Maypole Dancing

A History of Maypole Dancing

The Anglo-Saxons used prominent trees or poles as a marker for central meeting points. Over time these poles became associated particularly with landmarks for markets and fairs and were often highly decorated with paint, various emblems of local tradesmen, weather vanes, ribbons or flower garlands.

These poles also formed a focus for merrymaking and celebrations (and sometimes just general rowdiness and disorder!), including plays, dances and customs relating to welcoming the Summer. By the 14th century at least some of these were known as ‘Maypoles’. Similar traditions are found across Europe including England, Germany, Northern France and the Low Countries.

In England, it seems that the earliest ‘Maypole dances’ consisted of people just dancing around the pole without any ribbons – probably often circle dances that were locally popular. A painting of the Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea, London in 1759 is the first known pictorial evidence of people plaiting ribbons around a pole in the manner which is generally thought of as a Maypole Dance today. It is thought that this ribbon dance custom may have come from European (possibly Italian) dance troupes who visited London at that time, providing entertainment with similar ribbon-and-pole dances, sword-dances, music and plays.

John Ruskin, a Victorian philanthropist, introduced Maypole Dancing as we now know it to the May Day ceremonies at a training school for schoolmistresses (Whitelands in Chelsea) in late Victorian times – and so it became a popular school tradition, which was further promoted by the work of the Folk revival of the late 19th and early 20th century. Evidence suggests pipes, tambours and English bagpipes would have provided musical accompaniment to early maypole dances. By Ruskin’s time, fiddle and concertina may well have been included.

Lyndsey Rule
May 2012