Emerging Historians—Heather Clarke

Clarke - Heather in Volubilis

Dr Heather Clarke

My name is Heather Blasdale Clarke, I completed a professional doctorate in 2019 at the Queensland University of Technology.  I belong to a rare breed of historians who specialise in dance. Currently, apart teaching historical dance, I’m undertaking the things common to ECRs: writing journal articles, organising conference presentations, and preparing my thesis for publication.

How did you come to be a historian?

I have always been fascinated by history and the stories associated with places. My parents valued heritage and took me to all manner of historic sites; I distinctly remember from an early age visiting Macarthur’s Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta, and my father working on the archaeological dig at First Government House. I also grew up with a strong affinity to Australian folklore, to bush music, song and dance.  As a young adult I realised that there was a gap in our knowledge about early colonial culture: people assumed the harsh conditions of the colony would preclude all recreation. I questioned this assumption and discovered that not only were official balls held, but common people danced regularly. I was enthralled and inspired to read Grace Karskens’ The Colony and The Rocks,  Robert Jordan’s Convict Theatres of Early Australia, and Marion Fletcher’s Costume in Australia, all of which touched on social history and the importance of dance. In former times dance was such an everyday, mainstream activity that it could easily pass without mention – in our modern society where community social dance has essentially disappeared, it is difficult to appreciate the prevalence and significance of dance for our ancestors.

At various times throughout history, dance has been regarded as frivolous, sinful, and unproductive, largely due to the Cartesian dualism that privileged the intellect over feelings, emotions and experience, viewing the body simply as a vehicle to carry the brain. In addition, it was difficult to study dance in an academic manner because it could not be captured and examined. Advances in philosophy now recognise that dance provides its own  epistemology as a different way of knowing the world, and this linked to scientific investigations into the effects of dance (psychological and physiological) has opened enormous possibilities for academic research.

Tracing history through dance. A little known aspect of dance history is that the English country dance, the most popular form of dance in Western society from 1650 to 1830, captured what was happening is society in a remarkable way – important events, significant people, and popular theatre were all reflected in the names of dances. A striking example of this is the dance entitled Botany Bay which was published, along with the music, in 1788.  Dance is a exceptional way to study history as it allows both an intellectual and embodied approach. I became an historian of dance to explore Australia’s own story.

Tell us about your PhD research

Convicts dancing! Could that be true? Although it was known that popular culture had been quickly established in early colonial Australia, little was known of the details. My doctoral research explored social dance for non-elite people in the colony between 1788 and 1840 with a focus on the convicts and ex-convicts who comprised the majority of the population. This was possible through the distinctive set of records which monitored convict lives. Old Bailey court transcripts revealed that dancing was a popular and regular activity for the lower levels of society in London; medical journals on convict ships recorded the beneficial effects of encouraging regular dancing for the prisoners; and police incidents reported in the newspapers demonstrated that dancing was a established pastime in the colony. These findings were further enhanced by accumulating and analysing images of non-elite people dancing, examining contemporary literature and investigating the convict records. This comprehensive database was then utilised in a series of workshops to research the dances themselves. It was found that not only was dancing an exuberant activity, but it also had profound mental, emotional and physiological  benefits. For convicts torn from family, friends, and homeland, dancing encouraged a sense of belonging and community, binding strangers together with social interaction and shared memories of a common cultural experience.

Why does it matter?

This research presents a completely different perspective on Australian history and challenges many of the stereotypes of convict life. Given that history shapes how we view ourselves and our society, this insight into early colonial cultural and labour history has the potential to bring new understandings to our colonial past and the Australian identity.

Not only did the research uncover a lost culture of music and dance in a tangible way,  it also revealed the significance of dance as a way of coping with stress and displacement.  Dance provided a sense of identity, social connection, and at times a form of rebellion for people dealing with a difficult situation. This is supported by recent empirical investigations which highlight the benefits of dance reaching far beyond the physical effects.

It’s an example of history providing insights into how our ancestors endured, coped with oppression and celebrated, and how this can be relevant as a choice for today and into the future.

It’s noteworthy in being the first extensive investigation of dance for non-elite people in  eighteenth and early nineteenth century Western society in a field which has traditionally focused only on ‘high’ culture. It provides a guideline for further research into areas which have hitherto escaped investigation and points to ways in which sources can reveal  unexpected information.

What are you researching now or intending to do next?

I’m continuing to research convict music and dance, working on the website, preparing the thesis for publication, and wondering where to find a publisher. Many areas remain to be explored, such as the links between music, dance and convict theatre, and the influence of the popular ‘lower order’ culture of the convicts and the development of the Australian bush tradition.

A second project concerns the culture of music and dance which celebrated the life of Captain Cook. Hailed as one of the greatest explorers of his age, Cook used dance to maintain the wellbeing of his crew and as a means to communicate with Indigenous people. He was honoured in music and dance within his lifetime, and afterward his death was celebrated in the ballet The Death of Captain Cook. A book in time for the 250th anniversary is the aim.

What do you love about being a historian?

I love the hunt and uncovering lost knowledge. I love asking questions of the archives which have never been asked before – who would imagine the Old Bailey Court transcripts would reveal a vast amount of  information about 18th century dance? I love the intriguing  connections as we look back on the accumulated data and see a vivid and detailed picture emerging. Drawing the threads together and retelling the story and is infinitely satisfying.

What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

The future is obscure and it’s unclear where to go next. Being heard is an issue, and the uncertainty of anyone actually being  interested. Finding the right publisher and the right audience seems to be incredibly challenging.

If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

My whole existence has been immersed in Britain and the colony from 1788 to 1840, and although it would be fascinating to be there, I would choose London in 1651. This is the date of the first edition of John Playford’s The English Dancing Master was published  – the final year of the Civil War, Cromwell in power, and Charles II crowned in Scotland. We have the music, the instructions and the context, but we don’t know how people actually danced.


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