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Mary Neal

(1860—1944) social worker and folk-dance collector


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(1860–1944). Clara Sophia Neal (she became known as ‘Mary’ in 1888) began her philanthropic work in 1888 with the Wesleyan Methodist Mission in West London, and in 1895 formed, with co-worker Emmeline Pethick, her own Espérance Girls' Club for working girls. In 1906, in search of activities to interest the Espérance girls, Neal approached Cecil Sharp, who put her in touch with William Kimber, morris dancer from Heading ton Quarry, Oxford, who visited the Club to teach the girls morris dances. Neal and her associates were captivated by the songs and dances, and almost immediately embarked upon a crusade with a view to founding a national revival movement. Sharp and Neal were kept busy collecting, lecturing, writing, and organizing events, and the Espérance girls were soon travelling the country as teachers of morris dancing. For a while, Sharp and Neal worked together, but from 1908 rising tensions over artistic standards and the way the morris dance was taught and presented, resulted in a very public parting and the formation of two opposing camps which vied for control of the new movement. Sharp's side stressed the need for high artistic standards and for experts to collect and interpret the dances, while Neal was concerned with the good that the dances could do to raise the spirits and artistic sensibilities of the poor and was less concerned with standards. Several years of argument and manœuvre followed, but by 1914 Sharp was beginning to win the day, partly because Neal had other interests to claim her attention, and after the First World War Neal did not return to the fray, leaving Sharp's English Folk Dance Society firmly in control of the future of the dance revival. As history is written by the victors, Neal's contribution to the early revival has, until recently, been consistently underplayed, but her point of view has been echoed many times since by people in dance clubs and societies who react against the idea of rigid artistic control. After the First World War Mary Neal continued to devote her life to philanthropic causes, but took no further active part in the folk revival.

From A Dictionary of English Folklore in Oxford Reference.


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