Steps From the Heart – a special step dance collaboration 

Two step dancers from either side of the Atlantic, April Verch of Canada and Simon Harmer from the UK (a member of the Instep Research team), have been working on a new collaboration which culminates in an online presentation and workshop in early January 2022. Steps From The Heart combines research, new choreography, performance and teaching in a project based on the work of two of their step dance heroes, Donnie Gilchrist of Ontario and Alex Woodcock of Northumberland. 

April Verch is an award-winning Canadian folk musician and dancer who has recorded fourteen albums and toured worldwide for over 20 years. She started fiddling at age six and step dancing at just three years old! Celebrated for her virtuosic fiddle playing and sensational step dancing (occasionally at the same time), April grew up amid the rich musical and dancing heritage of the Ottawa Valley region. Based on the tunes and step dancing of the early loggers, this tradition also incorporates influences from French, Scottish, German, Polish and Irish settlers. April has taught dance classes at many camps and festivals, as well as releasing a teaching DVD of the Ottawa Valley style, and her passion for her craft always shines through.  

Simon Harmer lives near Portsmouth and has been a well-respected performer and teacher of various step dance styles for over 30 years. Starting out taking English clog lessons at Cecil Sharp House back in the 1970s, Simon has continually developed his repertoire of steps, including Appalachian clogging from the US and Canadian steps from Quebec, Ontario and Cape Breton Island. More recently Simon has been inspired by the social stepping traditions of Sussex and Hampshire. He also collaborated with street dance teacher and choreographer Sasha Biloshisky on the Step Your Wayproject, which linked hip-hop and street dance with the traditional step dancing of maritime Portsmouth.

Simon and April explained how the Steps From The Heart project came about. April said, “There was a period during Covid lockdowns when I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired to create music and dance, which was understandable. One day I received an e-newsletter and I clicked on a link for a video about Simon’s Step Your Way project. I was intrigued and started learning more on the internet about Simon and his dancing. Once we started talking via Zoom, it was fascinating to listen to Simon talk about dancing, and to experience his passion for it.” Simon also recalled that April had contacted him after having seen the output video of the Step Your Way project: “I love talking to people about dance, and I love being creative and trying new things. After my first chat with April, we were both keen to collaborate in some way. We’re very similar in that we want to develop as individual dancers, but we’re also very grateful for the tuition we have received from other wonderful dancers over the years.” 

Steps From The Heart owes a lot to the “dancestry” concept, an understanding of the legacy of others which has been developed by dance scholar Janet Schroeder. More than just an account of how a style develops, it incorporates the personal stories of dancers that were part of the process. At the outset of their collaboration, April and Simon asked themselves the question, “If you had to name one dancer whose influence is still having an impact on your dance journey, who would that be?” April’s answer was Donnie Gilchrist, born in 1925 in Quebec, where his father worked in the lumber industry. From the age of 4, Donnie had lessons with an Irish shoe maker, Dick Caughlin, and later on he watched men from the lumber camps dance at the local hotel, picking up the basics of Irish and French Canadian stepping styles. In 1935 the Gilchrist family moved to Ottawa, where Donnie helped to supplement the family’s income by dancing in bar-rooms and dancehalls at the weekend. Gilchrist is widely considered the pioneer of the Ottawa Valley dance tradition, and over the years it has become part of April Verch’s mission to help preserve elements of this style for future generations, including the ability to “dance the tune” and improvise.  

Simon’s selection was Alex Woodcock, born in Alnwick, Northumberland in 1922. Alex’s father, a coal miner, arranged for him to take dance lessons from Cuthbert May, son of champion clog dancer and teacher Eddie May. Alex learned hornpipe, waltz and schottische steps in clogs, as well as tap routines. He also learned and subsequently taught ballroom dancing and the popular dances of the day. Alex later became better known throughout the UK clog dancing community as a performer and teacher with an engaging performance style. 

Information, film and step notations from Alex can be found on this website.

April and Simon shared more details about the dancestry element of their collaboration, and what they’ve learned from each other so far: 

April:

“It’s been wonderful to learn more about the subjects of our research, Donnie Gilchrist and Alex Woodcock – their history, careers, influences and lives. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning techniques and steps from the English step dance and clog dance traditions from Simon. We’ve talked about so many aspects of dance, from the types of tunes, to social aspects, to challenges within the dance community. I learn something from every email and every Zoom call, and I feel like I’ll be learning from this project for a long time to come! We talked about the “dancestry” concept, which speaks about the way a dancer’s style develops, involving many things, including the influences, personal stories and interactions of their past. Obviously my teachers, and the tradition and location I grew up in, helped me to develop my own style. Now, through this collaboration with Simon, I have evolved again. I’ve gained knowledge about the history of our respective traditions and I’ve learned new steps and techniques that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my dancing days.”

Simon:

“I have learned so much from the project already. April and I have talked at length about the tunes we dance to, musicians that make us want to dance, how we teach and the vocabulary we use. I’ve read extensively about Ottawa Valley dancing and watched many films of Donnie Gilchrist and other notable dancers. I have been in contact with Alex Woodcock’s family and connected with other dancers who have treasured his steps such as Kay Nightingale, Ian Craigs, Jean Smith, Gary O’Mahoney and Chris Metherell. I have learned that neither Donnie nor Alex wanted steps “set in stone”, to be merely reproduced, but wanted dancers to use the material creatively, while striving towards technical excellence. The project has led us to collaborate with musicians, film makers, sound engineers, film editors, a designer, a music promoter and several academics. It has encouraged me out of my comfort zone and best of all, I have a wonderful new dancing friend in April, and a determination that one day we’ll dance the Steps From The Heart in the same room!”

The legacies of Donnie Gilchrist and Alex Woodcock are very much at the core of Steps From The Heart, shaped by April and Simon’s impressive artistry and enthusiasm. The two dancers have been working throughout autumn 2021 to create new choreography based on their research, and the finished performances were recently filmed in their respective home countries. The edited video of the new dance piece will be premiered as part of an online presentation and interview, with April and Simon in conversation with fellow step dancers and educators Toby Bennett (UK) and Sherry Johnson (Canada). April and Simon will then teach key elements of the new steps in the following day’s workshop. The project is supported by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, and the two online events are scheduled for the weekend of 8th & 9th January 2022, starting at 4pm UK time (11am EST) on both days. 

For more information about the project and to book your place for the presentation and/or workshop, visit bit.ly/stepsfromtheheart

April Verch and Simon Harmer were in conversation with grassroots music promoter Maria Wallace (True North Music).

Steps From The Heart