Halsway Manor’s Golden Garden for our 50th Anniversary by Bonny Sartin

sleepers 002In the early summer Maureen and Graham Knight asked me to help create a Golden Garden for the 50th anniversary of the forming of Halsway Manor Society and the purchase of the Manor. This sounded like a very positive project and if there’s one thing I enjoy its a very positive project. Maureen and Graham have their work cut out looking after the garden so I thought a little assistance would not come amiss.

dancers 005The plot allocated was the one in front of the Summerhouse which hadn’t been dug over for years. When we went to attack it we quickly discarded forks and spades and got the pick axes out. It was, ‘As hard as hells bells’, as father used to say. The water was not soaking in at all but just running off the top and in the first few days we only found one lonely worm. However, as we progressed and the piles of rubbish, roots and stumps grew, people began to take an interest in our activities and stop for a chat. We found that they were very enthusiastic about the Golden Garden and with their support, our ambitions and the size of the plot seemed to grow and grow. During the summer I bumped into some friends from Coventry. I told them what we were about and when they came to the Big Sing weekend in October they brought a bag of compost with them. Brilliant!!!

2013 summer wendy house 002My sister-in-law made us two golden folk dancing figures and these were installed at the end of September, just before the A.G.M. They make a great centre piece and, so far, have stood up to all the storms that mother nature has thrown at them.

We received a donation, which paid for some solid oak sleepers to put around the edge of the garden and Graham and I heaved these into place in the middle of October. Just behind them we have planted hundreds of daffodils which Maureen and Graham have saved from other parts of the garden. We have also put in some Winter Aconites so there should be some gold showing as early as January.

sleepers 008The main planting will take place in the Spring of 2014. Many of the people staying at Halsway seem to be keen gardeners and we have already been given a lot of advice and promised a variety of plants. Two big and potentially expensive jobs need to be done too; taking a couple of branches of the beech tree and re-thatching the summerhouse, but I can see filling the plot with flowers is going to be relatively cheap. Incidentally with the breaking up of the soil the worms are coming back so we must be doing something right.

If you are interested in helping Maureen and Graham to keep the garden under control they are organising Garden Working Days on the 13th and 20th of December.

Bonny Sartin

 

 

Advertisements

Hothouse Reflections by Clare Parker

As the Hothouse Show have just received a warm welcome for their final performance at Sidmouth 2013, it is a natural time for me to reflect on the past 12 months dancing with young people at Halsway Manor since Paul James appointed me as Halsway Manor’s Youth Dance Associate. I met Will Lang a year ago at Sidmouth Folk Festival and we soon started hatching plans to integrate young dancers into the Hothouse project which Will has lead with musicians for the past few years at Halsway Manor. The idea was to bring together talented young dancers and musicians, who had limited or no prior experience of folk, to work with top dance artists and musicians and create a new show based on our folk traditions, for touring. The following January we had funding support from both Arts Council England and Futures for Somerset; and established partnerships with Take Art and Somerset Youth Dance Company, Bridgwater College and a number of schools in Bridgwater.

For a week in early Spring 2013, 23 talented young musicians and dancers got together at Halsway Manor to work with leading dance artists and musicians. Bringing fresh talents and skills to the mix, they explored traditional folk song, music and dance, alongside other styles like street dance and rock music. They created a new and exciting fusion, formed the Hothouse Show; presenting a new piece of original music and dance for touring to the Hothouse festival, and Priddy and Sidmouth Folk festivals in summer of 2013.

It was wonderful to see how the young dancers felt so at home at Halsway and embraced a totally new style of music and dance. As one young dancer said “I have gained experience of these different styles of dance. It has made me realise there are other good things out there”.

Hothouse Festival 2013 lores (94 of 213)

Photo: Hothouse dancers/musicians after their first performance at Halsway Manor Hothouse Festival April 2013

In the past year we have also worked with over 150 children in Taunton schools on our Spring Up! programme which aims to inspire a love of folk and social dance through regular country dance sessions in schools. Following sessions in their school, many of the children came up to celebrate May Day at Halsway Manor, and some teachers and their pupils were so inspired that they worked on their own dances to perform at local fetes. One teacher said, “The children learnt different dances – street, folk, country. They were great! It is a great opportunity for specialist dance – thank you!”. 

So what do we have in store for next year? We are taking Spring Up! to Minehead schools and hope to develop a schools flashmob shanty performance for the Minehead Harbour Festival of July 2014. Hothouse will continue to grow and merge traditional and new styles of music and dance. We will form new partnerships and work with young dancers in Bridgwater and Taunton to create our own youth dance company. And we have some exciting plans for a folk dance project for disabled children as we continue in our mission to bring the joys of folk dance to as many young people as possible.

Spring Up! Halsway Manor’s local schools’ folk dance programme

Halsway May Day Hires-0824

Spring Up! is a programme of folk dance workshops delivered in local schools with the aim of giving children an opportunity to learn traditional dances, gain new skills like spatial awareness and sense of rhythm, work as a team and come up with their own creative I am setting up for my session in the school hall (newly swept to clear away the lunchtime peas from the floor) when the doors fly open and a swarm of eager young children spill into the room. You can always feel that moment of sheer joy that comes when children leave the confines of the classroom for a large empty space that invites them to move and burn off some energy! Of course, they are also keen to find out who I am and what we are going to be doing too… but, none of that – we get moving straight away!dance ideas. In summer 2013 Halsway’s Youth Dance Associate, Clare Parker, worked in Taunton primary schools taking country, folk and a little bit of street dance to over 150 children. Here she blogs about one of the sessions…

Halsway May Day Hires-1069We start with an exercise that involves using all the space available: the corners of the room, cutting through the middle, down on the floor, up in the air, making longwise, circle and square formations, working with a partner to gallop or form a right hand star. It  might look like utter chaos to anyone passing but there is a very real and serious purpose to the task  as it tunes in our awareness of the space and of each other. It is structured by the phrases of the music as we change direction or actions on musical cues; it is very inclusive and nobody need feel insecure, worried or exposed because any movement choices are OK and all importantly, it burns off some of the excess energy to bring the children to a place where they can focus.

Halsway May Day Hires-1009The exercise lasts for about 10 minutes and gives me a chance to observe the children and set up expectations for the session by reminding them to keep in their own personal space, be aware of people around them, listen to the music, listen to the instructions, using the whole of their body and their energy. It may also look nothing like folk dance but it contains the core elements and skills needed and helps children tune in to their spatial awareness, sense of rhythm, and to the sheer joy of movement. This is what the children tell me when they sit, all puffed out and very focused as a group, and I ask them what skills they have just been using.

 

Halsway May Day Hires-1080I call out “longwise formation!” and we are there in a matter of seconds, ready to start learning the Cumberland Reel. I want everyone engaged so it isn’t just the top couple but every pair (the children keep correcting my use of the word ‘couple’ which they decidedly disapprove of!) in the set that gets to do right hand and left hand star.  Then it’s the moment they love best – the chance for the top couple to gallop like crazy down the set, spurred on all the way by everyone clapping. Now, this needs a bit of work. We need to keep the energy and exuberance, but refine the movement so that it looks slightly less like a cross between Hussain Bolt and a rugby hacker! It needs quite a bit of work too to remind them to keep listening to the music and make sure they arrive back in time to cast down. Then it’s another favourite moment at the bottom making the arch and pegging it to get back to the top – to start all over again!

Once we have mastered it and each group is ready to perform for the others, I have the luxury of being able to watch the children dancing because 3 of the children take on the role of callers. They bellow instructions enthusiastically and perfectly in time with the music. They come up with their own names for movements : ‘cast’ becomes ‘banana split’, and mysteriously a “stingray!” is featured!

What is clear when watching the children dance is that they are really enjoying themselves and enjoying dancing with each other.  They perform with clarity, focus and a massive sense of energy that is infectious. Their faces show a sense of achievement and as we feedback to each other at the end of the session I am thrilled when one boy asks: ‘Can we carry on? Can we do it again?’ 

“A contra dance is like an amusement park ride we make for ourselves.” –Unknown

One of the things I love about my job is that I often learn about things I never thought I would ever even come across or have the opportunity to know about – or know that I already know a bit about…(this could get confusing!) One of these things is American Contra Dance, but as we will very soon be welcoming some real Americans (yes, you heard me correctly, REAL Americans) to Halsway Manor for the American Contra Dance Weekend, I thought I had better brush up on my skills – not so much my skills, but more my knowledge of contra-dance. It won’t do to know nothing and whilst I am brushing up on my knowledge, I thought you might like to know a bit about it as well… Most of it has been gained from various parts of the internet, including but not exclusively Wikipedia  so please feel free to correct me if I have got something wrong. I will remove erroneous content immediately, or better still, hope that it might generate some fresh discussion.

My favourite definition of American Contra Dance is this: ‘Contra dancing is social interaction, meeting people, and making new friends, set to music‘. I could very well end this blog right here, after all, what more could we possibly want? That definition came from the Santa Barbara Contra Dance Society where they encourage you to simply find a place that does Contra Dancing, go there, see what they do, join in, have fun, meet new people, and then come back and read the rest of their definition as they warn that there is danger in simply reading the definition and making up your mind from that, about whether you will enjoy it or not! I think it is a great definition as in the same way, that is exactly what a Ceilidh or folk dance is. It is all about the dancing and making new friends and about family, community and connecting.

For a more in depth definition of Contra Dance I have come up with this, taken from a variety of sites. Let’s start with the history of Contra  Dance. At the end of the 17th century, English country dances were taken up by French dancers creating a mix of choreographies from around this period that use both English country dance steps and French court dance steps. The French called these dances contra-dance or contredanse. Over time the English hybrid dances spread to far away colonies and took the French form of the name  which later came to be associated mostly with American folk dances, especially in New England now often referred to as either Contra Dance or New England Folk dance.

Contra dances were fashionable in the United States until the early to mid-19th century, until the square dances took over, though these apparently only lasted til the late 19th century when they became passée and were no longer de riguer(lots of french going on here today!), though the tradition was kept up in some rural areas. It was not until around 1930’s and 40’s  that Contra Dances appeared in small towns and widely scattered parts of North east North America such as Ohio and northern New England, though the tradition was not revived properly until the 50’s and 60’s – according to Wiki!

So what actually happens at a Contra Dance? This is for all you guys out there that could, would, maybe could, might like (and should definitely) give it ago at some point, so that when you do, you might feel a little more at ease about what will happen…

According to the Boise Contra Dance Society, Contra uses many of the same traditional moves found in square dancing and sometimes if you go to a Contra Dance, you might even get to do a bit of square dancing too. There are about 8 basic moves, and 10 advanced moves. So with only 12 basic moves, learning contra dance is as simple as walking and smiling; Yet the near-infinite arrangements provide challenge and variety for even the most experienced of dancers. Additionally, the caller walks through each dance prior to starting up the music, and then provides helpful prompts while the band is playing. I am not sure if this youtube will help or hinder – all I can say is they look like they are having a lot of fun!

According to the Santa Barbara Contra Dance Society: ‘The caller, usually working with a group of live musicians, guides new and experienced dancers alike through a variety of dances. A dancer and his or her partner dance a series of figures, or moves, with each other and with another couple for a short time. They then repeat the same figures with another couple, and so on. The caller teaches each dance before it is actually done to the music. This gives everyone an idea of what to expect so the movements can be easily executed. The caller leads the dances while they are being done to music, so dancers are able to perform each movement to the music. Once the dancers appear (I like the choice of the word APPEAR, here, as I for one, might not even APPEAR) to have mastered a particular dance, the caller may stop calling, leaving the dancers to enjoy the movement with music alone’.

What I have deemed from my research is that people of all ages and lifestyles, including children, are welcome to the dances. There doesn’t seem to be any discrimination and people from all walks of life are encouraged to come together and make friends. There is no alcohol or smoking allowed at most places as it is all about the music, the socialising and the dancing and often children as young as 7 can join in.

There seems to be quite a few names for the Contra Dance and including the following: Contra Dance, an Old-Time Contra Dance, an Old-Time Country Dance, a Barn Dance, or similar. Most contra dance events will include a few dances of other kinds: traditional squares, waltz, polka, swing and other types of couple dances as well. When I think of Contra or a Barn Dance I always think of the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the barn dance they had in that… it did not end that well, but the choreography was incredible!

And just because I can’t resist, here is the youtube video of that dance from one of my most favourite films…– don’t worry though you will not be expected to be able to perform like this! There is not much Contra Dance going on here!

One of the most amusing things I have learnt is that Contra Dancers make eye contact whenever possible, as it adds to the connecting between people and that of the dance and also helps to reduce dizziness during the swing! Some people may find it a little uncomfortable, but here is a good piece of advice from Santa Barbara on why you should give eye contact a try:You might get used to it and even like it. Remember: they’re gazing into your eyes not because they love you but because they want to make the connection, and they don’t want to throw up on you!’. Wise words indeed. 

I mustn’t of course leave out the musical aspect…

The most common contra dance repertoire is rooted in the Anglo-Celtic tradition as it developed in North America. IrishScottish,French Canadian, and Old-time tunes are common. I have also heard that some sometimes the musicians play Bluegrass. Tunes used for a contra dance are nearly always “square” 64-beat tunes and until the 1970s it was traditional to play a single tune for the duration of a contra dance (about 5 to 10 minutes). Since then, contra dance musicians have typically played tunes in sets of two or three related (and sometimes contrasting) tunes.

And here’s a bit of interesting Wiki fact for you – ‘In recent years, younger contra dancers have begun establishing “crossover contra” or “techno contra” – contra dancing to techno, hip-hop, and other modern forms of music. While challenging for DJs and callers, the fusion of contra patterns with moves from hip-hop, tango, and other forms of dance has made this form of contra dance a rising trend since 2008; it has become especially prevalent in Asheville, NC, but regular techno contra dance series are spreading up the East Coast to locales such as Charlottesville, VA, Washington, DC, Amherst, MA, and Greenfield, MA, with one-time or annual events cropping up in locations further West, including California and Washington state.’

I wonder if that will ever spread to Halsway Manor, Somerset…I’m already liking the idea of a techno-ceilidh or techno-contra fusion… very 21st Century!! In the meantime, we are very much looking forward to a wonderful week of contra dancing with an all-star line-up from the USA of caller Sue Rosen with Bruce Rosen on piano and George Wilson on fiddle, from 20th to 25th May 2013. The week is hosted by Meg Winters who helps everyone to feel at home, the mornings are for dance and music workshops, the afternoons are free to explore West Somerset and the Quantocks, the evenings are for dancing!

Don’t forget that this is a very popular event and not one that happens very often, so make sure you book early to avoid disappointment!

Christina At Halsway