Many years ago, as a young man, I sought adventure and archaeology in central India and spent several months helping survey an abandoned medieval city called Vijayanagara. I remember that on one particular day we were describing and photographing a temple. In a frieze around the outside of the temple were numerous ladies dancing with sticks, twisting, turning and striking the sticks of their neighbours. It was an amazing piece of carving, vibrant and alive. When we returned to our camp we were full of excitement about what we had seen. The old archaeologist in charge smiled at us, like an indulgent parent.
Later that evening, after the sun had set, we were visited by a troupe of stick dancers. In a circle around the fire, they whirled and turned and struck the sticks of their neighbours, recreating the shapes that we had marvelled at upon the temple. It was as if five hundred years had vanished in a flicker of firelight.
A similar experience can be had closer to home, although many people don’t realise it. Traditional dance is still going strong in Lincolnshire and is championed by various enthusiastic groups and individuals, but we tend to forget just how old those traditions are. It is people’s minds that this is something from “before the war” rather than our ancient history. But by looking at historical records, like a description of the entertainments at Revesby in the 18th century, we can find that these traditions are at least two hundred years old.
Comparing the forms and steps used in the surviving dances with paintings and historical accounts can also help us show the antiquity of the tradition. In 1651, John Playford published a book called the English Dancing Master in which he wrote (codified) the rules on how country dancing should be performed. The dances described are the dances referred to in Jane Austin’s novels and were, for a time, regarded as the height of social accomplishment. That didn’t last and they fell from fashion, preserved by traditional dancers who were dismissed as old fashioned and backwards-looking.
Moment’s like the publication of Playford’s book are important to archaeologists and historians because it provides something called a “terminus ente quem”. This is the latest date that something must have happened or existed. The dances cannot have existed any later than 1651, because that is when they were written down. The question then becomes, if they were written down, how long had they existed?
It is commonly believed that Playford wrote down the patterns of existing dances. In fact, he often says that dances are old or even ancient. So how do we trace them further back? We look for pictures of people dancing.
Paintings of the Sixteenth Century (particularly those of Pieter Bruegel) show ordinary people dancing steps we now call country dancing. Looking further back, and closer to home, the Luttrell Psalter shows musicians and dancing men. Medieval manuscripts show a number of figures who can be identified as dancers by the context in which they are found. They are associated with musicians or acrobats, or they are being applauded by a crowd. From this we can establish that there are conventions to representing dance in pictures. Usually, one leg is straight and the other is bent. Often the hands are shown held in the air as if waving.
This imagery can be traced back further into Saxon times with examples appearing of items such as the Sutton Hoo helmet. The complication here is that the “dancers” are armed for war. A little study of cultures old and new, however, will soon establish the idea that fighting and dancing have a surprisingly close relationship.
For the Romans, dance was an essential part of social life. So much so that even the slightest attempt to describe it all would go on for many pages. It is sufficient to say that any major Roman settlement in Lincolnshire would have been well supplied with dancers, both male and female.
Pre-Roman dance is something that is interpreted from images such as Iron Age figurines and bronze age rock art. The symbolism of the bent leg and waving arms is used to suggest dancing figures, although, like the Saxon period, many of these figures are also armed.
One of the earliest “dancing” figures is also one of the most enigmatic. In 1914, the Cave of the Trois-Freres was discovered. Within it is a figure depicted as a horned man, legs bent and arms held out in front. This figure is known as “The Sorcerer” and dates back to 13,000BC. You can see an image of it at the top of this article.
So, what and when was Lincolnshire’s first dance?
We can’t say for certain, but there is something primal about the image of the bent leg and the waving arms, and I think I can guess why. When a baby is lain upon his or her back, they respond to sound by alternately bending and lifting their legs and waving their hands up by their heads. So perhaps that is the first dance, for Lincolnshire and for each generation. An instinctive dance of life.