Written by Laurence Mitchell
Molly dancing is the East Anglian version of Morris dancing, a more earthy tradition that is altogether scarier and might even be described as ‘Morris dancing with menace’. Molly involves a type of dance traditionally performed by ploughboys in
midwinter. It mostly existed in the Midlands and East Anglia and, before the recent revival, the tradition was last witnessed in Cambridgeshire in the 1930s.
Molly dancing is usually associated with Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany (‘Twelfth Night’), a day on which
ploughboys would tour their village and offer to dance for money for local landowners, meting out ‘trick or treat’-style mischief to those who refused to pay. The commonest penalty would be to plough a furrow across the lawn or garden of the offending party. Anonymity was vital, as it would be these same landowners who would provide employment once the farming season got under way. Consequently, faces would be blackened with soot, Sunday-best clothes modified with coloured scarves and one of the team would cross-dress as a woman.
The revived tradition incorporates all of these elements with a modern twist. East Anglia has several Molly ‘teams’: Old Glory, who also perform the Cutty Wren Hunt at Middleton, Ouse Washes Molly Dancers and Gog Magog Molly. As well as Plough Monday and the Cutty Wren Hunt, Old Glory Molly can also sometimes be seen dancing at Southwold and Walberswick on Christmas Eve. Whatever the occasion, the proceedings usually have a solemn, dark edge. Old Glory don’t smile or talk when they perform, and they don’t perform outside winter. They do tend to scare small children though. It’s a serious business that seems both primordial and quintessentially English. In fact, one witness is reported to have said that the Molly experience was ‘so English, it brought tears to my eyes’.