Jan Mulreany shares her passion.
You might not think you would ever encounter a full set of cornemuses Auvergnates or cabrettes [bagpipes from the Auvergne region] in a Sussex pub, nor hear the wail of a French hurdy-gurdy as you come round the corner in Shoreham, but for the last thirty years someone has been doing this in Brighton, and dancing to it too.
As in Britain, a folk revival in the 1970s unearthed the traditional dance music of France and Brittany over there… and just like here, groups of folkdance enthusiasts hide in plain sight. In fact, when French people living in England and Wales come across one of the thirty or so French Dance clubs that run in the UK, they are amazed that something as ‘obscure’ as a bourrée, a saut bearnais or a gavotte des montagnes can be done by anyone other than their grandparents in a dark barn in the French countryside at New Year! They generally don’t know the dance steps, and are speechless when we turn out to be native English-speakers… Well, some of us are French.
In 1987 I encountered a group called Rosbif rehearsing in the Royal Oak at Barcombe. Six or seven musicians making a deal of noise in the bowling alley: this was a monthly meeting of friends from Sussex and London who played the dance music of central France and Brittany well enough to make a cassette tape for the Society for International Folk Dance (SIFD), and with a step book of instructions. The dancers were mainly partners of the musicians, and a few other folkies escaping from barn dances. Except that, I always say, French trad dances are like barn dances – only sexier! As a SIFD member I was entranced, and over the last few decades it has tempted me away from the Balkan tunes I loved so much.
Eventually Rosbif morphed into new bands, other Sussex musicians joined in and a host of French dance fanatics ran a monthly dance to live music, in Brighton as well as in London, Portsmouth, Exeter and points north, east and west. So you could go to any town, Bath, Norwich, Cardiff, Sheffield, Lancaster, Edinburgh… and dance for a night or a weekend or possibly a week…
One of the founders of Rosbif, Mel Stevens, had been captivated by tunes from central France, had collected them into books of notes and dots in the 80s, and people played them. They (and he) have become legendary in France. At the same time bands such as Blowzabella turned from English and eastern European to French, and played festivals like Towersey, Cambridge, Sidmouth. Players went to summer festivals in France, notably St Chartier in the Berry region, or Lorient in Brittany, and learned old and new tunes, trad dances, bought authentic instruments, came home and wanted to play here too. Sussex groups Citizen Camembert, Terre à Terre, Continental Drift, were born…
Dansez Français, as it is now, emerged in about 1990, going through a few name changes and venues, and we’ve been meeting in Patcham Memorial Hall since 2005 since when Liz Storey and myself have been the MCs.
The format of the evening is a shared supper and then a Bal. Often running workshops in the afternoons, we have hosted many bands from all over the UK, France, and Belgium. We have made very especial relationships with several groups from different areas of France, and we visit them at their festivals, invite them here and give them a good time, “fish and ships” included! Our French has improved, and their English too.
Peut Qu’Manquer from Picardy come every two or three years, and we spend weekends with them in Amiens.
Pirlouette from Lille, and Marinette Bonnart’s 21 Boutons, from Belgium, are two more reciprocal friendships. Some of us go over at Christmas, enjoying the joyous noise of the two-dozen bagpipers in La Société Fraternelle des Cornemuses… we even went to a dance on the infamous 31st January 2020 …
We meet new groups at le Grand Bal de l’Europe, a summer fortnight of day-and-night workshops and Bals in Gennetines, near Moulins, and invite them here. Accordion maker Emmanuel Pariselle comes to Lewes and Halsway Manor in Somerset to run workshops and then plays for our dances, often ‘dropping in’ on his way back to the Eurotunnel. Or we might meet a small local band in Hazebrouck and invite them over.
UK-based musicians create bands for their local dancers and we share them with other groups – Poisson Rouge from Exeter, Bof! of Colchester, Duo Mistral from London, Les Batons from the Kent dance club, Kantref from South Wales. Ça Ribote are from both sides of La Manche: Penny and Julian Burton left Ditchling for France after the 2016 referendum and are ‘movers’ in Morris dance and Breton Jazz over there – the band made their UK debut with us…
Some people are professionals, others are not, but all join in together, learning tunes from each other. Jeudi Matin here in Brighton is a small band of about eight who have been playing variously for between three and thirty-three years. With a flexible repertoire they warm up our dancers at Dansez Français, before the guest band comes on.
Our dancers are you, you, and you! Ordinary people who love to move to a different rhythm, a three-time bourrée, an 8-step waltz, a closely joined up Andro from the plains of Brittany. In fact, people who say they have two left feet are ideal for Breton dances, as that’s all you need.
Sadly we have no idea at the moment how any of the reciprocal arrangements will work, when we want to bring French and Belgian musicians over post-Brexit. Though Covid closed us down in March 2020, lockdown has given us a breathing space to absorb the disappointment and think what to do next. Our sister French dance clubs all over the UK are just now starting to get start up again and are working with local musicians. In lockdown, some of us tapped into the great monthly Zoom Festou Noz (Breton traditional dance festival) and other live performances put on in French and Belgian studios. We streamed them through our Facebook group and could dance around our kitchens.
Last month Dansez Français asked its membership when they would prefer to restart and we are getting going again, in real life, with French musician and teacher Anne Wolpe leading some socially-distanced dance workshops in November and December. Dances that would usually be done with no physical contact, such as some bourrées, Basque regional dances and the Saut Bearnais, as well as that old French trad disco favourite le Madison! And then we are starting the Bals again with a 1st January Nouvel An dance at Patcham, Tonik! are playing, led by Mel Stevens. Booking in advance is required, for both workshops and the Bal, so we can limit numbers to the size of the hall… a far cry from the glorious hot mingling we are used to, but necessary.
See you there, maybe?
Many thanks to Jan for writing this blog. For the latest information about Dansez Français, click here
The Dansez Français Facebook site can be found here