A Cornish Culture Association Guide.
Guise Dancing is one of the most important traditions in Cornish Culture. Guise dancing was originally performed at Christmas time, feast days and other special occasions throughout Cornwall and is enjoying a revival in 21st Century Cornwall. This guide is intended to provide information about the tradition and encourage people new to the practice to engage with this unique and vibrant tradition.
All forms of Guise Dancing have one thing in common, disguise. According to historian AK Hamilton Jenkin the word “Guise” is derived from French and should be pronounced “Geeze” not “Guyze” . Guise Dancers use costume, masks, make-up and sound to disguise who they are. This serves several purposes First it originally allowed people to do things that they would not normally feel comfortable doing under normal circumstances, including begging. Secondly disguise creates a sense of unease and wonder which can be used to intimidate or even entertain.
The origins of Guise Dancing seem to be found in the middle-ages. Across Europe there can be found traditions of visiting homes on special occasions to perform in disguise. The protestant reformation had a dramatic effect in the British Isles, driving our such customs which where seen as “popish” or even “heathen. In Cornwall this drive was less effective and many pre-reformation customs survived and were modified by the Cornish people as part of an ongoing “folk process”.
Strangely dance here may not mean dance in any modern sense at all. In fact Morton-Nance one of the leading figures in the Cornish Revival of the early 20th Century seems to think that there was no dancing at all  he describes Guise Dancing as “a dance that is no dance”. Other sources disagree with this and you do find references to dancing performed by Guise Dancers, especially set dances .
The three types of Guise Dancing.
- Processional Guise Dancing
- Visit Guise Dancing
- Guise Dance Drama.
Processional Guising involves processions of “perambulations” of performers often around villages and towns.
Visit Guise Dancing involves visiting homes or public houses to entertain the occupants.
Guise Dance Drama is a form of the tradition where Guise Dancers perform folk plays of various forms. Please note that it is incorrect to describe these plays as “mummers plays” in Cornwall, this is a term mostly used in England. On many occasions these traditions would merge. It must be noted that only the best prepared Guise Dance bands would attempt a play of any kind, especially the longer and more complex varieties.
Music and song.
Guise Dancers would entertain first and foremost using music and song. At Christmas the songs would often be carols in particular the carol “While Shepherds Watched” . The song, music and dance “Turkey Rhubarb” was another popular musical activity . The song Turkey Rhubarb takes its name from a popular herb used as a mild laxative an advert from the nineteenth century selling a “cardiac tincture of Turkey Rhubarb” describes it as a “warm and pleasant laxative”. There is a comic song recorded with the same name in 1884  outside of Cornwall written by a “Mr Bowden” curiously when the song and dance was collected in Cornwall it was collected from a a Mrs Bowden whose Grandfather a Mr Jenkin had performed it as part of the Madron Guise Dance tradition .
Music in modern guise dance groups is often used to create mood, whatever mood they wish to convey that is. Sometimes this is a dark and foreboding sometimes purely entertaining.
|Mock Formal Guise|
In historic accounts this variety of Guise costume is called “gentleman's hand me downs” and consisted of old formal clothing donated by richer groups in society for the purposes of the performances. In modern Guise groups (at least since the 1930's) Mock Formal costume usually consists of a top hat (or other formal hat), black suits and other clothing reflecting the formal clothing of the early to mid 20th century, anything that looked “old”. In previous times Mock formal would have reflected the formal clothing which would have been seen as archaic at that point in history.
Traditionally Guise Dancers cross dressed frequently. Men dressed like woman and dressed like men often in the “Mock Formal” attire of the opposite sex. This is rarer in modern Guise groups but certainly not unheard of. Despite a number sources stating that every Guise Dancer would have adopted this custom it is but one of many variations of the tradition. William Sandys (writing as Uncle Jan
Trenoodle) records a costume used in the early 19th century at Tredrea near St Erth used by a gentleman who wore a ladies night gown covered with rags and ribbons and highly coloured britches topped off with a ladies “Gook”. A gook is the name used for a number of bonnets used by Cornish women during this era.
Mock Rags and Ribbons.
Rags and Ribbons.
19th Century Guise Dance Costume.  
The early 19th century in Penzance was a time of a particularly rich Guise Dance tradition. In this era men and women adopted very ornate costumes of high complexity. Male costume (worn by men and women) would have consisted of high heel boots, highly coloured britches and long waisted coats. Female costume (again worn by both genders)
consisted of bag skirts and stiff bodied gowns, again highly coloured. Male head gear consisted of cocked hats (bicorns) topped off with plumes and feathers. Female head gear consisted of steeple crowned hats (high crowned hats of various types) worn on some kind of pad. The features of these costumes would be exaggerated by stuffing waists, britches and skirts with straw or cotton.
The use of the national costumes of a wide variety of nations was common among the Guise Dancers of the late 19th and early 20th Century. In various accounts we have references to Turks, Egyptians, Chinese and Indian costumes. Often these Guise Dancers “sold” in a comic manner pretend goods to the other revellers.
Disguising the face.
All Guise Dancers disguise their face in some way.
The Bauta – A full face mask with a square chin.
The Colombina – A half mask.
The Medico Della Peste – The plague doctor mask, a full face mask with a long nose that appears like a beak.
The Volto – A full face mask.
The Zanni – A long nosed mask made of black leather
Animal masks of all sorts were often used by revellers from elephants to bullocks.
Home made masks often included grotesque distortions of features where facial features were exaggerated. Sometimes these masks included mock facial hair like moustaches.
Lace veils, often made from black “Nottingham” lace, were common in some places in Cornwall . These were worn again by men and women and were sometimes decorated with sequins or buttons. These are still used by a number of modern guise-dancers to great effect.
Make up and blacking up.
In East Cornwall it was common to see Guise Dancers blacking their faces. Originally burnt cork would have been applied to the face to hide the features of the performers. Face paints are now substituted for the rather acrid burnt cork. In West Cornwall other forms of facial make up were used especially by Guise Dancers who crossed dressed.
Animals and Guise Beasts.
Early 20th century accounts of Guise Dancing in St Ives include descriptions of large numbers of people wearing animal masks. These include a wide and exotic menagerie of creatures from Elephants to lions. In the early 19th century animal imagery was more raw and less zoo-esque notably some participants in Penzance wore bullock hides and horns.
Related to this animal imagery was the use of Guise Beasts. A Guise Beast is a representation of a variety of animals either in carved wood or by use of an actual skull. Many Guise Groups at the turn of the 18th Century had a beast (and most parishes ), often an 'Obby 'Oss. Writers describe these as being “very numerous” . One of the most famous of these was operated by a Guise Dance group called the “Corn-Market” in Penzance . The beast took the form of a wooden carved head, operated by a black faced man called “Old Penglaze”. It was the beast and Old Penglaze's job to enforce forfeits on revellers during the game played by the group known as spy-the-market. In later descriptions of the Penglaz 'Oss the wooden head is replaced by a horses skull . A similar skull horse is found in descriptions of Nickanan Night (Shrove Monday) . It is this description that influenced the creation of Penglaz, the 'Obby 'Oss that appears during the summer Golowan festival in Penzance.
Some Guise Dance groups played games. These included games of forfeit and chance where people would be punished for transgressions . In Newlyn there are several examples of Guise Dancers entering properties and turning tables and chairs upside down, sometimes breaking the furniture in the process. .
Guise Groups and Lords of Misrule.
Guise Dance groups often appoint mock leaders very similar to the tradition of the Lord of Misrule . These mock leaders were often accompanied by mock state or civic officials who symbolically supported these leaders. The selection of leader was undertaken in a wide variety of ways, sometimes by lot and sometime purely on their reputation as an “experienced reveller” .
Best Practice – Doing Guise Dancing right.
To get Guise Dancing right you must seek to balance all of the above. First and foremost is costume and disguise, the more complete the disguise the greater the effect the Guise Dancers have on those watching. Masks for example are far more effective if they are full face. Fancy dress hats and the like should be also be avoided as they look very out of place in a group of performers who are wearing more genuine costume. Dancing is only part of Guise Dancing (as strange as that may sound to ear) and should be part of a balanced performance that includes music, song and possibly ritualistic games (turning furniture upside down sounds like fun to me). It is important that Guise Dancing remains Cornish and that any attempt to add folk customs from other places should be resisted, Guise Dancers should dance Cornish dances and perform Cornish plays.
Ultimately a good Guise Dance performance causes in the observer an initial sense of unease and uncertainty followed by entertainment. All this is followed by a swift departure into the night leaving a sense of mystery and wonder.
 Western Morning News 8th January 1929 – Letter from AK Hamilton Jenkin.
 Western Morning News 15th January 1929 – Letter from Robert Morton Nance.
 BBC “Twelthtide” Radio broadcast 8.10pm 4th January 1937.
 Robert Hunt – Popular Romances of the West of England.
 Huddersfield Chronicle, West Yorkshire, England Friday 1st February 1884.
 An Daras website retrieved 14th of August 2014.
 The Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle
 Richard Edmondes from the Transcripts of the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society 1851.
 William Sandys Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern 1831.
 Interview with Rev Alison Richardson 2007.
 Interview with Nicholas Phillips 2007.
 William Bottrell Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall 1870.
 Barbera Spooner – The Padstow 'Obby 'Oss 1951.
 West Briton January 16th 1843 – Letter from J Marshall.
 English Song and Dance Society 1979 Volumes 41-44.