The Steps In Time dancers are a familiar sight at summertime events in and around Shaftesbury. The group has been teaching under 16-year-olds traditional English dances for 30 years. Now their work has been recognised through a prestigious award.
ThisIsAlfred spoke with Penny-Jane Swift from the dance group.
Steps In Time make sure that the historic Dorset and West Country dances and rhymes, some of which were mentioned by Thomas Hardy, are preserved by teaching them to new generations of youngsters. “Whether that is Morris dancing, maypole dancing or what we used to call country dancing when we were at school, where partners dance in circles,” said leader Penny-Jane Swift.
She is proud that their commitment to preserving Dorset traditions has been recognised by Her Majesty. “They’ve awarded us the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services, which is basically equivalent to an MBE for a voluntary group. And it’s been given to the entire group rather than to an individual,” said Penny-Jane. “This is ‘the bee’s knees’. This is the best we’ve ever had. We were absolutely stunned that we’ve been awarded this. It is just amazing.”
Penny-Jane has no idea who recommended the group for the award. “Somebody nominates you and they have to have two people who second them. But you can’t obviously put yourself forward.” Penny-Jane was aware that Steps In Time was being considered for this accolade because the Queen’s official representative in Dorset requested a meeting. “The Lord Lieutenant interviews you, so we did know that we’d been put forward but there are thousands of people and groups recommended. To actually be chosen was amazing,” she said. This year, 281 groups across the UK were awarded The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.
Soon after her interview, Penny-Jane was informed that the group had been successful and that their representatives should attend Buckingham Palace. “We received an email to say that we were going to be awarded it and that we were invited to the garden party. There were lots of instructions. They told us what to wear. For men, it was either a morning suit or a lounge suit. And for ladies, day dresses and hats.” Penny-Jane clearly remembers opening the email. “It was just jaw-dropping, and then I wanted to tell somebody, but I couldn’t tell anybody!” she said.
Penny-Jane travelled with her husband Dominic to the Royal garden party on the 21st of May, but the pair still had to keep their attendance secret. “Dominic had to get time off. He wasn’t allowed to tell his boss why he wasn’t going to be in work for the day. We saw the Queen, Prince William and Kate. The Wessexes were there as well. We didn’t get chosen to talk to them, but it was just amazing being there.”
The group has not been told why they were selected for this honour, but the Royal recognition means a lot. “It gives us a stamp to say, ‘we are doing a good job’ and the 30 years of work that founder Dot and I and all the other volunteers, musicians, dancers, parents put in was worthwhile.”
Dot Swift passed away last year. Penny-Jane says Dot would have been proud of the award. “I don’t think she would have expected the group to be going for thirty years, let alone reaching this accolade. I think we’ve just been very lucky that there have been parents who would like their children to participate. We’ve had lows, where we’ve dipped to only ten dancers and we were thinking ‘Should we keep going?’ and then it picks up again and we are back up to twenty. At our height, we had nearly forty dancers,” said Penny-Jane.
The group is in demand in 2019. “We are so busy this year. Obviously, that raises our profile as well because people see us around and say, ‘that’s a really good thing to be doing,” said Penny-Jane. “We are definitely busier than last year. We have something on every weekend in June. In July we have one weekend off and we’re going off to Germany at the end of July to represent England in the Europeade.”
That’s the largest folk and cultural festival in Europe. Twenty-one countries participate. The youngsters will travel there next month and perform the Dorset Broom Dance and the Dorset Four Hand Reel.
Penny-Jane has further strengthened the group’s international contacts recently. “We’ve just become members of the International Dance Council, which is a UNESCO-run organisation for people all over the world who do dance. They give conferences on how to keep it going and they give out awards, so you can start testing as they do with a ballet exam. You could have a traditional English dance exam and get a certificate.”
Penny-Jane is not aware of any other folk dance or traditional dance groups that are involved in the UK. So with a packed diary, there is a lot for the group’s members to look forward to. And Penny-Jane can’t wait to receive their top honour. “The Lord Lieutenant, Angus Campbell, will be actually giving us the award later in the year,” she said.
Steps In Time are planning a 30th anniversary event later this year. They will publicise their plans when they are finalised.