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St Ives Guise Dance

Turkey Rhubarb, Turkey Rhubarb, Turkey Rhubarb I sell
I come here from Turkey to make you all well
Don't you all know me, oh me name it is Dan
For I am the celebrated Turkey Rhubarb man

Up until the early 1900’s the period between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night was still celebrated in West Cornwall with Guise Dancing. During this season the streets of St. Ives and the villages around Newlyn and Penzance were nightly paraded by parties of young people attired in strange costumes. In most cases the boys were dressed as girls and the girls as boys. Some of them cleverly represent historical characters; others were merely disguised with blackened faces and Nottingham lace veils, begged from their mother’s meagre supply of old curtain hangings. Failing this they would mask up with scarves and bandanas covering their faces almost completely.

These 'Goose or Geese-dancers' paraded the streets and often behaved in such an unruly manner that woman and children were afraid to venture out. If the doors of the houses were not locked they would enter uninvited and stay, playing all kinds of antics, until food and drink and money was given them to go away.

They became such a terror to the respectable inhabitants of Penzance that the Corporation put a stop to the celebrations in about 1880. Every Christmas Eve notices were posted in conspicuous places in the town, forbidding the appearance of any dancers in the streets over the next 12 days, but they still kept up the tradition in St. Ives. Guise-dancing celebrations must have deteriorated in style since the beginning of the 19th century, as writers then spoke of a time when all enjoyed the merrymaking.

Robert Hunt in his "Popular Romances of the West of England" published in 1870, tells us that.......

"this (St Ives) is the only town in the country where the old Cornish Christmas revelry is kept up with spirit. The Guise dancing time is the twelve nights after Christmas. Guise dancing in St Ives is no more nor less than a pantomimic representation or bal masque on  an extensive scale, the performers outnumbering the audience." 

The Turkey Rhubarb dance always formed the finale to the evenings proceedings before the exhausted participants at last gave up and went home. This last dance was associated with the Christmas Mummers play and a concertina, often referred to as a `cordial`, provided the music.  After a lapse during the war years attempts were made to revive the custom and in some places it made a comeback.  The dancers performed in heavy shoes fitted with scoots [metal pieces attached to the soles]

The BBC apparently recorded and broadcasted extracts from the Geese dancers performance of Turkey Rhubarb in 1936 but there is no trace of it in the archives made available to researchers. Miss Helena Charles, who set up a school of inter-Celtic dancing in Cornwall in l949, provided further corroboration of this dance as she was aware of it being used by Paul and Madron W.I. as part of their Christmas Mummers play `St George and the Turkish Knight`

The name `Turkey Rhubarb` is itself a delightful enigma. There might obviously be some connection or confusion with the Turkish knight in the Mummers Christmas play. However, Turkey Rhubarb was a Chinese herb ‘Rheum Palmatum’ - NOT the common garden rhubarb.

Apothecaries used its root as a cure for diarrhoea, but its use can cause intense cramping. Larger doses were employed as a laxative. Morton Nance’s Cornish Dictionary gives ‘Tavol Turkey’ is an alternative Cornish word for Rhubarb. Perhaps the antics of the dancers were akin to the cramps effect on the body and someone made the  humorous [?] connection

The dance is in fact a form of mazurka, a polish peasant dance which spread westwards across Europe during the late eighteenth century. It seems to be found in most European dancing traditions and dancers in Champagne, Holland, Brittany and Ireland have performed recognisable variants. By far the closest to the Cornish is that done on the West coast of Ireland variously called Father Murphy’s Topcoat or Patsy Heeny. Although this is as Irish in style as ours is Cornish the two dances are almost interchangeable
.

Turkey Rhubarb, Turkey Rhubarb, Turkey Rhubarb I sell
I come here from Turkey to make you all well
Don't you all know me, oh me name it is Dan
For I am the celebrated Turkey Rhubarb man

Today all that remains is one long night of conspicuous drinking and celebration in St Ives on New Years Eve, as the revellers go from pub to pub, usually ending up on the beach in front of “The Sloop” to welcome in the New Year. Most of those who take part do dress-up in some kind of fancy dress attire but little takes place in the way of dancing.

 

Doors to the cottages at Downalong these days, however, remain firmly locked. But that will not bother us as we join in the celebrations on the beach but first lets get into costume.

 

 

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For more information on the Cornish music & dance go here