Research Blog

Convict & ‘lower order’ dance research

IN 2014, I was invited to further my research with a doctorate at the Queensland University of Technology. After a year of studying advanced research methods and the increased recognition of dance study in academia, my research proposal has been approved:

Social dance and early Australian settlement: An historical examination of the role of social dance for convicts and common people in the period between 1788 and 1840.

I am very excited about this research, having already collected a substantial amount of information. The first year of the project will focus on constructing a database of material relating to convict and ‘lower order’ culture in the early colony. The second year will concentrate on embodying the findings in a series of dance workshops with a culminating recorded performance. The findings and recordings will be presented in an exhibition.

While the majority of the data will come from archival sources, I hope to find stories or tunes which have been handed down by convict/pioneer ancestors. So far I have only two examples of this: a Scottish convict who taught his family the Highland Fling, and a collected tune from a prison guard at Port Macquarie.   Any information in this area would be most welcome.


October 2017

The latest research has focused on the dances and music discovered to have been popular with the convicts.  One detailed account actually lists the dances which were part of the popular culture at a “two-penny hop shops” in the Rocks area of Sydney. The music for the dancing  was supplied by a convict from Norfolk, England who played the flageolet aka tin whistle.  The tunes quoted in this account had accompanying dances which had been published in Dublin in the 1810s.  In September, this information was used in a series of workshops to explore, improvise and re-imagine these dances.  The workshops were filmed and a vignette will be produced to capture the essence of the dance.

The next step in the process is analysing, interpreting, and evaluating the findings.  The conceptual framework for this is supplied by Adshead-Lansdale, J. (1988). Dance analysis: theory and practice. London: Dance Books.

March 2017

Over the last six months I’ve compiled a comprehensive database of convict dance material.  I’ve been surprised at the amount of data that has accumulated.  I’ve also been puzzled at the lack of research, anywhere in the world, regarding dance for the lower echelons of society.  The majority of historical dance research focuses on the elite forms of dance – the court, theatre, and ballet.  As an ephemeral art, dance has been difficult to research and has not been regarded as a serious academic field of study.  With the advent of internet the number of sources for this type of research has increased astronomically and I’ve been able to locate information never before accessible.

The database contains information from a large variety of sources: Old Bailey Court Proceedings, Police Incidents, Government Reports, pictures and paintings, diaries, letters and contemporary literature.  All this information will be used in the final stage of the research to revive the dances in a series of workshops which will be filmed and added to the database.  Ultimately, this database will be developed as an online resource.

August 2016


Dudley Street, Seven Dials by Gustave Doré. This slum in the heart of London reveals the poverty and crowded conditions common in poor working class areas.

Gustave Doré’s images of the the slums and poverty of London lead me to consider if those writing about the horrors of the convict experience in Australia had ever ventured into these squalid areas.

“In 1869, French artist Gustave Doré began an extraordinary collaboration with the British journalist Blanchard Jerrold. Together, over four years, they produced a landmark account of the deprivation and squalor of mid-Victorian London.”

This account was produced after transportation to Australia had ceased.

Research Trip: May-June-July-August 2016

Research trip in Britain and Ireland.  A great opportunity to visit libraries and dance festivals, and discuss the research with other interested dancers and academics.  I’ve gained some very valuable insights.  Here’s the listing of places and events:

Dancing at New Lanark. Image courtesy of New Lanark World Heritage Site

We danced in this building at New Lanark where the children of the factory workers were taught music and dance in the early 19th century. Robert Owen established an ‘ideal’ community for his workers and instituted a wide range of workplace, social, and educational reforms.  Now a World Heritage Site, it’s an amazing place to visit.

Libraries: British Library, Caird Library -National Maritime Museum, Vaughan Williams Library – Cecil Sharp House, Cambridge University Library & Pendlebury Library of Music, Perth & Kinross Library, National Library of Ireland, meeting at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in Limerick University, Kennedy Grant Library at Halsway Manor.

Children Dancing at New Lanark. Image courtesy of New Lanark World Heritage Site

Owen considered dance and music to be important aspects of education. Both boys and girls danced in tunics. Image courtesy of New Lanark World Heritage Site.

Festivals, dance weeks, and balls: Eastbourne International Folkdance Festival, Chippenham Folk Festival,  44th Stonesfield Dance Weekend, Lichfield Folk Dance Festival, Nicholas Broadbridge’s Purcell Ball at New Lanark,  Yorkshire Folk Dance Weekend, Skipton Clogfest, Retford Playford Ball,  Summer Days dance week  at Halsway Manor, Sidmouth Folk Festival, Dartmoor Folk Festival.

Clubs & dances: May morning with Long Man Morris Men (spouse’s former side), Chingford Folk Dance Club, St Albans Friday Folk Club, St Albans Dance, Mrs Bennett’s Ballroom, The Quadrille Club, Knaresborough Country Dance Club, Ceilidh at a family wedding in Durham, Royal Scottish Country Dance (Perth Branch) at Scone.

Most useful resource for planning the trip was Set and Turn Single: the listing site for folk dancers in England.

Trends in country dancing:  Dance leaders are looking again at the Cecil Sharp versions of Playford’s  English country dances and re-interpreting them in the light of greater understanding from historical sources. There is some encouragement to use dance steps rather than simply walking: this isn’t a new concept having been advocated for some time by Ann Daye of the Historical Dance Society, and Kate van Winkle Keller in If the Company Can do it (1991), however, the idea does seem to be gaining momentum.  I found the ‘Zesty’ Playford movement disappointing: although I thoroughly agree that these dances should be danced with energy, it appeared that only the simplest dances were presented, resulting in a ‘dumbing down’ of the dance form.

Highlights: Discovering traditional step dancing in the south of England which is extremely relevant to our Australian research, and has fascinating convict connections.


  March 2016 – Typecasting convicts

Landing of convicts at Botany Bay_Tench

Landing of convicts at Botany Bay. Engraving from Watkin Tench’s book, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (1789). Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales

Exploring the stereotyping of convicts which so influences our vision of early colonial society.  Much has been written about this in the last few years.  The idea that all convicts were brutalized and oppressed, when in fact the majority probably lead quite normal lives.   The convict experience has been hugely misrepresented, especially in popular works such as Marcus Clarke’s  For the Term of His Natural Life and  Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore.  This image has been completely overturned with the critical research of modern historians.

Excellent resources include:

Daniels, K. (1998). Convict women. St. Leonards, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.
Frost, A. (2012). Botany Bay: the real story (Vol. 2nd). Collingwood, Vic: Black.
Hirst, J. (2008). Freedom on the Fatal Shore.  Australia’s First Colony. Melbourne: Black Inc.
Karskens, G. (2009). The colony : a history of early Sydney / Grace Karskens. Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.
McClaughlin, T. (1998). Irish women in colonial Australia. St Leonards, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.


February 2016 – Old Bailey court proceedings

A surprising source of information about dance and its role in society.  Not the elite, fashionable society, but the everyday life of ordinary people.  This account by the Ordinary (chaplain) at Newgate provides a touching insight into the life of a man condemned to be executed at Tyburn, on Monday the 31st of December, 1722.

….he got to be a Drawer of Ale at Sadler’s-Wells; upon which, he thought he was at once leapt into that Life of Pleasure, which he had so long retain’d in his Fancy: For the Thoughts of Musick and Dancing appear’d so very delightful to him, that in the Country, he always thought himself in some other happier World, when he and several young Men and Maids got together in a Barn, with a Fidler, to dance and be merry.

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 02 February 2016), Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, December 1722 (OA17221231).

 I’m following the court proceedings where dance is reported in the trials of those who were transported to the colony.  Although the trial quoted above pre-dates  the period of my study (1788-1840), it is a poignant statement of the feelings engendered by dance and one which must have been reflected in many an Australian convict.

18th January, 2016

On this day in 1788 the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay.

Botany Bay 1788Botany Bay – 1788 New South Wales, drawn by Charles Gore Esq.

State Library of New South Wales.


CURRENCY LASSES. 1825 Quadrille music discovered

currency-lasses-1In mid-December 2015, the Sydney musicologist, Graeme Skinner discovered a hitherto unknown London sheet music print “Currency Lasses, an admired Australian quadrille, composed by a lady at Sydney, and perform’d there with great success by the Bands of the 3rd (or Buffs), 39th and 57th Regiments”. This dates from c.1825-6 and now becomes the earliest piece of Australian instrumental music to survive.

It is an excellent specimen of early quadrille music, designed to be danced with impressive balletic steps. Visit Graeme’s site for more information including a copy of the original, and a lovely recording.

3 Responses to Research Blog

  1. Jeanette Mollenhauer says:

    Dear Heather,
    I’m beginning the final year of a PhD at the Sydney Con.
    I’m looking at traditional dance practices amongst the Irish and Croatian communities in Sydney, which involves some historical investigation.
    I have a book by Anne McMahon called “Convicts at Sea” and Anne has provided me with copies of logs by ships’ doctors which simply record that the convicts danced on deck, from which I conclude that it was either sean nos or ceili dancing since the convicts were mostly from Ireland.
    Anyway, I will be at the Australian Folklore Network conference in March and I see you’re giving a paper (I moved house before Christmas and everything else went by the wayside so I’m not presenting this year).
    I look forward to hearing your paper and meeting a fellow dance researcher- we are rare indeed in Australia.

    • Heather says:

      Hello Jeanette,
      Lovely to hear about your research. As you say, dance historians are very rare animals.
      In the 1980s, when I lived in Sydney, I used to dance with the Dwyer Irish dance studio and the Sydney Irish Ceili Dancers. I’ve danced with various other Irish groups – mostly step-dancing, as I’ve moved about. I expect you know Margaret Winnett (Sydney) and Dr John Cullinane’s work.
      I’ve amassed a fair collection of information about Irish dance in the 1800s. It will be great to discuss your research at the Folklore Conference.
      Thanks for getting in touch,

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