About Molly Dancing and Pig Dyke Molly

Pig Dyke and The Molly Tradition

an article written by Pig Dyke boss Tony Forster and published in Mardles magazine in November 2009

Rum old thing, the Molly tradition. So little is written down, and that is so obviously any old rubbish they happened to remember. The collected Molly repertoire is blatantly the lowest common denominator - the social dances everyone knew, used to answer the annual question: OK, so we need to dance something - anyone got any ideas? Of the eight collected Comberton or Girton dances which are the traditional source, seven have a repeated pattern of three or four figures, ending with a swing. Five include a walk down the set and back by the top couple. Thrilling the sources ain't. Sybil Marshall's 1967 book Fenland Chronicle records her parents' life in Ramsey Heights in the 1890s. It includes this:

Living where we did and how we did, we used to make the most of anything a bit out o' the ordinary, and we looked for'ard from one special day to the next. Looking back on it now, I'm surprised to see how many high days and holidays there were during the year that we kept, and we certainly made the most of any that children could take part in at all... The Molly Dancers 'ould come round the fen from Ramsey and Walton all dressed up. One would have a fiddle and another a dulcimer or perhaps a concertina and play while the rest danced. This were really special for Christmas Eve, but o' course the dancers cou'n't be everywhere at once on one day, so they used to go about on any other special day to make up for it. They'd go from pub to pub, and when they'd finished there, they'd go to any houses or cottages where they stood a chance o' getting anything. If we ha'n't got any money to give 'em, at least they never went away without getting a hot drink.

Sybil's account tells us of midwinter, begging (like Halloween 'trick or treat'), dressed up, above all a special occasion. Midwinter is pretty important (Pig Dyke had agonised debates about dancing in summer and eventually decided life was too short: we blame global warming.) Midwinter has associations - turning points (solstice, New Year), Saturnalia (Lord of Misrule) - the darkest, most dreary part of the year when out-of-the-ordinary things happen...Molly is rooted in weirdness.

The Fens has always been a weird place too. from the Peasants Revolt through the drainage system sabotage to the Littleport Riots, Fen people have been frequently revolting - nineteenth century newspapers didn't regard Molly as very proper:
The annual vagabondry of the plough witches took place on Monday, to the annoyance of a great number of the inhabitants. These witches principally represent themselves to be agricultural labourers from the neighbouring villages, and disguised in women's clothes or with blackened faces, make pertinacious demands to all meet for money, entering your house with the greatest effrontery if they can do so unmolested. We really think that this custom would be more honoured in the breach than the observance; all responsible workmen now hold themselves aloof from this idle practice and it is confined chiefly to the lazy and the dissolute, against whom the police might swiftly put in force their authority for the quiet of the town.

And:
A quantity of wild bucolic dances was executed in the street to the enchanting accompaniment of a hurdy-gurdy and a badly tuned fiddle, whilst passers-by were attacked mercilessly for coppers...

The word "Molly" is interesting too (the man dressed as a woman): eighteenth century Molly houses in London were refuges for transvestites and homosexuals:

There are a particular Gang of Sodomitical Wretches in this Town, who call themselves the Mollies and are so far degenerated from all masculine deportment, or manly Exercises, that they rather fancy themselves Women, imitating all the little Vanities that custom has reconciled to the female sex, affecting to speak, walk, tattle, curtsey, cry, scold, and to mimick all manner of Effiminacy, that ever has fallen within their several Observations; not omitting the Indecencies of lewd Women, that they may tempt one another.

So Pig Dyke believes that Molly is outside the normal routine, weird - once when we danced in Ramsey, a small child ran to its mother, crying "Look, Mummy, it's ... um ... it's ... um ..."

Costume is part of weirdness. Historically there are references to Molly dancers grabbing whatever they could that was bizarre: being painted to resemble Red Indians, dressed and beribboned in a most grotesque fashion to represent various beings, human or otherwise... Costumes included a variety of animal heads - not masks but full heads which were kept from year to year - and, at Little Downham in 1932, a pink coat, trousers and top hat with a kind of long white pigtail hanging down the back of it; and goggles. Pig Dyke has taken this inspiration to develop its look: black and white and bold and not boring is our aim for costume and face make-up - and we know that it works. We do not use full black-face make-up. We don't want to be linked to "nigger minstrels", or the Black and White Minstrel show. Molly dancers in the past blacked their faces for disguise, weirdness, and loss of personal identity: we achieve that.

In style of dancing, we are a tribute to Seven Champs - our tribute is that we react strongly against it. Champs style works brilliantly, but it just isn't all there is, though widely copied, and is no more "correct" than any other style. So we base all our dance patterns on "social" structure rather than Morris structure (sequence of figures repeated rather than figure/chorus), and we dance fast, trying to give a feeling of exuberance and movement and flux rather than fist-punching military discipline. We have developed our dances from the collected dances and then some - part of the "then some" is that, the "repeat" of the figures is varied each time, to give audiences reasons to watch.

One huge strength is our music. We believe you cannot dance well unless the music is alive and inspiring and entertaining. Until his death in 2008 our box-player was Robin Griggs, whose music came from rock and jazz and a dislike of stereotypical folk. Now we regard ourselves as outstandingly blessed to have the enormous musical talents of Mary Humphreys and Anahata as lead instruments, with the exciting energy and drive of Tom Sennett alongside (or substituting on the rare occasions they cannot make it), moulding to perfection with the sousaphone of Dave Parker and the samba-band inspired percussion of Chris Kempton. We are proud of the audience comment "Pig Dyke rocks!!!" The tunes are in many cases written for the team - Rob's repertoire was, and we now use two of his tunes, one or two or Tom's, three of Anahata's, and then less well-known folk and other tunes which Mary and Anahata have researched to fit us and the dance.

So it's more than just the dances - Pig Dyke is proud to be weird, proud to amuse, proud to confuse, proud to entertain (we hope) through our whole performance, including the lies that introduce the dances. We believe we are true to Molly's anarchic roots and have created something for audiences of the twenty-first century to enjoy - even or especially the ones who hate folk

Tony Forster ~ September 2009

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