Medieval Roots

Scoot Dances

Guize Dancers

Furry Dances

Serpents and Snail Creeps

Social Dance





Kernow / Cornwall

Cornwall is one of the six Celtic nations of the Atlantic Arc and the Cornish are recognised as a National Minority by the Council for Europe and UK Government.  It’s unique geography and geology has given rise to a distinctive social and industrial history which in turn underpins modern Cornish identity. Cornwall’s history and geology provide for a rich tangible heritage ranging from the oldest field systems in Europe to nineteenth century mining technology. This distinctive identity also finds expression through the intangible cultural heritage of the Cornwall, its language, art, music and folk traditions. The story of Cornish folk dance tradition reflects the wider picture of Cornwall’s history and culture.

The Cornish language as we know it today grew out of the Brythonic language common to Cornwall, Brittany and Wales in the first millennium. Our neighbours to the north may have descended into the “Dark Ages” but on the departure of the Romans, Cornwall retained its ancient links with Mediterranean culture through the tin trade. This influenced the development of Cornish language and it is in the oldest surviving Cornish manuscript, the 12th century Latin / Cornish Vocabulariumm Cornicum that we find the first reference to dance in Cornwall. Here we find the terms lappior and lappiores for male and female dancer respectively and also the karol, meaning a circular dance to sung music and of course the ancestor of our modern Christmas carol.

Lappior / lappiores is particularly interesting as the Latin gloss is saltator / saltatrix which implies an energetic dance and possibly in the context of an entertainer. The Salterello was a lively 14th century Italian jumping dance for couples.  As Lapyeor the term was still in use as a dialect word for a step dancer in the nineteenth century.

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Medieval Roots

Medieval Cornish mystery plays, the Gwary Myr, marked a renaissance of the Cornish Language in the middle ages and also give us a context for early dance in Cornwall. They were a mixture of public entertainment, religious education and political comment and usually performed promenade style in the round. During the course of the play and particularly at the end, musicians are called upon to play for dancing:

“Pybugh menstrels volonnek may hyllyn donsia dyson”

  Pipe ye hearty minstrels that we may be able to dance forthwith.

(From the 16th century Mystery Play Beunans Meriasek)

The instructions in the Mystery Plays do not describe the music or the dances except to indicate that they should be fast and hearty. The medieval Cornish carols are strongly linked culturally to the mystery plays so that tunes collected in Cornwall, like “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” and “I Saw Three Ships”, give us a feel for the music that was played for dancing.

Medieval carvings in Cornish churches also give us a window into the musicians and their instruments. The minstrels carved on the East wall of St Marys Church in Launceston boast a harp, a crowd (a crowd is a form of early fiddle in Cornish) and a bagpiper together with a selection of percussion and horns. The magnificent bench end carvings in the Church at Altarnon even include some dancers accompanied by a piper and crowder. Two dancers have swords and are very similar to drawings of dance called “The Mattachins” in a French dancing tutor called “Arbeau’s Orchesogrphy” published some 70 years later. Cornwall’s central position on the medieval sea routes created the perfect environment for cultural exchange with Europe.

Several of the mystery plays are thought to have been written at Glasney College in Penryn, the cultural centre of the medieval Cornish world. The college was dissolved and destroyed by the Tudors in 1548 to bring the Cornish in line with religious and civic culture of the crown. This provoked a rebellion in Cornwall which attracted a bloody reprisal from the Tudors and thousands of people were executed. This is sometimes seen as a fatal blow to Cornish language and culture but many traditions, folk dance among them, simply moved away from the official religious and civic domain to live on within the customs of the ordinary Cornish people.

Unwitting testimony to the continuing tradition of circle dances in the 18th century is provided by Dr William Borlase in his Antiquities of Cornwall (London, Byer & Nichols, 1769). He explains that the Stone Circles in Cornwall are called Dawns Men meaning dance of stones, as they provide an area for dancing He comments that “in a circular figure there is a very ancient dance or play still practiced amongst the Cornish”. Footnotes explain that this dance is called Tremadheeves but sadly, he does not provide a description.

Cornwall’s early engagement with the industrial revolution is part of the Cornish profile and much celebrated. In many places industrialisation resulted in the decline of rural communities and which affected the continuity of tradition between generations. The nature of the early mining industry in Cornwall was such that communities remained in place as it developed around and sometimes literally below them. This served to preserve continuity of folk customs and Cornwall provided rich pickings as enthusiasm for recording and “collecting” folk traditions grew in the nineteenth century.

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Scoot Dances

The early folklorists and antiquarians failed to recognise the dynamic nature of folk tradition. They were collecting and recording what they saw as the last vestiges of a fading traditional culture when in fact these very traditions were evolving and changing quite robustly around them. The medieval lapyeor and lapyeores mentioned above, for example, took full advantage of the satisfying clacking sound of hard soled footwear needed for the mining and quarrying industries.  This sound was enhanced further when metal plates were added to the toes and heels to increase the life span of the foot wear. In Cornish dialect these metal plates were called “scoots” and this term eventually transferred itself to the dance tradition itself so that the distinctive style of Cornish step dancing is called “scoot dancing”.

The atmosphere of Cornish scoot dancing is captured in this description of a nineteenth century wedding:

Presently the fiddle struck up with a jig ‘Les have the double shuffle, Uncle Will,’ said the young people. Up he jumped as lively as a kid, though he was near eighty, and footed it out to the delight of all. Young Jan followed, making the fire fly from the heels of his boots, like flashes of lightning; and all the company were quickly whirling, in reels, without much order.” (William Bottrell,Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall 1873).

The informal nature of scoot dancing meant that it played a low public profile but nevertheless remained as a living tradition within some families, especially in North Cornwall until the latter part of the 20th century. At which point it was eagerly seized upon by dance groups and enthusiasts looking for Cornish dances to choreograph as displays with which to represent Cornwall on the emerging Celtic festival scene. Ten or so dances with a number of different steps were originally collected and since then a large number of new dances have been written using the traditional steps to provide the 12st Century Cornish Scoot dancer with a wide repertoire.

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Guize Dancers

The Cornish Guize dancer can be seen as Cornwall’s answer to the English Morris; both have their roots in the pan European medieval melting pot of folk traditions and both evolved to take on their own distinctive form in the nineteenth century. The folklorists of the time saw the Cornish Guize dance tradition as having its origins in the Cornish Mystery plays. It is difficult to argue that the bizarrely costumed anarchy of Guize Dance does not echo the spirit of medieval drama. The Cornish cultural revivalists of the 1920s and 1930s were keen to point out that “Guize” was pronounced “Geeze” in Cornwall. This is a dialect term but it comes from the Cornish language word “Geys” meaning a jest and “Geysor” a jester or fool.

Guize Dancing is not so much a specific dance style but a package of traditions, including dance, that centre around a procession or dramatic custom where the players disguise themselves with veils, masks or blackened faces and attire themselves in mock posh costume or cross dress. They captured the imagination of the 19th century folklorist and also the popular press who were sometimes enthusiastic supporters and sometimes condemning. There were clearly occasions when alcohol and enthusiasm combined forces and events spiralled out of control to the disdain of some:

 “I learn with greatest satisfaction that the worthy Mayor of St Ives, Mr Edward Hain has prohibited Gees Dancing for the year 1900…….people parade the principle streets many being “dressed up”, shouting, singing, dancing, ……men dressed as women and women dressed as men, girls as boys and boys as girls, some of whom under the influence of drink, perform sundry antics which, for vulgarity, would be hard to beat.”

(S. T. Rowe,St Ives Weekly Summary, January 6, 1900)

All traditions have cycles of popularity, decline and revival but the high level of interest and recording in nineteenth century has informed and given a particular momentum to the continuity of Cornish Guize Dance. Well known customs such as Helston’s Hal an Tow and Padstow’s Mummers day and May Day celebrations have been joined by revivals such Penzance’s Midsummer and Montol Guizers and the masked Raggadazzio of the Bodmin Play.

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Furry Dances

Just as Guize dancing tends to be associated with certain dates in the calendar so does another long standing Cornish dance tradition, the Furry dance. The Furry dance is essentially a processional dance for couples with a certain number of bars travelling forward and a certain number of bars performing a figure on the spot.  Many towns and villages have their own Furry Dance. A description of Helston’s Furry dance on 8th May appears in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1790 and there several early 19th century records of others taking place around West Cornwall in early May. It was clearly seen as long established Cornish tradition in 1801 when adopted for the first John Knill ceremony in St Ives. This ceremony takes place every five years on 25th July and commemorates the eccentric John Knill, erstwhile mayor and customs collector in St Ives.

Although early 19th century histories locate the Furry dance largely in the West it seems likely that it was always Cornwall wide tradition. It was certainly widespread with different dances to be found across Cornwall in the early twentieth and new dances within the tradition continue to be composed today.

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Serpent dances and Snail Creeps

A quite different aspect of Cornwall’s social history is reflected in the dance traditions associated with the Cornish Tea Treat.  In parallel with the industrial revolution, and perhaps partly in response to the negative social impact of unbridled capitalism, Cornwall embraced radical non conformist religion with great enthusiasm in the nineteenth century. One of the devices used to counter less temperate social activities was the encouragement of the village feast days and Tea Treats. Older customs such as holy well pilgrimages and saint’s days were firmly connected with the developing Cornish cuisine of cream teas, pasties, saffron cake and a range of other delights. Two particularly striking dance customs were associated with the Tea, the Serpent Dance and the Snail Creep.

The Serpent Dance is a direct descendant of the Medieval Farandole with a line of dancers spiralling around, weaving in and out and “threading the needle” as the last couple make an arch for the lead couple to double back through. The Cornish Tea Treats took this dance to a new level by engaging several hundred people into one long line and placing a full brass band in the lead. The Snail Creep is a dance for couples who form a long procession, again of several hundred people following the band. The procession is lead by two people holding out branches like the tentacles of a snail and follows various spirals and convolutions to represent a snail shell. The Snail Creep of the Cornish Tea Treat may be a salute to the snail lore of Cornish folklore but the meaning has long been lost.

The Tea Treats continued to be popular in the first half of the twentieth century and their dances merged with the revival of interest in Cornish social dance in the latter half. The serpent dance now makes an appearance with the Guizers in Penzance for the celebration of Golowan in Midsummer and Montol in the midwinter. It also takes pride of place as part of the closing ceremony for the Pagan Federation conference held every year n Cornwall!  The Serpent adapts well as a social dance for smaller numbers of people and sometimes acquires steps making it reminiscent of the dancing traditions of Brittany. The Snail Creep has been revived as part of the Rescorla Festival each July. Rescorla is a small village on the south east Corner of the Cornish Clay Country and the ancestral home of the Snail Creep.

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Cornish Social Dance

There is a sense in which social dance in Cornwall embraces all of the above as well as reflecting Cornwall’s geography and cultural connection with the other Celtic nations. In Cornish dialect the term for a social dance / barn dance was Troyl.  It was derived from the Cornish for a whirl, spiral or reel and it can be seen that this aptly describes social dances like the serpent. In the 21st century the word Troyl has been joined by Ceilidh and Nos Lowen, borrowings which reflect Cornwall’s Celtic affinities. Ceilidh is a Gaelic word for a gathering and Nos Lawen / Fest Noz derive from the Welsh and Breton respectively for a night time party.

As well as what were described as the “old Cornish dances” like the Serpent and the scoot dances the nineteenth century Cornish Troyl adapted dances from the country houses of the gentry. The manuscript of John Old, dancing master for the established gentry and newly rich industrialists of Par, provides a window into this world with music and notes for the dances (See Mike O’Connor and Alison Davey, Dancing Above Par, An Daras Folk Arts Project, 2003).

Cornish dance continues to play its traditional role in events celebrating the seasonal calendar, as well as a communal activity for weddings and party time in general. In the twenty first century it also serves to represent Cornwall on the Celtic and global folk festival scene. Cornish dance display groups are regularly invited to major events like the Festival Interceltique in Lorient, Brittany and in recent years have travelled as far as the Caribbean and Australia.  It is not only the dancers that travel; sometimes the dances do as well. At the time of writing there are folk dance teams in Brazil and Russia liaising with the Cornish Dance Society to learn Cornish dances.

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