American Morris Newsletter  

American Morris Newsletter

Volume 28, Number 2
September 1, 2008

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 In Celebration of Morris in America  

images of Garland Dancing in the DVRA
Tony Barrand

Over the summers of 1984-6, I edited approximately 1000 pages of mimeographed notes, history, commentary and notations created by Roy L. Dommett into five volumes [Barrand, Anthony G. (Ed). Roy Dommett's Morris Notes, CDSS of America, 1986 (RDNotes)]. They were used by Roy as Aides Memoire for the countless workshops he led in various aspects of the Morris on both sides of the Atlantic in the last four decades of the twentieth-century. Roy kept writing and rewriting beyond 1986 up to the present. Many of his more recent writings can be found on the web: for example at:

I got my first samples from Roy when I visited his house in the mid-1970s. Few of them had his name on them. I decided to cull a full set together after I taught a workshop in Boston on the dances from Kirtlington in the Cotswolds. One of the dancers showed me what looked like ninth- or tenth-generation photocopies of a Kirtlington notation and complained that there were minor differences from what I had just taught. I recognized them as Dommett's notes though the owner had no idea who had done them or where they were from.

About 500 pages concerned the Morris from Cotswold towns and villages; another 400 pages or so were on the "North-West" (or "clog" or "processional") Morris, so-called "Border" Morris, what I called "Other" (i.e. miscellaneous) "minor" Morris forms, and a few (but good) pages on rapper and longsword. A substantial chunk, amounting to 80 pages, constituted what was, in the 1980s, the only source of notations of Garland dances. Such sources are still scarce. Coming from Dommett-who loves equally the handed-down and the made-up-the dances cover a wide range of origins: from the exotic-looking Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup in Lancashire [clip from a newsreel ca.1977], to dances notated by Roy at festivals (e.g. The Wain and the Basque Garland Dance) and recently invented dances. [More about these forms later in this article.]

Since the history and background of seasonal displays with garlands is not as well known as that of other Morris and sword forms, I think it's important to contextualize a survey of the clips in the DVRA. Dommett's own words will do that best.


What follows then, in italics, is a useful introduction to dancing with garlands, written by Roy Dommett. I first printed an earlier version in RDNotes Volume 3, Garland Dances. Roy rewrote it for a booklet of notations that he taught in a workshop on October 29th, 1994 in his home town of Church Crookham, Hampshire, England (sponsored by the Morris Federation). Since I learned everything I know about garland dancing from this source, I thought the words of the Master were better than a paraphrase. I have added occasional comments and video links when appropriate and possible.


Garland dances are widespread in Europe, but not very common outside of Austria. They exist in many forms but the oldest are assessed to be those which appear to have once been sword dances and in which due to local laws [banning weapons] the garland replaced the swords. The "sword" was the stock-in-trade of blacksmiths, a narrow bar which could be worked into most implements, tool edges, and, when conditions warranted it, into swords. The ban led to the use of foliage-covered hoops, cooper's barrel hoops and even ropes between dancers. To be impressive the numbers of dancers can be rather large and the dances rather interminable in length. In most places the garlands are an inverted U-shape, and can be exploited as a frame for the head and top of the body. Some German and Basque garlands are the size of garden archways with spikes on the bottom ends which can be struck into the ground to allow the dancers greater freedom for stepping. In Austria many are rigid and small, of "A" frame or" triangular shape, as well as complete circles. The latter is appearing in the West Country. The earliest clear English reference available to me was in a ballet. Earlier references to garlands are to a different type of object that is not a dance implement but something that is carried to accompany a party of dancers or singers, who are perhaps "bringing in the May". These are close in concept to the heavily flowered garlands on a stave pole, such as are used on Tutti Day at Hungerford [Hocktide-every second Tuesday after Easter] and also was used by some Friendly Societies instead of stave heads. Garlands can mean also slack streamers or decorated ribbons, like skipping ropes or even interior decorators swages [i.e. ornamental borders].

Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup

By the mid-19th century garland dances were appearing as part of the stock in trade of the dance display choreographer along with plaited ribbon maypole dances and theatrical morris and might be seen on the stage, in at least one classical ballet, at the pleasure gardens and at revels. The Britannia Bacup and the original Whitworth dances probably date from the middle of Queen Victoria's reign but most surviving English dances seem to be late Victorian or Edwardian period compositions. A particularly well known one is the "Victory" dance from Knutsford which was danced with a slack garland, like a flower-decorated skipping rope, now preserved in performance by Poynton Jemmers. Garland dances are still part of the repertoire of children's dancing schools and a waltz garland was performed at Knutsford May Day in 1982. This dance was done with small rigid-framed garlands which allowed quick and easy change from linked to stand alone formations. Apparently a U-garland dance was circulated amongst Girl Guide troupes after WW I and parties went out collecting along with a maypole. Simple dances suitable for such activities were being published (Kimmons, G. T. The Guild of Play - Book of Festival and Dance Part 1, J Curwen, London, 3rd Edit, 190)) in the first decade of this century, as part of general urge to exploit pseudo historical material contemporaneous with the Esperance Club and Sharp, and these sources need more exploration. This was in a period of "sharing" dances and games from many cultures and the actual source is currently unknown. There is a photograph of school girls with U-garlands and a team with a plaited ribbon type of maypole at Alton at the end of the 19th century (Hampshire School Brochure, seen by courtesy of T. Munday).

The only English garland dance to include linked movements that has surfaced so far is the "Rose" [RDNotes Vol. 3, p. 76 danced in the clip by Court Square Dancers of Charlottesville, VA in 1984] recorded from a college team from the Sunderland area at an inter-college folk event in the early 1960s, and apparently created and taught to the leaders when at school a few years before by an ex-longsword dancer from the Cleveland area north of Whitby who did not believe in women doing the traditional men's dances. Originally intended to be danced by twelve or more, now is often done with eight with loss of scale and even by six. [The team] English Miscellany of Open Morris [an English organization for Morris teams] used a character carrying a separate object such as a bouquet who passed through the figures at appropriate moments to fill out the tune. Although it was done at the fast longsword walk, the dance has been developed in both rapper-like running and slow polka stepping versions to suit different club requirements. There are similar linked dances in Spain, Flanders and Provence.

English dances seem to include bows, made from the waist but keeping the head up, as at Bacup, Blennerhasset and in the Mayers "Maze" dance at Lancaster. Garland dances have not attracted fancy stepping sequences, although one like a Three Hand Reel was composed for Minden Rose. Within a club's repertoire there is always a need for a variety of rhythms and speeds from waltzes to polkas, and it is not unusual for a team to change the collected or acquired material for the sake of the balance in their shows.

A good garland dance uses the garland as part of the dance, rather than having the garland just to look pretty. They can be waved from side-to-side, laid on top of each other, or even used to catch other dancers. However garlands have been added to existing dances such as to the reconstruction of Mrs Hepple's dance. There are now in circulation a number of composed dances, ranging from the four handed Sweet Garland dance, seen danced by Wessex Woods, the five handed dance by Plymouth Maids, the six-handed Tina's dance by England's Glory, up to the Wain for Fourteen [RDNotes Vol. 3, pp.32-35 based on a Flemish dance Roy saw at Sidmouth]. [clip is Knots of May in 1979. Film speed is a little faster than they danced. They were filmed at 18 fps but digitized at the standard 20 fps] This is one of very few dances with one garland shared by each pair of dancers. It is now a much longer dance than when first seen at Sidmouth danced by a visiting Flemish team as English clubs have added several good figures. Several garland dances have been composed for use in Australia, New Zealand and in the USA. I have seen there good garland adaptations of Playford dances such as Newcastle and a comic version of Hey Boys Up We Go.

Garlands can be made of a variety of materials - plastic domestic water pipe is just about the right diameter and flexibility and was first suggested by Tony Barrand of Boston University, USA. Some teams have used hoola-hoops, but cane is desirable if the garlands are to be clashed, or even wood steamed to a permanent shape. A set of garlands in basket wickerwork has been seen. Decoration is very much a matter of the team's personal taste. Weight seems to be an important criterion, especially if someone has to carry eight or twelve of them around.


There's a relatively small number of clips of garland dancing in the DVRA; abut three dozen. I think of them as usefully gathering in three chunks; Garlands dances/teams with a continuous history; Garland dances from a variety of sources with notations in RDNotes Vol.3, and Garland dances not in RDNotes Vol.3.


A lot of people would call these "traditional" dances. However, the only clear meaning I can currently give to the loaded term, "traditional" is that it refers to a dance that was being performed prior to Sharp's involvement in English dance and continued to have a life since that world-changing moment in time. I prefer not to use the term at all. And, in any case, there aren't many teams with "traditional" garland dances from England; I have clips of two that might qualify: The Britannia Coco-nut Dancers of Bacup: the "Nutters" (filmed in 1979 by Rhett Krause at 18 fps but digitized at 20 fps) and John o' Gaunt Morris Men. Given the evolution of garland dancing as something primarily performed now by women, it is interesting that the two are men's teams.

The Britannia Coco-nut Dancers of Bacup

Bacup is a small town situated between Rochdale and Burnley in Lancashire. The dancing is accompanied on Easter Saturday by members of Stacksteads Silver Band. On their own official website, they suggest that the Easter Saturday dancing is as "unexpected as [it] is fascinating and whose strange appearance could be described as exotic!" In addition to the "Nutters" dancing, they have a series of garland sets that seem to be adaptations from 19th-century quadrilles (RDNotes Vol. 3, pp. 9-17). The oldest clip I have is from a BBC Newsreel from outside the Albert Hall ca.1977, and the most recent, with concertina/melodeon accompaniment, from the Sidmouth International Folk Festival in 2002 (video by Ivor Allsop).

John o' Gaunt Morris Men in Lancaster

I filmed the John o' Gaunt men on a rainy day in 1979 (filmed at 18 fps and digitized at 20 fps). Their performance (and that of the great clog dancer, Sam Sherry) had been moved inside a dark hall on the pier. 8mm film needed more light and they came out in the rain to show me two locally collected pieces: their Lancaster Processional and, with garlands, the Lancaster Mays Dance (RDNotes. Pp. 57-64).

Roy notated it as the "Mayers' " or "Maze" dance, and I was told, by a team member in 1979, that it was the "Maze" Dance although, with the local dialect it could have as easily been the "Mayor's" dances. Tony Dann of the team reported on the DVRA Comments tool (2005) that "Mays" is the correct spelling. He note: "…it was performed for the crowning of the May Queen, a common Victorian revival in Lancashire around the turn of the [20th-] century, hence its title...[as] originally collected, it was for 32 dancers, similar to the Leyland stage dance which, until recently, was still performed at Leyland Festival."

Thirty-two dancers? Dancing in a set that big could feel like you were in a "maze". How were they arranged? At the Marlboro Morris Ale, I filmed it in 1999 with twelve of Kari Smith's Guiding Star Clog Morris. The largest group I have seen, however, was a group of sixteen women, Rural Felicity, in 1985 from Brasstown, North Carolina, the home of the John C. Campbell Folk School. They arranged the sixteen dancers in a square, 4 x 4. It's a good solution and it makes me suspicious of the claim of thirty-two because that number does not make a square. No one, of course, said it HAD to be performed in a square formation, but the Rural Felicity performance makes an interesting set of possibilities for an audience gathered all around in the street. Is note in passing that they adopted the costume design we will see used by Knots of May (white apron over a dress of a plain color) but reversed it as white dress with colored apron.


Many teams have built their repertoires using the dances notated by Roy Dommett. The notations were made from mostly silent 8mm films taken by Roy. I was lucky enough to be able to film some of the same teams.

Knots of May

For my 1979 field trip to England, Roy Dommett insisted that I make sure to film Knots of May from Lewes in East Sussex. I met up with them in Ardingly in Sussex. They showed their adaptation of garland figures based on the North-West-style dance from Marston in Cheshire. It's normally done with sticks but works well with garlands. With sticks, it has become a standard part of repertoire for North-West Morris teams, who often also perform garland dances.

In addition to the Belgian dance, "The Wain " (seen above), Knots of May also showed what Roy had called the "Basque Garland Daoce", having seen a Basque group perform at the Letterkenny (Ireland) Festival. Dommett was there too, at the Ardingly performance. He's visible on the left at the very end of the clip. [I should comment, also, that I loved the Knots of May tunes and the band, consisting of men with button accordions and an 18th-century military snare drum that I coveted.]

Another interpretation of the "Basque Garland Dance" was evolved by John o' Gaunt Morris Men. I regret that I don't have them on film but it has become a part of the repertoire for Guiding Star Clog Morris of Greenfield in northern Massachusetts, led by Kari Smith. The John o' Gaunt team call the dance "Duke of Lancaster." The team's fascinating namesake, John of Gaunt, was 1st Duke of Lancaster (1340 - 1399). It's possible that he brought some Morris-type ideas into England in the form of entertainers from the Iberian This is a popular dance in the US, partly because my film of the brisk and exciting performance "Basque Garland Dance" by the women's team, Knots of May, has been in circulation as a rental by the Country Dance and Song Society since 1979. One of the first teams to add it to their repertoire was Mystic Garland in 1992.

England's Glory Ladies Morris

On a research trip to England in 1984, my then student, Kari Smith, shot video of two English women's garland teams. One was England's Glory Ladies Morris from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. At that time they did one garland dance that Roy called "Tina Brown's Dance" (RDNotes Vol.3, pp. 30-31). Note that they have small and very lightweight and flexible garlands as opposed to the larger, flower-decorated hoops preferred by American teams such as Wild Rose Garland. Wild Rose Garland from Great Barrington, Massachusetts use dances found in Dommett's book of garland dances, one of which they call "England's Glory", their interpretation of Tina Brown's Dance (RDNotes Vol. 3, p. 30)

The same dance, England's Glory, was done by Mystic Garland (from Mystic, CT) in the rain at the Marlboro Ale ten years earlier.

Taeppa's Tump

The other English garland team filmed by Kari Smith was Taeppa's Tump from that surprisingly-named town in Berkshire: Maidenhead ("surprising", anyway, to someone who makes his living singing songs about the deflowering of maidens.). At the Kirtlington Lamb Ale, Taeppa's Tump performed a garland dance (name unknown to me at this moment) based on a North West processional dance form.

If the reader looked at the previous three clips in sequence, there is, I think, a very different movement and costume style between at least these Two English teams, England's Glory and Taeppa's Tump, and the one American team. The English costumes, in particular, have a more dramatic, theatrical and, even, historical presentation than the women on the American teams who wear skirts like those the women would wear to a contra dance. Knots of May have a more understated costume but the apron style is again historically based, where the American teams tend to draw upon clothing idea that one would find people wearing in a current dress up situation such as a dance or church.

American Garland teams

In addition to the Guiding Star team trained by Kari Smith, and based in northern Massachusetts, there are several American teams using the garland repertoire many of which are or were based in the southern states. I believe the first of the teams was the Court Square Dancers from Charlottesville, Virginia. They came to the Marlboro Ale in 1980 where they danced the Wain for ten. The same dance was performed by Briar Rose Garland, in a similar costume, at the 1982 Marlboro Ale. Were the movement style and the costumes heavily influenced by the Court Square team? That same year, Briar Rose Garland also danced the French Garland (RDNotes p.35) notated by Roy Dommett from a group of French girls at Sidmouth International Folk Festival in 1997. It was raining in 1982 on Saturday morning at the Marlboro Ale; the dark clip reflects the indoor location and the poor low light capabilities of early 1980s video equipment.

Another American team with a similar name, Wild Rose Garland, delved into Dommett's notations for "The Quarry"  (RDNotes Vol. 3, p.71, notated by Roy from the dancing of Shrewsbury Lasses) Shrewsbury Lasses designed this dance for twelve, Wild Rose do it for eight.

Mystic Garland performed another North-West form of processional dance that Roy notated from Blennerhasset in Cumbria (RDNotes Vol. 3, pp. 20-21)


There are plenty of newly invented dances in Dommett's collection, even a few that were being performed in the 1970s and early 1980s when Roy was actively filming and notating what I called "other" forms of the Morris, including the garland dances. One example is from the Rumworth Morris of Bolton who, as their web site says, are "dedicated to the excellent performance of Lancashire Morris. Geoff Hughes, their founder, and the team invented "The Garland Dance" performed in this clip, interestingly, at the 1996 Sword Spectacular in Scarborough. The men call it "The Furry Hoop Dance."

In the team's very informative web site (, it is noted that "We see this unique dance as our 'signature dance' and have never taught it outside the membership of the club!" I'd suggest that teams should respect this caution and not add the dance to their repertoire.

American teams have added new dances. Two are on the DVRA. On their 1982 visit to the Marlboro Ale, taking advantage of their large membership made up of women who were skilled country dancers, Rural Felicity performed their invented dance, "Brasstown Felicity" for twelve.

And finally, Wild Rose Garland of eastern Massachusetts in 2002 showed "May Apple" for eight.


On both sides of the Atlantic, most women's and men's teams who dance garland also perform processional-style dances from the North-West of England and borrow from that form to create dances carrying garlands. This has historical precedence in the John o' Gaunt repertoire and, to a great extent, in Bacup, though the Coco-nut processional is atypical. My next examination of the performances to be found in the DVRA, therefore, will focus on the processional dances of originating in the north-west counties of Cheshire, in regular shoes, and Lancashire, in clogs.

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