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Old Glory was formed in 1994 to recreate the tradition of Molly dancing in East Suffolk, as we imagine it might have been in Edwardian times. Molly dancing traditionally only appeared during the depths of winter as a means of earning some money when the land was frozen or waterlogged and could not be worked. It is sometimes regarded as the East Anglian form of Morris. Traditional molly dance teams always included at least one man dressed in women’s clothing as a form of disguise; sometimes the whole team did so. In times of civil unrest, it was thought that a man so dressed would escape arrest, since it was considered that women could not be held responsible for their actions. The term 'molly' is an old word that refers to a man dressed in women’s clothing. In eighteenth century England, there were 'molly houses' which were meeting places for men of a certain inclination, some of whom would wear female attire. Old Glory's molly appears as the 'Lady' and is accompanied by an appropriately dressed 'Lord'. These two characters, parodying the local gentry, lead the dances. There are other characters in Old Glory, such as the “umbrella-man”, who acts as announcer, a “box-man” carrying a collecting box, the “broom-man”, who clears the way for the dancers, and the “whiffler”, whose job it is to marshal the dancers.
Molly dancing is also characterized by blackened faces. Like the cross-dressing mentioned above, this was also a form of disguise, albeit rather primitive. The dancers of old could not afford to be recognised since some of those people from whom they had demanded money with menaces may have been their employers. Molly dancing is, by nature, robust and, some would say, aggressive. These qualities are emphasised by the sound of the hobnailed boots worn by the dancers, which were the normal form of footwear for farm workers in the East of England right up until the second half of the twentieth century.
There is very little known about the dances that Molly dancers of the early part of the twentieth century would have performed, other than that they resembled country dances, but danced using a slow, heavy step, and with much swinging about in pairs. We have constructed our own dances, based on such information as we have, and we have developed our own distinctive style. The Molly dancers of Old Glory are all men, whilst the musicians are all women. The musicians play a variety of instruments, which may include at least one four-stop melodeon in the "Suffolk key" of C, recorders, drums, trombone, “tea-chest” bass and rommelpot.
For further information about Molly dancing, Old Glory recommends "Truculent Rustics: Molly Dancing in East Anglia before 1940" by Elaine Bradtke, published by The Folklore Society, University College, London (ISBN 0 903515 180) and available from Hedingham Fair.
If you have taken any photographs of us, we would be very interested in seeing them.
If you are interested in joining Old Glory Molly Dancers and Musicians, you are assured of a warm welcome. Please note that, if we have reached a certain size, you may have to join a waiting list to become a musician or dancer. New dancers will be expected to serve a period of ‘apprenticeship’ before being permitted to dance in public.
Dancers from an original lino-cut by Karen Cater