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Molly dancing

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A customary dance tradition performed by men at the Christmas/New Year/Plough Monday season in East Anglia in the 19th century and up to about the Second World War. It therefore comes under the classification of ceremonial dance, but Molly dancing was not as well developed or complex as other dance forms such as Morris or Sword dancing and has therefore received much less attention. The performance was sometimes dismissed as ‘just jigging about’, but was loosely based on 19th-century social dances. Molly dancers wore ordinary clothes, decorated with ribbons and rosettes, and usually had blackened faces, and had at least one man dressed in women's clothes, while in some teams they all wore female clothes. They danced in the village street and collected money door to door and from passers-by, who sometimes joined in.

The earliest references so far discovered are found in local newspaper accounts for the 1820s, although the word ‘Molly’ in this context does not appear before 1866. There are definite affinities with Plough Monday plough customs, and it is probable that Molly dancing developed from these, and like the ploughboys, Molly dancers had a reputation for being rough and ready, and even somewhat threatening. There has been renewed interest in recent years, and there are now many revival Molly dance teams. There are several possible derivations for the word ‘Molly’. It could well be simply a form of ‘Morris’, as many customary dance or drama customs were locally termed ‘morris dances’. However, ‘Molly’ is also common as a dialect word for a man dressed as a woman.

Elaine Bradtke, Truculent Rustics: Molly Dancing in East Anglia before 1940 (1999);Joseph Needham and Arthur L. Peck, JEFDSS 1:2 (1933), 79–85.

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