What to expect at Swanage Folk Festival

PUBLISHED: 12:43 03 September 2019

Pheonix Morris cooling off in the sea at Swanage

Pheonix Morris cooling off in the sea at Swanage


Ahead of this weekend’s festival, Angela Bell explores the history of English folk dance and finds out why it’s something we should all be proud of

Why is it that whenever someone mentions Morris Dancing to 'non-believers' there are usually smirks and giggles? Other countries are proud of their national dances and folk music traditions but too often in England, it is just not taken seriously. The words 'Morris Dancing' seem to conjure up images of overweight men, with bells jingling and bellies jiggling, waving hankies on a village green. The English folk dance tradition has so much more to it than that.

For a quarter of a century, Swanage Folk Festival has been helping to keep this tradition alive and thanks to it, and other small folk festivals, Morris, and other folk dancing, is becoming more popular. This weekend, Swanage Folk Festival will be hosting 60 dance sides, with most of them specialising in traditional English dances.

The English Folk Dance tradition is multifaceted; there is Rapper, Stave, Clog, Border, North West and Cotswold, to name but a few. Clog dancing, which is the root of tap dancing, is particularly thrilling. One clog flash mob in Newcastle even recreated their own Eurovision Song Contest Riverdance moment; the mass troupe appeared from nowhere pounding out an intricate beat while three plucky ladies clog danced on top of steel bins only a couple of feet wide. Check it out on YouTube.

In recent years, Swanage Folk Festival has strengthened its live music line-up. This year there are three young folk bands as headliners: The Tweed Project - an English/Scottish collaborative; Calan - a Welsh band, and Fara, featuring four lasses who are the rising stars of the Scottish folk scene. Their three fiddles and piano produce a fiery sound rooted in their Orkney upbringing and Fara will close Swanage Festival on Sunday night.

Scotland and Wales take great pride in their folk tradition but the English are not so good. One of the bands at the forefront of the British folk scene is Show of Hands (Steve Knightly and Phil Beer). A number of years ago, the band wrote a song called 'Roots' about the English lack of interest in their folk tradition. It's a great song with a great message and one that Swanage has certainly taken to heart.

It's time to take the English Folk Dance and Song tradition more seriously. Pop along to Swanage Folk Festival which runs from 6-8 September. You can listen to live music in the main marquee, in the town's pubs and even in the streets. Or, just sit on the prom with a bag of cheesy chips and watch the dancing; it's not just bells and hankies you know!

Dorset Button RappersDorset Button Rappers

Dorset Button Rappers

Rapper dancing comes from the pit towns of the North East and is danced in wooden clogs, reflecting its industrial background. Rappers are the metal blades held by the dancers. The dancers form a line with each dancer holding their own rapper and the rapper from the person in front and then dance tight patterns as a single group. The culmination of the dance is to intertwine the rappers into a single star shape. Traditionally rapper dancers count their fingers before and after each dance just in case!

Cotswold MorrisCotswold Morris

Cotswold Morris

This Morris tradition hails from the Cotswold towns and villages such as Bampton and Headington although local forms of it were danced much wider before the industrial revolution. It's a lot more bouncy than clog dance with more movement and complex stepping and jumps built into a dance. The dancers usually wear bells on their legs and a coloured baldric sash. They dance with hankies and sticks.

North West ClogNorth West Clog

North West Clog

North West clog dancing comes (unsurprisingly) from the mill towns of the North West of England. They dance in traditional wooden clogs and the dancing is very percussive and 'regimented'. The small sticks, often with bells or tassels on the end, were developed from the bobbins that were used in the mills.

Full details can be found on our website: swanagefolkfestival.com.

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