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The Furry Dance (pronounced /ˈfʌri/), takes place in Helston, Cornwall, UK. It is one of the oldest British customs still practised today. However the modern variant of the dance holds few similarities with the proposed original, having been revived long after the event had died out. The dance is very well attended every year and people travel from all over the world to see it: Helston Town Band play all the music for the dances.
The Furry Dance takes place every year on 8 May (or the Saturday before if 8 May falls on a Sunday or Monday). In Helston, 8 May, the Feast of St. Michael, is called Flora Day, and the word probably derives from Cornish: fer, "fair, feast". It is a celebration of the passing of Winter and the arrival of Spring. The schedule of the day is thus: morning dance at 7 a.m., the first performance of the Hal-an-Tow pageant at 8:30am a.m. with the last at 9:30am, children's dance traditionally at at 10 a.m though in recent years the numbers and logistics have seen this advanced to 9.50am and in 2016 to 9.40am., midday dance at noon, and evening dance at 5 p.m.. Of these, the midday dance is perhaps the best known: it was traditionally the dance of the gentry in the town, and today the men wear top hats and tails while the women dance in their finest frocks.
Traditionally, the dancers wear Lily of the Valley, which is Helston's symbolic flower. The gentlemen wear it on the left, with the flowers pointing upwards, and the ladies wear it upside down on the right. Lily of the Valley is worn on Flora Day by dancers, bandsmen, Flora Day stewards and by those who are "Helston-born".
The children's dance involves over 1,000 children aged from 7 to 18, all dressed in white, the boys with Lily of the Valley buttonholes and the girls wearing flowers in their hair, the flower determined by the school they attend. They come from St Michael's School, Nansloe School, Parc Eglos School, and Helston Community College: each year a different school leads the dance.
The boys wear their school colours in the form of school ties, and the girls wear matching coloured flowers (blue cornflowers for St Michael's, forget-me-nots for Helston Community College, daisies for Nansloe and poppies for Parc Eglos) in their hair.
The Hal-an-Tow, which takes place on the same day, is a kind of mystery play with various historical and mythical themes. The Hal-an-Tow Pageant starts with a procession from St. John's Church. Characters include Friar Tuck, Robin Hood, St. George, and St. Michael. At several places in town they enact a battle of good vs. evil. As they walk, they sing their song to welcome the coming of summer. It contains disparaging references to the Spaniards, probably referring to the Spanish raid on Newlyn in 1595. The Helston Furry Dance is no. 135 in Palmer's Everyman's Book of English Country Songs.
The music is provided by Helston Town Band, augmented by members of other local bands. They play from memory, as the music for the dance has never been written down. In 1890 Cornish antiquarian M. A. Courtney wrote that the tune was sometimes known as "John the Bone". the following rhyme often being attached to the tune by local children, "John the Bone was walking home, / When he met with Sally Dover, / He kissed her once, / He kissed her twice, / And kissed her three times over".
In 1911 Katie Moss, a London composer visiting Helston, observed the Furry Dance and joined in the dancing herself in the evening. On the train home she wrote words and music of a song about her experience, calling the song "The Floral Dance". She quotes the Furry Dance tune in the piano accompaniment to the chorus – though altering the melody in two bars. This song was soon published by Chappell & Co., and first performed by baritone Thorpe Bates the same year.
The first recording of the song was made by Peter Dawson on the Zonophone label in 1912. It has since been recorded by many other artists. A bass baritone version of the song was recorded by Inia te Wiata and was released posthumously in a collection called "Just call me Happy". In 1976 the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band recorded an arrangement of the Moss song made by their Musical Director Derek Broadbent. By Christmas 1977 half a million copies of the record had been sold, and it was only kept from the top position in the Christmas charts by Paul McCartney's 'Mull of Kintyre'.
In January 1978 a vocal version by Terry Wogan accompanied by the Hanwell Band reached number 21 on the UK singles chart. Wogan did not include the last verse (the climax of the story) in this recording. The BBC recorded the Band playing for the dance on 8 May 1943 and this recording is included in The Voice of the People vol 16: You lazy lot of bone-shakers, issued by Topic Records in 1998.
Similar customs can be found in, amongst other places, Biewer, a district of Trier (Germany), where the annual "Schärensprung" takes place and in Echternach (Luxembourg). There are also similarities with the 'Obby 'Oss festival in Padstow, Cornwall, and with similar events in Minehead, Somerset, and Combe Martin in Devon.
- Williamson, George C. Curious Survivals ISBN 0-7661-4469-0; p. 148.
- Watersons songs, Hal-an-Tow, history and variants Retrieved 13 April 2012
- "The Gazetteer". Retrieved 26 July 2012.
- Norris (editor), Edwin (1968). The Ancient Cornish Drama, Volume 1. p. 501.
- History: Helston Furry Day Retrieved 13 April 2012.
- Jago, Frederick: English-Cornish Dictionary
- Hal-an-Tow lyrics
- "Helston Flora Day". Helston Town Band. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
- Courtney, M. A. (1890) Folklore and Legends of Cornwall ISBN 1-871060-05-2
- You lazy lot of bone-shakers booklet pp. 28–30, 58
- Green, Marian (1980) A Harvest of Festivals. London: Longman ISBN 0-582-50284-5; chap. 2: St Michael and a dancing serpent (pp. 14–30)
- Helston History
- Helston Town Band Website
- Helston Flora Day – The Music
- Hal-an-Tow and Flora Day songs, dances and play
- Helston Hal-an-Tow, 2010 (video). Characters in the dance include a dragon, a knight, and a millstone. A Green Man banner is seen as the group retires.
- Helston Hal-an-Tow, 2011 (video). The dance is preceded by a proclamation in Cornish. It includes some symbolic fighting with staves.
- Helston Furry Dance, the morning dance 2011 (video). The dance at 7 a.m. is led by a brass band, followed by the mayor, then couples in frocks or white shirts. All participants wear a sprig of lily of the valley.
- Helston Furry Dance, the morning dance 2008 (video). The dance leaves the guildhall at 7 a.m., and winds through the streets and in and out of shops.
- Helston Furry Dance, 2009 (video). Several dances throughout the day are led by a brass band. The children's dance is performed by students dressed in white. The Midday dance comprises adults in suits & top hats or gowns & bonnets.
- Hal-an-Tow sung by the Watersons in 1965 on their BBC TV documentary, Travelling for a Living (video)
- Hal-an-Tow lyrics. Note the reference to the pagan deities, the Lord and Lady.