25 years of Norwich Early Dance Group

Emma LeeNorwich Early Dance Group celebrates 25 years of bringing history to life through music and movement with a special performance in one of the city's most famous buildings this Saturday.Emma Lee

From Tudor court dances to gathering round the TV on a Saturday night to watch celebrities being put through their paces on Strictly Come Dancing, for centuries moving to music has been at the heart of our culture.

Studying the way dance has been used through the ages - as a courtship ritual, entertainment and a form of expression - is a great way of bringing history to life.

And that's exactly what the Norwich Early Dance Group has been doing for the last quarter of a century.

This Saturday night, exactly 25 years since members made their first public appearance, the group will be celebrating reaching the milestone with a special performance - Norwich, Dancing City - at the Assembly House.

Liz Orde has been a member of Norwich Early Dance Group since the very beginning. She is also the group's oldest member - although a lady doesn't reveal her age.

Recalling the group's origins, she says: 'I've been there since the absolute beginning, I suppose. It was 1983 when the group got together - and it was a very small group. It happened because the year before I had met a chap at a conference who was a Morris dancer. He said he was coming to Norwich for an early dance event and he gave such a good report of it that I thought, 'right, if there's one next year I will go to it'. There I met a Scottish dance teacher called Sheila Eagling and she was really taken with it and she said 'I'm going to set up a little group to do this.' And I said 'count me in'.'

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The group started meeting on Saturday mornings. Liz remembers practices at Wensum Lodge 'in a very historic room with a floor that went up and down'.

The following year they made their debut when they were invited to join the Norwich Waits at an event in Bury St Edmunds.

Sheila Eagling took along four members (there are now 30), with the dance instructions written on a handkerchief. Liz remembers it as being the first of many occasions where it was necessary to get changed into her costume (the group research and make the costumes themselves) in an unusual place - in this instance, a cupboard.

'It set a precedent,' Liz laughs.

Indeed, other makeshift changing rooms over the years have included an unlit shed full of building materials, a newly creosoted stable without windows and the vestry of a dusty redundant church.

And as well as performing in some of the region's grandest stately homes, including Blickling, Mannington and Ickworth halls, they've also danced in fields with concealed rabbit holes and on an outdoor stage made of boards over long grass, reached by climbing a ladder with a four-foot drop at the edge.

However, this Saturday, Norwich Early Dance Group will be performing in a very fitting location indeed - the Noverre Suite at the Assembly House. Noverre is a name long associated with dance.

The first Noverre to come to Norwich was Augustin, younger brother of the great Parisian ballet-master Jean-Georges Noverre.

He took refuge there in 1755 after unfortunate events at the Drury Lane theatre, where he was appearing with his brother's ballet company.

Rioters against the 'French' dancers (who were actually Swiss) invaded the stage, and Augustin drew his sword in self-defence and ran one of them through.

The injured man recovered, the affair was quickly forgotten, and Augustin became a renowned dancing master in London.

But he later established his son Francis as a dancing master in the city.

Francis prospered, not only as the most successful dancing master in the city and founder of a dynasty of dancing and music teachers, but as a businessman, becoming one of the early directors of Norwich Union.

Norwich Early Dance Group's performances are linked to Norfolk stories and characters, including Lord Nelson, Thomas Paine and John Playford, the Norwich publisher who issued the first collection of English country dances, the English Dancing Master, in 1651.

Dancing City celebrates Norwich's rich history, from medieval King Street in the heyday of the Paston family, through Queen Elizabeth's visit to the city in 1578, to the opening of the elegantly rebuilt Assembly House in 1755.

The setting is a gathering in the Assembly House in 1843 which has been arranged by dancing master, Frank Noverre, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day in September 1793 when his father opened his Dancing Academy.

The role of Frank Noverre is played by a contemporary member of the same profession, Norwich dancing master Sasza Zargoski.

When Sheila Eagling retired in 1998, Amanda Williams took over as dance director. The group's current home is at St Thomas More School, with a real range of ages taking part.

The group's youngest member is Lydia Sheldrake, 18, who has just started a degree course at the University of East Anglia. She has been dancing with the group for three years.

'I saw them dancing at Dragon Hall with a friend and I was hooked,' she says. 'I got in contact with them and I've been going ever since. When I first came I wanted to stand on the side and just watch, I was so shy.'

Norwich, a Dancing City is being held in the Noverre Suite of the Assembly House, Theatre Street, Norwich, this Saturday, October 3, 7.30pm. Tickets cost �8 (�6 concessions), more on the door. Phone 01603 626402.

Read more about the Noverre family in Maggie Marsh's study, the Noverres of London and Norwich, on Norwich Early Dance Group's website at www.norwichearlydance.org.uk.