Friday, April 10, 2009

Dances with eggs

We don't celebrate Easter at Seven Trees, aside from taking advantage of Hempler's ham being on sale. But we're always interested in some of the oddball ways our ancestors observed the holidays, so I'll share a little bit about the Egg Dance....
The picture above is The Egg Dance, by Jan Steen c. 1674. The Essential Vermeer website describes it thus: "To the hypnotic music of the fiddle and a bagpipe peasants dance wildly around an egg lying in chalk circle drawn on the floor of sordid inn. In front of rustic tavern, villagers and their children listed with rapt attention to a beggar playing a hurdy-gurdy while the reek of cheap drink and tobacco hang over the scene. Even the innkeeper has been lured to the doorway to listen to a few notes of music."

In the dance pictured above (Pieter Aertsen, 1552), green leaves and early flowers were strewn on the floor. A circle was drawn with chalk in which one or more eggs were laid, sometimes in a little dish. The participants were allowed only to dance on one foot, with their hands on their sides. While dancing they had to move the egg out of the circle and back into it again with their feet, leaving the egg intact. In some areas, the dance had to be performed blindfolded!

Another version of the Egg Dance, this time painted by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

So why in the world were these partying peasants fixated on this ancient style of bunny hop?
Consulting the all-knowing wiki oracle sheds light on the question with this historical anecdote:

"An early reference to an egg dance was at the wedding of Margaret of Austria and Philibert of Savoy on Easter Monday of 1498. The event was described in a 1895 issue of The American Magazine as follows -
“Then the great egg dance, the special dance of the season, began. A hundred eggs were scattered over a level space covered with sand, and a young couple, taking hands, began the dance. If they finished without breaking an egg they were betrothed, and not even an obdurate parent could oppose the marriage.
After three couples had failed, midst the laugher and shouts of derision of the on-lookers, Philibert of Savoy, bending on his knee before Marguerite, begged her consent to try the dance with him. The admiring crowd of retainers shouted in approval, "Savoy and Austria!" When the dance was ended and no eggs were broken the enthusiasm was unbounded.
Philibert said, "Let us adopt the custom of Bresse." And they were affianced, and shortly afterward married.”

So it seems the age-old association between Easter, eggs, springtime and fertility came together in an amusing display of marital interest called the Egg Dance. Another term for this celebratory jig was the Hop-Dance, which made its way into everyday slang for a certain kind of dance party.

Streetswing says:

"The first known Hop dance was the 'Egg-dance or Hop-egg' dance, as it was also called. It was a dance generally performed by women, who, in much the same manner as of a version of the Scottish sword-dance, who performed their figures with eggs placed Around the floor. This practice has also been described by the writer 'Chaucer' (1340-1400) in his 'Canterberry Tales'(1387,) who says " the performers are called hoppesteres." Also the eminent antiquarian named Strutt, in his "Sports and Pastimes," written about 1790, mentions that the so-called slang phrase, "Going to the hop tonight?" (which appeared to have been old even in his time) evidently came from this get together dance!
Later, the Hop was a term used for many different styles of dance as well as a term for a get together with dance. These "Get Togethers" were very popular in the early 1900's and
were called "Hops" by the College kids. The Hop (get togethers/ dances) which again resurfaced in the 1950's were called Record Hops and or Sock Hops."

So as you celebrate the return of spring in whichever way suits you best, take a moment to be thankful that modern wooing and Easter observances no longer involve this kind of shenanigans. Gorging on baked ham & hard-boiled eggs is tough enough without having to hop around with a bunch of drunken peasants....unless of course you're one of the drunken peasants!


Anonymous said...

I enjoy your holiday posts. Three cheers for the drunken peasants!

Seven Trees said...

Thank you!

I love looking for the more obscure ways people have celebrated the turns of the seasons. I think the egg-dancers of the past would have found some of our modern customs equally strange ;)