Making a Morris into a molly man

PUBLISHED: 16:16 12 January 2006 | UPDATED: 11:27 04 May 2010

Michael Schaschk and Michael Czarnobaj of the Mepal Molly Men.
Photo: HELEN SOUTH

Michael Schaschk and Michael Czarnobaj of the Mepal Molly Men. Photo: HELEN SOUTH

LAST week I talked about Plough Monday and made a reference to molly dancing, which is considered to be the East Anglian form of Morris dancing. Molly dancing distinguishes itself from the Cotswold Morris dancing because the foundations are that men dres

LAST week I talked about Plough Monday and made a reference to molly dancing, which is considered to be the East Anglian form of Morris dancing.

Molly dancing distinguishes itself from the Cotswold Morris dancing because the foundations are that men dress up as women. In this respect it is a way of challenging the social norms of the time. Traditionally the dances were performed on the same day as the plough was dragged around the village in order to collect a penny for the ploughboys, namely Plough Monday.

Molly dancing was at its height in the middle of the nineteenth century. Those taking part in the dances would have their faces blackened and wore hobnailed boots, which made a loud noise as the dancers performed the slow heavy steps, the music was provided by triangles and fiddles.

Once again, the oral tradition of these dances means that the actual steps of the original molly dances have been lost. Recently a number of groups in East Anglia have revived molly dancing. These groups dress up in the same type of clothes and blacken their faces, but the dance routines are new interpretations taken from other folk dances.

It is thought that molly dancing comes from the plough play, which has been described as a 'rural pantomime performed by the poor of the parish'. The formula of the play is an entrance by one of the players, usually dressed as Father Christmas. A space is cleared for the rest of the cast who take part in a ritualised form of horseplay. This leads on to a fight between two of the actors, sometimes a recruiting sergeant and a farm worker or George and the dragon. One of them is killed, but there is a doctor on hand who revives the fallen victim. The performance ends in dance. This dance is thought to have gradually replaced the play in some areas as molly dancing.

There are obviously some places that put into their calendar an extension of these celebrations, which spilled over, even further than just over the Yuletide celebrations. In Whittlesey, and the origin is hard to define, there is the custom of the Straw Bear. One of the leading members of the previous Plough Mondays celebrations, it would seem, was dressed in straw and paraded around the town.

The unfortunate chosen one would be covered in straw bands that were tightly bound over his arms, legs and body and then have two sticks fastened to his shoulders, twisted with straw which met at a point above his head to form a cone above the head of the poor unfortunate 'bear'.

He was made to dance in front of the captive audience, in the parish and gifts of money and beer and food were expected. So one would speculate that plough Monday for some of the local places was straw bear Tuesday for others.

One thing that rained supreme was that they all had to get back to the land at some point, which I suppose is how we all feel after the Christmas break!

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