Molly is the most recently rediscovered tradition in the broad grouping of regional English seasonal performance dance forms that also includes morris and sword. Springing from the country-dances of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent during the later years of Victoria’s reign, it is also called East Anglian Morris. The heyday of molly was the mid-1800s; when performed, it was done both in procession and in pubs in the current style of the times.

Seasonally molly is associated with Plough Monday, the 1st Monday after Twelfth Night. Plough Monday was the end of the workers’ midwinter holiday. Folk tradition has it that husbandmen maintained a plough light in the churches. On Plough Monday they held a feast then went about with a plough and dancers to get money to buy oil for the light. In one form of the procession, the Plough Boys were men dressed as molly dancers, led by the Lord and Lady, dressed more elaborately, who carried the plough. In another form the boys were harnessed to the plough in pairs, and paraded neighing like horses while a ploughman guided it, accompanied the cracking of long whips and cries of, “A penny for the plough boys; only once a year!” Costumes were simpler, usually blackened faces, a few bits of ribbon pinned to the cap or jacket, and pieces of metal harness for the “horses”. Inhabitants who refused to welcome the Plough Boys or donate money to the cause had their front lawns and sometimes the threshold of their houses ploughed up.

Molly distinguishes itself from Cotswold Morris by including a male dancer dressed as a woman, with the broomstick dance, a solo jig. Molly falls out into 2 broad groups: the old Cambridgeshire style and the Seven Champions style. Although once widespread in East Anglia, few traces of the old style remain. These collected dances number around 12, so few because they came from a small area and were collected only for a brief period of time. Cecil Sharp, the Morris dance historian, early in his dance-collecting career, saw and made notes on molly dance, but apparently considered it a poor or degenerate tradition and ignored it.

The Seven Champions molly dancers from Kent started as street entertainment in the 1970s. They present themselves as miners from the treacle mines in Kent. Said mines are widespread in folklore, although every locale claiming a mine thinks theirs is the only one in the world. It can be surmised that the stories are based on the discovery of underground tar pits rather than reservoirs of molasses. The 7 Cs slowed down and shortened the old style molly dances, and introduced strong arm movements, sharp and precise body movement, a slow deliberate stamping step, very high knee lifts, and heavy noise-making hobnail boots. They blacked their faces, and added an emcee to introduce dances and amuse the crowd between sets. Their hallmark is style, precision, discipline, and satiric, non-social dance interpretations of the common country-dance basics; i.e., classic street theater. This approach is wildly successful; the vast majority of molly teams copy the 7 C’s rather than the Cambridgeshire style.

Mad Molly patterns itself on the 7 C’s, doing what great folk artistes everywhere have done: we adapt, we steal, we downright make it up. We do a few old style dances, but we also convert favorite Cotswold Morris dances to molly stepping, write new ones, and use tunes we heard in passing on NPR. We’ve also invented a molly stick-dance tradition borrowing mostly from Border Morris Our stepping is bouncy with knees lifted high. In performance we might burst into song at any moment.

Molly – not as it was, but as we say it should be!

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