Last year we talked about Beltane and May Day, and as May 1st comes upon us again, we thought we would take a break from the chaos of the world and talk about the Maypole Dance!
When I was a little girl, about ten years old, I got to dance the Maypole dance at my elementary school. This was a weird age, of course and in the 1980s so we were set up in boy/girl pairs. As you can imagine, being a shy young girl and told I had to dance with a boy (gasp) was nerve wracking. Strangely, however, it’s one of my fondest memories of that time.
It was a challenge. Yet it was a beautiful and fun way to celebrate the arrival of Spring. I wore a lilac dress and my partner wore a lilac shirt, both worn to match the purple ribbons we were going to hold. I remember we were all so very nervous. Once things got started, though, laughter and joy abounded and we felt pretty accomplished when we were done.
The Maypole Dance and how to make your own maypole.
Scholars feel that, originally, the maypole was erected simply as part of the celebration of spring and summer. They were first seen and recorded in the 14th century, although it’s probable that it originated in the early days of Germany during the Iron Age (1200 BCE – 550 BCE).
In the modern day, the May Pole is celebrated by people of many faiths including the non-secular. In the pagan celebrations of Beltane, where it is believed to have its roots, the pole symbolizes fertility of the earth and the potency of God.
Wherever the Maypole is celebrated, the Maypole Dance is considered a special part of the May Day celebrations.
How do you set up a Maypole?
To set up your own Maypole for your community you need the following things:
- A tall (8-10 feet) pole that you can secure in the ground and that you can attach ribbons to at the top. (the more dancers you have the taller the pole will need to be)
- An even number of ribbons in a rainbow array of colors (we usually do 2- 4 of each color of the rainbow, but you need as many ribbons as you have dancers). Your ribbons need to be about 4-6 feet longer than the pole is tall.
Once you have the parts, putting it together should be relatively easy. Attach all the strings to the top of the pole, make sure they are secure by yanking on them.
When you set the pole up in its location, you’ll want to make sure that it doesn’t move AT ALL when those ribbons are tugged on.
Prep the ribbons by pulling them out from the pole and letting them rest a few feet away from it.
The Maypole Dances
There are several variations to the Maypole Dance. Dancers can just wander around the pole in the same direction, weave in and out to create a Plait of ribbons, or even try the “Gypsy Tent” variation (this creates a web like tent instead of the braid around the pole.).
When I did these as a child, the entire performance consisted of three different parts for the ‘dance’. Keep in mind you will want to choreograph your dance to the music that you choose (typically jigs, waltzes, reels, etc.). Beforehand, you will want to split your dancers into two ‘teams’ or groups. When I was a child, we had an equal number of boys and girls as was done historically. We even wore clothing the same color as our ribbons.
Today, there is no need to divide by gender. You can count off by A and B and the A’s are one team and the B’s are the other. Once you have done that, you’re good to go.
The introduction: retrieving of the ribbons and winding around the pole.
All of your dancers gather around the Maypole and bow to each other. First they bow to the right, and then to the left. They skip or stride three paces forward to pick up their ribbons and skip back and then skip/stride forward and back three times.
The first dance around the Maypole
Now that everyone has their ribbons, all dances face the same way and skip/stride to the music. They wrap all the ribbons around at an even pace until the ribbons are too short to continue. It is important that this is done evenly in order to take the next step. Unwrapping. Once you have had to stop, you then unwind the ribbons. Do this evenly, to the music and return to your original positions (hopefully).
This simple dance is great for getting your dancers used to the ribbons. It can be done as part of the performance or rehearsal.
The Great Plaiting
To set up for the main event of the Maypole Dance, have your Dancers turn with all the A’s turning to dance clockwise. All the B’s would turn to dance counterclockwise.
At the beginning of the dance you can have your dancers bow before moving forward. Gliding or skipping to the music your Dancers A should pass Dancers B with their right shoulders. On the next person, they should pass with their left shoulders. This creates an ‘over and under’ pattern.
As each dancer goes under their temporary partner should raise the ribbons high. This gives plenty of room for dancers to duck under the ribbons and looks lovely from the audience. The Dancers continue this until the ribbons are too short to lift up any more. IF you want your dancers to unwind it, you absolutely MUST reverse your steps accurately. We always left ours, so we could enjoy the art of our Plait for the rest of the celebrations.
However you and your community celebrate May Day this year, we hope that you are all safe and happy. May spring bring to you new hope and joy (and for us, some sun!).
The Researcher’s Gateway