The Bacup Coco-Nutters, LancashireMany Morris Dance sides are revivals, either re-started during the inter-war years, or in many cases sparked into life by the late-sixties and early-seventies folk movement. Some of these more recent sides tend to be made up of accountants and geography teachers (not that there is anything wrong with either profession), and perhaps a note of preciousness creeps in to their dancing. Not so the Bacup Coco-Nutters , a truly unique side with very much working class roots, keeping a tradition going in the Rossendale Valley that dates back, it is claimed, at least to the 18th century.
The appearance of the Coco-Nutters is quite unlike any other side: they blacken their faces; they wear short red and white hooped kilts, with black tunics and white sashes above them; for their most famous dance they use wooden discs to tap in time to the music; and their hats, decorated with rosettes, have an unmistakable look of the Smurfs about them, though it would take a very brave (or foolish) person to tell them this to their faces. And of course they wear Lancashire clogs.
The story the Nutters themselves tell about the origins of their dance is a romantic and fascinating one, though some may call it fantastic too: that centuries ago Moorish pirates were shipwrecked in Cornwall ; some settled, and worked in the mines there, teaching the local miners their traditional Moorish dances, the word Moorish becoming corrupted into Morris. When in the 18th century the mines around Burnley began to be opened up and extended, some of the Cornishmen saw opportunity there and made their way north, bringing their dances with them.
Sadly some have taken umbrage at the blackened faces in recent years: this is strange as the blackening is supposedly done for any one of three irreproachable reasons: because of the link with coal mining; celebrating the legendary Moorish past of the thing; or even further back in pagan times protecting the dancers from the evil spirits their performance may have been designed to frighten off.
The side often dances in pubs, for which some among them are alleged to have a certain affection, accompanied by the English concertina. But on the great annual day for them, Easter Saturday, they are accompanied by the Stacksteads Silver Band, a second wonderful tradition for the area. Indeed there is a third, in that the Easter dancing moves from one boundary of Bacup to the other (handily the first boundary is at the Travellers Rest public house).
Though the side has five ‘Garland’ dances performed in square sets, where hooped garlands are held by the eight members performing, it is for their ‘Nut’ dances - the first ‘Th’owd Cash’, the second known simply as ‘Figures’- that they are best known. These are danced in a straight line – some may unworthily say this is handy for pubs – and anyone who can watch on and not enjoy them is not likely to be much fun at a party.
Lasting getting on for five minutes the Nut dances take some athletic prowess to complete, and practice to know, given there are plentiful variations within the dance – as contestants on The Generation Game some time ago found to their cost when performing with the Nutters as one of the tasks on the show.
There is great affection for the side in Bacup, and identification with it, and unlike many more conventional sides the Nutters do not seem to struggle to recruit new members.
More British Folk Customs?