Saturday, May 12, 2012

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: The Champion Clog Dancer of the World Belt, 1883

Dan Leno
Guy Little Theatrical Photography
The Victoria & Albert Museum

In the north of England, in the Nineteenth Century, clog dancing was one of the most popular local activities, particularly in places like Northumberland and Durham. The “clogs” in question were shoes with wooden soles rather than entirely wooden shoes of the Dutch variety.

The style of dancing which was popular at the time was similar to Irish step-dancing in that the dancer’s body remained immobile and the face expressionless while the feet beat out complicated rhythms.  One dancer--Dan Leno—proudly boasted that, with his feeties, he could “put more beats into sixteen bars of music than a drummer can with his drumsticks.”

In 1880, Dan Leno won the competition for “Champion Clog Dancer of the World.”  The contest eas organized by Joe Wood at the Princess's Music Hall in Leeds.  In a curious, but sensible twist, the judges sat under the stage and listened to the beats in order to decide the winner.

The prize given to the winner, Dan Leno, was a gold and silver belt much like this one. Thus began a new life for Dan Leno who had previously only survived with modest performances at local music halls.

According to the V&A, “Geo.Mullon won the title in 1881, followed by Benjamin Ray in 1882 when Leno was on the judging committee.”

Dan Leno would again enter the competition in 1883, but he surprisingly lost.  The audience went wild!  So many people were dissatisfied with the loss that the new champion agreed to a re-match at the People's Music Hall, Oldham. However, the new champion managed to “lose” the valuable belt before the competition took place. Leno was victorious after the six-night contest and was presented with this new belt to mark the occasion.

Dan Leno's 1883 Prize Belt
Silver and Gold
The Victoria & Albert Museum

After this, no person dared to seriously challenge Dan Leno again.

Made to replace the lost belt, this silver prize belt was made, in 1883, in five convex sections which are hinged together. Each section is raised and chased with figures and decorative foliate scrollwork. The central silver gilt section features a shield topped with a lyre, the shield is engraved: “CHAMPION BELT WON BY DAN LENO Champion Clog Dancer of the Worlds AT THE People's Music Hall Oldham AFTER 6 NIGHTS CONTEST May 14th to 19th 1883'.”

Leno would go on to much success on the boards of Music Halls--starring in a variety of shows.

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