Nephew of Robert Cowper, dancing master of Workington. (1854-1922). Originally working as a draper, he eventually gave up his job and became a full-time violinist at the Workington Opera House although at the same time taking pupils for music and dancing. After a while he became so well-known that he concentrated solely on dancing.
In the winter months (from the first week of September until just before Easter) Oliver taught each night of the week in a different town or village in Cumberland – Workington, Whitehaven, Wigton, Maryport and Cockermouth. Saturdays were reserved for private lessons. During the summer he went out into the surrounding villages (e.g. Bulgill, Aspatria and Bagerer). It seems that he normally traveled by train. He provided his own music for the classes, playing the fiddle.
Eventually Oliver’s wife and three sons, Harold, Parry and Roland Cowper assisted him with the classes. The classes were divided into two sessions, the first for children of school age from 5.30-7.30 and the second for adults from 8.00-10.30. Each series of classes ended with a “Grand Ball”. In the villages he also held “long night dances” for adults three times during the course of the summer. These would go on until 4.00 a.m. These were also held in the towns but with less frequency. In the towns Oliver insisted that his pupils wore white gloves, in the villages he tried to make the same stipulation but with little successful. He always taught etiquette however, and when a pupil wished to ask a lady to dance he had to say “May I have the pleasure of this dance?” and after the dance was over, take her back to her seat on his arm, bow to her, take two steps back and then turn and walk back to his seat.
At the children’s classes the boys and girls sat where they liked but usually they preferred to sit seperately. Oliver also had two special classes, one in Whitehaven and one in Workington for more well heeled clients. He also gave private tuition. Oliver Cowper’s children’s dances included the Skirt Dance, Fan Gavotte and the Tambourine Dance. He also arranged a big children’s dance display in Workington once a year. As regards his repertoire generally, it is difficult to decide which items he learnt from his uncle Robert, which he composed himself and which he acquired locally.
When he began teaching full time he received several requests for lessons in step dancing, which he was unable to teach, knowing nothing of this himself. Realising that there was a demand for this form of dancing he sent his eldest son Harold Cowper to learn from Jack Robinson of Seaton, who was renowned as a very clever Cumberland step dancer (Cumberland step dancing being quite differerent from clog dancing). This would have been in about 1894. When Oliver was holding his children’s classes, those who wanted to learn step dancing went off into a separate room with Harold.
He is known to have taught the following social dances:
Circassian Circle – two versions
Sarabande – also known as the Spanish Waltz
Sir Roger de Coverley