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Britannia Coco-nutters

Original coco-nut dancers  The origins of many traditional dances are lost in the mists of time and no one can say with any certainty how they came about, but if you go to the small Pennine Town of Bacup situated between Rochdale and Burnley on Easter Saturday you will be confronted by a band of men the survival of which is as unexpected as is fascinating and whose strange appearance could be described as exotic!

Modern day 'Nutters'Every Easter Saturday no matter what the weather they gather a 9am at the Travellers Rest Public House on the A671 Rochdale to Bacup road accompanied by members of Stacksteads Silver Band to dance their way through the streets following a tradition that takes them from boundary to boundary of the Town.
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The dances they perform are actually Folk Dances and the custom of blackened faces may reflect a pagan or medieval background which was done to disguise the dancers from being recognised by evil spirits afterwards, it may also reflect mining connections.

The picture is by no means clear and tales have been related by word of mouth, however, the dances are supposed to have originated with moorish pirates (hence the costume). Some of these sailors are said to have settled in Cornwall and become employed in local mining. As mines and quarries opened in Lancashire in the 18th & 19th century a few Cornishmen came North bringing with them mining expertise. It is with these people that the dances were reputedly brought to this area. In particular two Cornishmen who came to work in Whitworth (this was related by a former team member many years ago).

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The Dances spread throughout Rossendale and around the turn of the Century there were at least four troupes. One of these was the Tunstead Mill Troupe who celebrated their half century in 1907. It is from this troupe that Britannia is descended.

Seven Dances are performed in total. Five Garland Dances, simply known as Nos' 1 to 5 and two Nut Dances 'Thowd Cash' and the 'Figures'.

Garland DanceThe Garland Dances are performed in square sets, each of the Dancers carries an arched Garland decorated to resemble red, white and blue flowers. These are Spring ritual dances connected with the renewal of crops. Similar dances were performed in feudal times when rushbearing carts took rushes to the Lord of the Manor. One of the Dancers carries a whip and is known as the 'whiffler' or 'whipper in', he proceeds the dancers and it is his duty to crack the whip to drive away any evil spirits or forces of evil.
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The Nut DanceThe 'Nut Dance' is unusual and performed in a straight line. Each Dancer wears wooden discs or 'nuts' on his hands, knees and belt. During the Dance the discs which are made of maple wood are struck together in time to the music. The name Coconuts was given to the discs, probably, since the dance came to Lancashire and it is said they could resemble the protection to knees and elbows when crawling along narrow seams in the mines.

Their usual accompaniment is the English concertina but for Easter Saturday and certain performances members of Stacksteads Silver Band are used. The music like the dance steps has been handed down over the years.

The 'Nutters' have travelled far and wide, appearing several times at the Royal Albert Hall for the English Folk Dance and Song Society. They have attended the International Eisteddfod on four occasions and visited many towns throughout the country. They have appeared in International Festivals in Arnhem in Holland in 1956 and 1958 and St. Niklaas in Belgium in 1986 (and asked back again for 2000) and Sidmouth in 1996 (and asked again in 2001). They have also appeared on TV on numerous occasions: Larry Graysons Generation Game, Magpie, Surprise Surprise and Jigsaw. They have featured in documentaries 'Irwell Water' by BBC and 'Out of the Dark into the Light' by Independent film Co.

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Emphasis must be placed on the fact that everything we've said is in no way authoritive and is open to debate, however, whatever the history the 'Nutters' are fiercly proud of their tradition and are much loved and respected by the people of Bacup, one thing is certain wherever the 'Nutters' go their appearance, the dances, the music and name of Bacup remains vivid in the memory of the people because nowhere is there a traditional dance team quite like The Britannia Coconut Dancers!

In a word - they are unique!

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