An introduction to singing and dancing

Singing and dancing games have been popular for generations.

This footage was filmed in Edinburgh in 1951 and shows a girl performing the singing game ‘The Wind Blows High’.

Singing games were beloved of 19th century collectors, who often believe that they preserved evidence of ancient rituals.

This footage was filmed in London in 1957 and shows a group of girls performing the singing game ‘There was a Lovely Princess’.

They were also seized on by those who imagine and lament a decline in children’s traditional games.

Footage of a variation of a popular singing game recorded in Edinburgh, 1951

Singing games have been revived a number of times, for instance, in the late 19th and late 20th centuries.

This footage was filmed in Edinburgh in 1951

Nowadays tend to be taught by adults, whether in the playground, in singing lessons, in children’s parties or via children’s television programmes.

This recording was made by Iona Opie in Huddersfield in 1978.

The classic singing games were generally performed by girls, though boys sometimes joined in. Many involved circling whilst holding hands and had a courtship or marriage element.

This recording was made by Iona Opie in Micklefield, Yorkshire, in July 1978.

Recorded in Edinburgh in 1951, ‘Sweet Jenny’ is a more commonly sung with its widely known alternative first line ‘My name is Queen Mary’

Though the older singing games, including ‘Ring a Ring a Roses’ and ‘In and Out the Dusty Bluebells’ form a part of this repertoire, they are mainly found among children in the first few years of primary school. As children grow older, more of their singing games can be traced to their media cultures, ranging from cheerleading, handshakes and pop song routines, to elaborate restagings of routines from their favourite musicals.

This footage was recorded in Edinburgh in 1951.

The children in this footage, recorded in Edinburgh, are singing ‘Here Comes a Bluebird’

The Opie’s recorded children performing songs of the pop stars of the day, from Bob Merrill’s ‘She Wears Red Feathers’, to Lena Zavaroni’s ‘Ma He’s Making Eyes at Me’, to Abba, and we have recent examples of children using songs and dances from Beyoncé, High School Musical (2006) and Mamma Mia! (2008).

This recording was made by Iona Opie in Liss, Hampshire in 1976 and records a small group of girls performing the then popular singing game ‘I’m Shirley Temple’.

This film explores the fun and complicated 'singing and dancing games' that children play.

Singing popular songs in groups of two or more was already well known in the 1960s, and it’s a popular activity on today’s playgrounds. Sometimes this is accompanied by dance moves, either made up by the children themselves or, increasingly, copying routines or styles seen in films, music videos or learnt in dance classes. Boys and girls both engage enthusiastically with this kind of play.

This footage was filmed in Edinburgh in 1951 and features a group of boys singing.

'Just when I was single' sung as a skipping game in Edinbrugh, 1951

A casual adult observer might suppose that children are simply mimicking routines they’ve seen in the media, but the picture’s more complicated than that. They very often combine elements of dance, gesture, music and words from different sources, blending them into one routine.

This footage was recorded in Edinburgh in 1951. The girls in the clip were all pupils at Norton Park School.

They may also learn these routines from each other, or from parents, siblings and cousins, rather than directly from the media. In some ways then media based songs and dances can be passed in the same kind of way as a folk song or folk dance.

This recording of a singing game was made by Iona Opie in the children’s playground of Coram Fields, London in 1974.

Such activities clearly contribute to social development and the gradual building of identity, but they’re also undertaken for all the reasons adults perform music, song and dance, for the sensory, aesthetic and intellectual interest involved and the sheer pleasure of performance.

Micheal Rosen introduces the tradition of singing and dancing games.

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Article: © Michael Rosen

  • Michael Rosen
  • Michael Rosen is Professor of Children's Literature at Goldsmiths University. From 2007–2009 he was Children's Laureate.

    Born in 1946 in North London he started writing poetry when he was twelve years old, creating satirical poems about people he knew. Now he  is one of the best-known figures in the children’s book world, he is renowned for his work as a poet, performer, broadcaster and scriptwriter. As an author and by selecting other writers’ works for anthologies he has been involved with over 140 books. He visits schools with his one-man show to enthuse children with his passion for books and poetry. You Can’t Catch Me won the Signal Poetry Award in 1982 and such is the enduring appeal of the poems that the book was re-issued in 2006 with Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard as Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Bloomsbury). His classic picture book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books), won the Nestle Smarties Grand Prize in 1989. The English Association awarded Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (Walker Books), an Exceptional Award for the Best Children’s Illustrated Books of 2004, in the 4-11 age range. More information about Michael, his books and what he's doing is available on his website: https://www.michaelrosen.co.uk/