Monday, 15 January 2018

Dancing With Bears

Apologies to those of you who've heard some of this information about the origins of Whittlesey's Straw Bear Festival before - you can just enjoy the pictures! And there are a couple of new videos at the end.

Overheard on the street: "Of course, this isn't really that old; it all started up in the 1980s, before that - nothin'".
Overheard in one of the pubs: "It's amazing that these old traditions have survived unchanged for centuries!"

And in a way both have a point.
Back in Medieval times, before there was a Church of England, our churches contained icons of saints and also candles that would be kept burning throughout the year. One of these was known as "the plough-light" and was supposed to protect farm workers and ensure a good harvest. 

There was also a church service on the Sunday before the start of the agricultural year (then regarded as the first Monday after the Twelfth Day of Christmas) to bless the plough - an old plough was kept in at least one Cambridgeshire church within the last century. In order to pay for the candles to be kept alight the ploughboys toured the villages dancing, enacting rough little plays and collecting money on what became known as Plough Monday.

Details of exactly what went on are hard to come by, it varied across the country and probably evolved over time. With the coming of the Reformation the icons and candles were no more but farm workers still danced and collected money which went to the needy, but also paid for beer to wet the throats of the dancers.

In Cambridgeshire one of the dancers dressed from head to foot in straw and was known as the "straw bear". He also danced for money despite his disguise weighing around 30 Kg or 70 lbs. Exactly where the idea of the "bear" came from is not known though similar costumes are also known from Europe, so maybe it originated there - there has long been close contact between East Anglia and mainland Europe. 

During the nineteenth century the custom declined and was almost lost, though a few folklorists collected a handful of dances and odd memories from the older people. The police tried to extinguish what was left by banning it as a form of begging, though in truth it was probably the associated drinking and fighting that they really objected to.

One of the last places where the tradition survived was Whittlesey. In the 1980s, after years of neglect, a few people sought to revive the practice in a small way.

Over the years it has grown beyond all recognition with many kinds of traditional dance being included - Cotswold Morris dancing, Border Morris, North-western Morris and clog dancing, Longsword and Rapper dancing, and even Appalachian dancing from the USA being added to the Molly dancing which was practised in East Anglia. 

The dance styles have evolved too with new dances being invented and many more female dancers. As those of you who saw the video on the last post will have seen, many local primary schools have also become involved. There's also a folk music concert, a barn dance, poets, music and storytelling.

Here's a couple of videos for you:
From the sublime - Appalachian dance from the cleverly named Tap & Sync....

to the err...well, to Tyler's Men...

That's quite enough exercise for now!

Take care.


  1. Lovely colourful pictures John. I love these traditions whether they started in the 80's or much earlier. Itis the idea of village people getting together to make music that I like.

  2. Happy faces all round suggest folks are eager to revive the traditions! Great photos!

  3. Love the interest and enthusiasm of the people!

  4. Love seeing these, I like the colour as much as the celebration of tradition

  5. The people look like they are really enjoying themselves. Lots of fun!

  6. Great post John, I love the music and the traditions.

  7. What fun. Here in Appalachia, the dancers on outdoor stages are very popular in the summer at festivals Winter dancing looks more strenuous, but still fun.

  8. Traditions often gain momentum and misinterpretation over the years 😀 love the vibrant costumes John, beautifully shown here.

  9. I would love to spend a year travelling Britain and attending all these brilliant events that take place!

  10. Well, they do look like they're having fun, even if they do get exhausted fast! Great videos!

  11. Just look at the happy faces and dancing feet!
    Such lovely colourful pictures John.

    Another brilliant post, thank you.

    All the best Jan

  12. A wonderful tradition. Nice action photos, John.

  13. The story of the plough service is something I have never come across before but the rest I recognise as Morris dancing and that has bee around a long time. I remember them dancing as a kid. I'm glad the tradition is being kept going with the festival

  14. Any excuse for a party! It looks like everyone is having such a good time. I enjoyed the videos.

  15. not much can be done with a ten foot willy, I must say.

    Dance is universal, isn't it? There is something in our DNA. I have friends who are devout Morris dancers here in California. Exactly which style of Morris I couldn't say.

    I love the speculative comments on the dance history. It's like when I'm at the zoo listening to parents tell their children absolute falsehoods about a particular animal. I keep my mouth shut, but with a lot of effort.

    Great post. Thanks.

  16. Wonderful photos of the energy displayed by happy people.

  17. I can't tell you how much I would love to see this one day. Years ago, probably in the early 1980s, I was somewhere in the Cotwolds -- I think it might have been Broadway -- and came across a festival with Morris dancing. I had never seen anything like it, but I watched for three or four hours. A great memory. I always tell folks that serendipity (i.e., just stumbling across stuff) is nearly always better than planned events.

  18. I am enjoying catching up with what I have missed...I am not blogging least not yet. But just wanted to visit a bit.


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