Old Glory Molly Dancers, a side from East Suffolk, performing at Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival, January 2017. Whittlesea is the old spelling of Whittlesey, a small town southeast of Peterborough. The local tradition of disguising a man as a dancing bear by covering him from head to foot in straw and then leading him through the streets on Plough Monday was revived there in 1980.
The whole Old Glory side, including musicians, black their faces. Although in recent times this has become rather controversial (it is seen as perhaps being politically incorrect), it is a traditional method of disguise formerly adopted by many traditional performers including morris dancers and mummers, and has no racist intent whatsoever.
The term ‘molly’ may also court controversy, being an old word for a man dressed in women’s clothing. Molly dancing was a rural winter custom, confined to East Anglia, and traditional molly dancers would have been male farm workers, probably unable to work during severe weather. A molly side always included at least one man dressed as a woman, sometimes more. Often, like Old Glory, they had a smartly dressed “Lord” and “Lady” who led the dances. Old Glory also has an “umbrella man”, who announces the dances, a “box-man” who carries the collecting box, the “broom-man”, who clears the way for the dancers, and the “whipper-in”, who gathers the dancers together.
Old Glory have developed their own set of dances, recreating a tradition as they imagine it might have been in their area in Edwardian times. The dances, which resemble country dances, are performed with vigorous arm movements and slow, rhythmic steps made all the more powerful by the dancers’ heavy hobnailed boots. Redressing the all-male bias of the dance side, all of Old Glory’s musicians are female. They decorate their hats with spectacular wreaths and trails of ivy.