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Seven Champions

Handbags and Broomsticks: Molly Dancing for the uninitiated

Ever wondered where Morris Dancers go in the winter, when it's a bit chilly for standing outside a pub in shirt sleeves? Well, if they're based in East Anglia, there's a chance they'll change their kit and head to the Fens to partake in a spot of Molly Dancing instead. To save you from having to change out of your slippers, Rachel Wilkinson went to find out more about this traditional dance style from the East of England and the Midlands.

The Fens are famously flat. “Nothing between us and The Urals”, I was once advised when I moved to Cambridgeshire. I’d never heard of The Ural mountains, but I checked a map and it’s basically true – on a breezy January day, with little high ground between us and Siberia, a constant cold wind whips across the miles and miles of barely undulating farmland. Before I came to live in Ely, I’d also never heard of Molly Dancing. It was a simple time…

A wintry fen. The horizon on the far right counts as a hill in these parts.

Shortly after moving here, I had a chance encounter with Mepal Molly, dancing outside a pub on Plough Monday night – their slightly haphazard broom dance made me think it might not have been the first drinking establishment they’d visited that day, and the dancer with the beard clutching a handbag against his dress and fur coat suggested I was a long way from my Cotswold Morris roots. But I was definitely curious.

After a brief hiatus for minor world events, the Mark Jones Day of Dance seemed like the perfect chance to finally find out more. Mark was a dancer with Ouse Washes Molly, who tragically lost his life in a road accident – this Day of Dance has become a moment for his friends to remember and celebrate him, in true Molly style.

You get the idea: it’s agricultural, it’s winter, and there’s probably going to be cross-dressing

So what is Molly Dancing?

Good question. Perhaps the simplest answer (and simultaneously most complicated, if you’re trying to write about it) is that it’s a lot of different things, depending on who you ask. I’ll try to be fairly specific, while also making a whole tonne of generalisations, and let’s see where we end up, shall we?

Mepal Molly musicians in their natural habitat, outside The Cutter Inn

Picture the scene, if you will. You’re a ploughboy living in the middle of the flattest bit of the country in winter, and the ground is either frozen solid or completely waterlogged. You’re not getting a plough through that this side of Candlemas. What to do? There are landowners in the local area with spare cash jingling around in their pockets, so you head off to entertain them with music and dancing. Maybe you take the plough with you for show. You’ll go in disguise, of course, because you don’t want to be recognised, either by someone from whom you might later seek gainful employment, or worse the police, what with dancing for money being viewed as begging in the eyes of the law.

Putting the Molly in Molly dancing

Oh, did I mention that least one of the men will be dressed as a woman? Well, that’s the ‘Molly’, and if there’s the need to scarper later on, you’ll have to hope he’s the one they spot. That skirt might get him off any charges because, as we all know, women just can’t be held responsible for their actions.

You travel round the bigger houses, dancing at each one, and if you’re lucky, they hand over money or beer. But wait. Some people aren’t keen to hand over their coins? Bit rude after that cracking performance. As you bothered to bring the thing with you, you plough their garden in retaliation – think trick-or-treating in January – before retiring to the pub.

I’m getting into the generalisations early on, and there was undoubtedly a good degree of variation from that simple description, but you get the idea: it’s agricultural, it’s winter, and there’s probably going to be cross-dressing. Since the 1700s, the term ‘Molly’ had been used to describe an effeminate man (see also: Molly House, mollycoddled etc. for variations on a theme) and it’s from the dancer or dancers in female clothing that the style probably takes its name.

Bring it back now, y’all

Massed Molly musicians

Molly Dancing had died out by the end of the 1930s, with the last dancing spotted on Plough Monday in Little Downham, Cambridgeshire, about three miles north of where I’m currently sitting. Before then, it had been recorded across much of East Anglia and the Midlands, but whoever was meant to be taking notes didn’t do a great job and we’re left with very little information about the dances (or dancers). We know only a little more about the tunes they were dancing to, including George Green’s College Hornpipe, which was collected from the Little Downham melodeon player, who coincidentally happened to be called George Green. Ohhh wait. I see it now.

Neil, from Mepal Molly, with customary tankard and grubby face

The Cambridge Morris Men made the first attempts at resuscitating the tradition in the 1970s as part of their Plough Monday celebrations, coinciding with the revival of the Balsham Ploughboys (worthy of an article in their own right, I’m sure). Around the same time, others were choosing Molly as an alternative to the classic hankies-and-whites, and have continued to do so ever since.

Some of the post-revival sides dance the Molly year-round (not strictly traditional, but we do love to see layers and petticoats at a folk festival), some switch over to different styles of dance in the summer, and others come together for only a few days every winter. Judging by the sheer number of Molly sides that have re-formed or formed since then, the events of 1977 thoroughly brought the style back into the collective folk consciousness.

How to spot a Molly Dancer at 50 shuffles

Let’s park the distraction of the man in the pinny for a moment and remember that, like Cotswold or Border, Molly is really just a subcategory of Morris Dancing, and that while there are definitely similarities that earn it a place under that heading, it’s got some unusual characteristics. Unlike other styles, it’s been somewhat overlooked in the historical dance canon (clue: Cecil Sharp wrote three whole books about ‘The Sword Dances of Northern England’). I’m going to have to make some assumptions about you, but I’d happily bet that your initial mental picture of ‘Morris dancing’ includes all the classic Cotswold traits – hankies wafting around, a fool in costume, and the tinkling of bells as the dancers leap, galley and caper up and down the set. Best to put that aside for a mo.

Belchamp Ploughboys
Seven Champions

If Morris dancers are known for having their legs in the air (no sniggering at the back), Molly dancing could be considered as stylistically opposite. It’s a very grounded dance, with lots of stamping, clomping and shuffling, and it’s not that hard to suggest why. Imagine you’re back in that ploughboy’s shoes for a minute… No, literally! You only own one pair and they’re hobnailed boots – perfect for trudging over the fenland peat, but probably not great for putting a spring in your jigs. The arms of a Molly dancer might give them away too – almost robotic in style, with elbows fixed at a right angle and fists clenched, and the whole rigid limb swung from the shoulder in a, frankly, rather menacing fashion.

I asked everyone at the Day of Dance what the main thing our discerning readers should know about Molly Dancing was, they were unanimous – “no bells”. That’s not to say it’s a quiet pastime though. All those boots stomping around in unison, brooms knocking together as they’re held aloft (more on that in a moment), and plenty of enthusiastic whooping and grunting create a different, but no less auditory, spectacle.

Members of Pig Dyke Molly in kit

The whole kit and caboodle

So what might you need to wear if you’re going to get into this Molly malarky? If the sides I met in January can be used as a template, there’s a fairly neat divide into three categories: let’s call them ‘Historical’, ‘Uniform’, and ‘Go. To. Town’.

Historical – some kind of caricatured representation of a ploughboy’s wardrobe. We’re talking tweed jackets. We’re talking flat caps. We’re even talking Elijahs round the trousers. A look favoured by all-males sides. (See Mepal Molly, Belchamp Ploughboys)

Uniform – everyone turns up looking the same (or at least in the same colour palette), apart from the Molly in their finery. (See Seven Champions, Seven Sisters, Black Annis, Gog Magog, Pig Dyke, Madder Mill, Oxblood)

Go. To. Town – think double animal print, think polyester, think outrageous. Lots of layers, cardis, wigs and hats too. Just basically like someone fell through a charity shop backwards. (See Norwich Kitwiches, Ouse Washes, Misfit)

Originally, the dancers’ kit would have acted as something of a disguise to prevent recognition and punishment. This disguise would probably have also included full black face, now replaced with bright coloured face paint designs, eye masks, or sooty smudges. Disguise is no longer imperative (unless your wife doesn’t know about your little hobby, I suppose) and this is just one of the many ways in which Molly dancing has evolved over time.

Belchamp Ploughboys (joined by the squire’s wife)

With tweed jackets and flat caps, it’s obviously not just the Belchamp Ploughboys‘ name that harks back to the tradition’s roots out in the field.

They described Molly Dancing as “a good laugh” but shared that although they aren’t dealing with a farmhand’s other problems, there have still been some more modern issues to negotiate –

When we were sort of dating and putting our profiles on, do you remember? We did not mention Molly or Morris Dancing! So we had to carefully introduce it to the various potential partners…”

Like other sides that I chatted to, the Ploughboys can be found in a different kit in the summer, when they dance in the border style as Belchamp Morris.

At the other end of the Molly fashion lookbook are the Norwich Kitwitches. When this post-revival side delved into the archives for information about their original namesakes, there was only the briefest mention – “they were just dressed as women and danced to the tune of a fiddle”. Hardly inspiring. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that the Kitwitches didn’t let that hold them back…

Norwich Kitwitches in their finery

Their current wardrobe style is, shall we say, distinctive. A dancer wearing a disposable-face-mask bra over his dress described the look as somewhere between “pantomime dame” and “Little Downham chic from the 1930’s”. No further questions. The mental image of the group, surrounded by Saturday shoppers on the morning train to Ely, clambering in unison into brightly patterned polyester dresses, putting on outrageous wigs, and assembling their chest enhancements at the cry of “All change at Thetford!” is quite something.

The dances

By necessity, without a stock of historically informed dances to choose from, each side began to take the basics and create their own place in the Molly Dancing canon.

“It is interpreted very widely because the lack of written knowledge about it gives us a relatively blank canvas. It’s a very open field with lots of diversity [in style]”

This diversity (as described above by Chris from Seven Champions) is easiest to spot when you get a lot of sides together in one place. I was afforded that treat outside The Cutter Inn on Ely’s riverbank when everyone present performed a massed dance – ‘Birds a Building’ – to the tune of ‘Rolling Home’. Rarely have I enjoyed such glorious chaos more.

You can see Seven Champions in the white shirts in the middle, holding a real power stance. There’s some classic lyric-dancing going on in the Ouse Washes/Misfit Molly set just in front of them (I’m guessing the word is “home”), and then Pig Dyke Molly and Madder Mill Molly doing something else entirely in the foreground. In between all this, if you know where to look, there’s at least one Mepal Molly Man scooting up and down with a broom, just generally getting under everyone’s feet like some dangerous version of Where’s Wally?. (Obviously, it would be called Where’s Molly?.)

What’s all this about brooms – aren’t they just for witches?

Mepal Molly enjoy some gentle broom combat outside Ely Cathedral

A big old resounding no – at least, not as far as Molly Dancing is concerned. Although they would have been learned by children across the country for many years, a broom dance, or broomstick dance, was observed as part of the Plough Monday festivities in Little Downham, and throughout the season all across the Fens. Perhaps another link to the effeminate connotations of the Molly though, what with sweeping being women’s work?

The dances contain a variety of ‘figures’, just like any other dance, except that each dancer has a wooden broom – the brooms are jumped over, passed around, held aloft, and all manner of other slightly alarming movements. I recommend a browse of the Enid Porter Project – Bringing folk traditions to life in five Cambridgeshire villages for more information about this very particular vein of traditional dance.

Mepal Molly, the most local side appearing at the Day of Dance, perform (and I use that word advisedly for fear of accusations of false advertising…) mostly with brooms, and have a repertoire of just three dances. They dance together only a couple of times a year, primarily for Plough Monday and Whittlesey Straw Bear.

I was sent the essential reading for those selected to join this elite bunch – a marvellous article, written by William Palmer in 1933 and appended by him at the time of printing in the 70s, about Plough Monday 1933 at Little Downham, from which Mepal Molly take much of their inspiration. Just as the brooms have featured since the pre-revival days of the tradition, so too, it turns out, has the slightly, um, lack-lustre style of dancing. In 1932, having been out all day to “do the fens”, the Molly Dancers returned to do the same in Little Downham. Satisfied that the village had been thoroughly ‘done’, they returned to The Anchor for a final drink, where ‘The Broom Dance’ was called for.

There was very little in the dancing, and at each place they merely jigged around in couples turning slowly round.

Vol. XXXVI, ‘English Dance and Song’

Here I was, thinking they were just in it for the wonderful company and plentiful beer when all along, they were aiming for a historically informed performance. So HIP.

The Molly, or Betsy

Finally, we make it to the star of the show (or so they’d have you believe): the Molly. Known alternatively by some sides as the Betsy (or even Bessy), they’re the odd one out in terms of kit, and I can’t say I’ve ever met one who minded the alternative look. In fact, one former Molly has even been in touch say that he misses wearing a dress in public, and to make sure his “drescapades” weren’t going to be forgotten. Make of that what you will.

Mepal Molly have a rolling Molly policy – a different dame each year. Actually, 2022 had two, by necessity, and pictured above (left) is Ken, sporting quite a sensible look. Spot those tights though? And those many beads? And that shade of lipstick? If this were the thirties, he’d have everyone talking.

Peter (pictured on the right in just one of his many eye-catching outfits) has been acting as Molly for a long time, initially with Misfits Molly and more recently with hosts for the day, Ouse Washes Molly. He sees his part as being “like the fool” –

I introduce and tell stories. That’s my main job. And to fool around.

Carrying a book labelled An Idiot’s Guide to Molly Dancing in his handbag, and with a natural storytelling presence, he holds the crowd’s attention while his motley crew, dressed in layers of bright, shiny dresses, petticoats and an incredible assortment of hats, assemble themselves behind him, before launching into one of the side’s signature dances – ‘Strange’. I’ve seen it countless times (Ouse Washes are my local year-round Molly side) and can confirm that it always lives up to its name.

The serious chap in the pinny (central photo) is Seven Champions‘ Molly, Chris. He’s the last remaining founder member, having the side joined at the very beginning in 1977, and as both he and his wife are present in Molly kit at the Day of Dance, I have to wonder if the Belchamp Ploughboys just weren’t putting their dating profiles in the right places?

Seven Sisters

I’d been told early in the day that I must look out for Seven Champions, visiting all the way from Kent – there were whispers about how they were “the ones to watch”. Amongst other things, they’re notable for replacing the usual fiddles and melodeons with singers, creating a beautiful, rather haunting, soundscape of boots on cobbles and voices.

It hadn’t occurred to me, after that first happy meeting with Mepal Molly, that there might be a side who prided themselves on having actual, dare I say it, skills, but when I caught up with Seven Champions (and their female counterparts, Seven Sisters, who formed in 2018) in Ely Marketplace, I wasn’t disappointed – they’ve made a name for themselves by being… well… good! There’s a reason for that, as Chris explained –

We have, from day one, been very performance oriented. So it’s not purely about reviving a tradition or creating a new tradition… We’re there to perform to the public and if it doesn’t work for the public, what’s the point? You might as well die out.

He’s right, of course, and what’s wonderful about the Mark Jones Day of Dance is that there’s room for everyone – the masterful, the entertaining… and the ladies.

Doing it for the girls (and canines)

Like a lot of fun hobbies (metalworking, smoking cigars, building ships in bottles etc.), Molly dancing began as an an all-male pursuit – but no more! Now that some Molly sides are mixed, or even all-female, I met a good number of women dressed as men dressed as women at the Day of Dance. Very Shakespearian, isn’t it? If you pop back up the page to investigate the Norwich Kitwitches, you’ll spot that they’re a mixed side who simply all happen to shop at the same rummage sale.

Black Annis Women’s Molly, with Nancy the dog

When Black Annis Women’s Morris split away from the mixed university Morris side in Leicester to form a women’s side, they wanted to dance year-round but found their kit lacking in the colder months.

It’s just so cold to dance in shirts and whites, so we dance Cotswold Morris in the summer, but in the winter we decided to dress up and do something a bit different, and it was the Molly that we learned.

Not only do Black Annis Molly now have the spangliest gold and silver winter kit, but they’ve also got an award-winning Broom Dance up their jacket sleeves. (Can I get an ‘ooooooh’ at the back?) Turns out, they’ve got a secret weapon – Nancy the dog.

Pig Dyke and Storm at rest

Until you’ve seen a pup wearing a tatter coat (her second outfit of the day) and taking part in a broom dance competition, you just haven’t lived. Obviously some cynics might suggest that adding the awwww factor will circumnavigate even the steeliest judge’s emotional barricade, but Black Annis aren’t the only side with a pet in tow. Pig Dyke Molly, in their striking black and white kit, were joined by Storm, also in side colours. Just so you know, this bit of the article isn’t really about Molly Dancing, it’s about cute dogs. But you made it this far so just relax for a moment, before we end proceedings.

What’s left to say?

Well, plenty, of course, but I think I’ve made enough generalisations, assumptions, and terrible puns for one article. Instead, I’ll conclude with some words of wisdom from Seven Champions’ founder member, Chris. I asked him if he would defend Molly Dancing to the bitter end, and he suggested he’d go one further.

If, like Chris, everyone who is passionate about it commits to, “taking traditional dancing, keeping it alive by letting it evolve, and making it the best it possibly can be”, then generations to come will still be able to marvel at the baffling delights of Molly Dancing (and other Morris styles, for that matter). The Molly tradition emerged from an innate desire to dance (in whatever stomping form that took) and continues its evolution onwards – this year, next year, and hopefully beyond. Who knows? I’m sure there are people who can’t think of anything less traditional, but just because, in its current iteration, the Molly is sometimes danced by men in double animal print carrying handbags should neither take away from it’s fascinating, chequered history, nor deny it a place in the hallowed hall of ‘tradition’.

There’s lots more to discover about Molly Dancing – I’ve really only scratched the surface. Do go and experience some for yourself when winter comes around again.

Huge thanks to dancers and musicians of Belchamp Ploughboys, Mepal Molly, Black Annis, Ouse Washes Molly, Madder Mill Molly, Norwich Kitwitches, Misfit Molly, Pig Dyke Molly, and Seven Champions for chatting to me about dancing, tradition, and the best way to attract a romantic partner while wearing Molly kit.