Helston Floral Day Furry Dance, CornwallOne of the best known folk customs in Britain, the Furry Dance takes place every May 8 in the Cornish town of Helston , as it has for centuries. Some suggest (as is ever the case) that the tradition dates back to pagan times, and if not in form but in spirit they may be right - the dance is obviously banishing winter and welcoming spring.
Furry has nothing to do with animal skins: it is a corruption of the word Fair, as the dance is a festival event held on the feast day of the local church, St Michael's . St Michael is also Cornwall's patron saint.
The Floral Day Furry Dance is particularly well known because of the pseudo-folk song of that name written by a music hall entertainer in the early twentieth century, and popularised (if that is the word) by the likes of Terry Wogan and a thousand brass bands throughout the land. The tune at Helston is rather different, and an associated folk song more genuine. It must be genuine as just about every line is levered into rhyming with the addition of the syllable 'O'.
Though the custom is called the furry dance, furry dances would be more accurate: there are four, at seven in the morning (previously reserved for the labouring classes and servants who were otherwise occupied later on; at ten in the morning, for children; at noon, the so-called Principal Dance, originally for the town's gentry, but now for invited guests; and the last at five in the afternoon, open to all-comers, but they better have stamina as the dancing progress through each route lasts around an hour.
The town on the big day is decorated with flags and bunting, and plenty of May blossom and other greenery. The dance is a joyous one, a little daring as the dancers will pass through various shops and houses on their way, entering at one door, exiting via another, but is supposed to be danced with dignity too. This dignity is reflected in the clothing worn by the dancers - white shirt and tie for the young men and predominantly white summer dresses for the young women who dominate the seven o'clock round; top hat and tails for the gentlemen and smart dresses and hats for the ladies participating at noon.
Of course the dance is a boon for visitor trade for Helston, but the town has resisted the temptation to over-commercialise, which is very laudable, and very sensible: the visitors who cram into the sometimes already narrow streets of the place have come for the dance, not fortune-tellers and candyfloss.
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