Nescot Performing Arts Company UpStage Right used their skills to keep an ancient tradition alive when they visited Greenacre School in Banstead on Thursday 13 October to perform the Abbot Bromley Horn Dance and run workshops to pass the dance on to future generations.
The origins of the mysterious and atmospheric dance, which has been performed by the men of Abbot Bromley in Staffordshire for nearly 800 years, are believed to date back to pre-Christian times. The giant antlers used by the performers were recently carbon dated to around 1000 years old but may well be replacements for older versions.
For pupils at Greenacre School, the chance to learn the dance and perform with specially made replica horns was both exciting and a just a little frightening.
‘I enjoyed doing the dance but it was a bit scary, when you think about how people believed it was magic,’ said six-year-old Sophie West.
‘This is a lovely opportunity for the children,’ said Trish Clarke, who teaches Year Two at Greenacre.
‘It enriches everything they do, from history to PE. They’ll be practising it in the playground and you can bet we’ll be hearing all sorts of weird and wonderful facts about deer!’ She added.
The Nescot students form part of a Lottery Heritage Fund-supported project to widen participation in British heritage, with their work being filmed as part of a documentary for the new Birmingham Library Online Archive.
The project is the brainchild of musician, writer and performer Jayn Winslade, who, having written a fantasy adventure inspired by the Horn Dance, is keen to see the magic of the historical ritual kept alive for future generations.
‘Using the Abbot Bromley dance as a stimulus provided an exciting opening for me to write Emily and Jen Dance for Deeron. I am thrilled to be able to share this process as it is such an exciting, creative and accessible way for people of all backgrounds to learn about heritage,’ said Jayn.
‘There’s something irresistible about this dance and we find members of the public love to take part. As the original antlers are so heavy, the movements are very simple and accessible yet they give people the most terrific amount of pleasure,’ she added.
The dance is performed by six ‘deer men’, carrying antlers weighing between 16 and 25 lb, a Hobby Horse, a Fool, Maid Marian and a Hunter. The dancers take a ten-mile route through the village accompanied by traditional musicians and carry out the ritual in various locations as they go.
The project focused on the Horn Dance and on ancient May Day rituals. It culminated with UPStage Right performing versions of the Horn Dance in Birmingham on Tuesday 18 October, where members of the public were invited to participate, with antlers created for the occasion by Sculptor Edwina Bridgeman. A traditional May Day celebration was also staged at the site of an original Maypole in Kingsheath Birmingham.
‘This has been an incredibly exciting opportunity for our students,’ said Nescot Tutor Gillian Hipp.
‘It is so important for them to see the evolution of dance and how these earlier forms of expression give rise to the modern movements and interpretations we have today.
‘At a time when there are concerns about our young people feeling out of touch with their heritage and communities, the documentary footage of Nescot students’ work will form part of the history of these important rituals,’ she said.