Enthusiasms No 25
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
Samuel John Sherry, born 12.1.1912, died 9.5.01
When Cecil Sharp collected English folk dances at the start of the twentieth century, he completely ignored the clog dances from the industrial towns of the north of England and from the music halls. They did not fit the pastoral English folk dance image. Yet, it was amongst the folk dance revivalists of the last three decades that Sam Sherry, who has died aged 89, found a new and enthusiastic audience for his clog dancing routines, after a successful career as a variety theatre entertainer and speciality dancer.
Sam Sherry's father was a professional music hall artiste, born in Glasgow of Irish parents, who became a professional dancer and comedian using the name Dan Conroy. One of his songs, I Want to be a Sausage, was still being sung by his son Sam eighty years later. Sam's mother came from a music hall family in Bolton and Sam was born in Nottinghamshire, in 1912, youngest of nine children.
Like all the Sherry children, Sam was taught to dance by his father as soon as he could walk, and by the time he was five, he was practising an hour a day. His father taught him the three Lancashire steps, which were the basis of all the dance steps he subsequently learnt.
Sam left school at 14 and joined his brothers in a show called Contrasts. From his brother Jim, he learnt acrobatic dancing and in 1927 Sam and his brother Peter formed a speciality dancing act which toured in revue. Their eight-minute act included a soft shoe or schottische tap dance, followed by a fast hornpipe routine including acrobatic tricks. Contrasts changed its name to A Sherry Cocktail with various family members performing as comedians, musicians and speciality dancers and with Sam's sisters singing as the Sherina Sisters.
With the threat to variety theatre from the 'talkies', the Sherry family members were always on the look-out for novelty and they formed a show called Pageant on Parade in which the brothers danced in clogs -- wooden soles with patent leather uppers. Soon afterwards, the Five Sherry Brothers were formed, an act which included Sam on guitar, and Sam, Harry and Peter performing their acrobatic fiddle dance. The finale was the acrobatic dancing act -- step dances, acrobatic routines and a fast winging routine. They wore tap shoes and evening dress and it was a sensational show-stopping act. Fortunately, the Five Sherry Brothers were filmed and the routines were incorporated into an Arts Council-sponsored film 'Sam Sherry: Step Dancer' made by John Tchalenko in 1980. Folk dance audiences gasped when they saw the old routines.
After the Second World War, Sam and Peter formed a duo, performing in summer seasons in places such as Llandudno and Scarborough as well as in pantomime, working with up-and-coming stars such as Max Bygraves and Hilda Baker. But the work was drying up and they were finding it hard to make a living. Peter retired in 1956 and Sam burned his clogs and settled in Galgate in Lancaster where he built up a narrowboat hire and repair business.
Sam returned to the world of music and dance in the mid-sixties when he joined and performed as a singer and guitarist at a folk club in Lancaster. In 1967, the local branch of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) was organising a ceilidh and wanted a clog dance performance. Sam collected a new pair of clogs on the day of the ceilidh and after a quick rehearsal and with unfamiliar musicians, Sam performed a fast hornpipe routine, dancing the steps as they came back into his mind.
Within a couple of years, he had been invited to dance at the EFDSS's London headquarters Cecil Sharp House, and at the organisation's Royal Albert Hall Festival. Folk festivals and concerts all over the country followed, and he was in demand for his dance displays at all the major festivals, including Sidmouth, Whitby, Fylde and Loughborough. More than that, there was a growing enthusiasm amongst the young folk dancers to learn clog dancing and Sam was much sought after as a teacher of his clog dance routines. In addition to festival classes and workshops, he ran two weekly classes in Lancaster and Preston, from which grew the Lancashire Wallopers dance display group, and he was very influential on the country's leading group, Reading Traditional and Step Dancers. He helped found the Clog Dancing competitions at Fylde Folk Festival in Fleetwood in 1976, and acted as adjudicator for many years.
Sam also appeared on television, including an episode of Coronation Street, and in 1984 he made an appearance as a clog dancer in a production of Sergeant Musgrave's Dance at London's Old Vic, alongside Albert Finney and Max Wall. He taught dance routines to many professional dancers, including Wayne Sleep.
It is often said that the English clog dances were the inspiration for American tap dancing, but the reverse was also the case. Sam was inspired to create his waltz routine from steps he learnt as a young man, after hearing Sammy Davis Junior suggest that "tap dancing all started with the old clog waltz". In 1997 Sam took the dances back to the USA when he taught classes in Massachusetts.
In addition to the Arts Council film, Sam's dancing was filmed by Barry Callaghan for the English Folk Dance and Song Society ('Sam Sherry - Lancashire Step Dancer') and three of Sam's dance sequences, the jig, waltz and Exhibition Lancashire are featured on the film, aimed as a teaching aid. His singing was recorded on the Veteran label in 1989, and includes Sam and Peter recorded in 1950 singing You Can Always Ask an Expert, as well as a 1930 recording of the Five Sherry Brothers singing Say That You're Sorry "with actual step dancing".
Sam also wrote about clog dancing in an article 'Notes on Clog Dancing' in the 1971 issue of the EFDSS's Folk Music Journal and a transcription, by Ann-Marie Hulme and Peter Clifton, of his autobiography was published in English Dance and Song magazine in 1979, under the title 'Actual Step Dancing'. In 1982 Sam was awarded the Gold Badge of the EFDSS and although he stopped display dancing some years ago, he still cast an expert eye on dance workshops that were led by his former pupils, especially Harry Cowgill. He continued to demonstrate the steps in workshops using a portable 'pulpit' on which he supported his body weight -- he called it his clog zimmer frame. He also continued to attend a limited number of festivals and other folk music events as an audience member with his second wife, Daphne (his first wife, Marjorie, died in the early 1980s).
He was a gentle, quiet man with a wry sense of humour and a kind word for everyone he met. His slight frame belied the energy and excitement of his dancing. As a performer he always developed a tremendous rapport with his audience.
His dancing was seen for the last time in the recent BBC Omnibus film Fascinatin' Rhythm: The Story of Tap, filmed when he was 88 years of age.
At the time the Arts Council film was made, Sam said, "To think that, when you're gone, people will still talk about you, and say, 'Well, this is one of Sam Sherry's steps' -- this is lovely!"
Derek Schofield - 2.6.01
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