Britannia Coconut Dancers
The Britannia Coco-nut Dancers or Nutters are a troupe of Lancastrian clog dancers who perform every Easter in Bacup, dancing 7 miles (11 km) across the town. There are eight dancers and a whipper-in, who controls the proceedings.
Some say the custom was brought to the area by Moors who settled in Cornwall in the 17th century, became miners and then moved to work in quarries in Lancashire. A similar performance occurred in Portuguese-speaking communities such as the Afro-Brazilian "Dança do Coco", a dance form precursor to the iconic Brazilian Carnival dance troupes, it is also present in the French-speaking communities dances – the Danse des Coco – are performed in Provence. This troupe was formed as the Tunstead Mill Nutters in 1857 when it was one of a group of five which performed in the Rossendale valley. According to the Burnley Gazette, a man named Abraham Spencer (1842–1918) was one of the founders back in 1857, at only 15. They passed on their tradition to workers at the Britannia Mill in the 1920s. Their dances feature floral hoops or garlands; the musical accompaniment is provided by a concertina or the Stacksteads Silver Band.
Their name refers to the wooden nuts worn at their knees, waists and wrists, which are made from the tops of bobbins. They are protective work gear for the hands and knees, essential in mining work involving crawling. The waist nut is a spare in case of breakage or loss of the others. These are tapped together like castanets as a percussive accompaniment to the dance, the nuts on the hands striking the nuts on the waist or knees in an intricate and dextrous rhythm. They wear white turbans with blue plumes, dark jerseys and trews, a white baldric, red and white skirts, white hose and black clogs.
Their faces are blackened. This is popularly explained as either due to the origins of the dance in the mining community, a reference to the dancers' ancient origin as Barbary pirates or as a disguise to ward off evil spirits. Theresa Buckland's (1990) research discusses the linkages between the tradition and minstrel shows. She argued, "The 'disguise' function of the costume has most likely been influences by Cecil Sharp's  interpretation of the black face [...] which has been repeated in various publications and ephemera of the English Folk Dance and Song Society ... The dancers have been exposed to information from these publications, whether first-hand or further removed." The issue caused controversy in 2014, when local politician Will Straw was photographed with them. He defended the custom: "... it’s traditions from the past which give communities a sense of common identity for the present and the future. May the Coconutters continue for many years to come."
One long-standing member of the troupe is Dick Shufflebottom, whose service of 50 years was celebrated in 2006 and who continued as an active member in 2013, aged 76. The youngest member of the troupe at that time was Gavin McNulty, age 26.
The main annual performance is on Easter Saturday,[A] but rehearsals take place weekly throughout the year and form a social occasion. In 2013, the annual performance was threatened by public sector austerity as the police and local authority threatened to withdraw support for the traffic management and security at the event.
The dance begins with each Nutter cocking a hand to his ear to listen to something we human folk can’t catch. They then wag a finger at each other, and they’re off, stamping and circling, occasionally holding bent wands covered with red, white and blue rosettes that they weave into simple patterns. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever. It is, simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other. Morris men from southern troupes come and watch in slack-jawed silence. Nothing in the civilised world is quite as elementally bizarre and awkwardly compelling as the Coco-nutters of Bacup.
A 2-minute and 18-second excerpt of the music used for the dancing, recorded in 1972, is included on the album The Voice of the People, Volume 16: You Lazy Lot of Bone Shakers – Songs & Dance Tunes of Seasonal Events, issued by Topic Records. Topic included this recording as Track One on the second CD in their 70-year anniversary boxed set Three Score and Ten.
- ^A Easter Saturday here refers to the term's meaning in common usage, the day before Easter Sunday, properly known as Holy Saturday, not the more accurate use of the term Easter Saturday which designates the Saturday following Easter Sunday.
- Roy Christian (1967), Old English customs, Hastings House, p. 26
- "Bacup Britannia Coconut Dancers", A dictionary of English folklore, Oxford University Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-19-210019-1
- "Dança do Coco", O Portal de Notícias da Paraíba, Nordeste e Brasil. WSCOM.com.br. Retrieved 2016-02-11.
- Nigel Allenby Jaffé (1990), Folk dance of Europe, pp. 108–109, ISBN 978-0-946247-14-1
- Kenneth Fields (1998), Lancashire magic & mystery, p. 100, ISBN 978-1-85058-606-7
- Brian Shuel (1985), The National Trust guide to traditional customs of Britain, p. 46, ISBN 978-0-86350-051-0
- Kerridge, Roy (24 April 1981), "The giants of Rossendale", The Spectator, 246: 13,
...their intricate coconut routine, beating up a brisk castanet-type rhythm by patting their hands, with discs on their palms, onto the discs on their waists and knees...
- Jeremy Hobson (2007), "Britannia Coconut Dancers", Curious Country Customs, David & Charles, p. 60, ISBN 978-0-7153-2658-9
- Suzanne Cassidy (June 4, 1989), "England's Merry Morris Men", The New York Times
- T Buckland (1986), "The Tunstead Mill Nutters of Rossendale, Lancashire", Folk Music Journal, 5 (2), ISSN 0531-9684, JSTOR 4522204
- Pauline Greenhill (1994), Ethnicity in the Mainstream, McGill-Queen's, p. 119, ISBN 978-0773511736, ISSN 0846-8869,
The practice is often explained away as a representation of miners' blackened visages
- Buckland, Theresa Jill (1990). "Black Faces, Garlands, and Coconuts: Exotic Dances on Street and Stage". Dance Research Journal. Congress on Research on Dance. 22 (2): 1–12. JSTOR 1477779.
- Beth Abbit (24 April 2014), "Straw defends 'Nutters in Twitter picture row", Rossendale Free Press, archived from the original on 27 April 2014
- William Langley (27 Apr 2014), "Meeting the dance troop who say 'blacking-up' is a badge of pride", Sunday Telegraph
- "Fifty Years a Nutter", English dance and song, English Folk Dance and Song Society: 113, 2006
- Jaya Narain (2 February 2013), "'Elf and safety threat to 150-year-old Morris dancing charity event as council insists volunteers go on course", Daily Mail
- Theresa Buckland (1994), Dance history, Routledge, p. 54, ISBN 978-0-415-09030-8
- Andy McSmith (5 February 2013), "What police budget cuts could lead to – illegal Morris dancing", The Independent, archived from the original on 11 February 2013
- "AA Gill meets the morris dancers", The Sunday Times, August 9, 2009
- "Here's a Health to the Barley Mow". BFI. Retrieved 13 February 2015.
- "You Lazy Lot of Bone Shakers". Topic Records. Retrieved 13 February 2015.
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