Monday, 24 February 2014

A Language of Loss

the book: Performing Englishness by Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps

published 2013


From regular Guest Blogger Colm Redmond








It is striking how often references to English cultural traditions are couched in a language of loss. This is palpable, for example, in journalist A A Gill’s elegiac account of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance:

Down a winding cobbled street from the church trips the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the most evocative and strangely dramatic of all morris dances, performed for hundreds of years, conceivably for thousands. They are led by a single fiddler, dressed in a rag coat, playing a tune that is childlike and simple, but also full of sadness and an ethereal, mordant power, like the soundtrack of a dream. Behind him come men carrying antlered fallow deer heads in front of their faces. Behind them, a man-woman, a hunter and a hobbyhorse. They dance in silence, slowly. ...

[Another well-known, and controversial, tradition is] …the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers of Bacup, Derbyshire, whose blackened faces are part of an outlandish and unique costume that includes ‘decorated clogs with bells, long white socks, black velvet knee-breeches; a white skirt decorated with red horizontal bands; a white hat adorned with red or blue braid, pom-poms, and feather’.



observations: One of my tasks at Clothes In Books is to write about books the original blogger, and other guests, might not. And today’s book definitely fits that remit. Performing Englishness is not a novel, and it’s not really in the business of “entertaining” anyone, although it does. It’s an academic work and written in a very formal way, and it discusses how successive folk revivals, particularly the current one, have affected the way the English (as distinct from the rest of Britain) feel, and are perceived and organised and self-identified.

The writers (including friend of the blog Dr Trish Winter) are musicians as well as academics, and most of the book centres around English folk music. But dance comes into it too - not just Morris dancing, which is used as a convenient catch-all title for many different English styles, but Border Morris and Molly, to name but two others. The matter of the costumes worn by folk dance “sides” was too good to miss, for CiB.

Elsewhere in the book there is a reference to a major question about different sides’ distinctive costumes: whether they carry handkerchiefs or not. But there are more noticeable specialities, such as the Britannia men’s skirts and the strange assortment of outfits at Abbots Bromley.






One problematic area is the highly controversial practice of blacking-up, whose origins are mysterious. Many modern Morris and Molly sides, who wish to maintain the face-painting tradition without doing something they consider unacceptable, get around it by painting their faces blue or green or in extravagant styles to go with the extravagant costumes. The brilliant main pic is of a member of the Pig Dyke Molly, at the Sidmouth Festival in 2012. It’s used here with the very kind permission of the photographer Richard Powell, who lives in Sidmouth. You can see more of his work here: and lots more pics of the Pig Dyke Molly, in their wild black and white costumes, on Google and Flickr.

There are numerous videos from Abbots Bromley on YouTube, including an extract from the Unthank sisters’ 2010 BBC documentary Still Folk Dancing… After All These Years. Strangely, the clip that most resembles Gill’s description is also the most flagrantly inauthentic - performed on a noisy Maryland sidewalk by an American side:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCCM7zsNYLg

This clip from the Unthanks’ programme shows the Bacup dancers and includes some explanations:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sZR4MPQIk4

The description of their costumes, quoted in Performing Englishness, is from a 1990 article by Theresa Buckland in the Dance Research Journal. The b&w photograph was taken at Abbots Bromley, no later than 1914.


For more from the Guest Blogger, click on his name below.

12 comments:

  1. Moira: The photos and descriptions were fascinating. I was not familiar with such English traditions. I was reminded of the only traditional dancing in Saskatchewan which involves the indigenous peoples. They have colourful costumes and often faces painted. The dances are now held at pow wows. They have names such as traditional, fancy and jingle dances. Examples of current costumes can be found by doing a google image search of saskatchewan indian pow wow dancers or going to the Saskatchewan Indian Pow Wow issue from 1998 at http://www.sicc.sk.ca/archive/saskindian/a98pow20.htm.


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    1. One of the matters addressed in the book is the way English traditions are perhaps less known than those of many other countries. Growing up here I was well aware of lots of things about Native Americans, for example, but I don't suppose many American kids would know much about Molly dancing. I can't say I knew till quite recently that there are many Canadian tribes too. Wow, I looked at some of those Saskatoon costumes and I defy anyone to say they're not fancy!

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  2. They are certainly fancy, Bill! One of our regrets about the book was that we weren't able to include any photos. We were going to, but for copyright and other reasons it didn't end up being possible. So it's great to see it talked about here with such great pictures. Thanks Colm!

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  3. These folk dance traditions are new to me too. This may be a stupid question, but I did try to inform myself before asking: What is a dance "side"? Pig Dyke Molly pics on Flickr are very nice, Richard Powell's photos are amazing.

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    1. I like how they look totally modern and somehow fit the old traditional style, all at once.

      We were very pleased to get Richard Powell's permission to use his great pic, and as you say there are plenty more to enjoy on Flickr.

      And thanks to Trish for answering your question, Tracy.

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  4. A side is just like a team, TracyK. Pig Dyke Molly pics are great, aren't they!

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  5. Moira - Thanks for hosting Colm.

    Colm - What a fascinating book to profile. I think that folk culture, whether dance or music or costume, is such a fascinating connection to the past. Because of that I'm glad there are people who write about it and preserve it. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Margot. One of the things the book discusses is the fact that in many places the "old" elements of Englishness, especially dance, have had to be unearthed and researched and re-started and to some extent made up, because the process of handing it down got discarded somewhere along the line. This can be an advantage, in that people are much less inclined to object to alterations and adaptations and modernisations (such as the Pig Dyke Molly's Kiss-style makeup) than has always been the case with the music side of the revivals.

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  6. Folk music, morris dancing....men wearing tights - I'm just not seeing the attraction TBH. My Irish heritage perhaps, but the tights-thing is just plain wrong.

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    1. You're completely out-voted Col. Everyone else is right, and you are wrong, and I think you should be forced to go folk dancing as your rehabilitation.

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  7. I think boiling my own head in a pot seems preferable, but hey majority rules I guess....

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