- Development of a set of maypole dances for use in an child-friendly SCA demo
The idea for a maypole dance as a communal SCA performing arts experience grew out of a successful carol sing at Storvik's Yule Revel. "The populace" had a good time singing together, so I started to look for period examples of group performance. English May traditions looked like a good candidate. A request for a demo in early May gave a firm deadline and more motivation for the project, and also changed its tone from a flirty game for adolescents and adults to something more suitable to younger children (the demo's intended audience).
What we know about maypoles suggests a circle dance around a decorated pole; music may be played and/or sung. If sung, it would be likely that all the dancers would sing at least the chorus. We needed simple and preferably well-known circle dances and words for them with simple choruses.
The documentation follows in sections: background on English May traditions, dance selection and changes to standard choreography, song-writing for the dances, maypole construction, garb selection for the demo, results of the demo, and future directions for this work.
The maner of Maie-games in England.
...The order of them is thus. Against Maie day, Whitsunday, or some other time of the yeare, euery Parish, Towne, and village, assemble themselues together, both men, women and children, olde and young, euen all indifferently: and either going all together, or diuding themselues into companies, they goe some to the woods, and groues, some to the hils and mountaines, some to one place, some to another, where they spende all the night in pleasant pastimes, and in the morning they returne bringing with them Birch boughes, and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall. And no maruell, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as Superintendent and Lord ouer their pastimes and sportes: namely Sathan Prince of Hell: but their chiefest iewel they bring from hence is the Maie-poale, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: They haue twentie, or fourtie yoake of Oxen, euery Oxe hauing a sweete Nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tip of his hornes, and these Oxen draw home this Maie-poale (this stinking Idoll rather) which is couered all ouer with Flowers and Hearbes, bound round about with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometimes painted with variable collours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it, with great deuotion. And thus being reared vp, with handkerchiefes and flagges streaming on the top, they strawe the ground round about, bind green boughes about it, set vp Summer Haules, Bowers, and Arbours hard by it. And then fal they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the Heathen people did, at the dedication of their Idolles, whereof this is a perfect patterne, or rather the thing it selfe. I haue heard it crediblie reported (and that viua voce) by men of great grauity, credite, and reputation, that of fourtie, threescore, or a hundred Maides, going to the wood ouernight, there haue scarcely been the third part of them returned home againe vndefiled.
--- Stubbes, p. 209-210
Philip Stubbes's scathing account of May Day festivities is our primary historical source for them. We have elsewhere passing references and bucolic poetic descriptions, but this is our eyewitness source. It dates from 1583 and is taken from Stubbes's Anatomie of Abuses, in which he describes every manner of loose moral behavior in Tudor London that he could bring himself to observe.
Stubbes describes a huge pole, drawn by 20-40 yoke of oxen, dragged into town on May 1. "Strings" are bound around the pole, top to bottom, and it is covered all over with flowers and "hearbes" (greenery?). It may be painted in different colors, and handkerchiefs and flags stream from the top. Temporary bowers or halls are set up nearby, and the people feast and dance about the maypole.
This tallies fairly well with a poetic description by Thomas Morley, published a little over a decade later in 1595:
About the maypole new,
With glee and merriment,
While as the bagpipe tooted it,
Thirsis and Cloris
Fine together footed it
And to the wanton instrument,
They went to and fro, both,
And finely flaunted it
And then they met again
And thus they chanted it
The shepherds and the Nymphs
Them round enclosed had,
Wond'ring with what facility
About they turned them
In such strange agility
And still when they unloosed had,
With words full of delight, both,
They gently kissed them,
And thus sweetly to sing
They never missed them
--- Pike 2004, p. 87-89
While we must have a care interpreting this too literally - it is a pastoral piece, romanticizing the gay shepherds and their nymphs. But some features are:
- A couple begins a dance around a maypole. They dance together, moving either side-to-side or else forwards and backwards.
- They possibly dance apart, so that they can "meet again."
- They flirt an awful lot.
- A bagpipe (a rustic instrument) is the primary accompaniment, but the dancers also chant or sing.
- The couple is apparently enclosed by a ring of young men and women who are also dancing ("about they turned them/In such strange agility"). They are either turning around the maypole and the couple in the center, about themselves (e.g., spinning or 'turn single') or perhaps a bit of both.
- The couple in the center is "unloosed" at some point
- The couple seems to be the ones offering the "words full of delight" - indicating that they are done dancing in the circle?
- The "unloosing" seems to occur together with kissing - perhaps a ransom to be paid as part of the dance/song/game?
- I'm not 100% sure on who is "thus sweetly to sing"ing, why, or how that relates to the kissing and the missing, I think it refers to the circle dancers as singers, too.
So we again have a dance around the center pole, with instrumental accompaniment and singing, the same spirit of licentiousness that scandalized Stubbes, and possible kissing games.
Hutton (1995) dates the earliest English reference to "bringing in the May" to 1240, where a bishop in Lincoln was complaining about it. The fourteenth century saw many literary references to it, including Chaucer (mostly the gathering of flowers and making of garlands) and Malory (Queen Guinevere's Maying). In Scotland, William Dunbar (as quoted by Hutton) wrote:
every one of thir, in grene arrayit,
On harp and lute full mirrely the play it,
And sang ballatis with michty nottis cleir;
Ladies to danss full sobirly assayit,
Endlang the lusty rever so they mayit.
Again, we have instruments (the more refined harp and lute, more suitable for ladies), singing, and dancing all together.
More from Hutton: Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon went out to feast in the woods of Shooter's Hill on May Day in 1515; Elizabeth apparently danced at country houses on May Day. The first solid reference to a maypole comes in a mid-fourteenth century Welsh poem by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd; it describes a tall birch as a focal point for festivities. Chaucer's poem Chaunce of the Dice refers to a permanent maypole at Cornhill in London. (A review of Hutton's book by the journal Folklore points out that this poem's attribution to Chaucer is apocryphal; but it is still an early mention.)
Hutton comments on Stubbes account, remarking that this was an exceedingly large pole and procession, perhaps as might be seen in London but not in any small village. There is another example of flags and streamers decorating the top of a pole in the 1560s in Plymouth, and of a minstrel hired to play before one in Leicestershire market from 1586-1593. No ribbon dancing was found before the nineteenth century, but dancing or dancing games with kissing were popular. Hutton quotes poet Nicholas Breton in 1618: "the may-pole, where the young folk smiling kiss at every turning."
The SCA has a few partner-switching circle dances that would be very appropriate for a flirtatious maypole dance. Lyrics would need to be written and players found. However, our demo opportunity was for a children's gala at the National Zoo: our participants would be aged 3-12, plus their parents. Kissing games were right out! Stripping the maypole of its more adult components, we're left with the idea of a round dance around a pole, with singing and music. Spinning and twirling are suggested, although that could also refer to the motion around the pole in general.
I did not do any investigation into the dances I selected. I wanted very simple, easy-to-teach circle dances, and I know a few that have common usage in the SCA. When I was planning a more adult maypole, my original picks were two of the Arbeau bransles that have partner swapping: Bransle Official and Pease Bransle. They offered more opportunities for flirting, after all. When the maypole was re-imagined for a children's demo, I decided to change that.
I kept Bransle Official because it is so simple, aside from the lady-tossing. The verses (as I've been taught) are double left, double right (repeat). The chorus is six left singles followed by the toss (repeat). I knew I didn't want the kids tossing each other. A turn single fits nicely into the two bars of music allowed for the toss; fits in with the maypole imagery of people turning 'round again; and kids like to spin around. So our modified bransle is:
Form a circle and join hands.
Verse: Double left, double right; double left, double right.
Chorus: Six left singles, turn single; six left singles, turn single
Maltese Bransle is another common one. I have heard (and believe) that it is a modern SCA choreography. That's still fine for my purposes - a lot of people know the Maltese. It's also dead simple, and the practice of going faster and faster is something that will again appeal to kids.
As I've learned it, the chorus ends with three kicks. I've always had a hard time with that - I never start on the correct foot, so I end with my right foot in the air and my weight on my left foot, just when I need to start a double left. To simplify it for the kids, I'm replacing the kicks with clapping. That also makes the chorus symmetrical, so they do the same things going in and going out. The modified choreography is:
Form a circle and join hands.
Verse: Double left, double right; double left, double right
Chorus: Drop hands. 3 singles in to the center, 3 claps; 3 singles back out, 3 claps. Join hands.
Note: Music increases tempo with each repeat
I decided early on to adapt existing medieval and Renaissance spring songs to the dance music. Thomas Morley's "Now Is the Month of Maying," published in 1595 in his Ballets to Five Voyces, was a first choice. Ballets were a kind of dance, so the original was used for dancing (although not necessarily for dancing a maypole). The ur-spring carol in English, "Sumer Is Icumen In," was my other pick, even though it dates from the thirteenth century - much earlier than "Schiarazula Marazula," the sixteenth century tune used for the Maltese Bransle. My thought was that cleaving closely to period models would be a good way of improving authenticity.
The Official Month of Maying
- to the tune of the Bransle Official from Arbeau
Now we celebrate the spring
When merry lads are playing
Each lad with his bonny lass
A-dancing on the green grass
Fa la la la la la la, la la la la la la, la la la la la la, la la
Now is the month of Maying
Fa la la la la la la, la la la la la la, la la la la la la, la la
Now is the month of Maying
The Spring, in blooming flowered dress,
Doth laugh at Winter's sadness
To the country bagpipe's sound
The nymphs tread out their dance ground
If we sit and muse we might
O'erlook youth's joys, all gold-bright
Come, my dainty nymph and say
Shall we play break the barley?
The primary challenge was adapting Morley's poem to the tune. Taking the second verse as an example, here's the original:
The Spring, clad all in gladness
Doth laugh at Winter's sadness
Both lines end with a STRESS-unstress pattern. However, in the dance tune, those two lines end differently. The first ends with a half-note; essentially, STRESS. The second ends STRESS-unstress, like Morley. But I can't use "gladness" for the first half; I need a word, ending on a stress, that rhymes with "sadness." Few words in English end with an accent except single-syllable words. So I had to use these simpler rhymes to work within the musical scheme.
The second pair of verse lines has a similar problem. The original:
To the bagpipe's sound
The nymphs tread out their ground
Here, we have two endings on single-syllable STRESSes. But the music repeats the same pattern as before. So this time, the first line doesn't need much work (just two additional syllables to keep up with a run of eighth notes in the dance) but it's the second line that needs changed, from a single STRESS to STRESS-unstress. There was an additional problem of breaking up the expression "tread out their ground;" similarly, in the last verse, the original "barley break" had to be changed out for "break the barley." It sounds like "war of tugging," but it preserves the language of the original and would probably be intelligible (if stilted-sounding) to the Elizabethans.
For word choice, I tried to stick with simpler, common words, which seemed more fitting for the rustic, pastoral mood. I have a hard time imagining shepherds bandying about "verdant" or the like (considered for Spring's flowered dress).
Our plan for performance is to sing all these verses through and repeat at least the first one, and perhaps more, depending on how much fun the kids are having.
- To the tune of Schiarazula Marazula, commonly known as the Maltese Bransle in the SCA
Summer is a-coming in now,
Loudly sings the cuckoo
Sing cuckoo nu,
Sing cuckoo nu,
Sing cuckoo nu
Seeds all sprout and meadows bloom, send
Forth the trees their new leaves
Goat and bullock merry frolic
Lamb bleats after ewe sheep
Sing all birds, your joy unceasing,
Loudly sings the cuckoo
"Sumer Is Icumen In" served more as an inspiration than as a direct model. The rhyme and melodic schemes were too different. The original is irregular and complicated, with internal rhyme and assonance, especially of the "oo" sound, playing large roles. I made a commitment to use the "oo" sound at least once in each verse, on a stressed syllable, even if that ended up not being an end rhyme. In most of the verses, the "oo" comes in the second line, but in the second it is in the first. (The second verse adheres fairly closely to the original.) The final verse is the greatest departure from the original.
In performance, we'll sing this through at least once and probably wrap around for a repeat of the first and maybe second verses. The Maltese's refrain is shorter than Official's, which means the dance should go faster (and never mind the tradition of speeding things up as they go along!). So we may do more verses to fill about the same amount of time.
For both of these, I teamed with Lady Patricia of Trakai. She would play the melody on her recorder and I would sing. As noted above, a louder (and more rustic) instrument like the bagpipes appears to have been more de rigeur in period. (That was the plan, anyway; see Results for what actually occured.)
I selected an 8' length of 1-3/4" diameter oak railing for the maypole. It wasn't fully round (it was flat on the side where it was supposed to be attached to the wall), but the other alternatives were unacceptable. The closet dowel, at 1-1/4" diameter, looked too skinny to be a good maypole. PVC pipes came in very wide diameters (3-4") but looked like PVC pipes. I wasn't sure how much time I'd have to disguise them and how well it would work - better, I thought, to get a real wooden pole that will also look good unpainted. (The pole also came in a 10' length, but I found that the 8' looked plenty tall and fit in my car.) It cost $24 at the local hardware megastore.
I also bought an acorn-shaped, wooden, white-painted finial, meant to be used with curtain rods. The literature search did not indicate that the tops of the maypoles were in any way shaped or carved, but I thought it would be easier to tie on ribbons and streamers with one. The finial swells out at the bottom of the acorn, then necks back down to its base, and that made a natural place to secure the ribbons. It probably is possible, with good knots, to tie them directly to the pole and not have them slip off - but I didn't really want to be testing my knot-tying skills. In my experience, I will be having enough to do getting the demo set up that worrying about slippery ribbon knots is something I should remove from the schedule if I can. The acorn finial serves this purpose. (Also, it unscrews and can hang by the ribbons - which is good, since the 8' pole barely fits into my car, and definitely does not fit with 4" of finial attached.) A set of two finials cost $16.
I had several spools of narrow, cheap ribbon left over from a bridal shower. You know the stuff that's in everyone's drawstring chemise, and goes for $0.75/spool regular or 2/$1 on sale? I had lavender and white on-hand, so I used those. Each spool was enough to wind a spiral down the pole and then back up it. I used another spool of white to make a big floppy "bow" - a handful of 12"(ish) loops of ribbon that I secured to the finial as "streamers." If I find myself in a craft store, I'll get a spool of green instead of the lavender - Hutton mentions green and white as colors, but I didn't get the impression that it could be only green, just that green was a documented example. I have a feeling whatever was bright and available would be used.
At a dry run at Tournament of Chivalry, a very small number of flowering twigs from the front yard covered a good foot or so of maypole. Granted, the cherry blossoms covered large areas, and even the azaleas had greenery on them that helped cover more area. Unscrewing and refastening the finial required some adjustments of the ribbons, but they ended up sufficiently snug that it was a little difficult to get the twigs under the ribbons in some places. It looked really good.
Dressing for the Demo
Early research had given me the impression that maypoles were a Tudor era custom; but by the end of my investigation, I'd found references to 13th and 14th century Maying and maypoles. Without doing extensive garb research, it appears that sideless surcotes were worn within this period (Joseph 2005). I have one of these, and an appropriate non-drawstring chemise to go with it, and even a matching hat. This will be a much more authentic outfit than the bad Tudor garb I was planning on wearing (in the absence of good Tudor garb). I think good Tudor garb would probably be the most appropriate thing to wear, though.
I do not know, and wonder, how the nobility dressed when they were partaking of such rustically-themed events. The other extremely valid option would be to wear a lower-class costume; again, I'm no garb expert but I understand that there are good sources for later-period lower-class garments.
Results and Conclusions
Part the First: The Planned Maypoles
They were "eh, okay." Maltese Cuckoo was definitely more of a hit than Official.
The Guppy Gala was very well attended. Our "medieval village" was placed on a grassy slope downhill from a terraced plaza. The geography was such that most of the attendees remained on the terrace and did not wander down into our area. (There was no exit, so no foot traffic through.) We did get a fair number of walk-throughs, usually one or two families at a time. That made getting a group together for a dance difficult.
I made "Official Month of Maying" the first attempt; we had two or three little boys and two Scadians, myself included. It was a very small circle. I was trying and dance and sing, which was a Bad Idea. On so many levels:
- I had a cold, so my voice was already half-shot.
- I was dancing, so I was out of breath.
- Lady Patricia, who in our practice had played her recorder in the key of G for this song, was dancing with us (we needed the dancer). There was a dance band (Three Left Feet) on hand, playing "in the key they knew the song." This was not, apparently, a key I could find with two hands and a flashlight.
- Between the cold, trying to find the key, and remember the words, I forgot the dance. Yes, I realized in the middle of the second verse that we were just left-singling our way around the pole.
Now, the last one wasn't as bad as all that. The kids could have cared less. They seemed to have a good time, which was good, but I felt like the performance was just flat, flat, flat.
Later, we tried "Maltese Cuckoo." We had a fair half-dozen eight-year olds and an ambitious preschooler to start. They were not enthusiastic about singing, but were interested in dancing. There were some missteps early on; the band played a really, really, really slow tempo, so slow that I was taking steps on the first and third beats of each measure and it took the first verse to figure out what the problem was. Once I caught on, I stuck to calling out the steps in the same slow tempo to keep the kids with it. After two choruses and a verse, they seemed to have it well in-hand, so I started singing - and the older kids all vanished! I don't know if that was cause-effect, or if they were bored with the slow beat of the dance. But they just evaporated.
The music started to pick up at about that time, and we caught the eyes of other kids, mostly younger. We opened the circle at need, wondered aloud if the musicians could go even faster, and had a swell time. We sang a few choruses and skipped the verses. Our original preschooler, who stuck through til the end, was laughing with glee. That was nice.
I did a lousy job teaching the choruses in either case. In the first case, I'd picked up on a general sense of rush - "Come on kids, there's so much more to see!" and wanted to get to the dancing, stat. In the second case, the kids were vocally disinterested in learning the song and I didn't press it.
On the other hand, the kids had no trouble learning the dances.
Part the Second: Other Dancing
Three Left Feet, a dancing demo group of musicians and dancers, was on hand, and rightly also wanted to take their turns interacting with the children. Baron Stephan of Cambion taught a group the Tangle Bransle and later, we got an adult couple to join us for Gathering Peascods. We danced a good many exhibition dances, I pavaned around by myself a few times, and I got one little girl to just skip with me around the maypole in time to the music.
Definitely, we were better off for having a dance band and dancers. Lady Patricia and I could have managed a little on our own, but the overall demo was greatly improved by the richness of the sound and the variety of dances.
The children picked up the simple dances readily enough (Tangle Bransle is single right, single left-left-left, all in a chain), but were also more than happy to just move in time to the music. It's all one to them, so long as they get to run around. Dances that are easy to add dancers to were great, because people would see the group dancing and want to join in. The exhibition dances drew attention, but nobody wanted to jump in with us - it looked too hard.
And a side note: Everyone expected ribbon dances! I can't say I'm surprised, since that's what I expected before I started the research on this thing. I'm afraid that sharing the fact that the ribbon weaving was Victorian disappointed a few people.
- Dancing + singing = bad idea. Singing the choruses was all right, but trying to dance everything and sing everything just did not work. Maybe for slower dances, or for someone in better cardiovascular shape.
- The demo atmosphere, with small numbers of onlookers drifting in and out with other things to see and do, was not the best atmosphere for dancing.
- Dances that were easy to pick up and easy to add dancers to were best for the demo environment, when audience participation was sought.
- Line dances are even better than circle dances, since you can do them with as few as two (one Scadian plus one audience member).
- Exhibition dancing draws attention (good) but doesn't necessarily spur interaction. Still, that's true of fighting as well, which is usually the big draw at demos. Alternating exhibitions with participatory numbers worked pretty well.
- The "maypole as community activity" did not happen to the degree that I had envisioned it. But we did get some people to dance with us and have a good time.
- It might work better at an event. Scadians might be somewhat more motivated to participate in the full-on caroling aspect of it; we're predisposed to think that sort of thing sounds cool and medieval. The general public was a little more wary of it.
- I think it could work at a demo, but as a "Maypole at 12" sort of thing - time blocked out, people gathered in, as opposed to trying to lasso them in while they're wondering if they can make it to the Disney booth before they run out of Narnia T-shirts.
- Dances are not too hard for kids to learn.
- But we can also do "impromptu choreography" as needed, leading lines in any simple combination of left-rights or skips, to any music. Chances are excellent that's what early carols looked like (McGee, Medieval Instrumental Dances).
I do think the basic framework was sound. There was nothing wrong with the dances or the May carols.
I would really like to try this at an event, possibly as an advertised, pre-planned attraction. Failing that, I'd want to canvass the site for participants. One of the lessons we learned at the Yule Revel carol sing was that you're best off when you've got no competition from anything else - when your performance opportunity is the only activity on the schedule aside from casual conversation. The Guppy Gala demo was definitely not that. The entire National Zoo was filled with other groups competing for the attention of the children and their parents, and they were trying to see it all inside of two and a half hours.
I'd also like to revisit the idea of an adult or adolescent maypole, using flirtier dances and perhaps a kissing game like Prinkum Prankum.
Dearmer, Percy, Williams, R. Vaughan and Shaw, Martin. The Oxford Book of Carols: Music Edition. Oxford University Press: New York, 1985.
Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford University Press: New York, 1996.
Jones, Malcolm. "The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. - book reviews." Folklore, Annual 1997, accessed 4/10/2008.
Joseph, Lisa. The Sideless Surcote, 2005. http://www.wodefordhall.com/surcote.htm, accessed 4/24/08.
Ledger, Phillip. The Oxford Book of English Madgrials. Oxford University Press: New York, 1978.
Morley, Thomas. "About the maypole new." In Pills to Purge Melancholy: The Evolution of the English Ballett, Lionel Pike, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2004, pp. 87-89, accessed 4/7/2008.
Morley, Thomas. "Now Is the Month of Maying." In The Oxford Book of Carols, above. Also available online at ChoralWiki.
Stubbes, Philip. The Anatomie of Abuses. Margaret Kidnie, ed. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 245. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies: Tempe, AZ 2002, pp. 209-210.
Research Log Pages
Lyrics first draft
Problems with Maltese Cuckoo
Problems with Official Month of Maying
First rewrite, Official Month of Maying
First rewrite, Maltese Cuckoo
Second rewrite, Official Month of Maying
Third rewrite, Official Month of Maying
Sources 1 (Internet search)
Garb for performance
Sources 2 (poetry)
Sources 3 (original Morley lyrics)
Sources 4 (library trip)
Sources 5 (primary source)
Sources 6 (secondary source)
Sources 7 (ending literature search), second thoughts on garb
Design and construction of maypole