cecily, rung in honor of the wedding. Anne Bellanne, Lindy’s sister, cooks the wedding luncheon (she is to be Maidlin’s housekeeper in The Pallant, their to-be-built home). Maidlin is married in the beautiful white dress that Rosamund wove for her and that was spoiled in Rosamund’s Victory. They have a dance in the Abbey barn and dance Hunsdon House and Oranges and Lemons–“‘Nice and quiet and slow,'” says Jen, thinking of their finery. Maidlin and Jock sit at the head as the “Presence.” They also dance The Triumph in Maid’s honor, and Jen wants to dance Never Love Thee More “‘so that we can face up and honour Jock and Maidie.'” Maidlin and Jock slip away before they can dance Sellenger’s Round with the newlyweds in the center—Maid is certain Jock would hate this.
Littlejan and Janice Robertson (Joan’s daughter, known as Jansy—she is 10 and a half) go to school. Littlejan comes to Mary Dorothy at night to ask for advice—there is a problem with the Hamlet Club. Littlejan has heard so much about it, its dancing, and its motto, but there is not much going on. Littlejan says that there are no older Queens that she can look up to: the last two have left the school and one of them was a slacker anyway, and though the current Queen, Mirry, is doing as well as she can, she is a year younger than Littlejan. The Club is mostly comprised of younger girls and the seniors at school no longer care about it. Alison, the head girl, tells Littlejan that the Club kept having the same old dances and there “‘seemed more thrilling things to do.’” She later says that she can’t be bothered with learning the complicated figures—“‘it’s too much fag to remember.’” Alison says that she and other also think that they are too old for country dancing, and this upsets Littlejan, as she thinks about how the Countess and the Ladies Marchwood (Joy and Jen) are all still dancing and enjoying it. Worse yet, the Hamlet Club has forgotten the motto, “to be or not to be,” with its deeper meaning.
Littlejan finds Joan to be sympathetic. Are there any new dances? she asks Joan, who responds “‘Oh, yes! New ones are discovered in country places, or in ancient books, or in America, from time to time.” —
—This reference to dances coming from new sources is not explained either here or later, although I will elaborate on this in the section for Folk Dancers.
—Joan then reiterates the dangers of learning new dances from books. She says they must tell the President, Cecily Everett, about the slackness of the Club and see whether she has any suggestions. Littlejan is afraid to talk to Cecily, as she can be rather imposing, and neither head girl Alison nor Queen Mirry will back her up and go with her. Joan reminds her of the motto of the Club—not just the “to be or not to be” of Hamlet, but the deeper meaning of having to make a difficult choice and do the right thing—and Littlejan agrees to tackle the President. Joan also tells Littlejan that, while the motto is nothing that can be preached about, perhaps Littlejan will find a way to reveal it to the Club.
Jen comes to tell Joan that Ken is not recovering well from the car accident that occurred a book or two ago: perhaps some dormant germs from Kenya have been triggered, says the doctor. Littlejan continues to develop as a leader at school. Mary-Dorothy Devine is sad because her younger sister Biddy, now married to her Frenchman, has decided that she and her babies Madelon Marie and the new little Marie-Rose, will turn Catholic and will be “lost” to Mary. Why “lost”? I don’t know. A different part of Heaven for Catholics? While they don’t say this as bluntly as I am putting it, the girls rationalize this conversion and lostedness as a situation of it being better to have some religion than no religion.
Littlejan has tea with Cecily and asks for new dances. Cecily suggests a weekend school at the half-term holiday with a teacher from London: a Friday evening dance with singing and any of the former Queens who can come; a dance class all day on Saturday with a demonstration in the evening with men from London to do morris and sword; a quiet day on Sunday and then more classes on Monday with a party at night. Cecily refers to this weekend school as being “most usual,” adding that it is one of the “newer ideas.” While this phrase still puzzles me a bit, perhaps it is a way of acknowledging a change in participation: long weekends catering to working people rather than three-week long Vacation Schools.
Cecily also suggests that Littlejan revive the Folk Play, apparently last performed during Maidlin’s reign although we didn’t hear about it then, and engage the seniors by giving them big parts. Hearing of this Joan says perhaps it’s time that the older Queens gave up dressing up and Littlejan disagrees—it shows hold old the Club and its tradition is.
Littlejan announces the weekend school idea to all the girls and the head girl, Alison, backs her up. The weekend (described below) is a great success. At Christmas, before the term ends, the girls put on a long folk play—a mash up of many other plays with the Four Champions of Britain (Saints George, Andrew, Patrick, and David (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales)) and many other characters. EJO is very clear that the play is not “correct,” and one character says that the girls have been “greedy” in using so many of the good bits of other plays, although she also makes it sound like amazing fun. Littlejan takes the role of the Fool—the Priest, as EJO explains it. Perhaps she was thinking that priests can be mediators and inspirers, as well as agencies that join people in marriage: a specific point in the play. While that cover image that I didn’t care for depicted the Fool as a Jester, Littlejan fits the more serious interpretation of the role.
The seniors have big parts and greatly enjoy it—tall, head girl Alison takes the role of the Doctor. And here is a little throw-away plot point that I almost missed. She has already told Littlejan that, since she is nearly eighteen, she intends to leave the school at the Christmas holiday and go on a lovely cruise with her parents. Littlejan convinces her that for the good of the school she should take the part of the Doctor and be prepared to take it again when the play is put on again in the spring term by popular acclaim. Alison decides that she must accede; Joan tells her about the motto and that everyone, including Littlejan faces it; Alison thinks a great deal about the motto and the future of the Hamlet Club. She plans to see the Club through its troubles to May (the election of the next Queen), and it is clear that she thinks Littlejan, despite her youth and her newness at school, would make an excellent Queen. The Hamlet Club and the whole school have been reenergized, thanks to Littlejan.
Just before the term begins, little Jansy comes down with chickenpox—not measles for a change, but it still means quarantine. Littlejan was to have performed as the Fool again when they put on another performance of the Folk Play, but she makes her Hamlet Club decision to quarantine herself with Jansy, much to Joan’s relief, as she is nursing her new baby and can’t spend much time with her daughter. Littlejan bravely tells the school to go on with the performance but they refuse to have it without her.
Littlejan is puzzled as to why the Hamlet Club doesn’t seem to be discussing who the next Queen should be—and is surprised and thrilled when they unanimously elect her. She will be the Marigold Queen. Jen arrives back at the Manor bringing Ken, who is much better, to continue recuperating. Littlejan’s father Alex, arrives and greatly enjoys seeing Littlejan crowned as May Queen—with head girl Alison carrying her crown of flowers, a great honor. Rosamund gives birth to twin girls: Lady Rosabel Joy and Lady Rosalin Cicely. We are starting down the rabbit hole of babies, particularly twin girls, almost all of whom will have “Rose” in their names. Maidlin has twins, too!—we forgot to mention that, like Rosamund, she Wasn’t Dancing Much at the coronation even though we never saw her in A Loose Frock. They are named Marjory Joy (Marjory for Jock’s mother) and Dorothy Rose (for Mary-Dorothy). The phone rings: Tazy Thistleton has had her third child, a daughter named Theodora Karen. A telegram arrives: Littlejan’s mother, Jandy Mac, has had a baby girl, Cecily Rose! Queen Littlejan is thrilled—she has always wanted a baby sister. Jock causes the Abbey Bell, Cecilia, to ring in honor of the new little Cecily in Ceylon. If you are keeping count, I believe that that is seven new babies in this book.
So now, if we pause and reflect, which I don’t know that I would have done had I read these in my youth, we can see that the title of this installment, An Abbey Champion, does not refer to someone who is a champion or defender of the physical Abbey, but a champion from the Abbey—because Littlejan is now living at the Hall, she is considered an Abbey Queen. Littlejan also embodies the spirit of the Abbey and of the motto of the Hamlet Club. She has reenergized the school as well as the Club. Littlejan has done well, and Cecily and Joan—and Joan’s opinion in the Abbey world is important—think well of her. Thus we know that, in what I believe is Yorkshire dialect (and Oxenham was quite sensitive to dialect), Littlejan has done champion.
For Folk Dancers
This is one of the most “dance-y” of the books, exuberantly establishing Littlejan as a leader at school and in the Hamlet Club. From now to the end of the series we will be more or less back in the school-girl world (more or less because those babies keep intruding). EJO is back to writing for the younger reader who enjoys the folk dancing.
There is an impromptu dance after Maidlin and Jock’s wedding, and the girls, still in their wedding finery, plan to dance only “quiet” dances: Hunsdon House, Newcastle, and Oranges and Lemons (all complicated squares for four couples) as well as the longways dance The Triumph. Jen wants to dance Never Love Thee More,” for its ending figure of facing and honoring the Presence (in this case the newly-married couple), but she doesn’t think the bride will care for the title of the dance. Here you can see Hunsdon House with its distinctive chorus figure now called a Grand Square, danced by an Italian group at what I would call a more modern tempo. (No, I do not know why some of them dance in bare feet.) Here you can see the dancers from Berea College Kentucky in 1993 dancing both a square dance Grand Square and Hunsdon House, and the latter is the tempo that I recall learning the dance at. Shout out to Dr. John Ramsay!
The girls dance The Triumph in honor of the couple and “[e]ach pair of ‘men,’ lead[s] a woman up the middle of the set under a triumphal arch of linked hands, smiled at the newly-married couple, and Maidlin bowed gravely in response, with heightened colour.” When they dance Hunsdon House—which was danced very, very slowly at the time—the naughty twins “with mischievous eyes, were exaggerating their honours, bowing and curtseying whenever they met their partners, Elizabeth holding out her primrose skirt to the fullest width and sinking almost to the ground, Margaret flourishing an imaginary hat. . . . Maidlin calls them “little monkeys” and tells Jock that they aren’t supposed to do that and they know it perfectly well: “‘But it’s tempting; I always want to do it myself. The others merely bob, or give a little nod; do you see?’” Cecil Sharp would indeed have been horrified at the twins’ excessive flourishing—this was a feature of the “airs and graces” school of revived folk dances that he disapproved of exceedingly and that I will discuss in a future post. The girls dance the easy longways dances Pop Goes the Weasel and Speed the Plough, and Rosamund sends Littlejan to the village to let people know that there is dancing, in order to make better sets. (Yes, this is more than a tad bit feudalistic.) The married couple barely escape being the center of Sellenger’s Round.
—Yes, it is named as such in the book. Cecil Sharp House was opened in June of 1930 as the headquarters of what was then the English Folk Dance Society. This entity became the English Folk Dance & Song Society in 1932. Recall that our story is set in August of 1932 through July of 1933, so the opening of this headquarters with all its attendant publicity was a Big Thing in the folk-dance world. For Elsie’s young readers in 1946 it would have been a less big thing, but it helps to anchor the story in reality. —
—to talk to the Secretary of the unnamed society. The Secretary suggests that, while not “on staff,” a young Mrs. Thistleton would make a fine teacher for the weekend school. “She helps us a lot; an excellent teacher, and well up in the newer dances. I don’t know that I’d advise her for polishing for exam purposes, or trust her to get your crowd through ‘Chelsea Reach’ without tying them up in knots; but to give schoolgirls a jolly time with ‘Durham Reel’ and ‘Kendal Ghyll’ and ‘Steam Boat,’ nobody could be better. . .” says the Secretary, adding that the teacher will give them a “rowdy” time. We hear that Mrs. Thistle attended several Vacation Schools and taught sword dancing to her school when she was head girl, and that she and her medical husband keep an open house for lonely students at their home called John-and-Mary’s.
Mrs. Thistle shows up and it turns out that she is Tazy (Anastasia, nicknamed “Taisez-vous,” as she talks a lot) Kingston from the first Vacation School that the Abbey Girls attended. Her husband Bill Thistleton was cricket captain of St. John’s school for boys in Switzerland when Tazy was head girl of St. Mary’s. Remember Tazy and her friend the violinist Karen Wilson? We first encountered them in The Two Form Captains and reencountered them just a few weeks ago in Captain of the Fifth, where Tazy teaches the Kirkby Malzeard sword dance to the fifth-form girls for the big school competition. Isn’t it fun to meet old friends again? None of these back-history details are given to the reader of An Abbey Champion, other than that Mrs. Thistle is an old friend and a dancer, but for those of us who have read more widely it is delightful to see her wander into Littlejan’s story.
The older girls, Jen and Joan and President Cecily Hobart Everett, don’t know the new dances. Now we enter the technical part of the book.
On the Friday night party, after a welcome from the Queens and the traditional procession, Mrs. Thistle addresses the girls, asking to see their skipping in Goddesses (a four-couple dance that is almost entirely skipped). Alison, the head girl, has to confess that they’ve forgotten it—remember that only a subsection of the school belongs to the dancing Hamlet Club. Mrs. Thistle takes this news well but says that she really wants to seek their skipping step—how about showing her Rufty Tufty?
Gentle Folk Dance Reader: this is a test. Will you pass it? If not, do not pass Go—you will not get your Certificate!
In frozen horror the Hamlet Club stared at her. Not a Queen but raised her head with a jerk of dismay. Maidlin’s eyes were like saucers; the President [Cecily] looked actually frightened; Jen whistled under her breath; Rosamund stared accusingly at Cecily [she is vexed that Cecily chose an apparently incompetent teacher]; Joan gazed steadily at the teacher who asked for skipping in “Rufty.”
There was a long moment of stunned awful silence. Then a small voice [it’s Littlejan] from the platform cried—“She’s pulling our leg—all our legs! Look at her face! It’s a joke! She knows we can’t skip in ‘Rufty’.”
This little scene is a reminder that there was only one way to Do It Right—the Cecil Sharp way. Getting your certificate and/or being a “headquarters” teacher meant that you knew and could teach all the tricky and finicky little bits that I remember learning from May Gadd (the Little Robin) and her protegée Genevieve Shimer. Many of these bits have fallen out of memory, in the U.S. at least, as the older and more difficult set dances are not danced as frequently now as they were 30 years ago. There is no skipping in Rufty Tufty!
Mrs. Thistle teaches the girls dances from The Apted Book of Country Dances, which she names, and The New Series, which she does not name.
In his column, “Tell Me More,” published in CDSS News, caller and dance historian Graham Christian (check out his book The Playford Assembly, an amazing work!) notes that within a short time of the publication of Sharp’s books of Playford dances, most of which came from the earlier volumes, the dancers and teachers had “exhausted” the variety of the dances. After Sharp’s death in 1924, his successor Douglas Kennedy (“Joshua,” as EJO refers to him) and his wife Helen Karpeles Kennedy, selected and published in 1929 the Country Dance Book, New Series, with 30 dances from later editions of Playford’s books. This was followed in 1931 by The Apted Book of Country Dances, selected and interpreted by William Porter, Marjorie Heffer, and Arthur Heffer. Graham writes that “Apted was the name not of the original publisher, compiler or creator of the dances, but of a Mrs. Apted, who had found an 18th century collection of dances in an old cupboard she had bought.” He identifies it as an incomplete edition of Thompson’s Compleat Collection of 200 Favourite Country Dances, vol. 4 from. The dances are from various smaller publications “in order,” as Graham tells us: “1780, 1774, 1775, 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1765.” Graham notes that the latter is an outlier and might have been used to round out the volume. Then as now, publishers were adept at repackaging materials that you may have already bought, trying to convince you that you needed this fabulous compendium.
A feature of the dances that appear in the Apted Collection—and indeed of most dances of the late eighteenth century—is that they are easy, compared to the puzzle or performance-oriented dances of 1651 that Sharp mined extensively. Both the tunes and the dance figures are jolly and virtually interchangeable (more on this in my own book Dances from Jane Austen’s Assembly Rooms).
The editors claim in the foreword that most of the dances in the Apted book are “extremely poor” and that they have selected the only ones “worth preserving.” They note—correctly—that there was not a strong connection in the late eighteenth century between the tune and the figures set to it and that they “have not scrupled” to swap in a better tune from the same collection. They also note that the dances were all, without exception, triple-minor longways set dances (dancing in units of three couples numbering from the top of the set), though they did not address some of the other historical conventions such as the gradual or “snowball” start, and they explain that in many cases when the third couple had nothing to do, they did not hesitate to rearrange the dance as a duple-minor. Because they explain where they made these changes, these edits and substitutions are acceptable to me as a dance editor.
Mrs. Thistle refers to the Apted collection by name—though she does not give the name of the New Series book—and teaches the girls the following from it: The Dressed Ship, The Pleasures of the Town, The Spaniard, Mutual Love, The Free Mason, The Comical Fellow, The Bishop, The Touchstone, and The Alderman’s Hat, “which was nearly the riot that had been predicted.” Why a riot? It’s a triple minor dance that contains a lot of casting in lines and clapping. You can listen to a very jolly version by Ensemble Tournevire here—you could dance to this but you’d have to be pretty damn slippy about it!
The dances in the Apted collection that Mrs. Thistle does not teach include: The First of April, The Parting Lovers, Bath Carnival, Lord How’s Jig, A Trip to Highgate, A Trip to Dublin, The Barley Mow, The Merry Meeting, A School for Scandal, The Fandango, Once a Night, The Lasses of Portsmouth, The Happy Captive, The Corporation, and The Shrewsbury Lasses. Dances from the Apted collection have been staples of the repertoire in the U.S., although they may now be gradually being edged out by newer favorites.
From the New Series book, Mrs. Thistle teaches the rather sedate Greensleeves and Yellow Lace for three couples, Northern Nancy, The Way to Norwich, and A Trip to Paris, with its turning single as one crosses over and changes places with partners and then long crosses and travels—though EJO doesn’t describe this dance there is plenty of opportunity for dancers to romp around in it.
In addition to these dances and the others mentioned at Maidlin and Jock’s wedding, throughout the book the following dances are referred to: The Old Mole, Hey, Boys, Up Go We, The Merry, Merry Milkmaid, Goddesses, Chelsea Reach, Lady in the Dark, Confess, Picking Up Sticks, The Maid in the Moon, Althea, and Greenwood. These are all Playford “puzzle” dances of the type that the head girl doesn’t want to bother with.
So the Apted and the New Series collections represent Joan’s vague “old books” reference. To support Joan’s comment that dances are found “in country places,” Mrs. Thistle teaches the girls the following “traditional” dances: Morpeth Rant, Steam Boat, Kitty’s Rambles, Kendal Ghyll (the girls use the girdles of their tunics to make the arches; in this fun video you’ll see that the men carry two handkerchiefs knotted together), Soldier’s Joy, The Durham Reel, The Yorkshire Square, Cumberland Square Eight, The Long Eight, and Piper’s Fancy. I am assuming that most of these come from Maud Karpeles’ Twelve Traditional Country Dances of 1931.
The dance Twin Sisters needs some explanation. Astute Reader Hugh Stewart notes that: “to be picky, I think the dance weekend with all the ‘new dances’ was in November 1932. This makes using New Series (1929) and Apted (1931) dances safe to use, as well as Maud Karpele’ ‘Twelve Traditional Country Dances from 1931.” He adds that Arnold Foster’s “Five Popular Country Dances” (which I haven’t seen) of 1933 included Twin Sisters and Circassian Circle, which would make Oxenham’s reference anachronistic unless one assumes that dances might be “popular” in headquarters’ circles before being printed.
However, there is a clearer explanation for the inclusion of Twin Sisters and Joan’s comment about dances being found in America, and that is the 1918 publication of Elizabeth Burchenal’s American Country-Dances, volume 1: Twenty-Eight Contra-Dances Largely from the New England States. I will have much to say about Burchenal in the future, but focusing on this particular work of hers it is clear that she was collecting these dances largely from living fiddlers and dance callers in New England. Twin Sisters (pp. 27-28) was also known as “Merry Dance,” and this title can be traced back to late eighteenth-century sources. As Burchenal presents it, Twin Sisters is a longways duple minor to a twenty-four bar tune (ABC, with each eight-bar phrase divided into two, four-bar repeated sections—a very common late eighteenth-century style tune) with the simple figures of Cross Over and Back (women join crossed hands and slip across between the two men who slip across no hands; return the same way; repeat with the men slipping between the women), Down the Center and Back and Cast Off, and Rights and Lefts. Fun and easy! Mrs. Thistle is picking excellent party dances!
Cecily and the other older ladies like the new, simple dances but criticize the tunes.
“Haven’t they tunes of their own?” the President asked reproachfully. “Why must we dance to Scottish songs? Its poaching! ‘The Durham Reel’ to ‘Hundred Pipers,’ and ‘Yorkshire Square’ to ‘The White Cockade,’ ad ‘Cumberland Square’ is surely ‘My love she’s but a lassie yet’?”
“Jock laughs at ‘Thady, you Gander,’” Maidlin remarked. “He says the dance is a version of the Scottish ‘Strip the Willow,’ and the tune is ‘There’s nae luck aboot the hoose.’”
They similarly criticize the fact that Kendal Ghyll is set to the tunes Humpty Dumpty sat on a Wall and All Around the Mulberry Bush, and that Circassian Circle is set to the Irish Washerwoman. They are reacting to the use of traditional tunes that can be used for many songs and dances as opposed to the one-to-one correspondence of the older dances with the tunes that they travel with (the girls are unaware that Sharp did some swapping of his own, picking “better” tunes to go with “better” figures.) They do like the tune of The Spaniard and comment that the Dressed Ship actually has a phrase in the tune that tells them to “turn the woman under,” as Tazy has taught them to do.
“‘Those Apted dances have lovely music, but I expect for the old traditional things any tune would do. I suppose you and your crowd are soaked in Playford dances?’” Tazy asks the older girls. She adds: “‘Chelsea Reach,’ ‘Never Love Thee More,’ Nonesuch’ and all the rest. Yes, well, I don’t want you to think I don’t know them or that I don’t prefer them to the ‘Durham Reel’! I love balanced figures, working out perfectly, and love beautiful music, so I love the Playford books. But you wanted something new and easy, so I’ve plunged into this other set of dances, and I hope it’s what you want.’”
With this kind of discussion, as well as the references to many different folk plays, to dances “found in America” or “in country places,” the Reader is given a sense of the richness and variety and excitement of the folk-dance world. It’s there if you want to go find it, is perhaps the quiet message to the young reader, and this indirect approach is not dissimilar to the way in which Oxenham presents religion, at least some of the time.
If I counted correctly, the Reader has by the end of the book encountered almost 45 dances—this is an amazing number, and an amazing cultural reference. Did EJO think that her reader would recognize all these names? Or just some of them, then extrapolating from those to the “fun” of the others? Was the Apted book so widely distributed, especially among school girls, that EJO could have expected her readers to recognize the name of the collection or the popular dances from it? Or was this just part of the folk-dance mystique? I do not know.
The closest parallel to Oxenham’s use of folk dance as both a back-drop and a plot-engine that I can find is Susan Conant’s excellent mystery series featuring writer and trainer Holly Winter and her malamutes Kimi and Rowdy. Holly worships at the Altar of Dog, and, reading these books, one picks up a lot about dog-training and breeding, dog shows, the rules of the American Kennel Club, its competitions and awards and championship levels, and, especially, about dogs. I am not a dog person (sorry, Holly!), but in any given installment, a bewildering yet totally engaging array of borzois, huskies, pugs, border collies, St. Bernards, Portuguese water spaniels, greyhounds, Labradors, family dogs, terriers, poodles, Chinese Crested Powder Puffs, malamutes, retrievers, and more are presented to the reader until, after a few books, one feels that one knows quite a lot about dogs! And enjoys knowing it! Perhaps this is how a Reader of EJO’s works who is not already a folk dancer feels when reading An Abbey Champion with its many dance references—it’s crazy but fun in its mono-mania!