Doctor John Gardiner-Garden is a dance teacher, researcher, performer and much, much more. Not only is he familiar with historical dances from dozens of historical cultures, but he has also designed his own choreographies set in the fictional world of Bordonia. His choreographies have been popular in Ropecon for decades, but the man himself has never before visited us in person. We wanted to learn more about John’s work so we reached out for a short Special Guest interview about historical dances, what they tell about history and how they relate to roleplaying.

How did you get into historical dances?  Do you do other dances as well, and did you start with historical dance or something else?

When I moved from the big city of Sydney to the smaller (more beautiful) city of Canberra to undertake postgraduate studies in Ancient History at the Australian National University I was introduced to ‘Bushdancing’ at a heritage woolshed near the University. Australian bushdancing is partly folk dance partly historical dance. I’d never in my life danced before but loved it and enjoyed it regularly. My awakened dance interest led me also to attend every other dance group in city to learn more about Renaissance, modern ballroom, Irish, Scottish, Australian Colonial, German, Slovenian, Latvian, and Finnish. I became further intrigued by dance on study trips to the Soviet Union, China and America.

While doing a Postdoctoral year at University of Berkley, California. I danced every night of the week, enjoying Irish, English country, American contra, Cajun, Tex-Mex, Vintage ballroom and Scandinavian and when I returned to Australia I starting to run workshops and dance series to introduce interested Canberra’s to a wider range of dance styles and started to write dances in different styles to explore and share different ideas. I continued to try to learn more about as many dance styles as possible. I found the Finnish dance group particularly enjoyable and when one of their leading men broke a leg they asked me to join them for a performance in the concert hall at the Sydney Opera House! Around this time (late 1980s early 1990s) I also fell in with some great musicians who formed dance bands to support my dance leading (and I starting playing music, initially on Irish flute, then later on Border bagpipes in a band called ‘Peasant Wedding’). At this time my explorations of historical, folk and original dance were all mixed together.  In a way, I think the fact that I was equally interested in an involved in folk and historical dance meant each helped me better understand the other.

What inspired you to set your choreographies in fictional worlds?  

There were probably many inspirations.

One inspiration was the reaction of people early on to my original music and dances. People would ask where the dances and tunes that they were enjoying came from and if I told them the truth, they wouldn’t believe me and would say ‘No, I mean where did they really come from’. I discovered making something up and giving a ‘historical’ (if fictional) origin for the dances and tunes, seemed to make them happier than knowing the truth.

Another inspiration was the realisation that by setting my choreographies in a fictional setting I could side-step people’s reluctance to see or laugh at what is close to them, and stimulate readers of my dance books to explore the idiosyncrasies of folk dance transmission. I could make fun of fallacies and curiosities in the way we often think and develop customs without offending anyone.

I have also always been fascinated by forms of art (novels, visual works etc) that make the covers, the apparatus criticus, the frame, the background etc part of the art as well—so why not do that with a dance collection of newly discovered ‘Lost dances’ from the land of the Bordonians?

Finally, creating a fictional world gave me an opportunity to match each dance with a story which makes the dance easier to remember and more amusing to dance. People remember a sequence better if they can associate it with a story, but a dance rarely comes about purely because of a story—so creating fictional texts that described and explained the dances enabled me to give each choreography a story that can help and amuse the dancer. It actually puts the dances in longstanding tradition of telling stories, as most historical dances do, even if unconsciously and even if the story-line is now often difficult to discern. The difference with my process is that the back-stories, dance and tune titles, were all consciously retrofitted.

Most importantly, I should note that my intention was never to produce a hoax. When my works first started coming out in the 1990s I received letters from people overseas who were very excited about my uncovering of this lost choreographic world—some wanted me to send them maps better locating the place, some believed they may have had relevant ancestry. It was never, however, my intention to mislead people into believing my fiction was a reality. I just wanted to produce a context which could add levels of enjoyment for the work… and makes me happier hearing that people are enjoying the world as fiction and expanding on it.

How did you end up creating Bordonia as a culture for your dances?

In 1995 I founded the band ’Earthly Delights’ to focus on music I was composing for what had become my two main instruments, an English style bagpipe and a French style hurdy-gurdy. In the first dance book and CD set I produced with that band in 1998 there were no sign of Bordonians, just lots of original dance and music material that people everywhere were enjoying and always asking where it come from. People asked so often where the material came from that it became a joke in the band—especially when we discovered that when they were told the truth (that I’d written the dances and tunes in Canberra) they didn’t believe us.

So when in 2000 we released the book and 4CD set The Lost Dances of Earthly Delights. Pleasures for Four Seasons I decided to give people what they wanted, a more exotic origin for the material… and I decided to use the fact that the material was all from lost European sources to explore in a humorous way many of the idiosyncrasies of folk and historical transmission that had occurred to me from all my dance experience. I chose the word ‘Bordonia’ as the two instruments I mostly played and the music I was writing was all drone based, and the old French for drone was ‘Bordon’- and in many European countries bourdon music was an old form of drone based music.  The Bordonians were of course dance crazy, needed to have a home, and that became the Valley of Earthly Delights… and so bit by bit grew the whole world… and I even got letters from overseas from people wanting me to send them more details and a map!

There soon followed regular dance classes and regular balls mixing historical material with Bordonian material, and a very competent dance group grew up (I think at the time one of the best in the country) that did hundreds of displays of Bordonian as well as historical material. They became known as the Bordonian Heritage dancers, and they started to really identify with the Bordonian creation, created banners and a magazine … and they were such good dancers, I kept creating new interesting dancers to extend them. In 2005 I re-released the old dance book and 4CD collection and added a new Volume 2: Favourites for Four Settings… new Bordonian sources had come to light! Eventually it was obvious that we needed a national costume and my wife Aylwen, who’d been on the adventure with me, led a working group that produced a lovely costume which we wore on many occasions—including,  most unbelievably, at the Australian National Multicultural Festival street parade where we were announced as ‘Bordonians’ when we went past the main podium.

Another example of a crazy thing the Bordonians got up to was performing a chimney-sweep dance routine in Bordonian national costume and with traditional instruments for a Mary Poppins song contest at the National Folk Festival here in Australia. The Bordonian music, dance and culture was always very well received where-ever it went, and people everywhere seemed to believe it connect them to their own roots where-ever they were. I even started to feel this myself, because although I was third generation Australian, part of my own family heritage was middle-European.

What does a certain choreography tell about its dancers and the culture it is danced in?

Every ball is made up of lots of different kinds of dance performing different social functions, and every dance is made up of many elements and dimensions (form, figure, figure order, mechanism, orientation, step, story-line etc) and every one of these elements in every dance is the product of layers of ideas that have been laid over the centuries, washed with the fashion of different time periods, the styles of different social milieu, and different perceived senses of what is appropriate in a geo-political sense. These ‘washes’ wash this way and that over each other, because what is fashionable can change over time and between milieu, and fashion can sometimes favour what is thought of as foreign over what is believed national and sometimes the reverse (and sometimes both at once in different parts of a ball). A dance will change as it changes milieu, whether travelling ‘up’ or ‘down’ socially between village, town and court, whether travelling ‘horizontally’ between cities, or even between dancing masters in the same city, whether moving from a small scale workshop to a large scale ball (such as at modern day role-playing convention).

So whether you are an archaeologist excavating a full dance program or studying just a single choreography, you will come across traces, some strong some weak, of many different ideas, all of which have to various degrees at different times been consciously accommodated or unconsciously adhered to by dancers in different times, places and situations.

Every choreography that comes down to us through history, whether over hundreds of years or just several years, ends up telling a story about the society that created it, the dancers through whose minds and feet it has passed and the culture in which it is now being performed. It can be a big complicated story.

People have been dancing your choreographies in Ropecon for years. What is your relationship with Ropecon and roleplaying in general?

I only recently heard that people have been dancing my choreographies in Ropecon and was especially thrilled to learn that they have been embraced by the Ropecon community with full appreciation of the fictional origin behind them. It has made us greatly look forward to coming to Ropecon this year.

It is always a mystery to me how people overseas learn of my dances. It is a special mystery for me with Ropecon. My wife and I have led dancing for hundreds of events all over the world and many of these have involved a degree of role playing (whether it be dancing historical dances in historical costume or dancing my ‘Lost dances’ in our Bordonian national costume), but we have never before led dancing in Finland nor at a dedicated roleplaying convention. It’s great to now be doing both at once! I think you will expand our horizon as much as we expand yours.

Path to the well, one of Johns Bordonian dances danced at Ropecon. 

But you do have some kind of ties to Finland?

When I think about it there have been many things tying me to Finland over the years.

Firstly, my favourite childhood books were the Moomintroll books… and I reread some years later to my own children.

Secondly, I had a Finnish girlfriend for a while when I was at University and that led me to study the Finnish language for a while (now nearly all forgotten I’m afraid!) and also led me to include Finland – including Lappland – in some travels 30 years ago.

Thirdly, my postgraduate ancient history studies led me to develop a distant academic relationship with a Finnish scholar and because my specialist interest was at the time in ancient Eurasian history, on which the Finnish University library was particularly strong, and that lead me to spending a week at that University library.

Fourthly, my adopted home city of Canberra had a strong Finnish post-war migrant community and so years ago that had a particularly nice ethnic community centre and strong folk dance group, and I made many friends there.

Fifthly, some of my Bordonian dances, including two I might teach while at Ropecon, were actually inspired by or used bits I’d observed in Finnish folk dance.

Do you consider historical dancing as playing a role, re-enactment or something else?

Yes, yes and yes.

There is certainly a strong dimension of role playing in historical dancing. When courteously asking someone to partner you, when adopting good deportment to lead someone out to dance, when bowing to partner and company at the beginning of a dance, and when greetings and guiding, sharing and showing off, flirting and farewelling during the dance, you are unconsciously playing a role. You are playing a lady or gentlemen. You are a member of a society that is simultaneously real and imagined. You are taking on a role with respect your partner that stretches from being good company to one step short of suitor and lover. The role you’ve unconsciously stepped into involves, in a more time-condensed way than in most other roles in life, finding ways to rise above your own self-consciousness, to improve yourself and make those around you happy.

There is also a strong dimension of re-enactment in historical dancing. It give participants an opportunity to enjoy history from the inside and to bring it alive. It helps us make tangible, aesthetic and emotional links with the past, something which can only be good for us as social beings.

Historical dance is also lots of other things. It’s physical and mental exercise. It’s a way to meet people and socialise. It’s a form of recreation and, not to forget, it’s an art. Once you start appreciating it as an art, you can end up enjoying learning more and more about it for the rest of your life.

How did you end up creating the Dance through the Ages opuses? How long did that work take?

While developing my Christmas Carol Dance book between 2000 and 2002, and my second Lost Dances Volume between 2002 and 2005, my interest in historical dance grew and I started to collect and read a lot of historical dance source material and started to make lots of teaching notes. In about 2006 I decided to put all my historical dance notes into a more organised form… but as I proceeded I realised I needed to collect, read, write and think more. The more I learnt the more there was to learn. More and more interesting corners of dance history started to open up… and Aylwen and I started to run monthly historical balls (some of which became small festivals)—with every month a different theme period and a different costume!

For years I was incredibly busy researching and rehearsing the months new ball dances, and Aylwen was busy with costuming. Being so far from European and north American teachers I found myself reading instead all the primary sources… book after book… and eventually started to buy and collect and build up a very large antique dance book collection. As our children started to grow up we started to travel overseas to further our dance and costume research (as well as teach and see what other scenes were doing). Eventually, in early 2018, 12 years after starting, I managed to produce the resource that I myself wish I had had —a 33 books series entitled Dance through the Ages series, covering every possible aspect of dance and dancing of the ballroom from 1400 to 1900—with a great emphasis on the presentation and interpretation of primary material. I had never envisaged that  the project would end up this big, and had I known it was going to take 12 years of my life I’m not sure if I would have started! Now, of course, I am happy and wouldn’t have done anything differently… and it wasn’t long after releasing that work in early 2018 that I re-found my energy and started writing revisions and additions for a 2nd (and final!) edition to be released in December 2019 or January 2020.

Do you have anything to say for a newcomer curious about historical dancing in Ropecon?

Join in! It’s fantastic fun, it’s social, and there will be no expectation that you have any experience or expertise.

You might discover something new within yourself as you link with the past, interact physically yet politely with others, move to great music, make new friends, and put your body into a long-lived art. And if you are interested in costume, as many at Ropecon will be, it’s the perfect—indeed age-old—reason for dressing-up!

What are you currently most excited about?

My wife and I are very excited about being at Ropecon for the first time. We are excited at the prospect of experiencing a completely new scene and having our horizons expanded by it. We are also excited at the prospect of meeting for the first time people on the other side of the world to us who have been revelling in the world I created. We are also excited by the possibility of introducing people to fun dances they may not have seen before—dances both of my own creation and genuinely historical ones. We are also looking forward very much to making new friends!

Do you want to try out one of John’s dances? You can check out Ropecon’s dancing times and what else John will be up to in our program that will be released in June. Meanwhile, feel free to check out his work on historical dances at the Earthly Delights Historic Dance Academy.