Folk dance at Horizon Community College

7 years ago, some year 7 students approached the Horizon Community College dance studio and asked politely if I wouldn’t mind taking them to a Rapper dance tournament in a few months’ time. As a teacher that was relatively new to dance (I trained as a PE teacher but fell in love with dance at university) I had never heard of Rapper dance and asked to hear more about it. They began talking about a dance routine they learnt at primary school where they held on to metal “swords” known as “Rappers” and made various shapes by holding the swords in position whilst performing stepping in time to the music. I wondered to myself how I would ever be able to help them develop a routine in this style, having no experience whatsoever, but I have always been passionate about providing students with as many opportunities as possible, so I agreed to take them along. This was the moment I started to fall in love with folk dance.

As I helped (I use that term loosely) the girls to rehearse, I started to appreciate the style. Teamwork and communication were key, and the students took ownership of their routine. They loved working together and the figures they created with the swords depended on everyone doing their bit. At the competition they became champions, a wonderful achievement for them and for the school. Everyone we met was so lovely and supportive of the girls, and happy to see some young people performing the style. This got me thinking – why don’t more young people get involved in this style?

A few months later we had set up an opportunity for the girls to teach others and had 4/5 groups who were able to perform the style well. Having these students as role models and teachers made other students more enthusiastic towards picking up the style, having seen their recent success, and I would hear students commenting on how much they loved Rapper.

We were then asked if we wanted to be part of “The Full English”, a project run by the EFDSS. The project was fantastic – we learned some more rapper to add to our growing repertoire and some Morris dance steps. As the project concluded and our students performed their first ever hip hop and folk mashup on stage, I watched from the wings and was absolutely inspired and excited about what we could do with folk dance at Horizon.

Back at school I started teaching some Morris steps to our extracurricular groups. Despite wondering how this might be received, as the students were used to learning street or contemporary steps, the students became very excited as we tried the steps to lots of different pieces of music, some modern, and some traditional. The students responded so well to it that we must have worked our way through the top 40 that week, trying the steps to nearly every song! I also noticed was how accessible the sequence of steps was for the students, the repetitive nature and pattern helped them to pick it up quickly. Folk dance at Horizon started to gather momentum.

The following summer, on holiday in Swanage Dorset, I saw a sign on the seafront saying “Folk Festival”. After looking into the festival, I saw that they welcomed dance sides from all over the country for a weekend in September every year to perform in various folk styles. I returned to school in September determined to take a trip to the festival the following year.

Never one to do things by halves I arranged a trip and we went the next September with 48 students, all excited to perform their folk routines to a mix of traditional and modern music, fused with our own styles ranging from hip hop to jazz. I was worried about how our pieces would be received by the more traditional folk crowds, as I was aware that what we were presenting was something totally new, but I hoped they would see how much the students enjoyed dancing the folk styles. After our first performance we were surrounded by other dance sides and the festival organisers saying how wonderful it was to see some young faces performing as this was a rarity in the folk-dance community. What struck me most (and made me a bit emotional) is how much our young people enjoyed talking to older people, they positively beamed when elderly members of other sides came across to praise them. We came away from our first Folk Festival absolutely buzzing, with amazing memories and a drive to do more.

Since that first festival, we have continued to go to the sword dancing competition DERT every year, this year taking 18 teams and were featured on the BBC coverage of the youth competition. We are now planning our fifth trip to the Folk Festival with more and more students desperate to go as it is the favourite dance trip of the year amongst our groups. We have danced Morris to Michael Jackson, Rapper to Elvis Presley and used baseball bats instead of the traditional Morris dance sticks!  This year we have also introduced folk dance into our KS3 curriculum so each year over 400 students will get the chance to try their hand at rapper or Morris.

I would encourage any teacher reading this to try out some folk styles. I have found that the styles are accessible and easy to learn and improve the confidence of lower ability students as many of the styles require everyone to play an equal part. My ‘top tips for teaching folk dance are;

  • Morris dance and Rapper always seem to have a great reaction from students
  • Take some time to familiarise yourself with the basics – it only took me a few months
  • Teach a small group first then use them as leaders
  • Use modern music and include some hip-hop steps to engage all students (particularly boys) and develop unique performances

For advice or resources for folk dance please contact Jade Hunt