And so there we were, Saturday morning, standing outside 'The Cutter Inn' on the riverside in Ely in brilliant sunshine watching Molly Dancing - the first 'station' of a day long event, 'The Mark Jones Day of Dance', hosted by the Ousewashes Molly Side. This was my first experience of Molly Dancing and I, for one, was thoroughly enjoying it. So much so that, when the sides moved from Ely to 'The Anchor' and 'The Plough' both in Little Downham and, finally, 'The Five Miles from Anywhere' on the banks of the Cam at Upware, I persuaded the bf that we should follow. Each station, I should add, ended with a communal, simultaneous dance by all the Molly sides present - the first, in which they all danced to 'God Spede the Plough', was particularly moving.
Molly Dancing is a form of folk dance originating in East Anglia - I've always thought of it as a particularly Fen land tradition. It has formal, almost ritual, qualities that might suggest to some roots in ancient pagan religion but it's origins are more prosaic and are likely to be found in the Modern Era. It is however linked into the English Ritual Year by being associated with winter and especially with Plough Monday - the first Monday after the Feast of the Epiphany - quite the leanest time of the year and was originally performed by agricultural workers. The earliest written record is from the 1820s, and one of the things that differentiates it from other forms of folk dance like Morris is the element of cross-dressing among the traditionally all male side. Molly is 18th century slang for the gentleman of my persuasion. The dance also has a number of peripheral participants (they don't dance): a 'sweeper', or 'broom-man', and an 'umbrella-man'. Faces are invariably blackened. The custom died out in the 1930s and was revived in the 1970s.
Since its revival Molly has gained in popularity nationally, spreading across the country beyond it's original region - there is even a Molly side in the U.S. This was demonstrated by the other sides taking part on Saturday: Black Anis Molly, Good Easter Molly Gang, Holly Copse Molly, The Norwich Kitwitches, Mepal Molly, Oxblood Molly Dancers, Seven Champions Molly Dancers and Old Glory Molly Dancers and Musicians. Some coming from a far as Bournemouth to take part. The styles of dress and approach were very different; some rather cheeky and knowing - Pythonesque even, others deeply serious. In particular I'd like to mention Seven Champions and Old Glory Molly. The former's dance had a satisfying heft to it, and it was accompanied, effectingly, by a solo singer, the only side to do so. And then there was Old Glory Molly; there is something 'eldritch' - to use a Scots word - about them. Something, oh so slightly unsettling. Certainly something verging on the chthonic about the musicians - all women - in their black and green costumes as though they had just stepped out of the Greenwood, or from a Medieval poem, or even from the 'Unseen'. 'Darkly pastoral' has been used to describe the music of Jim Jupp aka 'Belbury Poly' and it suits 'Old Glory Molly' pretty well too.
I'm looking forward to next year.