These are supporting notes for broom dance workshops run by The Outside Capering Crew. For inspiration, see our links to various broom dance videos.
Traditional broom dances are found in East Anglia, Dartmoor, Wales, Ireland, Canada, eastern Europe, the Pacific islands… the list goes on. Although we perform ours as Cotswold morris dancers, it must be admitted that they did not seem to be a widespread feature of the morris in the south Midlands. The morris dancer Sam Bennett, of Ilmington, was famed for his own broom dance. A 1926 film of him performing it, with sound (made in the year before the release of Hollywood’s first “talkie”), has only recently come to light and been preserved through the efforts of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Paul Bryan of Ilmington Morris Men still performs an impressive version of the dance, which we urge would-be performers to seek out.
The Crew does not perform or teach a “traditional” dance, collected from past performers, and we claim no expertise on the historical aspects of broom dancing. As already mentioned, there is an excellent folk dance society in London for that sort of thing.
We frequently adapt our dances to suit the moment, or even merge them into a single performance. Mistakes add further variations and always please the audience much more than the really difficult bits that go right. Some mistakes are so good that we keep them in. On one recent occasion, the musician stopped playing early, thinking we’d finished; when we resumed the dance, the following move was much more effective, so the false end is now a permanent feature. What we’re saying is, please don’t regard your dance as something that must not be changed. Let it evolve.
If you aspire to use very difficult tricks, we suggest you don’t do so straight away. Create a simple but effective dance that you can perform after only a little practice, and then add the trickier stuff gradually as you become proficient. You’re much more likely to stick with it. I avoided doing my broom dance for a few years because it was simply too difficult at first. Better to be dancing it, and extending the difficulty and showiness over time, almost without noticing the effort.
Your dance will only really start to develop character once you’ve begun to perform it in public, and discovered which bits get an audience reaction, and which bits need a bit of help in that respect.
We use the wooden T-shaped brooms found in garden sheds, with soft(ish) bristles for outdoor sweeping. Their physical properties make them much more versatile than the besoms favoured by gardeners for sweeping leaves, and by witches for flying. T-shaped brooms handle, spin, swing and percuss far better, and actually, they fly better too. They also hurt more.
Importantly, we try to avoid to avoid modern brooms with a plastic joint linking the head and the shaft: this is very weak, readily breaks, and presents a slight danger to the audience and the performers.
The absolute highlight of our Big Caper show at Chippenham with Berkshire Bedlam Morris came when one of our brooms split in half. Much hilarity ensued as we completed the dance with a broom that was only a foot long. Since then, we’ve always had spares handy.
Performers travelling outside the UK should consider taking brooms with them (assuming they’re planning to do any broom dancing – if not, then it’s probably safe to leave them behind). In the USA, we searched three states without success and had to try dancing with foam mops. We told people this was normally quite an impressive dance, but they didn’t seem to believe us.
Music makes a big difference, of course. The Keel Row is a popular tune, perhaps because it’s fairly steady. Have a listen to the broken rhythm of the tune in the East Anglian dance, in our video links. We use Speed the Plough for our two-man dance because it gives it a driving character; for the solo, I ask for a hornpipe (Enrico worked well) when The Crew’s own musicians aren’t around. When they are, I dance to a tune composed by one of them, Lawrence Wright. It’s an ebullient, lilting tune called Rottweiler.
Having a logical structure to your dance could help you learn it. In my solo, I started out by alternating various under-the-leg figures with “something else”. Over time I found that some figures led naturally into others because of the way I picked up, caught or held the broom at the end of any eight-bar phrase.
It can be tricky to sustain the interest of some moves for eight bars. NYFTE (the National Youth Folklore Troupe of England) gets round this by moving on after only four bars. This creates a very punchy, brisk dance, with less chance of going wrong; if it does go wrong, there’s less time to fill before having another go or switching to the next move. I stick with eight bars and try to introduce some variation after four, or use tricks that last two or even four bars before they’re repeated.
Remember, a broom dance is still a dance. You do actually have to find a way to work in some interesting or appealing stepping. Otherwise, it’s just a series of tricks. Forget this, and there’s a danger you’ll be upstaged by your own broom.
All British solo broom dances seem to feature at least one figure that involves passing the broom under the legs as they are raised in turn (“under the leg”). There are various ways of doing this, as our video links show.
Other features often found are a balance; stepping round or over a broom that lies on the ground; various flip-up moves; swings and spins; throws; and percussing – beating a rhythm with one or other end of the broom.
A WARNING: We used to use a move that was potentially dangerous. None of us ever practised this when alone. If such a move goes wrong, there must be someone there to help.
There’s also the “over the stick” jump. This involves holding the shaft of the broom horizontally in both hands, and jumping over the stick without letting go. It is easier to jump forwards than backwards, but both are possible. We have taught this by substituting the stick with rolled-up newspaper, which flexes and gives way if the jump goes wrong. It’s daunting at first, but it’s not really about skill or ability to jump very high: either you can bend enough to do it, or you can’t. Try squatting down with your heels on the floor; if you can also place the heels of your hands on the floor beside your feet, you should be able to jump the stick. Hold the broom with your hands shoulder-width apart, to give the maximum space to jump through.
There’s one other feature that cries out to be included. It’s a dance with a broom: you have to do some sweeping. Regard it as a legal requirement.
Balancing: is pretty easy, unless you find it difficult. A long slender object with a wide bit at the top has the ideal shape for balancing; short objects with no extra weight at one end, such as morris sticks, are generally harder to balance. Keep your eye on the head of the broom, and correct any leans by moving the shaft underneath it.
The obvious balance is with the tip of the shaft in the palm of the hand, or better still, on the end of a finger; it’s also fairly easy to balance a broom on your elbow, held out to the side. If you want to do some stepping while balancing, the key is weight-displacement – do the step with the absolute minimum of lift, just swapping the legs under your body. Even with stepping, this balance is still pretty easy and may well look it, so you might put in something to add interest – theatrically letting the broom go out of balance, perhaps; or letting it fall completely, without losing contact with the tip of the shaft, then using the momentum to swing it back to vertical. Explore the possibilities.
We caution against dancing wildly up to the crowd while balancing: it’s too easy to lose control and hurt someone.
Other possibilities are balancing on the forehead (it helps if you have a hairline there) or the chin, if it provides enough of a base. Not the nose. Stretch the neck well back for these – in fact, do some neck stretches before you dance. It’s not all that difficult to learn this, or even to do some stepping underneath this balance, but you will still have to tell the audience it’s worth applauding. You can also balance the broom on a foot – horizontally or vertically – but I’ve never been able to do this with enough consistency to use it. And it scores too low on the difficulty-to-effect scale: very tricky, but doesn’t look much.
On the ground: The fancy footwork around a broom that’s been laid on the ground is extremely impressive in the videos of Irish and French Canadian dances linked from this page, and arguably, they’re the main point of those dances. For dancers in the English idioms who don’t have this dazzling skill to call upon, it’s difficult to make floor-work look particularly clever, though dancers who are light on their toes can achieve a pleasing effect. The videos show some of the best techniques; you could also try something based on hopscotch, or if you have good balance, a hockleback step (one foot placed behind the second, then the second behind the first, with a kind of shuffling step-hop). For either to work, it’s important that the left foot is placed on the right side of the broom shaft, and the right on the left side, with the body weight kept broadly stable above. Twizzles (turning horizontally through the air) can be worked in to this too.
One difficulty with having the broom on the ground is that you have to find a neat way to pick it up again. Here’s an idea (not ours) that is brilliant in its simplicity: bend down, take hold of the broom, and stand up again. Otherwise, you need…
Flip-ups: These fall into two classes. There’s the gentle pressure on the head of the broom that causes the shaft to rise under control, which can be seen in at least one of our video links. You may choose to let the shaft come to your waiting hand (held low to your side), or you might prefer to pander to the baser instincts of your audience, and let it whack you in the buttocks instead. A variant on this flip-up is to place the length of the foot along the length of the broom head, and lean away from the broom shaft; this should also cause the shaft to rise.
The second class of flip-up involves flicking the broom into the air and catching it. In these flips, the broom doesn’t start on the floor; the shaft is somehow placed in a position in which it can be levered into the air from the foot or another part of the leg. I use three different techniques in my solo jig, two of them borrowed from jugglers who use the same methods to kick juggling clubs from the floor to their hands. I won’t describe them in detail: if you want to pinch them, find a good juggler. But be warned, a technique that is harmless with a lightweight juggling club imposes much more stress on the leg when performed with a broom, and as a result of over-practising this, I caused fairly substantial damage to my left (weak) knee that left me unable to climb stairs without support, and cost me a few hundred pounds in physio bills.
Under the leg: Watch the East Anglian dance in our videos for a good demonstration of the main techniques.
The easiest is the one with the head of the broom on the ground in front of the dancer, and the other end of the shaft passed from hand to hand under each raised leg. In fact, the shaft can be thrown from hand to hand for flashy effect. This move can be performed very briskly, raising the leg and passing the broom beneath in what seems like a single beat, or with a more measured pace, starting to raise the leg as early and casually as possible and taking as much of the two beats as possible. I go in for the latter, but I must admit the faster approach is more impressive and energetic. There’s a tendency among some dancers to lean the upper body forward when doing this move, especially at speed; in a powerful dancer this looks fine and occasionally even good, but it can be ungainly and it’s easily avoided by bending the supporting leg slightly and dropping the body so that it’s easier to kick high. The higher the kick, the bigger the kick you get from it. Which leads into…
…very high kicks over an upended broom, the tip of the shaft on the ground and the head in the air. Do some stretches before trying this. Build up to this gradually in practice, starting with the broom not quite vertical. If your leg doesn’t quite make it over, swing the broom head to one side.
The other popular move is to hold the broom horizontally, not in contact with the ground, and pass it from side to side, with the head leading the shaft under the raised leg. Once through, the head is lifted upwards and guided back under the other leg. If this is a lot of effort, it probably means you’re holding the shaft too far from the head; hold by the balance point, or slightly nearer the head, and it should turn with ease. Otherwise, get a lighter broom.
There are several variations that can be worked in, including swinging the broom around the body in various ways and stepping over it, or keeping the broom head on the floor in a fixed point (the centre of a circle) and dancing round it while turning the body and stepping over the shaft.
Stepping over the broom on every other beat (step, hop, step, hop, with the kick on each hop) is more impressive than stepping over it once every four beats (one, two, three, hop – a morris double-step). However, the latter allows a little more style and flair – I do it with a kind of closed side-step – and it can be very effective to go from four bars of double/side-step into four bars of step-hop. Very occasionally, the reverse applies, if the double-step is accompanied by some fancy twirl, say. On a double-step, it’s actually easier to start with the hop and pass the broom under the leg straight away.
Two or more people can have a lot of fun with these moves, stepping over one another’s brooms.
Throws: If you’re out of doors, this is a must, because it plays to one of the advantages of broom dances – they’re so much bigger than any other solo dance. Throws make the dance fill more vertical space. Bung in a throw or two at the start of a dance and it might even catch the eyes of people some distance away, and encourage them to come and watch. You could even put in some throws before you start the dance proper, to attract interest – as long as this isn’t more impressive than the dance that follows.
In a dance for two or more people, there’s obviously a lot of potential in throwing brooms from person to person. In a solo dance, you can try throwing the broom up so it stays in one horizontal or vertical plane, or so that it turns through the air. Try starting with the broom held horizontally in both hands; to achieve a turn through the air, it must be held roughly horizontal, out of balance so the weight of the head presses the other end of the shaft upwards into one hand. From here, let the head of the broom dip briefly and then boost the broom into the air with the hand nearest the middle of the shaft; the other hand helps to guide its path. A little practice is needed to make the broom travel consistently upwards, but you must do this practice if planning to perform close to your audience. A 360-degree turn is impressive enough. You might, at a pinch, make the broom turn through one and a half circles (540 degrees), but it will be harder to catch. You absolutely cannot get a double turn (720 degrees) without a deal of strength, months of practice, and a lot of sky, and probably not even then. I’ve tried, briefly: it ain’t safe, and when you manage to catch the broom, it hurts.
If you normally perform outside, then be aware that throws might be a problem if you find yourself dancing under cover. Sounds obvious? Not to me: I was close to completing a faultless performance in the Sidmouth jig contest when I started to feel confident and took it into my head to bung in an extra throw: the broom hit the roof of the marquee we were competing in and fell to the floor. Several other mistakes followed.
Percussing: We don’t do this. In fact, it never even occurred to us, so there’s not a lot we can say about it. It’s effective, though: watch the videos. In dances with more than one person (or more than one broom, anyway), the brooms can be clashed together percussively. Hard to make it really impressive, but it’s something to do for variety, as long as you’re not weakening the shaft.
Swings: This is just a matter of playing about, really… and actually, that’s the key to creating a really good, original broom dance. Who needs childhood?
If the swing you’re trying places any kind of strain on your wrists, say, then try something different, or at least try to do it a different way. You may think you’ve got the physical strength to do whatever it is you’re trying, but actually, serious strains to vulnerable parts of your body can develop out of repetitive minor stress (even from typing – which involves virtually no effort at all). Use the weight and momentum of the broom to achieve your effect.
Ask yourself, is this move going to be dangerous if I let go of the broom in mid swing? Also, is there a danger of the head of the broom hitting you on your own head, at speed? If so, you might choose to be a headbanger anyway, as a public service.
Sweeping: Yes, I know you can already do this. I mention it because a sweeping figure gives a good opportunity to inject some character and spirit into your dance; it’s the bit where you’re free to make something of your own dancing ability, while you’re not constrained by the need to pull off some trick with the broom. It’s also a very good opportunity to make contact with the audience, perhaps sweeping very close to people’s toes. You could even try talking to them as you sweep.