Monday, 13 May 2019

Time Capsule - Welsh Clog Dancing

Discovered not long ago in the archives of the British Film Institute, Clog Dance, a documentary which is a time capsule that seems to exist as if in a parallel universe.  The Welsh village of Porthmadog filmed as if  the world outside didn't exist : the streets are empty, the terrraces neat, as if untouched by time. At the turn of the last century, Welsh Slate from the mountains of Ffestiniog  was a major export industry and Porthmadoc an international trading port, where Welsh seamen travelled the world.  By the time the film was made in 1959 that was almost forgotten memory.  Gwenyth Thomas, who was a child then, resolves that her grandchildren should learn their heritage before it's too late.   Even the film-making is surreal : by modern standards Mrs Thomas looks aged, though she's probably only in her 60's and her grandchildren looked like they've stepped out of a time warp that could have existed at any time from the 1920's.  Suddenly, the camera sitches back to the past : Mrs Thomas becomes a little girl, looking out of a window on the harbour, watching a sailor dancing.  The dances are rhythmic, the click of the wooden clogs providing simple percussion. Because the  sailors travelled,  they adapted dance figures they'd seen abroad, even a "cossack dance" for girls as well as boys.  The film shows "the intricate Toby Step", dancing over brooms, and dances to harp accompaniment.

John Edwards, the clog maker, who once made clogs for miners to work in, but now makes clogs for boys to dance in.  The film documents his craftsmanship : he chooses the wood, carving it to fit the curve of the foot, binding the uppers to the wooden base with copper and nails.  Then he cycles (no gears)  through the village, tossing them in front of the new owners’ homes  Mrs Thomas then trains her "new material" as the narrator calls the kids she teaches.  Clog dancing has become the local craze. The Porthmadog dance team become the first to dance in public and win prizes at eisteddfodau. And they don't just dance. In the film they travel by horse cart, sitting on bales of hay. Then home to "tea and Welsh cakes and melting butter".  Most of the scenes are shot with the dancers in costume (bonnets, breeches, aprons) in a room which looks like a farm kitchen, with stone floor and dressers filled with pottery.  Even if this nostalgia is re-created for film,  it's still nostalgia closer to source than  much of the nostalgia industry today.  The teacher in the film was a real dancer — Mrs Parker  (no first name) and the harpist, who also arranged the music was Eleanor Dwyryd, so there is an element of authenticity in this film though it's clearly referencing times that have passed.  But its very innocence gives it charm, and thus sincerity.  Clog Dance is an "orphan" film whose rights holders cannot be traced ("President Pictures,  made with the help of Yr Part'r Gest").  but its legacy lives on. I wonder what happened to the kid in the film ? Some of them  (like George) have such personalities : they can't have been professional actors.   View Clog Dance HERE on the BFI website. 

Please also see my piece on  Nothing Venture : Surreal Nostalgia England 1948 a much stranger film than meets the eye at first, another time warp where everything feels like an eternal, idealized childhood summer where bad guys know their place.

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