Huw Williams:
hoofing it, Welsh style

Huw Williams dances with a lively, shambling style that has its roots in the homes, the pubs and the shale fields of Wales. There are obvious similarities to Irish and Scottish stepdancing, but Welsh clogging is a class all its own.

"Clog dancing has a long tradition," Huw said. "But they're always developing new tricks."

The Welsh style is a combination of trick dancing and what eventually became known as clog dancing. (Originally, Huw said, they didn't wear clogs; hence, the name change. "They were used to make more complex sounds with their feet," he explained.)

Dance tricks included passing a broom under the leg, somersaults and the toby (which looks a lot like the crouch-and-kick Russian dance).

"In a competition, if you come out and just do the steps, you wouldn't get very far," Huw said. "You have to do the tricks, and feats of acrobatics."

In a brief display of his dance techniques, Huw performed only one trick -- but it was a doozy. He stuck a candle in a beer bottle and lit it, and for a few minutes danced around it without touching it -- almost ignoring it as his feet passed near and over the flame. "The trick was doing it without putting it out," he said. Then, at the conclusion of the set, he leapt into the air and, with perfect precision, clicked his heels together over the wick and extinguished it.

"I'm making it up as I go along," he said later. "Literally. Because I never know what the space is going to be like or what the floor surface is going to be."

That's in keeping with the historical antecedents of the dance, which might crop up in almost any setting.

Speaking of history, Welsh dancing has its own that's worth mentioning.

"It comes mostly from farm laborers," Huw said. "It was also a tradition up in the slate quarries in northwestern Wales. You had to dance on the slate without breaking it. That was the skill."

Initially, it was a man's-only dance, Huw noted. "It was a man showing off. A good dancer was well thought of in the community."

Women were banned from dancing, largely for religious reasons, until the mid-20th century, he said. Then, about 20 years ago, syncopated steps started making their way into the tradition.

There are some obvious similarities to Irish and Scottish dancing, but Huw said there is no real historical connection between them. For instance, he said, Irish stepdancers tend to keep their body position immobile, while in Wales, "you have to move around. You can't stay in one spot."

Huw said he started dancing after he was offered lessons, solely on the basis of his brother's skill in the art. He didn't want to dance, he remembers, but he attended his first class out of a sense of obligation. He loved it, of course, and the rest is history.

"Thirty-five years later, I'm still doing it ... because I'm having such a good time," he said. "It's like stepdancing with acrobatics. I've never seen anything like it."

interview by
Tom Knapp

24 November 2007

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