May Day Dances

Maypole dances occur as part of May Day celebrations in many parts of the world. Traditions associated with this day include young people spending the last night of April out in the open and away from the town. They returned before sunrise bringing flowering branches to decorate the village buildings.

May Day was known as Beltane in Celtic times. It is a pagan rite celebrating the arrival of spring. In Medieval and Tudor times May Day was a holiday with great merry-making. A young girl was chosen as May Queen often with a May King. They represented fertility. They were crowned with hawthorn and may blossoms and they both presided over the festivities which included eating, drinking, games, “mummers” (plays) and of course dancing.

The celebration of May Day was banned by the English parliament in 1644 as immoral but was re-instated after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

The maypole tradition appears in most Germanic countries, and in areas bordering them, as well as in countries invaded by Germanic tribes after the fall of the Roman Empire (such as Spain, France and Italy). However the tradition enjoys the greatest popularity in Germany, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Finland , and Sweden. Today maypole dances do not involve the general public in the United States today. But maypole dances very similar to those in the U.K are an important part of many High School dances as part of May Day Celebrations.

In England, Morris and other local folk dances took place around a tree, most commonly a hawthorn that had been cut down, stripped of its bark and brought into the center of the village In the sixteenth century maypoles were a genuine symbol of community. They were often the focus of rivalry between villagers who would steal one another’s poles.

After the pole was installed it was wound round with garlands and sometimes painted. These were the early ribbon-less maypoles. By the twentieth century maypole dancing with ribbon plaiting was well established.

Some poles have fixed ribbons, others have one or two revolving rings with ribbons attached to them. The dancers hold the end of the ribbon with their outer hand while the inner hand, nearest the pole directs the ribbon from further up. The dancers skip or gallop around each other making a woven pattern along the length of the pole, which is then reversed so that the ribbons can be unwound again. Between eight and twenty dancers are said to be the best number. Both sexes can take part.

I remember doing such a dance as a child. We were dressed in Greek style tunics in a hideous shade of green and we danced barefoot. I can still recall the feeling of pleasure as I looked up and saw the patterns we had formed around the pole with the coloured ribbons.

There are a number of well-known ribbon-plaiting dances such as the Grand Chain. In this dance partners face each other and weave in and out on the beat. In the Barber’s Pole the girls make a complete revolution around the pole while the boys stand still and vice versa. These dances make a plait against the pole.

There are other dances which form a plait away from the pole. In Gypsy’s Tent, girls dance once around their partner, moving on to each subsequent boy until a “tent” is formed with the ribbons. Spiders Web forms a web around the pole. Jacob’s Ladder makes two “ladders” down the pole and Pyramid is a variation of this, forming four ladders.

Younger children usually dance around the pole without using ribbons. It should be perfectly feasible to create a version for children who have special needs including wheelchair users.

There is no specific music for maypole dancing. Traditionally, in England these dances were led by Morris Dancers. They played the tunes they knew. Each village had its own dance(s) with regional variations. Any genre of English folk music or Morris tune is suitable. Also suitable is Celtic/Irish folk music, anything with a fiddle, pipe, tabor, accordion or concertina. Jigs are good for fast walking or skipping steps. Marches and reels are suitable for walking steps. Waltzes suit more elegant types of walking. Also appropriate are traditional Appalachian/Bluegrass instrumental music or even music from the Tudor/Elizabethan age. The recommended tempo is about 110 beats per minute.

About forty villages in the U.K today still have a permanent maypole used to celebrate may day.

Susan Kramer ( gives details of two maypole dances. One using polka steps and the other skipping. No dance or musical experience is necessary. Her instructions are very simple and clear.
Waverly Fitzgerald ( some lovely ideas for mayday gifts. She suggests giving packets of seeds symbolizing qualities she felt would enhance the lives of the recipients and then leaving them on doorsteps with a label wishing the person “Happy May Day”. She also sends homemade cards created by making collages of pictures from flower catalogs and gardening magazines. Floral scented soaps and bubble baths are also suggested as appropriate gifts.


For Musicians looking for Sheet Music that would be Appropriate for Maypole Dancing, see the following website

To see Online Video Footage of Maypole Dancing, visit the following website and search “maypole”

For Historic Images of Maypole dancing visit:

For Kits to Make your Own Maypole visit:

For a Variety of Topics Relating to Maypoles visit:


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