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Archive -> Autobiography -> ‘As a Tale That is Told’ Extract 48 Page 164-168



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‘As a Tale That is Told’ Extract 48 Page 164-168

Reflection on origins of Dance

1912 or 1937???

I had known that these dances, the Morris dances and sword dances were priests’ ritual dances danced in religious ceremonial older than Christianity, but that was all. It was just a fact related to a long dead and forgotten religion.

Then I discovered that in the ceremonial originally associated with the morris dances there were traces of more ancient rites. That of human sacrifice is recorded at Kirlington, where it was customary for a young maiden, who must be of spotless reputation, to be taken from her father’s house early in the morning. She remained with the dancers all day, being treated with great reverence and ceremony. If anyone even so much as touched her, he had to pay a fine. In the evening she was returned to her father’s house, though in ancient days she was probably sacrificed on the altar of the god. At Kidlington a more humane custom was followed and a new-born lamb accompanied the dancers, decked in flowers and ribbons, and again at Bampton the dancers carried a ceremonial cake impaled on a sword, emphasising its sacrificial nature. Each onlooker was invited to taste the cake and then the collecting box was handed round. The cake had to have special ingredients, and was made by a special lady, generally the daughter of the squire.

There are also traces of phallic worship in the ceremonial. One old dancer expressed indignation because a “side” of men of a younger generation than his started out to dance without saluting the Maypole.

At Abingdon on Thames I discovered a Morris dance, of which only two surviving dancers still lived, which was

danced round a pole on the top of which was stuck a bull’s head with horns. There are many traces of sun worship. The Abingdon dance took place on St. John the Baptist’s Eve, celebrating the summer solstice.

I heard of the Abingdon dancers and their regalia when I was at a village sing-song in Berkshire and got the name and address of the leader. I wrote asking him if I might come and see him and hear all about the dances. He wrote back:
“Honourable and respected Miss, I am the party what has got the dance I shall be pleased to show them to you. Yrs to command – Hemmings.”

I went to Abingdon and spent the afternoon in the bar parlour of the “Happy Dick” and arranged for two dancers to come to London and teach the girls any Abingdon dances that were still remembered.

Afterwards when we danced these dances at a concert, Hemmings brought the Bull’s Head and the rest of the regalia up to London.

One very favourite dance was old Mr. Trafford of Headington. He taught us one or two dances and when we were at Earl’s Court he came up to see the show. He looked ten years younger than when I first saw him, he was so happy to see the dances still being danced.


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‘As a Tale That is Told’ Extract 48 Page 164-168