In Eng­land — Now!: The Ar­beau Dancers

With el­e­gance, charm and ex­per­tise, the York­shire group are bring­ing tra­di­tional danc­ing to a new au­di­ence

This England - - News - Roy Hamp­son

Elected Mayor of Ripon in York­shire in 1702, John Ais­la­bie later be­came an am­bi­tious MP for the town, and in 1718 went on to hold the po­si­tion of Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer. Two years later, im­pli­cated in the South Sea Bub­ble scan­dal, a credit crunch of its day, he was barred from public of­fice and briefly im­pris­oned in the Tower of Lon­don. It was dur­ing this pe­riod that Ais­la­bie dreamed of cre­at­ing the Wa­ter Gar­dens at Stud­ley Royal Park, and to­day they re­main a rare sur­viv­ing ex­am­ple of early 18th-cen­tury land­scap­ing in the grand man­ner.

The lakes, grot­toes, canals, cas­cades, clas­sic tem­ples and the ad­join­ing ru­ins of Foun­tains Abbey all pro­vide a fit­ting set­ting for the Ar­beau Dancers. This York­shire-based group, who in beau­ti­ful pe­riod cos­tumes per­form dances from the 15th to the 19th cen­turies, reg­u­larly ap­pear there, as well as tour­ing other his­toric sites around the North of Eng­land.

I vis­ited Ar­beau mem­ber Jan Lid­dleHulme at her home in Brad­ford, where she was joined by the team’s old­est mem­ber, Neil Lloyd. I found both sur­rounded by a col­lec­tion of pe­riod dresses and hats as they went on to tell me about the group that pro­vides such per­fect en­ter­tain­ment on glo­ri­ous sum­mer’s days in some of Eng­land’s most spec­tac­u­lar parks and gar­dens.

“We usu­ally have a dozen ded­i­cated per­form­ers on hand, who dress and dance any­thing from me­dieval to Vic­to­rian and the ones in be­tween,” Jan ex­plained. “The team prides it­self on be­ing semi-pro­fes­sional, and any money gained goes straight back into the group to fi­nance cos­tumes and travel. No one takes any­thing out. Lots of our work comes via the Na­tional Trust and English Her­itage. We also at­tend wed­dings, pri­vate par­ties, cor­po­rate events and even per­form in shop­ping cen­tres.

“The cos­tumes are all au­then­tic, although it would be im­pos­si­ble to wear the ac­tual cloth­ing that has sur­vived from the era as it would be far too del­i­cate and al­most rot­ting away by now. We are lucky to have a lady mem­ber within our group who is City and Guilds trained in the art of dress­mak­ing, and I lend a hand too. We care­fully study and re­search prints and paint­ings from a par­tic­u­lar era, util­is­ing silks, cot­tons, satins and vel­vets in or­der to make the re­pro­duc­tions.”

Jan (pic­tured with Neil, be­low) con­fessed that the public shows a great in­ter­est in what’s ac­tu­ally worn un­der the cos­tumes, such as the corsetry which was worn by both men and women dur­ing the Baroque pe­riod (1600-1750).

Neil told me that the team was formed in 1974 when two friends were asked to demon­strate some dances at a con­cert; Neil joined the group dur­ing the 1980s. He told me the name “Ar­beau” is taken from a 16th-cen­tury dance man­ual called Orch­eso­gra­phie which was writ­ten by a French monk us­ing the pen-name of Thoinot Ar­beau (an ana­gram of his real name).

“Ar­beau de­scribes how the dances and steps were per­formed and gives use­ful point­ers to­wards the eti­quette and man­ners of the time. This and other con­tem­po­rary manuscripts pro­vide the sources for our reper­toire of 150 dances. We also source notes made by dance masters of the day.”

Neil said that, while dances from the early 20th cen­tury can be recreated pre­cisely, be­ing within liv­ing mem­ory and af­ter the ad­vent of film and video

record­ing, the dances they per­form “might be all wrong”, but they do strive to be ac­cu­rate. The main thing is, they are keep­ing the dances alive.

“We cover a time pe­riod of ap­prox­i­mately 600 years, com­menc­ing with the grace of the me­dieval and re­nais­sance courts, through the splen­dour of the El­iz­a­bethan age, the lively dances of the Civil War and Restora­tion eras, the el­e­gance of the French and English Baroque courts and the light-hearted English Re­gency so­ci­ety to the en­thu­si­as­tic cel­e­bra­tions of Vic­to­rian high so­ci­ety.”

I pointed out to Jan that danc­ing in the mod­ern sense seems like a mat­ing rit­ual to me, but if the Ar­beau danc­ing demon­stra­tions are any­thing to go by it all seems a lit­tle too gen­teel for that?

She ex­plained that the dances them­selves were per­formed in the royal courts to en­ter­tain the King, Queen or no­bil­ity. The dances would al­ways be di­rected to the head of the room, who would be known as the “pres­ence”.

Jan told me that dur­ing the late 18th and early 19th cen­tury there was lots of chap­er­one­ing go­ing on so the dances were of­ten the only op­por­tu­nity for mak­ing contact with the op­po­site sex. As a con­se­quence, there was lots of flirt­ing tak­ing place amongst younger peo­ple. Neil pointed out that gen­tle­men seized the op­por­tu­nity to hold a lady’s hand and to speak to her.

To­wards the end of the Re­gency era (1811-1820) the waltz ar­rived in English so­ci­ety. It was a dance that was con­sid­ered shock­ing due to the close­ness and in­ti­macy it de­manded of the dancers, and it was banned in many Euro­pean courts.

The dances of the Vic­to­rian era re­flect a time when the Bri­tish Em­pire was at its height and the so­cial scene was ex­pand­ing to in­clude mill own­ers and mer­chants. The waltz was now all the rage, and Scot­tish coun­try dances were much loved by the Queen.

Some of the dance mu­sic had rather strange ti­tles, Neil told me, such as “Lord By­ron’s Mag­gots”! “Mag­gots” in this in­stance means fan­ci­ful whim­si­cal no­tions and not white wrig­gling grubs.

En­ter­tain­ing to watch, in­for­ma­tive and amus­ing es­pe­cially when they in­vited mem­bers of the au­di­ence to take part in an im­promptu court danc­ing les­son or two, the Ar­beau Dancers suited the sur­round­ings per­fectly. In fact it was as if the Stud­ley Royal Wa­ter Gar­dens had been spe­cially de­signed for them!

“We are al­ways on the look­out for new mem­bers”, were Jan and Neil’s depart­ing words. Fancy hav­ing a go?

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