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Angharad James

‘Dawnsio Gwerin Cymreig’ - A short history of Welsh dancing.

James, Angharad: "A short history of Welsh dancing", 16th International Congress on Dance Research, Corfu, Greece, 30/10-3/11, 2002.

1. Introduction

“The fervent zeal of the religious revival of the latter part of the last century and the early years of the present century, persecuted and exiled old traditionally Welsh dances” (Williams, 1984-1985, p3). Therefore, how is there such an abundance of Welsh folk dancing activities today? It is mainly through the expressive arts that people have asserted and created symbols to represent the characteristics of the nation. The purpose of this paper is to concentrate on one expressive art: dance. As McRobbie proclaims: “The various contexts of social dancing tells us a great deal about the everyday lives and expectations of their participants.” (McRobbie, 1991, p194).

A nation which is often regarded as the “western peninsula of England” (Bowen, 1979, p1) is in fact rich in its own culture and language. Therefore I have chosen to develop awareness to this during this paper to emphasise “that the traditional culture of Wales has a contribution to make to world society” (Peate, 1979, p17). The country is not more than 130 miles across from north to south with a population of approximately 3 million. The loss of independence as an autonomous country came with the fall of Llywelyn Olaf’s reign during the thirteenth century. By 1536 Wales was subjected to the laws and customs of the English crown and the Welsh language outlawed. Nevertheless, nationalism of the eighteenth century reinvigorated patriotism which slowly developed during the nineteenth and twentieth century. St. David’s day ceremonies appeared after 1714, the red dragon became the royal badge for Wales in 1807 and a national anthem, ‘Hen Wlad fy nhadau’ was acquired in 1860, furnishing a sense of national pride and giving Wales a sense of national identity.

Wales now in the twentieth-first century has an increasing number of representations in Parliament, unified as members of the political party Plaid Cymru. In the world of technical communications, television and media channels such as S4C, HTV, BBC Wales are transmitted through the medium of Welsh. Primary, secondary schools and a network of University colleges working and advancing the medium of Welsh and its customs have been established. Furthermore, on the 18th September, 1997 this cultural awareness was reverberated in a national referendum. Wales was given its own elected assembly.

2. Wales as a nation

The “national, social and moral consciousness of the people” (Philip, 1975, p2) altered as a result of the religious and educational movements of the eighteenth century. “…on the one hand the decay or demise of an ancient way of life, and on the other an unprecedented outburst of interest in things Welsh and highly self-conscious activity to preserve or develop them.” (Morgan, 1983, p43) It was during this era that the past was being rediscovered. This awareness towards the interest of restoring the nation was awakened through the decay of the affluent traditions. "…the Welsh past must be hunted out, must be found and preserved, and recreated for the Welsh and preserved, and recreated for the Welsh people under new circumstances." (Morgan, 1983, p56).

Nevertheless, the “historical myth-making of the eighteenth century” (Morgan, 1983, p98) which paradoxically was created predominantly by the Anglican Church (Morgan, 1983, p98) halted in the nineteenth century by the rise in Welsh Methodism. The new wave of patriotic interest and ‘The Treason of the Blue Books’ in 1847 culminated in the Welsh becoming far more interested in the preservation of its culture. What is interesting is that Wales during the eighteenth and nineteenth century as Morgan identified in his article ‘The Hunt for the Welsh Past in the Romantic Period’ (1983) appeared as a state which lacked status, but in which paradoxically Welsh culture flourished. Welsh books, dictionaries and music airs were published. Unfortunately, the 1780s saw the rise of English songs being translated into Welsh and given Welsh titles. The “Welsh were egged on by romantic tourists and English publishers to this kind of invention” (Morgan, 1983, p78).

3. Historical overview of Welsh folk dancing

It appears to have been reborn by one woman’s curiosity in discovering why Wales had lost its traditional dances apart from Llanover. Lois Blake (1890-1974), a leading member of the English Folk Dance Society moved from Liverpool to Llangwm in the 1930s. She founded the Welsh Folk Dance Society in 1949. Other scholars also searched for the roots and influences on folk culture on dance, for example, Dewi Mai, Mrs Gruffydd Richards, Hugh Mellor and W.S. Gwynn Williams. All of these pioneers continued growth and wellbeing of a lost cultural tradition.

Documentation of dancing in Wales is scarce and vague. The first reference to traditional Welsh dancing was by Geraldus Cambrensis in Archbishop Baldwin’s Journey Through Wales, who stated that dancing had taken on St. Almedah’s day, August 1188. “It is not an eye witness account and is a non-technical story of a religious dance at a churchyard near Brecknock” (Mellor, 1935, p7). It is evident that dance is not a ‘new’ tradition but the lack of documentation could exemplify how dance was consolidated with the everyday way of life. Nevertheless, the discoveries of William Robert’s poem Taplas Gwainfo (The Taplas of Wenvoe) and William Thomas’ diaries, provided historians with the earliest proof of the popularity of social dancing at outdoor festivals in Glamorganshire.

The principal occasion for traditional dance during the eighteenth century was Gwylmabsant, the parish Saint’s festival or wake. Professor G.J. Williams writes in his article ‘Glamorgan Customs in the Eighteenth Century’: “Originally, it began on the Sunday following the festival of the Patron Saint, but by this time it had lost its religious character, and people came together to dance and sing” (Williams, cited in Saer, 1983-1984, p6). In addition to the Gwylmabsant ceremonials, the community relished in festivals which coincided with Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun. Dance was one medium in which the “high rapture of the occasion” (Saer, 1983-1984, p16) was conveyed.

Other reasons why dancing was a popular activity in Wales was presented by Sophia Williams, in her article Celtic Heritage III in Dawns (the Welsh Folk Dance Society annual magazine) :

a) A transe; an occupational mimetic: a ritual.

b) A part of Worship and as an illumination of Scriptures.

c) A social-cultural expression.

d) A pastoral fantasy; Dancing to pipe and tabor – Swansea Area, 18th century.

e) As a sophisticated courtly pastime.

f) A merrymaking and a mourning.

g) A seasonal celebration: Dawnsio Haf (Summer dancing), Mari Lwyd (Christmas mumming with Fool-Cadi Pwnsh a shwan and buffoonery), Codi’r Fedwn (May dancing)

h) As an irreligious revel - a sin - soliciting the wrath of the Church (Williams, 1977-1978. p14).

However, it was during the 18th century that the rise of nonconformity in Wales struck a cruel blow to the existence of the folk customs, “the unbridled excesses of the old Gwylmabsantau were hardly compatible with these advancing progressive values…dance was incur puritanical wrath” (Saer, 1983-1984, p18). To repress these customs, the Welsh Methodist movement portrayed dance as a wicked and sinful activity. This can be seen in Ellis Wynne’s Gweledigaethau Y Bardd Cwsg, 1704 and in Rhys Prydderch’s book Gemmau Doethineb (Gems of Wisdom).

Interest was stirred in the revival of Welsh folk dancing in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Organisations such as the Welsh Folk Dance Society and publication of folk dancing instructional booklets, for example, Welsh Morris and Other Dances (1937), Welsh Whim (1938) and Welsh Folk Dance (1948) assisted the revival. Thus, dance was one medium where cultural identity could be stated, maintained and preserved, “…ransack the past and transform it with imagination, to create a new Welshness which would instruct, entertain, amuse and educate the People” (Morgan, 1983, p99).

4. The Welsh folk dancing styles - dance formations and clogging

As a result of the formation of the Welsh Folk Dance Society in 1949 attitudes towards folk dance as well as dancing technique had undergone a change. When the tradition was revived barely twenty dances could be claimed to be Welsh. Lois Blake was informed by the Welsh people that they did not possess any dances “except those borrowed from the English” (Blake, 1974-1975, p19). She suggested through the “two-way interchange” (Blake, 1974-1975, p19) between market towns situated on the border of England and Wales, other things in addition to money, crops and live stock could have possibly been traded (Blake, 1974-1975, p19). Therefore, by this free-traffic the Welsh and English dancing styles manifested, modified and adapted each other’s distinctive characteristics. Alice Williams, the Past-President of the Welsh Folk Dance Society said in her Welsh Folk Dancing Handbook a statement which seems to be a contradiction emphasising that there is a difference. "There is something of a different character that is making our dances differ from those of England, Scotland and Ireland. It is very difficult to define this subtle difference, since it does not lie in the music alone, nor in a step, movement or figure. Perhaps revealing it in our dancing is enough" (Williams, 1984-1985, p7) Furthermore, “...the Welsh style of dancing was exceedingly energetic and boisterous.……no slithering, sliding and walking as in the modern fashionable ‘quadrille’ dancing of the same period (mid nineteenth century) seen in other parts of Britain” (Williams, 1984-1985, p7). Maybe, this description portrays the skill and appearance of Welsh clogging or stepping which indisputably is the “only unbroken tradition” (Williams, 1984-1985, p7) in Wales.

Welsh folk dancing is an art form which encompasses two dance genres: set formation dancing and step (or clog) dancing. The latter is a craft, designed to rhythmically and dynamically create sound by manipulating the foot, ankle joint and shoe. The common used shoe for this specific genre is clogs: leather shoes with a wooden sole. Women might have worn clogs or buckled or laced black shoes with a small heel. It has been classified with another genre : tap dancing. But care must be taken to the subtle technical and stylistic differences. Welsh stepping (or Welsh clogging) seems to be far ‘earthy’, with an accented downward action. Also, it places an emphasis upon the use of the whole foot and shoe rather than a concentrated manipulation of the ball.

The notion of freedom and improvisation exists within the genre, governed and dictated by the personal taste and desires of the dancer or dancers. An individual or a group of dancers have the opportunity to create and personalise a dance by adapting and embroidering steps and patterns. It is not a mechanical genre, yet this playing with movement and rhythm takes place within the Welsh style and its cultural boundaries.

Both sexes are able to express their emotions and disposition and to demonstrate their agility and skill. Many male stepping solos were seen executed in the local village pubs – a competitive display of masculinity: power, strength and virility. For example, squats, ‘toby’ or ‘kibby’ steps; and variations and patterns using a broom, candle or clay pipes. Dawnsio arddangosiadol, heiriol a beiddgar yw crefft dawnsiwr step y glocsen. Translation: The skill of a clog dancer is a daring, bold, competitive exhibitionist (Gwyn Bangor, cited in Jones, 1991-1992, p23).

A woman on the other hand would not exhibit such masculine configurations. Her movements would be far humble and composed. Two known solo step dances for women are: a) Morfa Rhuddlan, a dance portraying and symbolising ‘the Mother of Wales’, rallying and uniting Wales to fight against the enemy. Recollected by Margaretta Thomas. b) Yr Hudoles (The Enchantress), a dance based on Welsh courting customs, designed by Gwyn Bangor in 1973.

Set formation dancing is the second genre. At present, Wales possesses a number of set dances which fall into specific categories. There are the simple dances which are associated with twmpathau where everyone can join in and learn a dance very quickly. However there are the set of dances which need a period of learning.

4.1. Dawnsfeydd Llangadfan / The Llangadfan Dances, dances which were noted by William Jones (c.1729-95), Llangadfan, Montgomery, enclosed in a letter to Edward Jones (Bardd y Brenin), the author of Relicks of the Welsh Bards (1784). Ali Grogan / Aly Grogan; Talpiau Pwdin / Lumps of Pudding; Y Bibddawns Loerig / The Roaring Hornpipe. These three dances are one group of distinctive dances which were discovered in the early years of the revival among the papers of Edwards Jones, harpist of Prince Regent. They were published in 1936 under the editorship of Lois Blake and W.S. Gwynn Williams. A letter from a William Jones of Llangadfan contained the complete notation of these complicated, longways set dances for parties of six. The dances have many sequences of patterns with an abundance of setting and heys either straight, cross or circular heys (the latter is known as a ‘Round O’). With regard to the ‘Round O’, Blake suggests that this could be the dominant and ‘pure’ characteristic of Welsh dance as Reverend Richard Warner’s descriptions of the ‘genuine Welsh ball’ in 1798 vividly describe the popularity of this feature (Blake, 1974-1975, p23).

4.2. Dawnsfeydd Llanofer / The Llanover Dances, noted by Lady Llanofer in 1918: Llanofer / Llanover Welsh Reel; Rhif Wyth / The Figure Eight; The two dances from Llanover in Monmouthshire were generally performed as display dances and “show the influence of the Morris, both in form and movements” (Blake, 1974-1975, p22). Both are longways progressive dances which were recollected and revived by Mrs Gruffydd Richards.

4.3. The Nantgarw Dances recalled by Margaretta Thomas and noted by her daughter Dr. Ceinwen Thomas are dances which were performed at fairs, inns and festivals before the religious revival. She did not actually dance them but remembered them being performed at Nantgarw, Y Groeswen and Caerffili when she was very young. See below a list of The Nantgarw Dances (Dawnsfeydd Nantgarw): Gwyl Ifan (Y Groeswen) / St. John’s Eve (Groeswen); Dawns Flodau (Glamai) / The Garland / Flower Dance (Mayday); Dawns y Pelau / The Ball Dance; Ffair Caerffili / Caerphilly Fair; Ceiliog y Rhedyn / The Grasshopper; Morfa Rhuddlan ; Y Gaseg Eira / The Giant Snowball ; Y Marchog / The Knight ; Rali Twm Sion / Tom Jones’ Rally

4.4. Other dances have been reconstructed, adapted or modified from the eighteenth century publications of Playford and Walsh. The dances appear to consist of Welsh origins through the title names. For example: Playford Dances include Lord of Caernarvon’s Jig (ed. 1650); Bishop of Bangor’s Jig (ed. 1703); Abergenny (ed. 1652); Of Noble Race was Shenkin (ed. 1695); Abaty Llantony (Llantony Abbey); Aberdaugleddau (Milford Haven).

4.5. Walsh’s Dances (ed. 1735) include Welsh Morris Dance; Meillionen o Feirion (The Clover of Flower); The Three Sheep Skins (ed. 1718); The Welsh Whim (ed. 1719); Evan’s Delight (ed. 1719); Evan’s Jig (ed. 1719); Oswestry Wake (ed. 1719); St. David’s Day (ed. 1719). Nevertheless, the validity of these dances are not reliable as Blake indicates the origins are uncertain as they were “publishers not anthropologists and their chief concern was with their sales” (Blake, 1974-1975, p25).

4.6. Morris Dancing exists in Wales where important days and festivals of the year are celebrated. The Cadi Ha, partially recollected is a processional dance traditionally seen in the Flintshire area (Flint and Denbigh), during the summer months. Another old dance is the Mari Lwyd (Hunting the Wren). It is parcelled within appropriate costume, singing, ritual and customs, connected with the Christmas and New Year period. Another traditional dance, transcribed by Miss Karpeles is The Gower Reel. This dance is not actually a Morris or a processional dance. Only fragments are recollected as the original steps could not be found.

4.7. A number of modern compositions have been published. Some have origins in the patterns derived from the older dances; others are based on old Welsh tunes whilst some dances are influenced by styles from other countries. Pat Shaw (died in 1977), a singer and a dancer, provided a collection of modern dances, including The Red House of Cardiff (1966) which won the prize at the National Eisteddfod at Aberavon in 1966. In the 1997 Urdd Eisteddfod, Eirlys Phillips, the coach of Dawnswyr Talog, Caerfyrddin, composed a dance for the open group dance competition Dawns Deunaw (Dance for Eighteen) due to the surplus of men in Dawnswyr Talog.

5. Performance context

Folk dances are essentially social. This can be seen in Gwyl y Plant (Children Festival) where children all over Wales come together to dance the simple twmpath dances. Additionally, some organised evenings by the Welsh Folk Dance Society and by some Welsh folk dancing groups delight the community with a “Welsh ball” (Warner, cited in Mellor, 1935, p8). However, some spectacular dances and court dances are far more suitable for display. To fully appreciate the complicated pattern dances they are better presented on a stage.

Lois Blake believed and foresaw that the Urdd Eisteddfod was an “ideal medium” (Cleaver, 1974-1975, p5) for nurturing and encouraging the old tradition in a sound basis. Nevertheless, bringing a traditional style into the proscenium stage using the aesthetics of theatre dance creates a popular dance for spectators. Thus, popularising a cultural practice and altering its natural setting and transmission. But, the sound development of this art form is due to dancing in Eisteddfods, where the dance itself and the proficiency of the dancers are of importance.

Eisteddfod folk dancing competitions over the years have increased the standard of the aesthetics of the style. Yet, the criteria demands the performance of a dance based on traditional patterns and steps. According to many participants this hinders to some degree the natural progression of a living tradition. One competition involves composing a folk dance. In 1998 at Bro Ogwr National Eisteddfod, the task was to compose a court dance in the Welsh traditional style with no more than six couples. Thus, there is interest in developing, advancing and progressing the tradition within this new millenium. Clearly this prevents fossilisation. Nevertheless, in the 1997 Urdd Eisteddfod, Bala, Folk Dance Society members were still uncertain and in conflict regarding the direction of Welsh folk dancing should take.

Riverdance (1994) has been a very influential phenomenon: a programme where skilled dancers, for example Irish, Spanish perform on the stage in front of a passive audience. Since its arrival, there has been an increase in the participation of Welsh clogging. A polished, choreographed stepping dance was performed by ten Dawnswyr Nantgarw dancers, dressed in black shirts and trousers to electrified traditional Welsh folk tunes in the ‘Cymru a’r Fyd’ (Wales and the world) exhibition at Bala Urdd Eisteddfod, 1997. Questions such as ‘Could this be the beginning of a Welsh Riverdance? were whispered through the pavilion.

6. Conclusion

Welsh folk dancing was only revived in the early twentieth century. What is apparent is how young and fruitful the tradition is, due to it only having the maturity of fifty years. It is a dance genre which appears to have progressed along one or two lines of development - participation and exhibition. There are the dancing teams who practice set dances for display and Eisteddfod competitions. On the other hand, some dancing groups prefer more informal community dancing in twmpathau. Undeniably, the proscenium arch has been a fundamental element in the development of the Welsh folk dancing. Many have reiterated that its survival is to make it popular with the children. "…now, we realise that dancing is not just a ‘foot fever’ but rather a ‘way of life’ with its roots existing and thriving on the history of our land” (Williams, 1984-1985, p6) Could there be a Welsh folk dancing night club”!?

A continual predicament is that the tradition was driven for over a century; hence, nobody really knows what a folk dance looked like. Old manuscripts, complicated notation and a woman’s recollection of dances observed as a little girl are the only clues and evidence of the lost heritage. When these dances were revived, collected and noted, it was the revivers’ perception of what the dance looked like. “Probably some changes would have been made (to the dances), if the dances recorded had remained as a living thing amongst the populace, and not recorded” (Williams, 1984-1985, p7). Could The Grasshopper dance be a Welsh version of the popular partner dance Turkey Trot at the beginning of the twentieth century? Who can say who is right? Who can say what is right? As Lynn Maree proclaimed: “…dance means different things to different people. Not all of those people make distinctions between dance as art, as theatre, as ritual, as entertainment, as social interaction” (Maree, 1984, p29).

In retrospect, one must try to come to terms with the forgotten art form; to ‘tune in’ to the feelings and aspirations of the creators of the dances, and to appreciate who created them and when they were performed. There has been speculation about a traditional Welsh distinctive style but the influence of the styles of other countries must be appreciated.

7. A glossary of Welsh terms

Eisteddfod = A Welsh competitive festival. Gwylmabsant = The parish Saint’s festival or wake. Dawnswyr = Dancers. Twmpath = A barn dance

8. References

Alter, P. (2nd edition) (1994) Nationalism. London, Edward Arnold.

Armstrong, L. (ed. by Gleeson, D.) (1985) A Window on Folk Dance. Huddersfield, Springfield Books.

Armstrong, L. (1972-1973) Integrity in Folk Dance. Dawns, pp4-21.

Blake, F. (1974-1975) Lois Blake. 1890-1974. Dawns, pp7-11.

Blake, L. (1972) Traditional Dance & Customs in Wales. Llangollen, The Gwynn Publishing Co.

Blake, L. (1974-1975) The General Characteristics of Welsh Folk Dance. Dawns, pp19-26.

Bowen, E.G. (1979) An introduction to Wales in Kay, H. (ed). The Land of The Red Dragon. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, pp1-4.

Cleaver, E. (1974-1975) Lois Blake. Dawns, pp4-5.

Davies, B. (1976-1977) Staging Dances for Competition. Dawns, pp10-14.

Denbury, B. (1982) Welsh folk dancing, W.L.A Bibliographies series. Welsh Library Association.

Erikson, T.H. (1993) Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London : Pluto Press.

Garske, R. (1985) Dance tradition, national identity, international exchanges. Ballett International V.8, No.2, February, pp6-9, 11.

Gwynn Williams, W.S. (1955) Authenticity of Welsh Folk Dance. The Welsh Folk Dance Society Newsletter No.3, p5.

Jones, E. (1990-1991) Adwaith I’r Wyl Cerdd Dance, 1989. Dawns, pp22-24.

Karpeles, M. & Blake, L. (1950) Dances of England and Wales. London, Max Parrish & Company

Kay, H. (ed) (1979) The Land of The Red Dragon. Cardiff, University of Wales Press.

Lloyd, D.T. (1994) The Urgency of Identity : Contemporary English – Language Poetry from Wales. Illinois, Triquartely Books, North-Western University Press.

Maree, L. (1984) Dance Anthropology and public politics for dance. Dance Theatre Journal. V.2, No.3, Autumn, pp29-32.

McRobbie, A. (1991) Feminism and Youth Culture. London, MacMillan.

Mellor, M. (1935) Welsh Folk Dances. An inquiry by Hugh Mellor with notation of certain dances. London, Novello and Company.

Morgan, P. (1983) The Hunt for the Welsh Past in the Romantic Period in Hobsbawm, E. & Ranger, T. (eds). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, U.K. : Cambridge University Press, p100.

Morris, J. et al (1983) Wales from the Air (Cymru o’r awyr). London : Ted Smart Publication, by arrangement with Random House UK.

Neake, A. (1991-1992) Variation on a Theme. Dawns, pp34-35.

Philip, A.B. (1975) The Welsh Question : Nationalism in Welsh Politics 1945 – 1970. Cardiff, University of Wales Press.

Saer, D.R. (1983-1984) Traditional Dance in Wales during the eighteenth century. Dawns, pp5-24.

Williams, A.E. (1984-1985) A Welsh Folk Dancing Handbook. The Welsh Folk Dance Society.

Williams, S. (1977-1978) Celtic Heritage III. Dawns, pp13-18.


Doherty, M. (1995) Riverdance – The Show. A Tyrone / RTE video (videogram).

9. The author

Angharad James studied at The Benesh Institute during her placement year at University of Surrey where she graduated in 1998 with a BA (Hons) Dance in Society. She is an avid Welsh folk dancer and stepper who competes regularly at the National Eisteddfod of Wales. Her research and interest lie in the world of notation and folk dance. Angharad is currently completing a research project at the Dora Stratou Theatre in Athens, Greece.

Angharad James, BA (Hons) Dance in Society

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