Guise Dancing

Guise Dancing – Sometimes Geese, Goosey or Guize dancing is a Cornish Winter tradition practiced during the Christmas period, Plough Monday and some feast days. Guise dancing is a celebration of mischief, topsy turvey, and role reversal. Despite it’s name Guise Dancing is not exclusively a dance tradition and includes drama, processions, song and music and of course dance.

uise dance costume.

The main principle of Guise Dancing is disguise. In this case dressing in a way which hides the persons identity as completely as possible. This includes disguising the face.

Traditional options include

Mock Formal. – Dressing in fine clothes, sometimes described as gentleman’s hand me downs. This costume often reflected “clothes from past times”. In some Guise groups fine suits, top hats and bow ties are worn. In some groups older costume is worn. This option is often worn symbolically by poorer sections of society “mocking” the richer elements. Masks or lace veils are used to hide the face.

Rags and Ribbons.- Costume covered in tatters or ribbons, often highly coloured and ornate.

Animal imagery. In some places this was very common. In Penzance Guisers would dress as bulls or horses and in St Ives there is evidence of people wearing deer horns.

Cross dressing. Extremely common in the 20th Century in some parts of West Cornwall and before that in the Isles of Scilly. Men dressed as woman and vice versa even changing their voices.

William Bottrel writes about Guise dancing.

“During the early part of the last century the costume of the guise dancers often consisted of such antique finery as would now raise envy in the heart of a collector..The Chief glory of the men lay in their cocked hats which were surmounted with plumes and decked with streamers and ribbons, The girls were no less magnificently attired with steeple crowned hats, stiff bodied gowns, bag skirts or trains and ruffles hanging from their elbows ”

Hiding the face. Hiding the face is crucial to Guise dancing. Masks are traditionally worn, however they must not be character masks or horror masks. Lace veils are worn by some (a very traditional option indeed in St Ives and Mount’s Bay) sometimes decorated with sequins. Faces can also be blackened or coloured (traditionally this was done using burnt cork and is common in Padstow). Animal masks are also part of the tradition.

Dancing. Most modern Guise Dance groups use the very large and unique canon of Cornish Dance as a main part of the their entertainment.

Drama. Guise dancers often performed traditional Christmas plays as mummers did in the rest of Britain. These include St George and the Turkish Knight and plays with distinct local heritage such as Duffy and Devil.

Processions. In communities with large numbers of participants Guisers would quite often process to show off their costume. One such procession was formerly organised by St Ives Old Cornwall Society on New Years Eve.

Music and song. A very important part of Guise dancing is music. This is often taken from the large canon of Cornish Tunes, however it is also common to find groups using tunes to create an atmosphere sometimes dark and foreboding, sometimes happy. In the mid 20th century this was sometimes a very simple affair, popular tunes played on kazoos or harmonicas. In some places Guise dancers adopted Wassail or Warzail songs (Stithians is one such place).

Leaders – Guise Dance parties would often have a symbolic Mock leaders who would embody the misrule and revelry of the feast. These were often selected by games of chance or lots. These leaders would very often be surrounded by Mock state or civic officials.

“Meantime, the geese-dance gains upon the tight, In all the ride of mimic splendour bright;
As urchin bands display the pageant show,
In tinsel glitter, and in ribbons glow;”

Guise Dancer Beasts. Large Guise Beasts were often part of Guise dancing these included the famous Penglaz who appeared with the most infamous of Cornwall’s Guise Groups “The Corn Market Revelers”. The following account is of the proceedings of the Corn Marker Revelers in the early 19th Century.

“Another essential character is Old Penglaze who has a blackened face and a staff in his hand, and a person girded round with a horse’s hide … to serve as his horse … The master then goes up to the delinquent and, taking up his foot, says: “Here is my seal, where is old Penglaze’s seal?” … Old Penglaze then comes in on his horse which winces and capers about grotesquely … The shoe of the “colt” is taken off and Penglaze gives him one or two hard blows on the sole of the foot, after which he rides off again, his horse capering more than ever before and sometimes throwing the old gentleman off.”

One thought on “Guise Dancing

  1. Very interesting Simon. I will have a proper look at the site later
    Did you hear the program about Mummers Day on thursday radio 4, I am the Malcolm they refer to
    Above link to the program
    If you want a copy of the photo on facebook for your site let me know, I dear say I have loads you would like to see. I also have the words to the Padstow Mummers play if interested
    drop me an email

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