When we look at a picture of a beautiful sailing ship of old we can see the tall masts, the ropes, ladders and netting up which the sailors had to climb, sometimes in awful weather with winds, rain, and high crashing seas. When you dance the Sailors’ Hornpipe so much depends on the character of your dance. You have to BE A SAILOR at work, showing precision, vigour and strength, and as the ship is never at rest, even when tied up in harbour, you must always show a nautical roll of your body where suitable. All the steps we perform today reflect the work of those sailors of yesteryear.
In 1752 a dancing master and celebrated fiddler, Mr John McGill, set down on paper a Hornpipe consisting of sixteen, yes sixteen, steps, and many of the movements are reflected in the dance we perform today. It’s believed that many of the dances were performed on the decks of the ships to the tune of “Rule Britannia”.
An American dancer, John Durang, set a dance on paper but his instructions were very difficult to follow. For instance, he mentioned “Pigeon wing going round” (maybe the first step in a circle?) or “Parried toes around” (perhaps Crab Walk in a circle?).
Captain Cook in his sailing ship The Endeavour always encouraged his crewmembers to dance a Hornpipe on long sea voyages, especially for exercise and when becalmed as they often were.
Another dancer (T. P. Cook) no relation to Captain Cook used to visit ships in harbour and made notes of all the steps he encountered. He set them down in a basic order and performed them in many of the naval dramas he held ashore.
The Sailors’ Hornpipe is now part of Royal Navy training!
There now follows a few movements where the arm actions, when executed correctly, do so much to bring the “sailor” to life and helps the spectator to visualise the seafarer of old at work on the heaving decks of the giant ships.
POLKA - This opening movement during the 1st Step should have a fully extended and well-turned-out point of the foot during the making of both circles. These circles were performed by the sailor of old in order to make room for the following steps, as it often got crowded on the narrow decks.
ARMS FOLD – Arms must be held at shoulder level with the shoulders held low. The backs of the hands lie under the upper arms. Be sure not to show the palms of the hands and keep the elbow points level with the upper arm. As the hands of the sailor were always covered in tar from the ropes, this gesture represented the way in which he carried his clean laundry! He folded his arms and the clean shirts, etc; were laid on top so as not to get tar on them!
CABLE HAUL – Both arms are extended forward diagonally – CLOSE HANDS ON CABLE BEFORE hauling strongly back. Your head should follow the progress of the cable. Then your hands open as you reach again to close on the cable for the second movement.
LOOK-OUT – This action calls for the extending of the arm above shoulder level with the index finger pointing in a front diagonal direction and the other hand at the Look-out Position (shading the eyes). The head is raised and the eyes (on the look-out for hazards and other ships) are alert at all times.
PUMP – The downward arm action is very strong and your back must always be held straight with the shoulders low. It isn’t necessary to use your eyes but they may be lowered in the downward movement only. Always use head alignment on the heel springs.
HOISTING THE SAILS - Just look at the big, heavy canvas sails and you will quickly see the STRENGTH required when pulling on the ropes during final step. Often the sails would be soaked with salt water and rain making them even heavier to hoist, so show determination when using this action.