Strictly Come Dancing Wiltshire!

on Thursday, 11 December 2014. Posted in Archives, Traditions and Folklore

With the final of this year’s Strictly Come Dancing approaching, it seemed a good chance to explore the history of dancing in Wiltshire and the archival documents and historic photographs we have in our collections… there are some gems!

The English country dance was an ordinary, everyday dance, danced for pleasure, without ceremony and relatively easy to learn. Many people are familiar with country dancing from their school days, and it was an integral part of the social life of many English villages for several centuries.

Dancing often formed the focus of a community festival or celebration. A spring time festival known as ‘clipping the church’ involved parishioners assembling in the church yard, holding hands and enclosing the church before performing a short dance. This was sometimes performed by school children, including in Warminster, Trowbridge and in Bradford-in-Avon, where the Shrove Tuesday tradition continued until the mid-19th century.

Morris dancing was more ceremonial, spectacular and only performed by men. The first reference to Morris dancing dates back to 15th century, and by the end of the 16th century it had become particularly associated with May Day and village fairs and fetes.

Although Morris Dancing declined during the 19th century, this 1856 broadside advertising ‘Celebration of Peace’ in Salisbury, celebrating the end of the Crimean War included ‘Morrice Dancers’ as part of the procession.



The maypole dance was another notable and recognisable feature of May Day celebrations, as it often still is today! The most familiar maypole dance involves boys and girls dancing in opposite directions around the pole, weaving in and around with ribbon until meeting at the base.

The tradition of decorating the maypole with ribbons and flowers is referenced in this 1661 letter by Lady Johanna, wife of Sir Walter St John, MP for Wootton Bassett and Wiltshire, to Hardyman, Steward of Lydiard House. Lady Johanna gave 40 of Sir Walter’s Parliamentary election supporters a maypole decorated with ribbons and flowers ‘w[hi]ch has much pleas’d them’.

With the rise of Protestantism the maypole began to fall out of favour, and during the interregnum maypole dancing and displays were outlawed.

There is other evidence of the disapproval of dancing in the early 17th century in our archives. There are presentments at Calne, 1632, for drawing men’s servants to dancing on Sunday evenings. There is also an office cause, 4 May 1603 and recorded in the 1603 Act Book, against the curate of Winsley who had preached a sermon against dancing. However, come the Restoration in 1660, the maypole reclaimed its former place and dancing regained its former popularity.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw more formal assemblies and balls, catering to the upper and middling classes in society. The assembly provided the opportunity for personal display, and of seeing and being seen. Dancing was conducted in purpose-built assembly rooms with rules for appropriate attire, conduct and the type of dance, all supervised by an elected Master of Ceremonies. Those familiar with Jane Austen will no doubt be aware of the 3 principal components of purpose built assembly rooms; the ballroom, card room, and tearoom!

Prior to about 1800 the assemblies would often commence with a minuet, followed by country dances. After 1763 and the Treaty of Paris, French dances, such as the long and complex cotillons, also became popular.

We have an account of a Chippenham Ball which states that “Chippenham Ball held on Tuesday evening passed off like so many of its predecessors with the greatest eclat and not withstanding the state of the roads and the heavy fall of snow of the previous night, upwards of 200 people of the nobility and leading families in the neighbourhood were present.”

Although as this letter and 1871 list of patronage (above) suggest, the higher classes still attended balls in the 19th century, assemblies had become less socially exclusive. There was some reaction against this by the aristocracy who began holding more private balls.

Mirroring this attempt to preserve exclusivity, dances such as the quadrille (developed from the Cotillon), a dance for only eight, and the waltz, for only two, gained popularity. Although the closed embrace of the waltz was initially considered too intimate, it did make inroads into the ballrooms, and became more easily accepted when developed into the exuberant Galop or Polka.

This programme of dances for an 1874 Chippenham Ball includes eight waltz, three quadrilles, six galops, and three lancers (a variation of the quadrille).

Following the success of shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, ballroom dancing has enjoyed a recent popular revival.

Similarly, as part of the wider British Folk Revival, traditional dances such the morris and the maypole, have regained some popularity, particularly in the rural communities for which they were so important.

Naomi Sackett, Records Assistant


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