2022, Curious Conjunctions: The interwoven lives of Cecil Sharp, Isadora Duncan and Ralph Vaughan Williams 1910-1930

The initial provocation for this paper was the discovery of an intriguing entry in Cecil Sharp’s diary for 17 February 1915, while on his first visit to the USA, where he recounts that he “had tea with Isadora Duncan”. This was possibly the only meeting between these two luminaries of the dance world, but it serves as a focal point for the study of dance in the context of the early decades of the 20th century, a turbulent period that encompassed the First World War, the launch of Les Ballets Russes and the age of the automobile.

Cecil Sharp would have been 55 years old at that time, and at the peak of his career as a collector of folk songs and as promoter of ‘folk’ dance in its various guises. His hope had been to see English folk dance (Country Dance, Morris, etc.) used as the basis for a revival of ballet, which by that time had grown rather stale.

Isadora Duncan, although only 38, was likewise at the peak of her career. She had already achieved considerable fame in Europe and was embarking on a return visit to the US in the hope of finally convincing her home country to adopt a more modern concept of what dance performance might be.

The figure that unites these two very different characters is that of Ralph Vaughan Williams, a close friend and colleague of Sharp’s, although a decade or so younger. He had also composed music to accompany Duncan’s exploration of dance within the plays of Euripides, including The Bacchae and was well-acquainted with her style, having watched her perform. Later he would create the music for the ‘all English’ ballet Job (which he insisted on calling ‘a masque for dancing’).

The period between 1910 and 1930 was one of great ferment in the world of dance as well as in the world outside. The subject of this paper is an exploration of how the political turbulence of this period is reflected in what was happening in dance.


Bill Tuck has been an enthusiastic performer of early music for many years – particularly in the context of dance accompaniment, whether for 15th century basse dances or 19th century quadrilles. His instrumental interests range from pipe and tabor to sackbut, trumpet and flute, with a particular enthusiasm for rediscovering the visual as well as aural significance of such instruments in a theatrical context. As a director of Chalemie Theatre Company his interest is in the recreation of 18th century English pantomime and commedia dell’arte. He holds a Diploma in Music from the Open University and PhD in Mathematics from Sydney University and was formerly Senior Research Fellow in Computing at University College London. Since October 2017 he has been Chairman of the Early Dance Circle.