From jam and Jerusalem to modern times

Tutors Caroline, Helen and Amy doing the 1940s stroll at the new Hebden Bridge W.I.
Tutors Caroline, Helen and Amy doing the 1940s stroll at the new Hebden Bridge W.I.

She is currently at the front of the room flicking her ankles, twisting her wrists and is at one with the music.

I am glaring at my wayward limbs wondering if they will ever obey instructions and produce a dance move that even vaguely resembles what we are attempting to do ... The Charleston stroll.

Amy Leader at Moyles

Amy Leader at Moyles

A dancing lesson this certainly is, but that is not the real reason I am here strutting my stuff with a room full of other women.

I had made my way to the upstairs of Hope Baptist Church to attend only the second meeting of Hebden Bridge Women’s Institute.

It was clear this was not your typical W.I, if there is such a thing any more. After all this wonderful institution shook off its Jam and Jerusalem image some time ago with among other things, semi-naked calendars and the dressing down of politicians.

And here in Hebden Bridge, a town that thrives on breaking with convention, we were light years away from that twin-set and pearls image.

For a start there is quite an age range. While the youngest member is 21 and many are in their 30s, older generations are also represented.

President Amy Leader is keen to point out this is not just about “young ‘uns”. It is for like-minded people who want to learn new skills and have a good time doing it.

Still, you can’t get away from the fact this all has a very modern 21st century feel to it.

The inaugural meeting was spent learning how to mix cocktails at Moyles bar, Hebden Bridge and future get-togethers will include sushi classes, poker playing and fascinator making.

Numbers are growing - already they have 59 members - as the word spreads through social media. Progress is charted through a blog. But more of that later.

Right now the chairs need to be moved aside and our challenge to learn a trio of strolls begins.

The popularity of these dances spiked in the 1950s.

But now, 60 years later, our transformation into effortless movers did not begin well. We fell over our own feet and any others that strayed onto our patch of floor and ended up in a fit of giggles.

Luckily Caroline, one of the three tutors, came to assist, and together with Alison and Sara, she soon helped us on our way. By the end of the session we had even progressed to throwing wrist flicks in for good measure.

If the W.I. hopes to inspire people to learn new skills, then it had done its job admirably.

Amy decided to start the group last year: “We wanted people with a zest for life regardless of their age. As long as you have got the right attitude you’ll fit in,” she said. “We’ve got a member who’s 21, but then the ages go right up, and that’s what we want. It’s about attitude, not age,” she said.

As we all cooled down afterwards, I had a natter with some of the other women over a slice of cake. Well some things do not change!

“It’s such a range of people,” said Sara, 42.

Gallery owner Allison added: “There’s a lot of people that I don’t know here and I’m looking forward to meeting them.”

Others revealed their motivation had been to learn new skills.

“One of the classes will teach us how to sew things properly,” said Gemma 32. “I just thought if I knew how to make hems and do bottoms so they look nice and repair dresses then great!”

Single mum Heidi said her motivation to put on her dancing shoes was to get out and meet people.

“It’s a wonderful atmosphere,” she said. “We’re quite lucky in Hebden because people are so open-minded. It’s the only place you could have such a mixed bag of people doing this,” she laughed.

There are more than 207,000 members of the W.I. across the country and they pull no punches. Remember when Tony Blair got a tough time over the direction of Labour? That was at a W.I. meeting. Remember the women who launched the original real body campaign by whipping off their tops and preserving their modesty with just a cream bun? They were W.I. members.

Current campaigns include battling for clearer food labelling, trying to secure the future of Britain’s dairy farmers and campaigning for an end to violence against women.

Which is all a long way from its original aims to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to produce more food during the First World War.

These aren’t women learning how to be a wife or a role-model mother, these are women who want the chance to learn new skills, take part in activities and campaign on issues that matter to them. All that and the opportunity to learn a few new moves for next time we all hit the dancefloor? Not bad for a rainy Monday in Hebden Bridge.

The WI meet every third Monday, for more details drop into Ribbon Circus, Albert Street, Hebden Bridge