Karpeles, Daisy Caroline Daking, Elsie J. Oxenham and the Canning
Town folk dancers
Artist Ju Gosling aka ju90 talked about the
background to the exhibition as it opened at Cecil Sharp House:
Where did the inspiration for the exhibition
As a school story fan, I knew when I moved
to Canning Town in 1985 that Daisy Caroline Daking had taught
folk dancing in nearby Plaistow in the 1920s, and that author
Elsie J. Oxenham had written about this in her ‘Abbey books’
series. However, I’d always assumed that this was a case
of the upper-middle-classes bringing culture to the deprived East
End, and that this post-dated World War I. Then a few years ago
Girls Gone By publishers brought out an unabridged version of
Oxenham’s The New Abbey Girls, with an introduction by Ann
Mackie-Hunter. The book contained a lot of descriptions of Canning
Town that had been cut from later editions, which was exciting
in itself. But what really surprised me was finding out from the
introduction that Maud Karpeles had been teaching folk dancing
in Canning Town before the Society was even established, and that
local children and teenagers had been instrumental in demonstrating
the dances for Cecil Sharp in the run-up to the founding of the
Society in 1911. That put a very different complexion on things.
As in 1911, Canning Town is one of the very
poorest parts of London. However, it’s currently going through
regeneration, and as part of that there is a renewed interest
in local history. At the same time, the area was targeted by the
Arts Council’s Well London fund because of the high rates
of poor health, and grants were available for arts activities
that also promoted wellbeing. So it made sense to team up with
East London Dance to create a project that brought together the
history of folk dancing in Canning Town and Plaistow alongside
a summer project to re-establish folk dancing in the area. Thus
the 2010 ‘Folk Formula’ project was born. There was
a great uptake among people of all ages, and at the end of the
project local people formed their own folk dance club.
What are you hoping to achieve with the exhibition?
I’d like people to realize that the
folk dance revival of the early 20th century wasn’t simply
about the middle- and upper-middle-classes from leafy suburbs,
and that the urban working classes were involved from the beginning.
Canning Town is also unique in that the cultural and ethnic mix
in 1911 was the same as today’s – the most diverse
in Britain. People who lived and worked in Canning Town at the
beginning of the 20th century came from all over the world; the
dances weren’t simply performed and enjoyed by white English
people. Then of course Maud Karpeles has never had the attention
that she so richly deserves – not least, of course, because
she was happy to remain in the background and let Cecil Sharp
shine alongside the dancing itself. Nor has D.C. Daking been remembered
much outside the world of Oxenham’s fans, yet her activities
during the First World War were responsible for the widespread
acceptance and respectability of folk dancing in the years following,
as well as making an amazing story in their own right. Nor has
Elsie. J. Oxenham been recognized as the historian of the folk
world that she has by default become. We have no better record
of the Society in the early 1920s than the descriptions in her
books, with so many personalities and incidents lifted directly
from real life. The Chelsea Christmas school, the Cheltenham summer
school, official classes and parties are also minutely described,
along with Daking’s teaching in Plaistow and the part that
dancing played in all of those people’s lives.
What inspired you to create the three animated
pieces for Cecil Sharp House?
I had been wanting to create animations of
some of the dances mentioned by Oxenham for several years now,
taking an overhead viewpoint in the way that people viewed the
dances originally from balconies and the tops of stairs. I was
particularly interested in animation as a means of isolating the
movement paths of the dances, which can be lost for modern onlookers
because we are so often on the same level as the people dancing
(or lower, in my case). The dances would have lent themselves
very easily to animations of flowers in meadows. However, in the
context of the Canning Town exhibition I wanted to use the contemporary
urban aesthetic of the computer game. I also wanted to get away
from the layers of meaning that have been ascribed to folk dancing
over the past century – both positive and negative –
and focus on the dances themselves.
How did you go about animating the dances?
I started with the Playford dance instructions,
and persuaded my friend Joy Wotton, who dances with the Morley
College group, to talk me through these slowly while I made sketches
of the movement patterns. (The sketches could only be interpretations
of the movements, since they had to be foreshortened to keep the
‘dancers’ at a visible size as well as being simplified.)
Then I worked out the time frames and created much more detailed
sketches to storyboard each dance, before checking these back
with Joy. I wrote the music as published in Playford into a piece
of free software called MuseScore, and then imported this into
Cubase Elements to arrange the tunes. I created the drawings of
the movement paths and processed the backgrounds in Photoshop.
Then I worked from my sketches to animate the movements in a programme
called Toon Boom Studio, but used Keynote — a bit like Powerpoint
– to animate the titles, and FCPX to bring it all together.
The dancer shapes were generated in Word. It was all rather low-budget!
The accompanying drawings of the animation movement
paths seem almost Celtic in appearance?
That struck me too. I think it underlines
the fact that the roots of many English folk dances lie much further
back in our past, at least in terms of individual movements and
patterns. There also seems to me to be some similarity between
the movement paths of these three dances and labyrinth designs.
It seems possible that dances of this kind were originally spiritual
in origin as well as social, and that dancing them had a similar
meaning to walking a labyrinth. The drawings were central to the
animation process, since they acted as templates for all of the
animated movements before being removed from each scene at the
end of the editing process. I was working with a fairly cheap
software package, so I wasn’t able simply to programme in
the coordinates for the different positions and let the computer
get on with it.
Did your perspective as a wheelchair user influence
As an onlooker I think I’ve probably
thought more about the choreography than perhaps I might have
done if I danced it, strange as this might sound. When I was storyboarding
the animations, I was aware that choreographers probably did something
very similar at some point in history, perhaps moving around objects
to represent the individual dancers. From 2008-10 I danced with
Graeae Theatre Company’s comedy wheelchair line-dancing
troupe The Rhinestone Rollers. During the storyboarding process
I became aware that that in one sense I was creating choreographic
versions of the dances that would be suitable for wheelchair dancers.
This is something that I hope to explore further in the future
if the funding becomes available.