Site updated 9 November 2021
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 facial disguise; 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. In the 19th and early 20th centuries this was often achieved by blackening their faces with soot. Molly dancers in the present day use face paint, available in other colours apart from black. For the first 27 years of Old Glory’s existence, we painted our faces black, to represent the soot used by some of our predecessors. Although, in our experience, people generally understand this, we are aware that there are some who associate the use of black face paint with the minstrel shows of the 20th century, in which musicians and singers blackened their faces and appeared as caricatures of 19th century black American minstrels, and are offended by its use, regardless of the context or historical basis. In order to protect the dancers and musicians of Old Glory from any unjust and baseless accusations of racism we have decided to make a slight change to our facial disguise. From the 2021-2022 dance season onwards, our faces will appear not black but grey, in imitation of the use of ashes rather than soot.
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