Sunday, 22 March 2015

Saltomancy: Dispatches from the Folk Dance Underground

In the winter of 1987, Stephen Leer, then a 21 year old student of journalism living in Southampton, penned a series of articles for Occulted Vectors, collectively entitled A Voyage in Dance – The Esoteric Roots of Morris Dancing. Composed of three parts, published between January and March of that year, it would become what has been regarded as one of the few true examples of investigative journalism ever to feature in the publication's murky, cheaply printed pages. What follows is the last of the three entries. Part One, entitled A Daemonologick Legacy consisted almost wholly of secondary research, setting out the history of the Morris dance tradition, and its connections to certain esoteric spheres of knowledge. It began thus:

For many, to mention the dance that is known as Morris is to evoke images of bank holidays, village greens, bells, handkerchiefs, beards, and tankards of ale, all imbued with a pervasive whimsicality of the masochistic sort to which the British seem uncommonly prone [Leer was, it is understood, Dutch]. Yet to witness the dance first-hand, in a remote field beneath a grey dome of sky, amongst bedraggled watchers drawn hence by some ritualistic impulse, is to witness a wholly different spectacle. There is a feeling of implacable weight in every much-trod step, the sullen repetition, the fixed gazes, all imbued with an inescapable air of antiquity that belies the gay costumes and jaunty music. Even the shrill whooping of the caller is like the tolling of some ancient clock, whose mechanical precision has withstood the ravages of time, and seen countless revolutions. It reminds us that this dance is twofold in its purpose, it is both a celebration and a duty.

Leer would continue in similarly weighty tones for the remainder of the article, in which he traces the numerous theories behind its original development, its key exponents and most notable adherents, and the various localised traditions throughout different parts of the country. His key thesis throughout is that, in spite of the numerous variants that are practised throughout Europe today, it is only in England that what he understands to be the true spirit of Morris dancing survives. It is as a branch of daemonology to which he ascribes the origin of this True spirit of Morris dancing, and it is in the continuation of this function that he attributes its survival. Thus his investigation had truly begun.

The theme of daemonology is a prevalent one within the history of Morris Dancing. In essence, it is not unlike an exorcism. But rather than the ministrations of an individual appointed by God for the task, this is an expression of public will – a collective act of defiance to the dark entities inhabiting the world and plaguing the affairs of humanity. The goal was one of banishment through intimidation, around which many of the central features of the dance are based. In particular, Leer emphasises how the use of sticks serves a manifold function: they are, principally a weapon, and feature in the dance to demonstrate dancers' skill and strength in their use. Yet they also serve as a decidedly unsubtle display of masculine virility, in furtherance to the dancers' display of strength and boldness. Finally, through the stamping of boots and the intermittent whooping of the dancers, the clacking of the sticks, and the raucous jangling of bells, the dancers present an auditory assault, frightening malignant spirits with threats of aggression to come.

Despite a grounding in solid factual research, Leer's speculations were rather more fanciful than his initial scholarship would really allow, and this would show when he came to pen the second entry in his series. Unlike the first, this was principally a collection of interviews from Morris dancers of various persuasions across the country. Despite his best efforts to frame their statements in his own extensive research, much of the article seems to consist of half-hearted responses by interviewees to a series of increasingly pointed questions. Yet it is towards the end of the second entry, during a chance meeting at a pub following a performance of Glenvyres Folly in Wiltshire, that it appears his efforts may have paid off. He writes:

The Morris-man, whom we shall call Henry, ushered me into a secluded corner of the pub. There, as his words were lost to all but us beneath the fug of melodions and chatter, he told me of a dancer in London who may be able to provide insights that far surpassed what I had hitherto encountered.

That individual, it transpired, was a woman named (as his account would have it) Olivia Francis, and hers was to be the first of three interviews which made up his final entry.


February 19th – A Meeting with Olivia Francis, London

I joined Olivia Frances in her flat in Lewisham around nine that evening. A small apartment, it contained a slightly greater number of filing cabinets than the layout could comfortably accommodate. She had just returned from a talk at the local library, and seemed all the more loquacious for it. She had moved to London from Kent in the early 60s to begin her studies in mathematics at UCL, after which she had divided her time between her work at the university library, and her role as secretary to a number of obscure local historical societies. Her interest in dance had begun in the late seventies, and within three years, she had been instrumental in the formation of her current team, the Engelhaus Garden Side.

Lewisham Station, as it appears today
Early in the interview I was at once impressed with her capacity for multitasking. As we spoke, she performed a series of what she called minor calculations in a small note pad, whilst reviewing a cassette of the Engelhaus Garden Side band performing a newly learned piece. Indeed, she seemed distracted when forced to leave off even one of these activities – her speech becoming noticeably stilted when re-stocking her small wood burning stove, or turning over the cassette. In time, I would come to understand this behaviour as a necessary habit resulting from her role as squire to her team.

It was as I was taking down a number of key dates she had outlined in the history of her group that it first became clear to me the extent of her commitment to mathematical acuity. A few minutes into the second side of the cassette, it seems a wrong note was hit. The error was scarcely perceptible, but its effect on the metre was nonetheless sufficiently distracting for her to rise from her seat, and stop the tape. Pausing for a moment, she let out a deep breath, then turned to me. Clearly my face betrayed my confusion, for she recovered at once, and began to set out the reasons such mistakes were intolerable. The interview had begun in earnest.

Over the next hour, she would impress upon me the significance of mathematical precision in her work. She explained:

People have an idea that folk traditions are inherently mutable – that they exist as some amorphous entity bearing certain traits, but passed down, corrupted, adapted, retaining only a spirit of their original design or purpose. This may be true of some traditions, but dance is certainly not an example. The music, the steps, the numbers of dancers, all this must be retained in its exact form - otherwise, like a mathematical or chemical formula, it simply won't work. There is a power in its precision, its sole power, without which it will simply cease to exist. Take
De Gruyer's Visitation, for instance.

De Gruyer's Visitation is a dance based on a treatise by the 16th Century mathematician Johannes De Gruyer. It is the second in a three part cycle, beginning with De Gruyer's Passing and De Gruyer's Transcendence. While the treatise itself is long lost (the manuscript being destroyed in a fire that claimed the De Gruyer library and much of his estate), the imagery and sequencing of the dance make its principles clear. It is a re-enactment of the lifelong struggle between De Gruyer and an entity known as Gueil, a denizen of Hell who seeks to destroy the divine light of truth possessed by De Gruyer through his mathematical abilities. Adapted into dance shortly after his death, the work was to be preserved in this form by its rigorous adherents over the centuries.

Through a number of rhythmic variations, a time signature of 8/12 (employing an unusual duple compound meter) is sustained throughout. The numbers 8 and 12 are significant to De Gruyer and Gueil respectively, and their use is intended to display his surpassing of the daemon. The dance is conducted by eight dancers, and consists of twelve phases, each of which sees the daemon diminished in some way. Each section is comprised of fifteen rounds, the reasoning being that, according to Francis's sources 'Fifteen is nine and six, and 96 is the first number divisible between both 8 and 12 – this is the halfway point which sees the adversaries equally matched, and Gueil fairly bested'. However perverse such numerological calculations must seem to anyone qualified in mathematics, Frances seemed unphased. I began to suspect that it was the presence of these numbers themselves, rather their internal coherency, that sustained the potency of the dance. Whatever the case, this specificity extends to almost every aspect of the dancers' accoutrements and positioning.

Notes from De Gruyer's Visitation, Phase Σ9
The dance itself is structured in an almost palindromic fashion, beginning with the dancers grouped in a square representing a fortress in which the dancers are besieged, and from which they 'sally forth' to conduct their conflict. The conclusion sees this square repeated, only now the dancers are facing inwards, showing them sealing Gueil in a prison of numbers from which he intermittently escapes on days when its potency is at its lowest, calling for the dance to be repeated. Though sections may be performed on select dates throughout the year (corresponding to events in De Gruyer's life and career), the cycle is only performed in its entirety on specific anniversaries of its namesake's death (the next being due in 2003).

She had recently acquired a computer, on which she displayed to me a model of the dance which she had reproduced electronically, accompanied by a midi-file rendition of its slightly unnerving musical accompaniment. Even played out by tiny, stylised versions of the dancers, the effect was oddly profound, and I found the tune and the patterns hard to shake from my thoughts as I took the tube back to my hostel later that evening. Though we did not have a spare floppy disc on which to make a copy of her model, she nonetheless permitted me to take a facsimile of some of the heavily notated pages from a book which she had reproduced for the benefit of her side.

Before I took my leave, she would once more make clear to me the importance of numbers in the practise of Saltomancy (employing the term only once that evening). To communicate in numbers, as she put it, was to speak in the language of the enemy. Her adversaries were of supernatural origin, and wholly alien to the material realm - their forms existed in the immaterial spheres of pure mathematics. In this common language of numbers, however, the message was clear: we know you can understand us, we know you're there, we know your game, and we are not afraid. Beyond that, the message of the dance was in that other universal language: violence.

February 28th-29th: Ruth Harding, and the Broadmark, Norwich.

In much the same way as I had been referred to Olivia Francis by H.C. The previous week, my meeting with Ruth and her associates in Norwich followed a letter of recommendation from my previous host. This, it seems, is not uncommon in the Morris world. Indeed, it would seem to constitute the sole means of ingress into the otherwise reluctant circles of the folk-dance underground. I came to her house at around seven that evening. The building was large, being of at least three floors, and of indeterminate age, occupying a shadowy corner of Norwich's labyrinthine medieval centre. She lived here, she told me, with a number of affiliates within the folk-magic world, but was the only representative of her team presently residing there. I saw no sign of these fellow occupants. Nonetheless I would occasionally hear the curious tones of squeeze box instruments from the other floors, and detect the distinctive scent of incense borne upon the draughts that plagued the upper tiers of the house.

I entered, and was shown through to a kitchen on the first floor. A range of things were lain out on the table. These included a jerkin of coarse ribbons, densely appended to the fabric of the jerkin to give the impression of tick hair, several knives, an evidently well seasoned stick, a collection of bells to be affixed to the legs and arms, certain stones and pieces of metalwork of indeterminate function, and and a top hat. The hat was embellished with numerous badges bearing alchemical symbols and other such esoteric devices – one of these, I learned, was the sigil of her Morris side, known as the Broadmark. It also bore a shock of pheasant feathers that stuck out from the brim, adding nearly a foot to her modest height. There was also a knife and an axe, and a small phial of a strange reddish powder whose constituents I did not question too deeply.

Her description of the form and function of each item was dotted with sudden pauses, which became noticeable after some time. Each time she would stop, as if listening for something, before resuming after a few moments. Perhaps she was simply taking time to pick her words, I could not tell, but it was evident that her mood was distinctly unsettled. Where Olivia Francis had been possessed of a stolid academic calm, Ruth seemed imbued with a pervasive anxiety, that lent a furtiveness to her words and mannerisms. In time I would discover that, like Olivia's fastidiousness, this too was a trait acquired from a life as a Saltomancer.

The last item on the table was a simple rectangle of roughly woven cloth, doubled over several times. This, she informed me, was to be used as a blindfold for when they held performances of a dance known as the Nine Daies Horror [pictured above]. This is a dance whose origins date back to the Elizabethan era. Its originator was one William Kempe. A hero in such parts, his most notable performance was a dance called the Nine Dayis Wonder. Taking place in 1602, and documented in a pamphlet of the same name by Kempe himself, it was a marathon dance over nine days between London and Norwich, met (by his own account) by cheering crowds wherever he passed.

The lesser known Nine Daies Horror, taking place in the winter of 1603, functioned along similar lines, but to far less acclaim. His proposed destination was at once less and more ambitious. He would, it is claimed, attempt to go nowhere. By this, he meant, that he would dance for nine days (though most witness accounts take place at night) blindfolded, with no knowledge of where he was, or where he was going. Remarkably, at dawn on the ninth day, he arrived back in Norwich; filthy, and delirious with hunger and thirst, but otherwise unscathed. When notified of his arrival, his friends came to meet with him on Mousehold Heath, where he was taking breakfast, and immediately pressed him with questions. Enquiring where he had been those past few days, he replied simply Nowhere.

Many interpretations have been ventured as to what he meant by this remark, but for Ruth and her troupe, going Nowhere alluded to some kind of metaphysical transcendence into the realm beyond matter. This transcendence was, it is understood, a wholly psycho-spiritual affair, in which his mind was free to roam unbound by the laws the material plain. Meanwhile, his body was left to dance, St Vitas-like, around the backwaters of rural Norfolk (accounts speak of sightings as far as King's Lynn, and the forests around Thetford). Thus, he went to a realm where time and physical space have no meaning – Nowhere. Thus, to don the blindfold and dally with disaster in the manner of Kempe's latter day adherents is to traverse the daemon world beyond the physical boundaries of our own spiritual plain. In doing so, one shows oneself the equal of the daemons they seek to fight, fearlessly venturing into their own territory. The experience, so Ruth enthusiastically illustrated, is like donning the Ring of Sauron and challenging the Ring Wraiths in their own world – as rendered quite marvellously by Ralph Bakshi in his adaptation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. This is how The Broadmark conduct their business.

Ringwraiths in Rotoscope - Ralph Bakshi 1979

The following night, I went to witness a performance by Ruth and her companions. Beneath the redbrick facade of the Norwich Technical Institute, I stood in the rain and watched as they undertook a number of dances, whose names I later learned were Rotifer's Revenge, Heretick's Oak, I Throw a Ship Over the Dawn, Ravensdale, Myrg's Martyrdom and Thirteenth Tower Jig. While an understandably accomplished group, they did not seem to possess the same rigorous sense of mathematical specificity with which Olivia had been so preoccupied. Their attitude was one far more concerned with the psycho-spiritual implications embodied in the dance.

Their performances concluded, we crossed over the river and made our way to 'The Sid'. The Sid (short for Sider Aurum), is a secluded pub in one of the darker corners of north Norwich. I soon learned that its function was as a hub of the folk magic underworld, though cautiously welcoming to outsiders. The 'Mark, out in ruddy-faced force and drinking steadily, were evidently a regular feature of the place, and their arrival was cheered by the gathered clientele. Conversation was florid and familiar, and mingling was easy. The musicians took up a corner in a room adjacent to the bar, and exercised a few rounds of an experimental piece. Several present, I learned, were O.V. Readers, though I did not query after my work or its reception.

Eventually, I was directed to a tall gentleman, with a long mane of poker-straight red hair, whom Ruth introduced as Michael. I quickly identified him as a central figure within the group, though as conversation went on, I became ever less sure exactly what function he performed. By the end, the best description I could give would be Lore Master: a central authority on the theory and practise of the variety of Saltomancy favoured by the 'Mark.

Like many such individuals I came to meet in my researches, they were seldom evasive in matters not wholly secret, but the right questions would have to be asked for anything of substance to be forthcoming. While his mien did not exhibit the same quiet caution that seemed to underpin my interview with Ruth, his stare nonetheless seemed to possess a tacit watchfulness that remained undiminished, even after several ales. Jokingly, I asked him whether ale contributed to the experience, and his response was enlightening to say the least. My notes are sketchy, but I have attempted to render it in full:

The sigil known as The Broadmark,
from which the side derive their name
The art of Saltomancy is an exercise in transcendence. This is the legacy of William Kempe, though its roots are older than even we have reckoning. One must attune oneself to certain psychic frequencies, and this is an art which can take years to master. Imagine tuning a radio, or taking focus with a microscope. It's like that, but the transistor is your Pineal gland, and the tuner is your humours. The idea is to render yourself sensitive to psychic frequencies so as to commune with the Rift Folk [their name for entities beyond the material plain] – and the drink and the dance are all directed towards this process of psychophysiological attunement. Excess, however, would spell doom for even the most robust of spirits.

The sudden insight had made me bold, and my next remarks were a challenge as much as a question. I told him that while my experience so far had been an informative one - and that, perhaps this was because I was blind to what was going on - what I had seen seemed more like a performance than an exercise of ritual intent. I asked how he would describe what they did. He replied thus:

Well, I've been asked this before, and I find the best response is this. A Peter Thrick, who was serving as squire back when I joined in '77, explained how, in the middle ages, jousting, and hunting for game, as well as being leisure pursuits, were to keep knights fit for when they might go on crusade, or go to fight the French. Just like in the 20
th century, football leagues doubled up as training, to keep the men fit for war.

War: the word had not come up before, but seemed to hover just beyond much of what a lot of those I spoke to described. I pressed him as to whether such a word would be appropriate in this context, and in roundabout terms, he agreed. I asked when I might get to see this war. His response was to lean forward:

Stick around, yeah?

Time was called a little after eleven (bending the principles of nature aside, it seems even practitioners of Magick must respect licensing laws). As we gathered outside, it was clear that the Broadmark had little intention of dispersing. Conversation remained jovial, but something about the tone had taken a marked turn. Michael was in earnest conversation with Thomas, the foreman, whilst Ruth stood sentinel some distance away. Something, evidently, was in the offing.

The Hills of Mousehold Heath loomed dark beyond the lights of the town, and it was to here that we seemed headed. We made our way through suburban streets, the lights becoming fewer as we progressed, until only the winding paths into the woods lay ahead of us. Their advance was astonishingly brisk in light of the night's activities, and I found myself struggling to keep pace. As we neared the edge of the woods, they fanned out into a diamond formation, sticks brandished before them. Words were exchanged whose meaning escaped me, but some of which I remembered from performance earlier that evening. Now they were cried like some ancient battle cant, and all sounded off in retort. I staggered over roots and boles, mud and weeds clinging to my trousers. Evidently they were used to this, and plunged on into the darkness undaunted. I was separated from the group within minutes, their cries fading, swallowed up by the trees.

Mousehold Heath, as seen in daylight
It was dawn when I finally found my way back to the city. I had been lost in the dark, but surmised I had only to follow the lights that shone through distant gaps in the trees and I would find myself on familiar ground, but this was not to be. Perhaps the drink had taken my co-ordination, but every time I lost sight of the light for a moment, it would disappear, and I would stumble on blind until they would reappear some way off in the other direction. All the while I was haunted by strange sounds – gurgling, twittering, and cries of birds or other night creatures, in tones that sounded almost human. It would go on like this until dawn, whereupon I found myself just metres from a busy road.

In all my wanderings, I would see no further sign of the party, though I would hear what I fancied to be the cries, whoops, and characteristic jangling of bells that ever marked their presence. I took some hours to recover myself at the hostel, before setting out back to Southampton around eleven. On my way, I paid a visit once more to Ruth Harding's house, but my knocking elicited no response, though the now familiar scent of incense followed me some way down the street. As I boarded the train, I contemplated how this last night had seemed to sum up much about my encounters with this strange and antiquated world. The world of Saltomancy is at once open, and yet guarded; ostentatious, and yet mired in obscurity, and I feel that I've learned only as much as may be permitted to any other than a true initiate of the folk-dance underworld.

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