DANCE in NORWICH

Theatre has been preserved in the playwrights’ manuscripts and published dramas. Paintings remain as permanent reminders of the work of artists, and although music may have vanished into the ether the moment it was performed (before the invention of recorded sound), it was transcribed into notes and staves and has been preserved in this way.  Unlike these art forms, that of dance was a transient one, until the advent of ciné photography enabled the capture of dance steps in a form intelligible to all. Simple dances like the jig  (gigue) may be described in words, but the more extended artistic dances which arose in the 18th century defy such straightforward exposition. The science of choreography had developed a way of recording such dances before the advent of the movie camera, but this was a particularly obscure form of notation, known only to a few specialists.

The history of Dance in Norwich is inseparable from the name Noverre. There were dances performed going back into the mists of time, but no one stood out as a famous name until Augustin Noverre retired to the city in the last years of the 18th century. A Swiss by origin, he had grown up in Paris before he became a prominent teacher of dance in London. He escaped to Norwich when he thought he had killed a man during a performance at Drury Lane; he found in the local Huguenot there a community conducive to hiding him from justice. In fact his adversary was unharmed, and he was able to return to London. He must have found the city to his liking; it was certainly a better place for his retirement than Revolutionary France. He retired to Norwich and although he probably did not give dancing lessons in Norfolk, his son Francis certainly did.

The popular dance at the time was the Minuet; the Waltz became the dance everybody turned to later in the 19th century. The Polonaise was Polish as was the Mazurka, and as piano pieces these were popularised by Chopin. Dance should be separated into at least two genres; the amateur variety, practised to varying degrees of proficiency by the public at large, and professional dance that we generally know as ballet. The amateur type of dance may be further sub-divided into folk dance, ballroom dancing and (since the first quarter of the twentieth century) popular dance.

Many folk dances originated in England, but they have been modified in Ireland and are now almost exclusively associated with that country. The Sailors Hornpipe for example, which in this country is now only heard as a piece of music played at the Last Night of the Proms, was an English dance through and through. It had a range hand movements to go with the steps. These extended from lifting the arm to the forehead (signifying the seaman’s look-out with his eyeglass) to the tugging at his breeches (signify what I hardly dare speculate). In the Irish version all this has gone, and the hands are rigidly held to the dancer’s side. Is this really a feature of Roman Catholic puritanism in Ireland, that discouraged any possibility of bodily contact in dancing?  No arm-in-arm dancing there! Tap dancing also makes footwork the basis of dance, though without the complete lack of arm movement that characterises Irish dance.

Unlike the balletomane I am not enthralled by Swan Lake or the Nutcracker as dances; as pieces of music they are OK. Among the popular dance steps, though the music may be rather repetitive, the Lindy hop and the Tango are two favourite dances of mine – strictly as a spectator you understand. The Charleston is another pre-war dance that in many ways typifies the 1920s.

The two twentieth century dance halls in the city of Norwich that I remember were the Samson and Hercules in Tombland and the Lido on Aylsham Road. Both have now closed, and the Samson and Hercules has turned into flats. We need flats I suppose, but what a boring comedown for a dance hall that was opened in the 1924 by the Duchess of York (later known as the Queen Mother).

My own dancing career was brief; I had few lessons in Norwich in the Waltz with Miss Boswell who lived next door to my father’s business in Surrey Street. During my teenage years the craze of the day was the Twist. This was a simple way of moving to music; I will not call it a dance, because the feet remain glued to the ground. The hips gyrated with gusto, and the arms were waved about  in general sort of way. Good old Chubby Checker: ” Come n lets dance the Twist, like we did last summer”! I remember a school dance during my last year, when we boys were paired up with young ladies from Runton Hill and Sutherland House in Cromer, two girls’ schools that closed many years ago.  I am far too old to be interested in today’s dancing, but I gather the centre for such things has moved to Riverside by the Wensum near the railway station.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

MEMORIES OF DANCING

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