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ast summer, the Coconut Dancers returned – after a gap of ten years – to Sidmouth Folk Week. As they finished their performance at the Late Night Extra, a friend stood next to me turned and, with a bewildered expres- sion, asked, “Where does this come from?” Ah, if only

we knew! The Coconut Dancers don’t fall neatly into the cate- gories of folk dance that Cecil Sharp and his later supporters devised in the early 20th Century. They don’t resemble the morris dancers from the north-west of England, although like the morris dancers, there is the processional nature of the street dance, and there’s the seasonal performance.

There’s a newspaper report of them in Sharp’s press cuttings book, so he did know of their existence. In 1927, Anne Gilchrist included the tune of a Coco-nut Dance, dating from Rochdale in the 1850s, in an article on Lancashire morris dances – the source of Spiers and Boden’s arrangement of the tune for the duo and for Bellow- head, although this tune is unlike the current Bacup tunes. In 1929, Maud Karpeles visited Bacup and noted the garland dances, although the dancers were reluctant to let her note the nut dance. They obviously realised that they had something unique, and did not want anyone to copy it.

They were soon feted by the English Folk Dance Society, and its successor the English Folk Dance and Song Society, travelling to Lon- don to dance at their Royal Albert Hall festivals. The Society explained the dance within English ceremonial dance traditions defined by Sharp, and Douglas Kennedy, Sharp’s successor as direc- tor, was happy to authenticate it as a “true morris coconut dance”. But that doesn’t answer my friend’s question.

We do know that in 1907, the Tunstead Mill Coconutters cele- brated their golden jubilee, Tunstead being an area of Stacksteads. A detailed press report gives names and details of costume, route on Easter Saturday and music – all similar to the current-day Britannia team. Theresa Buckland researched all the occurrences of coconut dancing in the area for her doctoral thesis, tracked down descen- dants of former dancers and wrote about the Tunstead Mill group in the 1986 Folk Music Journal. The Tunstead Mill group seems to have disbanded by the outbreak of the First World War, but they taught the dances to the Britannia team in the early 1920s, although the current dancers reckon they were founded soon after 1900.

ut that still doesn’t answer the question! Of course, there is no simple, clear-cut answer. There are, however, some clues. In his researches into 19th Century occur- rences of morris dancing on the stage for his 1997 Folk Music Journal article, the late Roy Judge refers to an 1824 production of a play that features “A New Cocoa Nut Dance”, and such a dance then appears in other plays into the 1830s, with a description that coconuts were held in the dancers’ hands and struck together. By at least 1836, the dance becomes detached from plays, with the Chiarini Family performing their “Cocoa Nut Ballet” at Ryan’s Circus in Bristol. Other families got in on the act, and there are newspaper adverts for the “Cocoa Nut Dance” through- out the 1830s in Bradford, Birmingham and Gloucester, for exam- ple. None of this proves that such a stage performance was the ori- gin of coconut dancing in Bacup, or, vice-versa, that the Lancashire tradition inspired the stage show. Intriguingly, there’s also a refer- ence to mid-19th Century morris dancers in North Leigh, Oxford- shire, holding coconut shells in their hands for one dance, and there were coconut dancers in St Mary Cray, Kent, in 1893.


In Bacup, the Coconutters have a more localised explanation – they reckon the dance came from Cornish tin miners who settled in neighbouring Whitworth and who taught it to local quarrymen. And that when the dancers hold their nut-filled hands to their ears, they are mimicking miners listening for rock falls in the coal mines. Black- faced coalminers, and a desire for disguise, also explain the blacked- up faces. Knowing the Coconutters, and talking to them as part of the Sidmouth A Chance To Meet event, I sensed that they were less interested in hypothesising about possible origins, and more interest- ed in the continuity of the dance tradition into modern-day Bacup.

Joe Healey says of the dance, “It’s been revered in our village and it reflects our hard industrial past. Our forebears and our pre- sent generation respect that; we are caretakers of that tradition,

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