Swing tradition round and round

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Norma Cohen meets a woman who brings a wealth of experience to her enthusiasm for the folk dance revival.

Folk dance, says Carolyn Robson, education officer at the English Folk Dance and Song Society, has been on the physical education syllabus since founder Cecil Sharp set off round the country to rekindle interest in 1903. There was a revival in the 1960s, and there is a new surge of enthusiasm: in 1990, EFDSS gained Sports Council funding to promote traditional dance in schools; last year, the subject returned within the PE curriculum.

Carolyn Robson, seasoned music teacherfolk singer, Morris dancermusician with a ceilidh band, BBC-Radio folklore writer and Music-Workshop presenter, is the ideal link person to answer teachers' clamour for resources. She has organised mummers' play workshops, ceilidh bands, folk arts and Tall Ships projects, rapper (North-west) and longsword dancing (Yorkshire) for key stage 4 pupils. She's helped fund maypoles, clogs, melodeons and concertinas for a Squeeze Box Project, taught dances in villages where Cecil Sharp originally collected them and galvanised teachers who belong to dance teams.

"While preserving vital elements of English culture, I want to take them out of the archive, integrating other influences in a living, evolving tradition, " she says. Workshops draw on Appalachian clog dancing and raps (integrated into playground culture), capitalising on the Irish dance craze triggered by Riverdance or seizing upon parallels between an Indian women's stick dance and Cotswold Morris.

Carolyn Robson runs workshops where females dance with longswords and aims for stronger links between "new" and traditional dance. Teacher packs available for key stage 2 feature seasonal backdrops to cross-curricular teaching. For example, Midwinter covers candle auctions, tin-can bands, Swinging the Fireballs and a mummers' play.

In action at Moberley Sports Centre, Kilburn, Carolyn Robson straps on her accordion for a medley of traditional reels and jigs, kicking off with a Schottisch. Directions issue forth: anti-clockwise "chassis" gallops followed by complex, arm-hooked swings that have a group of 13-year-old girls from St James' independent school, Kensington jumping in with alacrity.

"The circle's getting a bit misshapen," shouts Carolyn from the sidelines with a flourish of chords. "Honour your partner with a bow!" Live music is indispensable, she explains, "especially with special needs, where you can add extra bars if more time is needed."

Tapping the inner rhythm is the key to her interest in special needs work, which includes utilising deaf children's highly-tuned, rhythmic ability, running sword-dance workshops for blind students and Morris for children with behavioural problems: "The release of tension and physical exhaustion led to a satisfying sense of achievement, even with Bosnian refugee children who didn't understand a word but joined in all the actions."

Back in Kensington, the children whirl in the two-corridor Gallopede, adaptable for able-bodied partners and wheelchair dancers. Robson's rapid instructions produce assured, almost clockwork results. "Dances like Appalachian and Border Morris are enormously dynamic. Teachers are whacked. Children are surprised at how aerobic it is."

The children, nearly all Bengali, radiate delight in the hopping, skipping and stamping that can't be a million miles from African ritual or Bhanghra.

From a square set of Nine Pins to a rap and then an action song - "Hi! My Name's Joe and I work in a button fac-toree" - the technique is "to move on quickly", says Carolyn Robson, winding up with the circassian Circle which traditionally ends barn dances.

Teacher training and in-service training offered by Carolyn Robson looks at symmetrical figures and basic formations: swing, "dos y dos" and promenade through country dances like PataCake Polka. Teachers without the luxury of live music can delve through EFDSS's cassettes and educational resource books in its folk shop, an Aladdin's cave of piano accordions, bodhran drums, hammered dulcimers and didgeridoos.

Further details from Carolyn Robson, tel: 01252 722938. EFDSS schools membership Pounds 10; Resource packs Pounds 9.95; EFDSS Primary Children's Days of Dance: March 16 Pounds 4, Pounds 2: Education Department, EFDSS, Cecil Sharp House, 2 Regent's Park Road, London NW1 7AY. Tel: 0171 485 2206

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