Always the performer never the creator…?



Historical Dance specialist, teacher and choreographer Charlotte Ewart takes us through a history of women’s involvement in dance – and how they have consistently been overshadowed by their male counterparts…





This week I went to see Frankenstein, a newly commissioned ballet by Liam Scarlett the current wonderboy of the Royal Ballet. While not a perfectly formed piece it certainly had flashes of genius in it and I’m sure Scarlett is a man with a bright choreographic future. A Man. This new work was also brought to us with two leading male stars, the current male artistic director of the Royal, a male designer, a male composer and a male guest conductor. In such a female dominated profession and pastime – a pastime that despite Billy Elliot still is subject to gender stereotyping (how many boys go to ballet classes after all) – where are the women? Why, when there are so many more women in the industry at entry level, are there not more of us running companies and producing work at the highest level?

Was it always thus? Is dance yet another area in history where women have been marginalised and written out? I’m afraid to say that although there are noted female performers and women who have been used as muses, by and large it is the men – the choreographers – who are the celebrated ones.

Fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuti from around c.1400.jpg
Fresco by Andrea di Bonaiuto, c.1400

I study and reconstruct dances from the past. Sometimes the distant past. Dance from the time of knights and princesses, dance from the time of Jane Austen and her male-obsessed peers, and dance from the time of the powerful Renaissance queens.

How do I do this? When I reconstruct any movement from the C15th onwards I refer to the few existing manuscripts that describe dance. Prior to this time it’s all conjecture – guesswork at movement gleaned from iconography, diaries, stories etc. Women feature prominently as performers, particularly in the iconography. We know women performed as dancers from the dawn of civilisation – many historians would have us believe they were all courtesans. I disagree. My current research is recreating C13th aristocratic European court dance. Some evidence lay in tournaments accounts. Tournaments are often viewed through the lens of knights competing at the tilt. Jacques Bretel’s account of the Tournai de Chauvency in 1285 gives us an intriguing view of the role the evening activities played in the event and the equal regard in which the evening was held.


Noble women ran the evening activities, which were lead by dance or dance-dramas and these evening activities were held in the same high regard as the tilting during the day. Why do we not know – because the accounts are scant and many records only refer to those who attended and who won what – how different we might look on things if the evening entertainment had been recorded in the same manner. (My research is ongoing, s watch this space!)

Of the actual notations, men write all. The first recorded choreography is from 1445. Written by the male dancing master Domenico di Pianaza. Others run throughout the C16th/17th. There is a simple explanation for why women were absent, as while some women of very high and noble status could and did publish, dancing masters were not from the noble class. A female dancing master could never therefore have existed. Like Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A room of one’s own’ (which eloquently argues why Shakespeare could never have been a woman), a woman could never have been a dancing master. However, a noble lady could commission a man to do her bidding and many of the manuscripts are named after, dedicated to, or for the use of certain high-ranking noble women. To return to Domenico, he dedicated his dances to Isabella D’Este. The purpose of his being was a woman.

Isabella d’Este
Isabella d’Este (Wikimedia Commons)

A century and a half later, we move really into a golden age of dance. With the advent of Ballet Comique de la Reine in 1581, we reach a place where I believe women were very much in control of the art that was produced. Catherine de Medici commissioned Ballet Comique and, one could argue, it forms the basis of every subsequent court Masque / Ballet. The golden age of court masques – a form of theatre that combined music, dance, acting, acrobatics, elaborate set design, allegory and song – occurred from the late C16th up to the English Civil War, when the form was all but decimated. It continued in a different vein in France under the guidance of Louis XIV and grew into the birth of modern ballet.


Costume designs by Inigo jones for the Queen and ladies of the masque Oberon (1611): Did Anne of Denmark really perform bare breasted?


Women like Catherine, Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria performed in virtuosic displays of graceful movement. And yet we study the Masque not through who motivated its inception i.e. the women, but their servants – in England’s case, Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones most prominently. Yes, they may have been queens first and foremost, but I would suggest that it may be more interesting to look at how Anne appearing bare-breasted  represented and invoked an Amazonian power, or how Henrietta Maria used professional female performers during a time when the ‘accepted’ history claims that all women’s parts were played by men. We still have a popular notion that women didn’t feature on the British stage prior to the Restoration.

As we move into the Baroque and Regency periods, dance notation and teaching is still dominated by men, although we do continue to see star female performers and dedications to female nobility. By the late C18th / early C19th we also start to see female dance teachers appear. While not great in number, adverts for well respected women appear to teach ladies and gentlemen in the art of dance.

By and large however while we see female dancers revered, almost fetishised, it is still the men who get the glory. Marie Taglioni, Fanny Cherito and their peers were all celebrated prima ballerinas controlled and choreographed by men.


Pas de Quatre – The four greatest prima Ballerinas (Image- Victoria and Albert Museum)
Pas de Quatre – the four greatest prima ballerinas (V&A Museum)

We remember and hail Fokine, Bournonville, Balanchine, Ashton and the names bar a few of the women who danced their steps are forgotten. Many have heard of Nijinsky and his controversial Rite of Spring and lascivious L’apres midi d’faun but how many know about his sister Nijinska and her triumphant feminist piece Les Noces?



Bronislava Nijinska
Bronislava Nikinska


Dance is intangible. That is its greatest asset and its greatest weakness. Unlike a painting or a novel that survives to live beyond the death of its author, dance is truly existential. There is nothing more immediate and unrepeatable. The performer can embody the greatest beauty in one moment BUT only in that one moment then it is lost forever. The only tangible thing to hook onto in dance is choreography and the choreographer. And even in this age of emancipation and (almost) equal opportunities we find that women are being ignored and sidelined – doomed to be the performed but never the celebrated creator.

If we can’t manage it now, what hope did they have in the past?


Read more about the history of dance: The Female Choreographers Collective The Historical Dance Society (Formally Dolmetsch) Early Dance Circle My Website! Where are all the female choreographers. Good article on the first masque. Exploration of the Tounai de Chauvency


Meet an ATS Girl

Amy Rhodes, actor and live interpreter, talks us through the process of creating and delivering a interactive costumed presentation, “Meet an ATS Girl”, and introduces the fascinating role of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in the Second World War.

Since 2012 I have been engaged by Griffin Historical, on behalf of English Heritage, to deliver a talk, ‘Meet an ATS girl and learn about many of the important roles women played in the Second World War’. The talk is part of a programme in a performance tent at the World War Two weekend at Dover Castle. Armed only with an aircraft recognition poster, a set of model planes and my trusty ‘37 pattern uniform, I love the challenge of enticing people away from the life size spitfire and the living history encampments to learn about the early history of women in the military.


When I started researching the ATS (women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service) I was fascinated by the subject. The ATS was formed by Royal warrant in 1938, but its origins can be traced back to the middle of the First World War. The Women’s Legion was formed in 1915 to enable women to volunteer their time and cook for the Army. By 1916, and with heavy casualties on the Western front, the British Government acknowledged that women could take over certain non-combatant roles to enable more men to go and fight on the front line. In 1917 this voluntary service became the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) who received Royal Patronage in 1918 becoming Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC).

Some of the cooks of the WAAC

In 1939 there were only five jobs suitable for ATS recruits: cooks, orderlies, medics, clerical staff or drivers. But as the war went on more job opportunities opened up. I chose to concentrate on the role of women in the Anti-Aircraft (Ack Ack) mixed batteries on the Home Front who worked alongside the gunners of the Royal Artillery. General Sir Frederick Pile of AA Command suggested that women be allowed to fill in the manpower gaps by undertaking all duties on the battery, with the exception of heavy manual labour and the actual firing of the Anti-Aircraft guns.

“With the talk beginning to take shape I had to consider how I could include the public. The talk was publicised as a ‘learning’ experience, and was taking place in a performance tent, so how could I make it interesting and engaging for all ages?”

 I settled on the idea of getting the public to have a go at aircraft recognition using the public warning poster. I prefaced the task by explaining about the importance of swiftly identifying any approaching aircraft. Then I issued the children with binoculars, and using either model planes or original playing cards – used for training by the ATS – I would endeavour to engage the public and provoke some audience participation. I asked them to think about the four key aspects of aircraft recognition: WEFT (Wings, Engine configuration, Fuselage Shape and Tail type). The response to this activity is always positive, with everyone having a chance to join in and be included without feeling coerced.

On to the next challenge! How to present this topic when there are many people, both men and women, whose military service during WWII, either as a volunteer or through conscription, is in living memory?

For the first couple of years I presented the talk in character as Private Whitfield, an ATS aircraft spotter and telephonist, but I found that being in first person made it confusing – people were believing I really was in the army! So this year, 2016, I decided to present the talk as myself – in uniform  – which instantly solved the problem of misleading the public. I amended all of my seemingly personal experiences, borrowed from accounts written by members of the ATS, such as Vee Robinson, author of ‘Sisters in Arms’, who recalled having to soak her badly blistered feet after her first day of square bashing with the drill instructor, to general observations and experiences of the ATS.  The result this year was that I only received one question about whether I had served in the military – prompted by a uniform faux pas.

In ATS uniform at Dover Castle

“These women were creating opportunities of higher wages, skilled employment and better education.”

The feedback I generally receive from the public is varied, from ex-servicemen having an opinion on working alongside women, to people who had mothers who served in the ATS. However, many people did not realise that women featured so prominently in the Second World War. Or that by 1945 the jobs available to the ATS had swelled from 5 to 100 – not only serving at home but also overseas in Europe, North Africa and the West Indies. These women were creating opportunities of higher wages, skilled employment and better education. They moved away from the domestic roles of their mothers and carved a brighter future for the women of Britain.

The ATS memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum

Counterfeiting, Crime & Catherine Heyland



Educator Megan Gooch (Learning Producer for Historic Royal Palaces) introduces us to Catherine Heyland, a coin counterfeiter risking her life for her trade…



Spending a penny was a dangerous business in 1788. Seriously. If the money you spent included a counterfeit coin, you could be convicted of high treason and executed.

Today, when the rate of counterfeit pound coins is estimated to be 3% of those in circulation, you’ve almost certainly ‘passed off’ a counterfeit coin in your time. You criminal! Luckily the punishments are not so severe these days. In 1788 men would be hanged, drawn and quartered for this crime, and women burned at the stake, which was somehow deemed a more modest end for the ladies.

So it was a pretty desperate, bold or foolish young woman who engaged in the nefarious activity of not just using counterfeits, but making them. Catherine Heyland was such a woman.

Heyland and her accomplices were caught red-handed in 1787 in a garret workshop full of incriminating evidence. Catherine was wearing an apron, stained black like her hands, from the noxious nitric acid used to clean newly minted coins. There were crucibles full of molten metal, coin moulds for casting the fakes, and damningly, some brand new fake shillings.

Catherine’s defence at the Old Bailey was that she borrowed the apron, she hadn’t known her male accomplice very long, and she’d just walked in the room before the raid by the authorities. The court convicted her of high treason and she was sentenced to death, doomed to await her punishment in a gloomy, cramped and unsavoury cell in Newgate Gaol. She was imprisoned there for 14 months before given a reprieve.

Instead of execution by burning, she was transported to Australia, arriving there aboard the Lady Juliana in 1790, after a gruelling 390 days at sea. The ship gained notoriety as a floating brothel for the ship’s officers and seamen at ports along its journey. Catherine was sent to work on Norfolk Island until she was pardoned by the governor in 1796. After which she found a husband who farmed and made furniture, and had two sons.

Catherine wasn’t an unusual young woman. Counterfeiting and ‘passing off’ fake coins was a huge business in eighteenth-century London, and women were a key part of the criminal enterprise. They were useful for spending the new fake coins in markets and shops, disguised as honest housewives.

Catherine’s punishment was also typical of eighteenth-century law, a lengthy stay on ‘death row’ in awful prison conditions, before being shipped in worse conditions to Australia to complete her punishment and forge a new life.

Cheery stuff. Now, I’m off to check I’m not harbouring any fake coins in my purse…



A real shilling made in 1787, the kind of coin Catherine Heyland was caught counterfeiting © Arthur Bryant coins


Writing Women into History

As it is Women’s History Month we’re looking at how women’s history is represented in different media. Here, our very own Lauren Johnson discusses why she didn’t include a chapter about women in her latest book…

So Great a Prince FINAL artBefore I started writing my latest book (So Great a Prince: England and the Accession of Henry VIII, out now, sorry, getting the plug out the way early) I made one big decision: it would not include a chapter dedicated to women.

This isn’t because I don’t think women deserve a chapter all to themselves – women deserve all the chapters. A chapter for every one, as far as I’m concerned. I bloody love historical women. I’ve been trying to fill the gender gaps in my knowledge of the past since I was a kid, and not always with the greatest of ease. At university I was met with mild bewilderment every time – at least once a term – I asked to do a paper on women’s or gender history as part of my period of study. One tutor was so startled at the prospect of teaching me about medieval women that he grasped about for a couple of female mystics and left it at that. Not tremendously representative of general experience, it must be said.

No, the reason I denied women this chapter is because it is my firm belief that:

History should – must – always did – involve both men and women.


Women deserve more than being relegated to a sparse twenty pages, in which all of them – from migrant apprentices to pawn princesses – are lumped together as a single entity. No queen in history would have considered herself comparable to a washerwoman. Female CEOs today still probably have more in common with other managers than they do with their cleaners. Obviously there are biological facts that remain common, but the experience of periods, childbirth and pregnancy would have varied enormously depending on a woman’s class and status.

Instead, I set out very deliberately to use female examples of general historical experiences. Looking for a middle class parent? Clear off John Middleton, I’ll use your wife Alice instead. Want someone who trained apprentices and kept servants? Hello Thomasine Percyvale (nee Bonaventure – she demanded attention for that brilliant name alone). In this age of burgeoning new learning and ‘heresy’, yes I will pay you attention, Joan Warde.

Alice Middleton wikimedia.jpg

Alice Middleton in later life (Wikimedia Commons)

I won’t lie, this made my life harder. Women’s identities are obscured in historical sources at the best of times and the late medieval period is far from the best (although it’s a lot easier than the early Middle Ages, so that’s a boon). Chronicles occasionally mention a queen or heretic but they were written by men about prominent public figures and so largely concern themselves with other men. Guild archives refer to women but often just as ‘so and so’s wife’. Married women could only write wills with their husband’s permission and many working class men and women were still dying intestate. Legal records brim with female criminals or those fighting for their rights, but these women pop into existence for the duration of the case and then promptly disappear again (and that’s if enough of the case survives to fully work out what was going on). Religious theory? Medical texts? Decidedly problematic.

After all this effort meticulously researching, carefully selecting and then writing my women into the wider narrative, it was with some dismay that I read the proofs of my index and found it’s full of bloody men! Flicking back through the book, my anxieties were slightly allayed. A number of women pop up alongside men, but are not indexed due to the brevity of their appearance. And the index entry for old Thomasine lists almost a dozen appearances. (As a wealthy widowed tailor who left a will, she provided me with an enormous amount of anecdotal detail – I even know her horse’s saddle was made of blue velvet.)

The relative sparsity of female figures in the final book – they make up less than half the total characters who appear – does not make me regret the approach I took. Without the often engrossing, occasionally frustrating, effort taken to dig out these women, I would have had an easier time but a much less rounded book. I also, whether I fail or (hopefully) succeed, feel it is my duty to try and find these women. Not because I am a woman or a feminist or because I personally find women’s stories fascinating – although all of these things are true – but because I’m a historian. History has always involved both men and women. If we only tell the story of one half of the population, we are missing a huge part of the picture. Let’s not just write women’s history in single chapters or consign it to the ‘women’s history’ corner of the bookshop. Let’s tell it in all our history books.

Let’s make all our stories History.


©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda (wikimedia commons)



This piece was originally posted at Lauren’s blog on International Women’s Day 2016.

Lauren tweets at @History_lauren and her website is