Sunday, August 09, 2009

Molly and Morris Dance in Sidmouth Folk Week 2009

Morris dancing is another tradition that almost died out being revitalised in the nick of time in about 1899. Something old for the new century. It probably gets its name from Moorish.

Molly dancers have been recorded in many parts of the English Midlands and East Anglia. It died out finally in the 1930s, the last dancers seen dancing in Little Downham near Ely, Cambridgeshire in 1933. On this occasion the dances performed included a tango, performed by two male dancers, one dressed as a woman.

The only recorded Molly dances come from Comberton and Girton, villages just outside Cambridge, researched by Russell Wortley and Cyril Papworth. Some examples of the music played for the dancers have survived. These include George Green's College Hornpipe, collected from the Little Downham Melodeon player.

Molly dancing is most associated with Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany. Tradition has it that as a way of filling the gap between Christmas and the start of the Spring ploughing season, the ploughboys would tour around the village landowners, offering to dance for money. Those who refused would be penalised in various ways (see Trick or treat) including having a furrow ploughed across the offender's lawn.

The dancers, wishing to gain employment from those same landowners shortly afterwards, would attempt to conceal their identities by blacking their faces with soot and dressing up in a modified version of their Sunday Best, typically black garments adorned with coloured scarves and other fripperies. It was originally an all-male tradition but with one of the members - the Molly - dressed up as a woman.

These days women and men dance together molly and morris wise though according to a painting of morris dancers at Richmond in 1620 they were danced by both men and women together in those days too, unless they were men dressed as women, there is quite a bit of politics about all this which I don't have the space to get into here.

A nice early picture of morris dancers is an enamelled glass window from Bletley, Staffordshire. Its date is uncertain but it seems to have been made between about 1510 and 1600 something or other.

In the reign of Henry VIII, morris dancing attained great popularity. There seems to have been at that time two principle performers, Robin Hood and Maid Marian; then there was a friar, a piper, a fool, and the rank and file of the dancers. In the parish accounts of Kingston-on-Thames for the year 1537 the Morris Dancers' wardrobe, then in the charge of the churchwardens, consisted of "A fryers cote of russet and a kyrtele weltyd with red cloth, a Mowren's (Moor's) cote of buckram, and four morres dauncars cotes of white fustian spangelid and two gryne saten cotes, and a disardde's (fool's) cote of cotton, and six payre of garters with belles."

Morris sides, or teams, consist of a number of roles. The role of the squire varies. In some sides the squire is the leader, who will speak for the side in public, usually lead or call the dances, and often decide the programme for a performance. In other sides the squire is more of an administrator, with the foreman taking the lead, and the dances called by any experienced dancer.

The foreman teaches and trains the dancers, and is responsible for the style and standard of the side's dancing.

The bagman is traditionally the keeper of the bag — that is to say, the side's funds. In some sides today the bagman acts as secretary (particularly bookings secretary) and there is often a separate treasurer.

On some sides a ragman manages and co-ordinates the team's kit or costume. This may include making bell-pads, ribbon bads, sashes and other accoutrements.

Many sides have one or more fools. A fool will usually be extravagantly dressed, and communicate directly with the audience in speech or mime. The fool will often dance around and even through a dance without appearing really to be a part of it, but it takes a talented dancer to pull off such fooling while actually adding to and not distracting from the main dance set.

Many sides also have a beast: a dancer in a costume made to look like a real or mythical animal. Beasts mainly interact with the audience, particularly children. In some groups this dancer is called the hobby.


john said...

Apologies again for the lack of my sidebar with links and followers etc. They are all underneath the postings at the bottom of the page for reasons that are beyond my control. Hopefully at some point it might change back again though presently there is nothing that I can do about it.

nobody said...

Yay! Too much fun. I had a bit of trouble telling the Mollies from the Morries. The Morris dancers are always in white I take it? And the Molly dancers always have blackened faces, is that right? And aren't the names confusing? We always called any Morris car, a 'molly'. Never mind.

As for the fool, is that that fellow with the white stick seemingly giving you a clap in the goolies?

And you know what I'd love to see John? Pictures of a mummer play. Is that your neck of the woods?

john said...

Yes it was a lot of fun Nobody and you are right about the differances between the Molly and Morris dancers. In the above photo's the two teams are from nearby, the darker ones are the Grimspound Border who describe themselves as morris but look molly, it does get a bit confusing. Border style is from the welsh/english border region though the Grimspound make a lot of their dances.

The others in blue with flowers are from Exmoor and also describe themselves as border. Confused yet? I am.

The very colourful ones are from the Ouse Washes Molly daners, so we can say they are molly.

The fool is the man with the stick which was actually a sparkly broom he was using to sweep me out of the way with a bit. Earlier on I had been chased by some women on stilts in bat costumes squeeking at me, it gets a bit unpredictable around here during folk week.

I watched the Sidmouth mummers do their play outside a pub last week but didn't get any photo's, they were performing the Christmas play which seemed a bit odd for this time of year.

They have a website which includes a youtube link which has the entire play on it. I expect lots of others do likewise and it would be interesting to watch some of these. All of these people seem to have websites now so there is plenty on the internet, although the qualities do vary a lot.

nobody said...

Thanks mate. Off to check it out.

queenofthenile said...

Sidmouth is another spectacular presence in your photos. Wow! It sits in the background, but it leaps out at me too.

I saw some Morris dancers in Haworth just before Christmas last year. What a treat. Went to see the Bronte's home town and bumped into the Morris dancers and the Queen of Christmas.

Thanks for bringing us Folk Week!

Penny said...

hey john no apologies necessary, we are all bright enough to find the links etc.,

well except for nobody ;)

my computer was being fickle and I couldn't comment on any blogs including my own for two days. go figure, I know, I can't.

john said...

Cheers Queen of the Nile and thanks. You seem to have seen quite a lot of this country by the sound of it, I very rarely get north of Bristol for some reason though there is plenty to see.

Of course the thing missing from the photo's is all the music which is a bit of a shame. The most annoying musicians are some of the Irish children who play beautifully and brilliantly on an instrument then they put it down and pick up another different instrument and play that and then they will put that down and pick up another etc.

Cheers Penny. I just wanted to say about the links in case people thought that I'd done it on purpose but I liked them where they were before, blogger does muck me about quite a lot. The computer here usually works ok apart from it groaning under the weight of all my photo's.

I've just been up to Braunton Burrows on the north coast taking some pictures and getting a bit lost due to the lack of paths and hard walking, eventually finding one and coming past a lovely little chalet on the edge of the dunes when two people appeared in front of us who turned out to be folk we know from down here who actually own the chalet. It's a small world sometimes with some strange timing.

the Silverfish said...

Sorry John for not having been around for a bit but I've taken the summer off to do Yuh know fun stuff like sailing and fishing. Just thought I'd drop by and let Yuh know that I'm still alive and kicking, sad to say.

john said...

Hello Silverfish, glad to hear that everything is alright and that you are out there doing fun stuff, It sounds good. I think we have to enjoy our short summers while they last. All the best.