I don’t usually open a CD expecting to be educated, but Footwork – the debut solo album from Granny’s Attic violinist Lewis Wood – provided an unexpected learning experience. Then again, this is not an ordinary album – Footwork is an exploration of English step dancing, and its distinct regional styles. That might make it sound a bit niche, and I suppose it will appeal mainly to step dancers, but I’m not one, and I still found it a fascinating piece of work.
One thing I learnt, is that step dancing is a truly dynamic tradition, that has evolved and been influenced by other forms, right up the present. In planning the album, Lewis realised that he couldn’t base his survey on any particular point in history, other than the present day. Footwork consists entirely of new tunes, written by Lewis, to represent contemporary step dancing, and to explore what the form might look and sound like in the future. As well as violin, Lewis plays guitars, bass and five string banjo. He’s joined by Matt Quinn on duet concertina, melodeon and tenor banjo. The percussion unsurprisingly consists of the tapping of clogged feet on boards. The dances are also new, written by leading exponents of the various forms, who perform them for the album.
Footwork starts close to home for me, with ‘The Third Wednesday’ a polka danced in the Southern style. This form was kept alive for many years, by traveller communities, notably the gipsy community here in the New Forest. In recent decades, a revival has been led by Simon and Jo Harmer, who you might know from their work with Jig Foot. Simon Harmer wrote and performed the dance for this tune.
Played on violin and guitar, ‘The Third Wednesday’ is a gentle tune, that reminds me of the May Day celebrations that took place each June at my primary school. In contrast, “Mel’s Hornpipe”, danced in the Lancashire style, has a sharper and more haunting feel. The banjo is prominent in this track. Lancashire style is, in fact, an amalgamation of various traditions from the North West, and incorporates elements of music hall tap dance. The dance was written and performed by Melanie Barber.
This brings us to “10 Things To Do In August”. This comprises three jigs, written before Lewis began working on Footwork and included because he’s – quite rightly – proud of them. The first is a fiddle tune with a rapper dance. This very recognisable form began in 19th century Tyneside, probably danced to hornpipes, until Irish migration led to jigs taking over. Perhaps surprisingly, the tune had a stately feel and reminded my a bit a dance scenes in Jane Austen adaptations. To give an authentic rapper feel, three dancers performed on this track – Toby Bennet, Simon Harmer and Lewis Wood himself. The other two jigs in this section accompany contemporary clog jig a style developed by Toby Bennett, who performs his own dance here. Clog jig is draws on dance styles from Britain and North America.
Next come two Devon hornpipes, ‘Trip to Middleton’ and ‘Three Men on a Pink Stool’. Devonian step dance was in serious decline, until Bob Cann started the Dartmoor Step Competition in 1984. Since then, it’s enjoyed a strong resurgence, with an increasing range of steps. This is a quick dance style, with a quick hornpipe tune that builds up to a very quick ending. Lisa Sture is the dancer on this track.
In contrast to the hornpipes, jigs and polkas, the next track consists of two waltzes – ‘Maybe’ and ‘Above the Ground’. North Eastern clog waltzes originated in the 19th Century, when step was the most popular form in the country, and would have been performed to all sorts of tunes, including the waltzes that spread across Europe. Lynette Eldon’s dance is made up of older waltz steps.
Southern step then returns, this time danced by Jo Harmer. The tune – ‘The Appreciated Violin’ – is the most complex so far. It starts with a lively fiddle tune starts, before a key change takes us into a slower guitar sequence. The fiddle then joins the guitar and the tempo picks up again as the dancer returns.
The East Anglian style draws on various English traditions, as well as 1920s tap dancing. Its survival in the 20th century, was largely due to the traveller community. ‘Pakefield Polka’ is a lively, cheerful tune, in C major and with the one row melodeon prominent. Lewis has drawn on early 20th Century popular music in his composition. Simon Harmer returns to dance this track.
One of Lewis’ aims with this album is to point to how step dance could develop in the future, and the next two tracks might provide the clearest path forward. On ‘The Suspension Of Disbelief’, the fiddle is accompanied by a lilting guitar, giving it a relaxed, almost lazy feel. Not that North East clog dancing is lazy, being one of the quicker styles. Lynette Eldon likes to draw out the tune in her dancing, hence the more complex tune written for her.
‘The Soup of the Night’ is probably my favourite track. The opening guitar sequence has a mystical dreamlike feel. This atmosphere continues as it moves through several changes of tempo. At times it doesn’t feel like a dance tune, at other times it definitely does. In fact, it’s a triple time hornpipe, performed by Simon Harmer and Toby Bennet. These were the dominant dance tunes in parts of Northern England, during much of the 17th and 18th centuries. A recent revival has been led by enthusiasts, notably John Offord.
Toby Bennett dances again to ‘Kick Down the Door’ and ‘Kairos’, two Lakeland hornpipes. Lakeland is a lively style, which has enjoyed a resurgence since the 1960s. The tunes are suitably upbeat.
Footwork ends with a short, lively and unnamed track. There’s nothing about it on the sleeve notes, but it provides a nice ending.
There’s plenty to reflect on from this album. In particular, it reminded me of the role the traveller community has played in keeping English musical traditions alive. The effort and success of committed individuals, working to revive these traditions is inspiring, and should give us all some optimism.
It’s also clear that Lewis Wood is not only a talented violinist but a very fine composer of dance music. For any step dancers, Footwork is probably a must have album. Beyond step dancing circles, its appeal will be more limited, but that’s not the point. This is an album with a very clear intent, to promote our step dance traditions, and it succeeds admirably,
Artist website: www.lewiswoodmusic.co.uk
‘The Appreciated Violin’ – live: