In England — Now!: The Arbeau Dancers
With elegance, charm and expertise, the Yorkshire group are bringing traditional dancing to a new audience
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?