Mary Neal Logo Mary Neal - An Undertold Story...
Timeline     1860-1888   1888-1895   1895-1905   1905-1914   1914-1918   1918-1925   1925-1937   1937-1944   1944-1989   1989-2014


'We made dancing, singing and acting our chief occupations' Mary Neal 

A Learning Programme uses Mary’s life and work as a resource for participatory arts practice today.

Mary’s belief in the centrality of dance and song in people’s lives found expression in her work as founder of The Espérance Club - (Espérance as in Hope) - set up for working class girls in one of London’s worst Victorian slums.

Dancing and the joyous effect of dancing on people became her abiding preoccupations. She saw the impulse and desire of the girls to dance and the transforming effect it had on them.

Mary spotted early on that half the fun (and challenge) of learning is being given responsibility for teaching what you’ve just learnt to somebody else. She recognised young people had an exceptional ability to do this and created the chances for them to do it. The Club became a hub for the creative development of young people in every sense: self-organisation, discipline, responsibility towards each other and leadership. "The London girl is as quick to teach as to learn"

She organised for traditional dancers from around the country to come up to London to teach young girls (and boys) at the Espérance Club. In time, these young people travelled out of London to become teachers of song and dance themselves. Some started at the Club as young as 2. Here, she describes what went on:

"The learning of a new morris is an interesting sight.
The tune having been taken down, is played on the piano, the old men marshall six girls into the middle of the room; there is a babel of voices, everyone seems to be pushing everyone into her place. The piano stops, a committee is held, all talking at once. The pianist turns to me in despair. “They’ll never get the dance, they can’t understand the old man’s broad Berkshire dialect, it’s no use.” “It’s all right, “ I reply, “you wait, I’ve seen all this sort of thing before; in twenty minutes they will have got it.” And sure enough in less than that “Sally Luker” is going merrily and to the entire satisfaction of the teachers. The other dances go through the same stages, and in two evenings we know all those which the men can teach us."
Mary Neal, The Espérance Morris Book.

The Learning Programme picks up on this key quality of learning as an exchange - as a ‘handing on’ of something. It brings together English folk practitioners, children, dancers and contemporary artists to

  • explore indigenous English song and dance traditions
  • learn from one another
  • create something new


Inspired by an ethos of experiment and collaboration, 2 projects have taken place so far: A Research Day at Sadlers Wells Theatre and A Learning Programme in 2 Primary Schools.

A Research Day at Sadler’s Wells Theatre allowed a group of professional artists, folk practitioners and arts educators to explore ideas about inheritance and the role of creativity in English traditional song and dance that still resonate today. Read here feed back from the day and the questions being asked. What would have happened to Mary’s work had she collaborated with progressive educationalists such as John Dewey, who valued the creative expression and development of the learner?

A Learning Programme in 2 primary schools, one in the city, (Edith Neville in Somerstown) and one in the countryside (Bentley in Hampshire) Oct’08-Jan’09. Downloadable a PDF of the programme.

An old box gets unpacked, children engage playfully with historical material to learn and create something new. The schools have the chance of connecting to celebrate. The programme values the creativity of children and young people as the makers of culture and is inspired by Mary Neal’s values of inclusivity and participation of the whole community.

Artists work on this collaboration, Laurel Swift a musician and Morris Dancer, and Freddie Opoku-Addaie a contemporary choreographer and dancer. 


The following artists participated in the learning programme.

Sam Lee Nikki Crane  Laurel Swift Freddie Opoku-Addaie Anna Ledgard Fabio Santos Paul Brett Enitan Osinake Moussa Keita Tabitha Neal Chris Wood Tim van Eyken Cat Radford Janet Foster Chris Pentney Michelle Bloom Rosemary Lee Lucy Richardson Paul Clark Verity Sharp Sally McKay Damien Barber Simon Maggs Jen Walke Ally Walsh Lucy Neal Ruth Holdsworth 


Please click on the images below to read about the projects.

Research Day
Research Day

Schools Project
Schools Project

The Mary Neal Day
The Mary Neal Day