May Day, or Beltane (bright fire) in the Anglo Saxon era, marks the beginning of the growing season. The original maypole was a hawthorn tree that was cut down and brought to the centre of the village. Members of the community would dance around it, as the maypole represented a symbol of fertility. The maypole did not always have ribbons. By the 1900s, a maypole with ribbons became the well-established norm as did the intricate ribbon-plaiting dances associated with it.
A Ribbonless Maypole Dance
Pick a simple piece of music that has easy beats. Form a big circle with the dancers standing shoulder to shoulder, spaced about 2 feet apart, facing the maypole. Clasp hands and step forward four times, raising the hands up and looking up. Step back four times, lowering the hands and looking down with lowered heads. Drop hands, turn right and skip forward 16 times. Turn to face the centre, then turn to the left and skip forward 16 times. Add other dance steps as you please, then as the music comes to an end, stand facing the maypole, clasping the hands of the dancers on either side.
The Grand Chain
This dance can be done with 8 to 20 dancers. The women stand in front of the men with their backs to the maypole. Both men and women hold the maypole ribbons in their right hands. As the music starts, the women go clockwise, going behind the first man and in front of the second man as the men do the same in a counter-clockwise direction. Once the ribbons get shorter, the men and women can reverse directions, unwinding the ribbons and winding them again in the other direction.
The Gypsy Tent
The men stand on the outside of the circle while the women stand before them. Both partners hold a ribbon in their right hand. While the men stand still, the women dance around their partner, then continue on, moving to the right, around the next man. As the women work their way around the circle, they'll create a "gypsy tent" with the ribbons. The women can dance in the other direction, unwinding the ribbons as they go.