Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Today, I watched the first half of the BBC documentary 'Still Folk Dancing After All These Years', a documentary about English calendar customs.  The programme looked at various folk traditions which generally welcome in the spring and the summer, including the May Cart procession in Moulton Northamptonshire (featuring a May Day queen and king), Padstow May Day celebrations (where two hobby-horses parade throughout the streets, vying for the crowd's attention), and most intriguingly, the Britannia Coconut dancers from Bacup, Lancashire.  Every Easter Saturday, a troupe of male dancers take to through the streets of Bacup to the accompaniment of a marching brass band.  What is unusual about them, though, apart from their outlandish garb, is the small wooden discs they have strapped to their thighs, which form the basis of an elaborate tap-tapping ritual not dissimilar to a children's clapping game but apparently based on  various semiotics and gestures from rock quarrying, especially the banging of water pipes.  Oh, and they're blacked up.  Hmm.

Several explanations for this were offered in the programme; one participant claimed that blacking-up wards off evil spirits at the beginning of a new season, another said it (and the dance) is based on imitations of Moorish pirates who washed up in Cornwall several centuries ago (lest we forget, the name 'morris' has been ascribed to being a bastardisation of the word 'moorish').  

The order of the day for all of these customs is fairly simple: a chance for the laity to let off steam by participating in carousals and drunken revelry.  Competition seems important - in Bampton, Oxfordshire, the Morris dancing on display was surprisingly vigorous and a good-natured sense of oneupmanship was woven into the fabric of the dance itself, with young tight-trousered (coincidence? I doubt it) dancers competing with each other to jump the highest and to dance the furthest outside the perimeter and the closest to the crowd.  This related to the one and only time I have seen rapper dancing, which was given a certain frisson of danger due to the fact that the dancing took place in a pub, in an area of no more than a few square feet.  On that occasion, I was hugely intrigued by the 'Tommy' - who, after introducing the dancers with a song, provided a running commentary throughout in a manner highly reminiscent of an old-time carnival barker. 

The folk tradition is by definition a repository for art and customs of the peasant classes, and the origins of many of these customs are therefore unverifiable in the conventional sense.  Movements such as Victorian puritanism also bowdlerised many of the customs, thereby further muddying their history.  One thing which *is* documented about a lot of folk traditions such as mumming plays, Wassailing and clog dancing is the fact that they would generally be performed for some sort of reward, be it food, drink or simply a few coins.  When the aforementioned Tommy goes into his fast patter, he is not only enriching the dance by making it 'larger than life', he is also helping to invigorate the crowd and whip up their excitement, presumably all the better to make them part with their cash when the hat is passed round afterwards.  Perhaps, in our pursuit of the semiotic and spiritual histories of these customs, we are in danger of overlooking their immediately practical uses.  I shall no doubt have more ill-informed opinions on this subject when I've watched the latter half of this show.

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