Canning Town Folk 8: The Canning Town Folk Dance Legacy

Colour photograph of two children's hands, one black and one white, on folk dance swords

It is not clear when Daisy Caroline Daking stopped teaching at the Y.M.C.A., but her death during the Second World War marked the end of an era. However, the Canning Town and Plaistow folk dancing tradition continued long after her death. Local resident Jim Ludlam recalls taking part in folk dancing in the 1950s.

“Every year there was a summer festival in what was then known as Balaam Street Park, with hundreds of children dancing, and, in the middle, what seemed like a hundred feet high maypole that everyone danced round, hanging onto the long ribbons that met at the top of the pole. I never was a good dancer and usually managed to get the ribbons into an awful tangle!”


Colour illustration of two schoolgirls dancing with two younger children in front of an Abbey.
"On the sunny, green lawn a "square of four" was being danced.

Perhaps Cecil Sharp’s greatest achievement in ensuring the longevity of the folk dance movement was to make folk dancing part of the state school curriculum. One of Elsie Oxenham’s teenage characters, discovering the Society for the first time while taking business studies at technical college, recalls that:

“We did a few country-dances at school. I liked ‘Gathering Peascods’ . And ‘Rigs’ is great sport; you have sticks, and bang your partner. Well, I mean you bang her stick, of course. I could do that one still. … It’s weird to think of grown-up people doing these dances. I thought they were only for schools!”

As Oxenham makes clear in her books, putting folk on the curriculum led to many teachers attending classes in order to pass the Society’s examinations, and therefore to earn a higher salary. In her persona of ‘the Writing Person’, Oxenham explains: “To so many of them it’s just an extra teaching stunt, and an extra certificate that will be valuable, and [the staff] are merely useful because they can help them to pass the exams.” (The Abbey Girls Again, 1924). However, this still meant that children continued to learn folk dancing in school long after its popularity had faded elsewhere.


Colour illustration of girls in 1950s dresses folk dancing.
"The twins were running the party."

After the Second World War, folk dancing continued to be part of the school curriculum, and was also a popular activity with the Girl Guides. Canning Town residents remember:

“I danced myself at Primary School. When the weather was too wet for the playground, we did country dancing instead. I presume the teachers themselves learned the dances as children. I enjoyed anything to do with music.”

“We were taught country dancing at school. I think of moving with a partner in circular and square shapes.”
“I remember country dancing at school and hoping not to be partnered with Christopher E****.”

“I think of swirling skirts, short socks and black plimsolls.”

“I remember embroidering a cotton apron to wear over my uniform when performing country dancing at Parents’ Day in Primary School.”

Not all teachers were enthusiastic. Another resident recalls:

“I remember the teacher just sitting looking out the window whilst the tape played and told us what to do – that was my first experience of folk dancing.”

Colour photograph of a woman playing the fiddle while young children sword dance.

Today, contemporary dance organization East London Dance is running a new programme of folk dancing classes, workshops and holiday schools in Canning Town, bringing together the different English folk dancing forms (Country, Morris, Sword and Clog) with Jamaican dance hall and European folk dances. As Elsie Oxenham put it: “Your real East-Ender dances harder—and almost better—than any one else.” Canning Town’s folk dance tradition lives on in the 21st century.

Colour photograph of young children enthusiastically dancing in a community centre.

Colour photograph of young children enthusiastically dancing in a community centre.

Blurred colour photograph of children dancing at speed.

All of the images above are copyrighted and must not be reproduced without permission.

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Text © Ju Gosling aka ju90 2010

Supported by Arts Council England, Well London, East London Dance, English Folk Dance and Song Society, London Borough of Newham, Newham NDP. Lottery funded.