Category Archives: Dance

Inventing Tradition: The Chestnut Tree Dance


Dancing your country back

The Chestnut Tree Dance is a bizarre bit of British dance history. It seems worth remembering for a moment in the current atmosphere where some English have been printing  “I want my country back” on badges and t-shirts, and Sarkozy wants to reclaim France “for the French.” If you got your country back, and “reclaimed it” in some way that meant you got the right to impose national dress and culture on people who happen to share the same nearby landmass, what might the dancing look like?

Well, maybe a bit like this. In her article [1]  on social dance in interwar Britain, Rishona Zimring quotes contemporary accounts of nightclubs and rhythm clubs (mainly from the Mass Observation project of the time) that demonstrated the novel diversity of social dance habits of the time:

These were places where races mixed: the interviews reveal that club-goers were highly conscious of this mixture, in some cases attracted by it, in others, uncomfortable. Places where social dancing occurred or where dance music was played were locations of everyday “cosmopolitan modernity.” They displayed a hybridity hard to discern elsewhere (say, at Cambridge) but highly significant as a challenge to English xenophobia and a harbinger of a new, multicultural society. (p. 715)

Those who were uncomfortable with this hybridity wanted something that could reclaim social dancing for the English. The dance halls in comparison to rhythm clubs were a bit dull, and couldn’t compete with the novelty of jazz. As Zimring explains:

The dance halls’ monotony arose in confrontation with the multiculturalism of jazz, which for some in the music business was a problem, a threat to English identity as revealed and bolstered by native traditions in music and dance. The solution was to invent a tradition. (p. 715)

Inventing tradition: The Chestnut Tree Dance

The result was the “Chestnut Tree Dance,” invented and marketed in 1938 by a dance hall impressario, C. L. Heimann. As a press bulletin of the time stated, this dance was a conscious revisiting of past epochs (they wanted their country back then, too).

“The musical basis . . . is an old-time melody—this and the Dance itself is severely ENGLISH. So many of the new and short-lived dances that have been introduced in recent years have been American, and based upon Negro rhythms that have not been suited to English temperament.”

What could be more English than a chestnut tree, what could be more unlike a nazi Salute than raising both arms to symbolise it’s branches? And of course, if you did this in a dance hall, you’d be reasserting your national identity through the medium of dance.  Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see what it looked like:

You can imagine how well this might have gone down with people already in thrall to new rhythms, nightclubs, jazz, and a change from the Lambeth Walk:

The Chestnut Tree”’s flexibility as a symbol made it especially resonant as a potential icon of social coherence to counter the hybridity of jazz that threatened the dance halls. Mass-Observation assiduously collected responses from volunteers about “The Chestnut Tree”; it was the dance whose impact they most doggedly pursued (to discover, through interviews, that the majority of dance hall attendees found it fairly silly). (p. 716)

How I found the Chestnut Tree Dance

I’m delighted I found this article. I wouldn’t have done so, had it not been for this beautifully written review of the video game Bound by Farah Rishi. She quotes a journal entry about dance written by Virginia Woolf in 1903, which I found also referenced by Maria Popova at Brainpickings (Party like it’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance). That led me to Zimring’s article, and to the Chestnut Tree Dance.  A few months ago, I would have read this and thought “how quaint.” Now, with Trump, Sarkozy, and Farage all circling round what Billig calls banal nationalismit would hardly surprise me if something as bizarre and loopy as the Chestnut Tree Dance surfaced again.


  • Zimring, R. (2007). “The Dangerous Art Where One Slip Means Death”: Dance and the Literary Imagination in Interwar Britain. Modernism/modernity, 14(4), 707–727. [currently available here]

Zimring has also written a whole book on the topic:

  • Zimring, R. (2013). Social dance and the modernist imagination in interwar Britain. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.








Confessions of an anxious pianist #26: Same or different music on the other side?


Although the “anxious ballet pianist” series is officially over, I’m adding one more post now, because I realised today that after thirty years of playing for class, I still often ask myself the same question: shall I play the same or different music for the other side of an exercise?

Sitting on the fence about music on the other side

Same or different music for the other side: cat sitting on a fence

Sitting on the fence about the “same or different music on the other side?” issue.

What’s made me think about it is that I’ve just played for a teacher that I first worked with maybe 28 years ago, who made me bristle (back then, that is) by saying “Please play the same thing on the second side” after one of the first exercises at the barre. I bristled for a long time, because variety was my shtick, and was what I believed you were supposed to aim for in class: avoid boredom and sameness at all costs (see previous post on fear of repetition). I remember crying into my beer with another teacher, who cheered me up by saying “But it always feels different on the other side anyway — it’s not the same thing.

That was 28 years ago. A few months ago,  I played for that teacher again, and with the wisdom of experience, I remembered that he liked the same music on both sides, and so that’s what I did, without any bristling.  Experience had also taught me that he was a highly respected teacher with a securely individual approach and style, and that he had known exactly what he was doing when he asked for the same music on both sides. Looking at him and his class again, I realised that I had been lucky to have the correction, because it had given me something to think about for thirty years: only problems generate solutions.

Playing for him again more recently, I reminded myself not to alternate at the barre, but this introduces another anxiety: I know why I’m repeating the same music, but the class doesn’t. Do they care? Does it matter? Will they think I’m dull, or lazy? Part of me thinks that nobody probably gives a damn, they’ve got other things to worry about. And particularly in this case, the exercises are hard enough that the music needs to be there to help, not distract.

“Same or different music for the other side” is a constant dilemma (literally, a choice between two unpleasant alternatives). In another class recently, after I’d played the same music for three groups in adage in the centre, I decided maybe I could do better, so I changed the music. The teacher (one of the most experienced and musical I know) stopped me and said something like “You’ve lost them. Play what you played before, they can’t find what they need in the music.”

Now that’s an even more difficult dilemma: what I was playing wasn’t great, but it at least had the virtue of familiarity after a couple of groups. Possibly, what I was going to play would have been better had I played it the first time round, but now it was too late: better the devil you know. It’s the wise choice, but it runs counter to the pervasive idea that progress and change are unquestionably a Good Thing.

From both sides now

The trouble is that there is no right or wrong about this issue:  you just have to make a reasonable guess about what’s right in each situation, and risk getting it wrong. I probably got the idea that changing the music was a good thing because I learned my trade playing for syllabus classes where any diversion from the set music was a welcome relief. The teacher who said “It feels different on the other side” was right, and there are other occasions when changing the music has a positive effect. But there are other times when you have to let the music listen to the exercise, so to speak: when it’s new, difficult, or to achieve a very particular thing. As I’ve discovered, that might not only be with children: it can be at company class level as well, but you have to know when and where what is appropriate.

I got it wrong last week, I realised half way through pliés that the tiny rhythmic hint that the teacher had given in the marking was not just incidental or accidental, it was in fact exactly what she’d wanted. I changed the music to something more suitable halfway through the exercise, and she smiled and nodded at me.  I felt great for a moment, and then thought “Why didn’t I just do that the first time around?”  Was I clever to have sorted it mid-exercise, or stupid for not getting it right at the beginning? I don’t know.  That’s another anxiety to add to the list.

Playing for ballet class: links, books, suggestions


I’ve had a few messages recently asking for my advice on where to look for help on playing for ballet class, so it seemed like a good time to do a page on the subject. Please add your own suggestions in the comments. This isn’t a comprehensive review of what’s out there, it’s what I know, and a lot of it is stuff that I compiled myself. If you search for “ballet class sheet music” on the web, you’ll find links to loads of sites where people sell collections of improvisations/compositions for class. The lists below are to collections of music from the concert or ballet repertoire that are suitable for class.

Playing for ballet class is a bit like catering for a multi-faith wedding with food allergies: the suggestions below are the knives, chopping boards, saucepans and staples. Improvising and bringing in tunes that have local relevance or currency are ingredients.

Image of the score of a csárdás: a useful piece if you're playing for ballet class

A life-saving csárdas by Röszavölgyi – one of my “52 ballet playing cards” pieces that you are unlikely to come across in the standard piano repertoire.

Playing for ballet class: resources on this site:

A year of ballet playing cardsThis is a growing list (which will eventually grow to 52 pieces) of free, downloadable music for class, with sometimes lengthy explanations and illustrations.  Although the list is only about half-complete so far, there’s almost enough in there for a class already.

Tips for ballet pianists:  Not all the links here have music suggestions, but many do, these in particular:

Playing for ballet class: Anthologies of music 

  • Russian Ballet Technique, As Taught, by Alexis Kosloff. [free, online]  It was published in 1921, but nearly 100 years later, there’s plenty in there that hasn’t changed. The link is to my blog entry on the book, which links to the online file.
  • Anthologies of music for ballet classes from [online, free] Published collections of music for ballet classes scanned as pdfs.  The site’s in Russian, but use Google translate to see what’s there if you’re not a Russian-speaker.
  • A Dance Class Anthology (Royal Academy of Dance, 2005). I edited this book of 50+ pieces for class that was designed to get you out of most ballet class problems. It’s now out of print, but you may pick one up on Amazon or from a reseller who still has stock.
  • Syllabus books of the Royal Academy of Dance. I helped to compile and edit these books since 2007. The Vocational Graded syllabi in particular (Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced Foundation, Advanced 1 and Advanced 2) have dozens of examples of suitable repertoire for class – even if you don’t play what’s in the book, the models will be useful. In the end of these books there is a compilation of music for “free” allegro enchaînements. Putting these together almost completely exhausted my list of suitable classical repertoire.
  • Dance and MusicHarriet Cavalli. The first part of the book is a guide for musicians and teachers, the second part is a collection of music for class. The physical format of the book isn’t ideal for a piano, but the material is useful.
  • The Ballet Accompanist’s Handbook by Laurence Galian (1989). Not an anthology, but a brief and unpretentious guide to playing for classes that has excellent practical suggestions for where to look for repertoire. I’m incapable of being concise, but if I could be, this is the book I would have written. All good advice in shorty paragraphs.

Suggestions for further reading/listening about playing for ballet class

Musicology, ballet teaching and time signature


A proud day for me, my first proper article published in Empirical Musicology Review. “How Down is a Downbeat? Feeling Meter and Gravity in Music and Dance?” came out of a single teaching session, when about 12 years of trying to teach about meter and time signature finally imploded in a discussion with students. For people who wonder why I’m doing a PhD, and what I’m writing about, this will give you an idea – not of the subject, but of the problem.

What I’m really chuffed about is that both Arnie Cox and Robert Hatten agreed to write commentaries on the article (see Arnie Cox’s here, and Robert Hatten’s here).

It would be nice to think that perhaps this might open up a conversation about the musical components of dance teaching courses, but I somehow doubt it will – and for as long as that’s the case, I guess dance teachers will keep saying “By the way, I don’t do time signatures,” and be perfectly justified in doing so, in my view.

I’m still hopelessly behind with the 52 cards, which is annoying me, but I’ve not given up yet.

Ballet classes and dance calling


I’ve had two conversations with people who play for ceilidhs which have made me think that there’s much more in common between dance calling and teaching a ballet class than we’d like to think.  And now I’ve found a website which has convinced me even further.

The first conversation was with a fiddle player some years ago who explained in two sentences the relationship between marches and single jigs (you can replace one with the other) and how double jigs can be replaced with another dance (can’t remember which one now). The second was with someone recently who was explaining that they were going to do their first gig as a caller rather than just a player. When he gave an example of what he was going to do, I thought “hold on, this sounds just like someone teaching ballet, except with different steps.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me, had I not just transcribed a bit of a ballet class, and seen on paper what teachers say when they mark exercises.

The point I’m getting towards is that I think we often make far too much of a palaver out of what music for ballet class involves, because we (by which I mean “the ballet world”) would like to think it’s more classy and distinguished than it really is: elegant smoke and mirrors (literally, in the case of the ballet studio). We worry about whether this piece of music or that will have the right feel and atmosphere for that exercise, but if you look at fiddle books like Kerr’s Merry Melodies, you can see immediately that for a polka, for example, you can use all kinds of music, as long as you can still polka to it – and as the fiddler pointed out, single jigs and marches are interchangeable. Whether the music’s called a galop, hornpipe, reel or whatever is neither here nor there, it’s how it goes that matters; and if nothing else, people don’t always give their tunes correct names (classical ones are the worst at that – like Widor’s so-called Pavane in 6/8).


“It’s a Pavane, Jim, but not as we know it.”

And then I came across this, a “Caller’s Workshop” on the website of Colin Hume, a caller himself.  There, on a page, is about the best introduction I’ve seen to dealing with music in a ballet class – all you have to do is imagine he’s talking about ballet rather folk dance calling. It’s concise, it’s clear, it’s down to earth.  He deals with  Working With Live Music  music in a few paragraphs, without making  a (excuse the pun) song and dance about it:

So that’s one thing to discuss with the band beforehand: who counts?  The other is signals.  “One more time”, so they can go back to the original tune or just give it everything they’ve got.  “Out” — particularly in a patter square where you’re jabbering away.  “Kill”.  “Slower”.  “Faster”.  You think it’s obvious what you mean; they don’t have a clue.  Walt Tingle uses a circular movement of the hand to mean “Wind it up — finish”, but many callers use that to mean “Faster”.  Make sure you know who to give signals to — it might not be the obvious person.  I tend to give signals to the whole band, for safety.

I reckon if ballet teaching manuals were written in this style, no-one would get in such a flap over it. It’s only music, it’s only dancing, but we’d all like to think that it’s something more, something that transcends the everyday. For sure, ballet at it’s best is extraordinary and out of this world, but when it comes to class, “You think it’s obvious what you mean; they don’t have a clue” is what it boils down to (on both sides, in fact).




Trissie’s dollies: tunes, travel, gardens and a Blue Shawl


“Trissie’s Dollies” – from Bournemouth to London via three gardens in 40 years.

Last year I either discovered, or re-remembered, that my friend, contemporary and colleague Julia Richter had been taught by Rosemary Barnes, who was a friend and colleague of my piano teacher, Trissie Cox. Julia said that she had in her garden what Rosemary had called “Trissie’s Dollies” (her nickname for “persicaria bistorta” or “common bistort“). That is to say, many years ago, Trissie had given Rosemary some of the plants for her garden, and Rosemary had given Julia some of those. Then In turn, last year, Julia gave me some of hers for my garden. And so here they are: plants from my piano teacher’s garden, uprooted and replanted three times, and flourishing a hundred miles away some 40 years later. It would be nice to think that I’ll have a reason to give a few to someone else one day.

It struck me that this is what happens to tunes when they pass from one person to the next. The person you got them from doesn’t lose them, they just give you a bit of the plant stock, and then you have some to play with too. You transport those tuneful plants all over the place, and they grow, as if they’d always been yours, and that’s probably how others think of them. It’s only when you come to blog about how you arrived at your repertoire (like I sometimes do) that the journeys become clear – and then only to people who read it.

What caused me to think all of this was a lovely incident in the seminar I was teaching at in Ljubljana for ballet teachers and pianists.  We were looking for music for an exercise, and one lady played a beautiful, plaintive waltz. A Russian teacher at the back of the studio gave a deferential nod and said “Thank you for that” – because, as it turned out, this was a famous WW2 song, and it happened to be VE day, so it was appropriate in more ways than one. It was one of those moments where you see a dozen meaningful transactions at once in a split second – which funnily enough was what I was going to talk about in another lecture, with reference to Daniel Stern’s forms of vitality. I asked what the name of the song was, thinking that if it wasn’t in copyright, I’d put it straight in the 52 cards repertoire. It was Синий Платочек (Sinii Platochek/Blue Shawl). It is in copyright, unfortunately, so I can’t transcribe and put the score here, but here it is: choose your moment and play it for your Russian colleagues, or just for the sake of a beautiful song for class. As you’re doing that, you’ll be taking part in the kind of replanting and gardening activity that is the subject of this post.

See also

Happy 2015: A new year’s ramble about Black Swan and other ballet anomalies

Bet you haven't seen this before: a piano reduction of Drigo's orchestration of Black Swan female variation

Bet you haven’t seen this before: a piano reduction of Drigo’s orchestration of Black Swan. Click on the score to download your free version.

As it’s the first day of a new year, I’ve decided to do something about one of the greatest annoyances in my list of ballet-pianist anxieties: the Black Swan female variation from Swan Lake (see earlier post for the full version of why it’s annoying). After 28 years of only ever knowing the bits that are missing from the score by guesswork, hearsay, memory and oral tradition, I’ve done a piano reduction of Drigo’s orchestration, and here it is as a free download (pdf file). Eduard Langer – who did the piano reduction of the 1895 Swan Lake – put this and other interpolations at the end of his piano score, but left them as Tchaikovsky wrote them (i.e. as piano pieces), rather than as reductions of Drigo’s orchestrations, so they are missing vital detail.

It wasn’t as easy as you might think: although the Drigo orchestration is a published score, and Drigo is out of copyright, the orchestral score isn’t yet available at IMSLP. This is when you need a friendly orchestral librarian to help you, so I asked Lars Payne at English National Ballet, if I could scan the relevant pages from their orchestral score to make the reduction. While I’m at it, let’s just pause to give an internet round of applause to Lars.


Matthew Naughtin’s book on Ballet Music: essential

The anomalies of Swan Lake that I blogged about very briefly in that earlier post are multiplied over and over again in ballet music. It’s one of the curious things about ballet that the more well known and popular something is, the harder it is to find the score. Most of the things we know so well from galas are pimped up diverts interpolated in earlier, less interesting 19th century ballets, and if you can find a score of those at all, it doesn’t have any of the interesting bits in at all, or they’re in the wrong place. The pimped-up, hand-written version has to be faxed to you from a cupboard in Minsk, or you give up and get someone else to orchestrate it for you.

Or you ask Lars, because if anyone knows where it might be, it’ll be him – except don’t ask him, buy Matthew Naughtin’s Ballet Music: A Handbook published last year. Naughtin is music librarian at San Francisco Ballet (see interview with him in the Music References Services QuarterlyAll those questions that no-one else bothers to ask about ballet scores are answered in here, and the answer is often “Lars Payne” (see all 24 mentions in the Google books version for an idea of what I mean), because Lars has been gradually cleaning up all these problems and making decent scores for the ballet world for years.  To anyone who has enjoyed the orchestral music on RAD’s Grades 1-3 or Grades 4-5 (if you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to an 8 minute documentary about the making of the music for that project), you should know that had Lars not been in the middle of it all, answering questions, providing scores, knowing everything, it would never have happened. To you it’s just a CD, but actually, in librarianship terms, it was a bloody miracle.

And finally… I wrote that it was Julia Richter who taught me how to play all the bits that are missing from the Black Swan variation, when I played for my first Genée ballet competition back in 1987.  By coincidence, on Monday this week I passed by the RAD on my bike on my way to ENB to play Swan Lake. It was a clear, bright and freezing cold day which brought back memories of that occasion 28 years ago. By even greater coincidence, when I got to ENB, Julia (who was there too) said “Of course, it was about this time all those years ago we were doing the Genée competition,” and we got chatting about the Black Swan – and I discovered then that Don (Anthony) Twiner was the one who taught her how to play it.  So here, 28 years later, is the score, in case you don’t have anyone to tell you how it goes.

Creative Commons License
Black Swan (piano reduction) by Jonathan Still after Tchaikovsky/Drigo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.