York hosts conference on English country dancing

While it’s relatively commonplace for university-based scholars to immerse themselves in traditions that are centuries old, such interests are less likely to find a wide following in the community at large. An exception to this rule is playing out at York University this week, where English country dance enthusiasts of both the academic and community variety are congregating for two days of papers and workshops on the topic.

York’s Graduate Program in Dance Studies is welcoming a host of international speakers from various disciplines to the conference, titled "English Country Dancing: Rooted in the Past, Dancing into the Future". The conference,which began yesterday, continues through to the end of today. It is being coordinated by graduate student Karen Millyard and Professor Dorothy de Val, director of York’s graduate programs in dance studies.

Left: Dorothy de Val

English country dance is rooted in both indigenous English folk dance and the Baroque choreographies and music of the 17th century. Thanks to the published instructions in dance collections and manuals of the period, it is one of the earliest re-creatable social dance forms. Though it may be more than 300 years old, the music and the highly engaging social dances set to it remain highly accessible to contemporary audiences.

“Our theme is the connecting of worlds: community dance, academia, and independent research,” said Millyard. “These worlds have a great deal to offer one another and we hope that the conference will help each enrich the other through a stimulating and enjoyable meeting-place.”

Millyard was in the early stages of planning the conference when she learned that renowned British folksong composer, choreographer and caller Colin Hume would be on a North American tour this summer. It made perfect sense to invite Hume to Toronto as a keynote speaker.

“Colin is a superstar of the English country dance community,” said Millyard. “He calls at all the top-level events around the world, and is extremely in demand. He was delighted to be invited to York.”

Hume has a string of books to his credit, including reconstructions of publications by the 17th-century English music and dance publisher, Playford, as well as many original compositions. He has called at festivals, dance camps and other gatherings in many countries including the United States, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands. Known for his strong opinions and detailed approach, Hume is both participating in the conference at York, and leading another event immediately following, A Weekend with Colin Hume and Foxfire, taking place in downtown Toronto June 18 to 20.

Left: Colin Hume

Millyard has played a leading role in the organization of both events, facilitating a great deal of cooperation between the two.

The other keynote speaker at the York conference is Daniel Walkowitz, a professor of history and social & cultural analysis at New York University who has taught, performed and researched English country dance for decades and is a regular caller with the English and American folk dance organization CD*NY. He is the author and editor of several books, including Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle Class Identity; Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race, and Nation; and City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Modern America.

All of the conference presentations combine practice and scholarly research in some way. The papers cover both temporal and geographical areas, including community dance in today’s world, Morris dancing, and contemporary and oral history, as well as 17th- through early 19th-century history. All show the wealth of current research in this growing field, as well as potential for future investigation. Hands-on workshops and informal social dancing round out the program.

“Overall, everyone’s very enthusiastic about our conference,” Millyard said. “In fact, many people are already asking if there will be another one next year.”

For more information visit the English Country Dancing: Rooted in the Past, Dancing into the Future conference Web site.