Louise Smith is my guest today to present her group performing dances from different historical periods, Renaissance Historical Dance and to tell us about her incredibly rewarding and entertaining activity. Read her blogpost and  welcome her on Fly High!

Renaissance Historical Dance Society is based in Plymouth, Devon, and we learn and perform dances from four historical periods - Medieval, Elizabethan, Stuart and Regency.  We perform at different venues across the UK in order to teach people about history in a fun way and promote both history and dancing. 

The group was initially set up by Rosemary Smith who wanted an activity that she and her daughter could take part in. Rosemary had seen a re-enactment group elsewhere in the UK, and after being diagnosed with Leukaemia decided that this is what she wanted to do too.   Her determination to promote history and dancing gave her the drive to achieve all her goals. The feeling of creating a social, fun night out for the members has been maintained, with members comprising of people who like performing, dancing and have an interest in history. The group has grown from strength to strength – after starting off using pillows or tomatoes to act as missing dance members,the group is now around 20 strong.
Every Wednesday evening, members from across Devon and Cornwall meet up to learn, practice, and share information about the costumes and etiquette of the time.It’s an ideal place to meet new people and learn history without getting stuck intotextbooks!

Costume is an important part of the group - although it's not worn during practice, at events members are expected to wear historically accurate costumes with no zips or modern fastenings to show the public an example of genuine clothing, so they learn what the period was really like.  Some in the group make their own costumes, and others use professional dressmakers or find costumes online.  The group plans costumes together to make sure colours don't clash, and no one looks too similar.  Rules extend to hair too - if someone dyes their hair an unnatural colour, they would have to wear a wig during events to maintain the correct look. When new members join, they often borrowa servants or basic costume so that they can feel part of the group until they organise their own costumes.
Although the group is intended to be fun for the members, one of the aims is also to show the public how things would have been, so members learn about the history of the time too.  This enables them to answer questions that the public might have.  It also allows members of the group to take their hobby in the direction that interests them - some are more interested in the dance and performance aspect, some enjoy learning about the costumes, and other prefer to learn more about the history or social etiquette.
A bit of knowledge about the time makes the dancing look more authentic - members understand what the dances were about, and so can behave in a more historically accurate way.  This is helped by the costumes, which tend to have a greater effect on the men, who get a real sense of the showing off and gentlemanly behaviour that was expected from them.  We also try to make the dances as real as possible, so audience members may see female dancers trying to catch the eye of the most eligible bachelor!
Renaissance Historical Dance Society is the main group in the South West to cover this range of periods, although Regency is the period in highest demand in terms of performance at the moment.  We have performed at sites across the UK, including many National Trust venues.  As well as dancing, we put on craft and food displays to show the public a little more about life at the time.  This also gives members the chance to show off their skills, for example, if they are particularly interested in lacework or embroidery, this can be incorporated into the displays. We also put on masked fairytales which appeal to all ages, and look particularly striking when the masks are paired with historical costumes.  If more children are expected, more crafts and dancing are included; each event is tailored to the venue and the expected audience.
We run public workshops at many of the events, getting members of the public to take part in one or two of the simpler dances, which are called by our dance leader.  The aim is to give people a taste of what it felt like to take part in the big social events of the time - if they want to take things further, we invite them to come along to our group or refer them to the Early Dance Circle, an umbrella organisation which can point them in the direction of groups local to them.  Lots of our members joined after seeing the group perform somewhere.  However, one member saw Pride and Prejudice, fell in love with the dancing, decided she wanted to do it too and searched the internet until she found us!
The group is suitable for all ages and abilities - we have members ranging from 11 to 80+.  No one will ever be forced to do something they don't want to - some members feel comfortable only doing the slower dances, while others prefer the more upbeat numbers.  There's never any rush to learn or perform dances, and no one is forced to take part in an event.  As all the dances require a partner, no one is ever left on their own - the groups changes partners all the time (especially because no respectable young lady would dance with the same man for more than two dances in an evening!).

We’re always on the lookout for new members, especially male dancers, as modern dance tends to be female dominated – despite the fact that historically, it was often the reverse with dances designed to show off men’s talents. 

Dancing was an incredibly important skill throughout all the historical periods we cover, and often the main reason for dances was to meet a suitable husband or wife. It could be the only time people would be able to look one another in the eye or even touch hands! Dancers would sometimes take advantage of this and add some cheeky touching and flirting. By looking at historical documents it is clear to see that people had fun.  We hope this is reflected in our dancing, as we are all genuinely having fun too.

Although we are a non-profit organisation, we often have to charge a small fee for some of the events we do. Thiscovers music licences, public liability and equipment insurance and some transport costs. Any money left over is spent on props, equipment and other important expenses. 
Historical dancing is an unusual hobby, but also extremely rewarding. Lots ofour members have been with the group for years because they enjoy it so much. There are a lot of groups who demonstrate the ‘below stairs’ version of history, but we prefer to show the side of history people are used to seeing on films and television - the more glamorous, exciting, interesting and colourful side of history.

Anyone interested in joining the group, or finding out more about booking us can visit our website, www.rhds.org.uk.  To keep up to date with events and anything else going on in the group, follow us on Twitter @rhdsociety, or find us on Facebook. (Credits for the photos: Zak Davies)

Louise Smith


Lauren Gilbert said...

Most interesting! I love to watch historical dancing, especially when the performers are in costume. (Not so good as a performer, unfortunately.) We forget these days how significant the act of dancing with a particular partner, or the number of times one danced with a particular partner, was in earlier times. Thank you!

Maria Grazia said...

Yes, @Lauren , it is a really fascinating moment in people public life especially in the 18th century. I know I'm influenced by my Austen readings but it was such a thrilling event young people's life.
The only moment in which men and women could get to touch each other or flirt publicly. They could only while they were dancing.
Thanks for your comment!