Dancers in the UK early dance world are, it goes without saying, very cultured people. There are, in fact, two sources of true culture in historical dancing. One is the definitively high culture of classical music. The other is the indisputably low culture of folk music and dancing. Isn’t there a chasm between the two? Aren’t they mutually opposed cultural worlds? I’ll explore a bit further.
There are those in UK early dance, a sizeable minority I would say, who are devoted to proper music. They avoid any horrible modern styles of dancing because of the awful music. ‘Pop’ or ‘Rock’ – who needs those? Never mind all the latest styles (which I’ll leave others younger and more enlightened than I am to enumerate). I confess myself puzzled by the ‘high culture’ group. I am trying to think of any major classical composers whose music is actually used in early dance. In the world of baroque dance, we are talking about music by the likes of Lully, Campra, or other equally obscure and third-rate composers. Bach never wrote actual dance music. Although Handel was foolish enough to compose ballet music from time to time, who ever listens to it?
Much of the music for early dance was written by the dancing masters themselves, so does it qualify as folk music? The fons et origo of folk dance music is, of course, John Playford’s The English Dancing Master of 1651. These tunes are well known to derive from classical antiquity, when folk really were folk and totally traditional in their tastes. With such a pedigree, who would want to be listening to modern, vulgar popular music? This is the well-founded opinion of the folk music and dancing people who form the majority in UK early dance.
So far as I can tell, with music for folk dancing (or as the early dance world has it, country dancing), the instruments are really important. Now here we reach a small problem. Nowadays, music for folk dancing demands an accordion – but this instrument cannot be claimed as truly historical even so recently as the mid-19th century. What to do? The answer is to play all the tunes on a scratchy fiddle, as slowly as possible. Cultural authenticity at a stroke!
It is the fiddle (or violin, if we wish to appeal to the other wing of UK early dance) that unites the ‘high’ classical and ‘low’ folk cultural aficionados. This could return us our very first reason to be bored by early dance – the music – but in my next post I will not go backwards, I will move on.