For a summer trip with grand style, try a historic-dance tour of Britain

SO you think you know England? You've done the usual sights, walked around endless museums, taken coach tours to famous castles and ancient monuments, and used a British Rail pass to get to know the natives.

The dollar is strong and the pound is weak . . . so what could you do that's different and would offer another perspective on English culture?

Why not step back in time this summer and learn some history firsthand by trying a historic-dance holiday?

Nostalgia for the past and the desire to learn about the graciousness and artistry of an age gone by have inspired the formation of traditional dance groups here in the British Isles. Four of them hold annual summer schools so that the devotee can daintily minuet or pavane from course to course, covering not only different epochs and styles but seeing very different landscapes in the counties of Suffolk, Derbyshire, Sussex, and around the city of Bath.

I took one of the courses last year, arranged by the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society. The same society will be holding its 18th annual summer school this summer at a magnificent 16th-century manor house just outside Bury St. Edmunds, in Suffolk.

This year's syllabus teaches the dances from the reigns of George I and II. My week's course last year covered ``Dances from the Court of Queen Elizabeth I.''

What usually sparks an interest in historical dancing? ``First,'' says Christine Rogers, who has been involved with the Dolmetsch Society for 15 years, ``people like the idea of dressing up in old costumes best of all.

``There's something really special about putting on all those layers of rich, elegant, often very heavy fabrics in this day of drip-dry synthetics. It makes you feel and look important. . . .

``From there follows an interest in the period.''

Like many others in this country, Christine came to historical dancing via English country dancing. With her husband, Ellis, she has researched dance history.

Together they teach day courses in Kent and give talks and demonstrations of dance that range from a 16th-century processional pavane to the Blackbottom of the 1920s.

Many of the 50 students with me at Hengrave Hall in Bury St. Edmunds had been attending the summer school for years. Others, like me, were there for the first time. Some had never danced before.

It was an international group: classical and modern dance teachers from France and Holland, several music teachers (``I want to feel and know the rhythms of the dance when I play,'' said a woman from Ireland), a math student from West Germany, an operatic singer from Denmark, a man from Lancashire who wore a loden-green outfit with long flowing sleeves which was made in his own garment factory, a most enthusiastic Japanese man who bravely tried everything and took copious brush-painted notes, and a courtly Dutch couple who perform regularly in beautiful handmade costumes.

American visitors could bring their own period costumes, or do what I did: borrow some from a local dramatic society, or hire one from a theater or costume shop.

Our six ``working'' days were jammed with activities (all voluntary!).

Each morning started with a limbering-up session to the accompaniment of harpsichord music. Then off to one of three classes to sort out the intricacies of the dances: the stamping patterns of the ``Branles,'' or the processional pavane originally performed to show off one's finery.

Or perhaps it was the hop-step of the courante, or an energetic galliard, or even the scandalous ``La Volta,'' which first shocked and then delighted the Elizabethan court. It allowed the man not only to hold his partner around the waist with both hands but to toss her (and her heavy dress) into the air, with the help of an elegantly placed knee.

Impromptu madrigal singing usually accompanied the midmorning break. After lunch there was a choice of free time, making music, rehearsing for an authentic outdoor Elizabethan masque. Or touring Bury St. Edmunds, with its ``Suffolk-pink'' houses, 7th-century monastery, Theatre Royal with pit boxes and gallery now belonging to the National Trust, Norman gate towers, and more.

Evenings were filled with more dancing or lectures on the period. The week concluded with a court ball, to which all came in splendid costume -- elaborately hand-sewn and bejeweled, either owned or borrowed.

Our wimples and starched cuffs quivered as our buckled shoes and soft slippers sorted out the rhythms of the nearly learned dances, to the sound of the crumhorn, the tabor, and the bass viol. My class solemnly concentrated on the patterns: Would it be two continenzes? Does the trabuchetto start right or left? Does the sequito spezzato come into the ``Caccia d'Amore'' or the galliard? All were relieved when the music struck up the processional pavane that led us from the dim, paneled dining hall into the cool courtyard. Elizabethan costumes are not only very heavy but very warm. Practical information:

This year's Dolmetsch course runs from July 26 to Aug. 2 and costs 167 inclusive (about $200). Information from Enrollment Secretary, DHDS Summer School, 2 Pooles Cottages, Fryers Lane, Hatfield Heath, Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire, England.

Nonsuch School at Matlock, Derbyshire, runs Aug. 3-17. First week, 12th-16th century; second week, 16th-18th century. Contact Ms. Sian Jones, 14 Baskerville Road, London SW18 3 RJJ.

West Dean College, Chichester, runs one week, Aug 16-23. Contact Madelaine Inglehearn.

Bath Baroque Summer School, Aug 11-18 (intermediate to advanced standard, previous dance experience essential), covering the social and theatrical dances of the 18th century. Contact Lucy Graham, 9 Pevensey Avenue, Arnof Grove, London N11.

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