Why were these men dancing with bras in Norwich this week?

A male Molly Dancer wearing a pink cardigan, a pink necklace and an orange wig holds a besom broom in Norwich

Jon Hooton, aka Afelia Buttox, group leader of The Norwich Kitwiches - Credit: Ella Wilkinson

Brooms and bras, besoms and bosoms, the cup was more than half full for Christmas shoppers in Norwich when traditional dancers performed some unusual street entertainment involving lingerie.

Four men dressed as women are the Norwich Kitwitches, a Molly Dancing group which is using bras in order to dance using social distancing

The Norwich Kitwitches socially distancing using bras - Credit: Ella Wilkinson

The Norwich Kitwitches – who have recently been filmed by Channel 4 for a new travelogue – were out amongst festive shoppers to keep the traditional East Anglian tradition of Molly Dancing alive for midwinter.

 

In naturalist William Arderon’s papers which are kept at the Norfolk Record Offices, he wrote in the 1750s that: “In Christmas time, and especially on plough Monday, several Men dresse themselves in Womens Close and goes from House to House a Dancing along with fiddles where they beg for Money. These are called Kitwitches.”

Arderon later refers to the Kitwithces as “buffoons”.

“We’re happy with that,” laughed Jon Hooton of The Norwich Kitwitches, “I don’t think you can argue if you’re a man in a dress dancing with a bra...”

Two men dressed as women as part of the Kitwitches Molly Dancing side

Dancers Florrie Bunda and Queenie - Credit: Ella Wilkinson

In Norwich city centre, the six-strong troupe danced a traditional Comberton Molly Dance called The Special which was devised by Cyril Papworth and originally saw dancers using linked handkerchiefs: the Kitwitches use bras.

Jon added: “We performed three dances which we altered so that we could socially-distance and we reduced the number of dancers for the rule-of-six.

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“Molly Dancing is specifically for the winter-time – most of us are in Morris dancing groups that perform in summer, but of course we’ve not performed at all this year.

“We just wanted to go out and make people smile and have a bit of fun, safely.”

While only four dancers and two musicians are performing at present due to Covid restrictions, the Kitwitches are generally a mixed dance troupe with female members asked to “dress as men, dressed as women” when they perform.

Molly Dancers, who are men dressed as women, perform a dance on a road in Norwich

Molly Dancers performing The Special in Norwich - Credit: Ella Wilkinson

The troupe – or side, as Molly Dancers and Morris Dancers call their groups – has been dancing together since 1993 and were recently filmed for a new Channel 4 programme hosted by comedian Rosie Jones.

The show, provisionally titled A Great British, Female, Gay, Disabled, Covid Compliant Adventure sees the comic taking part in a Covid-safe tour of the UK in late summertime in which she explores Britain’s “…amazing eccentricities, oddities and beauty spots”, according to a C4 press release. It is due for release in 2021.

A group of four men dressed as women dance with bras on a Norwich street

The Norwich Kitwiches side perform The Special in Norwich - Credit: Ella Wilkinson

Molly Dancers were seen in Norfolk’s villages for at least 500 years, if not longer, and would perform at Christmas time and on Plough Monday, the beginning of the agricultural year.

Traditionally the first Monday after Epiphany (January 6), Plough Monday marked the first day back to work for farm labourers after Christmas.

In the bleak midwinter when, to borrow from a carol, earth stood hard as iron and water like a stone, work was scarce and money too tight to mention.

As a way of making enough money to feed their families, men in East Anglia turned to a folk custom: Molly Dancing.

Often dragging a decorated plough through their villages, the men were named after an ancient folk symbol, ‘the molly’, who was a figure of fertility: they would visit affluent houses to busk for cash and would wear heavy disguises.

It was thought bad luck to be recognised by those that knew them and the men would often wear exaggerated outfits such as their wives’ cast-offs

Molly Dancing was last recorded in the mid-1930s in Little Downham near Ely but was resurrected in the 1970s and there are now sides across the country.

The Kitwitches perform in dresses and make-up and dance with bras and brooms, or besoms (to go with the bosoms), and, Jon says, the reaction from the public is overwhelmingly positive.

“People have no idea what we’re doing, but often ask us and we gladly tell them – they normally laugh and smile and it cheers people up,” he said.

“As far as dancing goes, we’ve had a dire year just like everyone else and we were just desperate to do something that would be a bit of fun at Christmas.

“We’ve found that the bras keep us at just the right socially-distanced measurement. You never know, it might catch on…”


Kitwitches:


·      Great Yarmouth’s famous rows include Kitty Witches Row which runs from King Street to Middlegate Street and was the narrowest of all at just 27 inches wide in some parts


Brooms and bras, besoms and bosoms, the cup was more than half full for Christmas shoppers in Norwich when traditional dancers performed some unusual street entertainment involving lingerie.

The Norwich Kitwitches – who have recently been filmed by Channel 4 for a new travelogue – were out amongst festive shoppers to keep the traditional East Anglian tradition of Molly Dancing alive for midwinter.

In naturalist William Arderon’s papers which are kept at the Norfolk Record Offices, he wrote in the 1750s that: “In Christmas time, and especially on plough Monday, several Men dresse themselves in Womens Close and goes from House to House a Dancing along with fiddles where they beg for Money. These are called Kitwitches.”

Arderon later refers to the Kitwitches as “buffoons”.

“We’re happy with that,” laughed Jon Hooton of The Norwich Kitwitches, “I don’t think you can argue if you’re a man in a dress dancing with a bra...”

In Norwich city centre, the six-strong troupe danced a traditional Comberton Molly Dance called The Special which was devised by Cyril Papworth and originally saw dancers using linked handkerchiefs: the Kitwitches use bras.

Jon added: “We performed three dances which we altered so that we could socially-distance and we reduced the number of dancers for the rule-of-six.

“Molly Dancing is specifically for the winter-time – most of us are in Morris dancing groups that perform in summer, but of course we’ve not performed at all this year.

“We just wanted to go out and make people smile and have a bit of fun, safely.”

While only four dancers and two musicians are performing at present due to Covid restrictions, the Kitwitches are generally a mixed dance troupe with female members asked to “dress as men, dressed as women” when they perform.

A man playing a fiddle and a woman playing an accordion who are accompanying the Kitwitches Molly Dancing side in Norwich

Norwich Kitwitches' musicians Pete Wilks and Jill Lambert in Norwich - Credit: Ella Wilkinson

The troupe – or side, as Molly Dancers and Morris Dancers call their groups – has been dancing together since 1993 and were recently filmed for a new Channel 4 programme hosted by comedian Rosie Jones.

The show, provisionally titled A Great British, Female, Gay, Disabled, Covid Compliant Adventure sees the comic taking part in a Covid-safe tour of the UK in late summertime in which she explores Britain’s “…amazing eccentricities, oddities and beauty spots”, according to a C4 press release. It is due for release in 2021.

Molly Dancers were seen in Norfolk’s villages for at least 500 years, if not longer, and would perform at Christmas time and on Plough Monday, the beginning of the agricultural year.

Traditionally the first Monday after Epiphany (January 6), Plough Monday marked the first day back to work for farm labourers after Christmas.

In the bleak midwinter when, to borrow from a carol, earth stood hard as iron and water like a stone, work was scarce and money too tight to mention.

As a way of making enough money to feed their families, men in East Anglia turned to a folk custom: Molly Dancing.

Often dragging a decorated plough through their villages, the men were named after an ancient folk symbol, ‘the molly’, who was a figure of fertility: they would visit affluent houses to busk for cash and would wear heavy disguises.

It was thought bad luck to be recognised by those that knew them and the men would often wear exaggerated outfits such as their wives’ cast-offs

Molly Dancing was last recorded in the mid-1930s in Little Downham near Ely but was resurrected in the 1970s and there are now sides across the country.

The Kitwitches perform in dresses and make-up and dance with bras and brooms, or besoms (to go with the bosoms), and, Jon says, the reaction from the public is overwhelmingly positive.

“People have no idea what we’re doing, but often ask us and we gladly tell them – they normally laugh and smile and it cheers people up,” he said.

“As far as dancing goes, we’ve had a dire year just like everyone else and we were just desperate to do something that would be a bit of fun at Christmas.

“We’ve found that the bras keep us at just the right socially-distanced measurement. You never know, it might catch on…”


Kitwitches:

* Great Yarmouth’s famous rows include Kitty Witches Row which runs from King Street to Middlegate Street and was the narrowest of all at just 27 inches wide in some parts#

 * Kitty Witches was a local name for the 'swimming crabs' found in nearby Breydon Water, a flying beetle called the cockchafer, a species of sea bird, a female ghost dressed in white or a derivation of the Dutch word kitwijk, meaning a house of bad repute

* The Dutch regularly visited Yarmouth in medieval times to attend The Herring Fair which was held from Michaelmas, September 29, to Martinmas, November 11

* In The Vocabulary of East Anglia, by the Rev Robert Forby in 1830, there was a reference to the Row having been the home of Kitty Witches, women of ill repute who terrorised residents to fund their drinking sessions

* He wrote that a Kitty Witch was '…a woman dressed in a grotesque and frightful manner, otherwise called a kitch-witch, probably for the sake of a jingle. These hideous beldams have long discontinued their perambulations; but in memory of them, one of the many rows in that town is called Kitty Witch Row”

* A far less racy explanation is that the Row was named after a former resident, Christopher Wyche, who was possibly a baker 


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