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Janet has a healthy respect and passion for the folk traditions of England and has spent most of her life contributing to and promoting the seasonal customs. Her storytelling skills developed alongside the street performances telling a short story in between bouts of dancing, wandering alongside a giant, or telling the stories as part of an event.
Janet first danced with New Esperance Morris from 1977. They were based in North London and took their name from the original Esperance Morris formed to dance the old Morris dances in front of London audiences. The latter were formed by Mary Neal in the early years of the 20th century, a settlement mission worker, from young women who were part of a working girls club aimed at finding them alternative work. Mary Neal was instrumental in inviting some of the traditional Morris dancers of the time to come to London and teach the young women the dances. There is now a Mary Neal Day on 7th February to mark Mary Neal’s contribution.
More on Mary Neal here “So who was Mary Neal anyway?” By Janet Dowling
New Esperance Morris was one of the first women’s Morris teams in the 1970’s and performed mainly handkerchief and sticks dances referred to as “ Cotswold.” Janet was a member on and off from 1977 to 2000. The “off” periods mainly attributable to a back injury sustained whilst Morris dancing on a social work picket line in 1978 (a story for another time.) It was as the team got older and no longer able to dance three dances in a row, that Janet started storytelling to “hold the audience” between dances as the dancers got their breath back. The team continues to dance.
“I didn’t know women danced morris?” – Women and the Morris dance. By Janet Dowling
A memorable incident occurred in 1979 involving a multicultural fair, New Esperance Morris and the National Front .
“The woman with the silver bracelets.” True story by Janet Dowling
She also set up a North West Morris team (processional clog dancing) in 1981 in Walthamstow- Black Horse and Standard North West Morris. The team continues until today.
At Keele University Janet had an interest in Rapper Sword Dancing – a form of English short sword dancing from the Newcastle-upon-Tyne area. As a student she set up a short lived Women’s Rapper Workshop in 1974. In 1987 she started another women’s team – Mary Neal Rapper- in Leytonstone, East London supported by members of the local men’s team East Saxon Sword. The team went onto run the first rapper sword workshop for the Morris Federation in 1988. They closed in 1990. However, Janet went onto run numerous rapper sword workshops for several fledgling women’s rapper teams.
She was a judge for the Dancing England Rapper Tournament ( DERT) in 1998. In 2006 Janet ran a rapper workshop for members of Old Palace Clog Morris which went on to become Old Palace Rapper running for 4 years with Janet taking the role of Tommy ( a fool.)
Janet was elected President of the Morris Federation for four years from Jan 1996 to Dec 1999.
In 2010 Janet won the “Robert McDowall Prize for a non-academic paper” ( ie author not a professional folklorist) for her paper on “Naming the Green Man of the Medieval Church.”
In 1983 a small group of people founded the Graund Order of Guisers (GOG) with the intention of bringing back the traditional giants that were once processed in this land by every city, town and village until Henry VIII banned them as the frippery of the Roman Catholic church. The tradition survived the reformation in Europe where the giants became more secular. In 1985 over a hundred members of GOG (mainly Morris dancers) met in Covent Garden, and Gogmagog the 30 ft giant walked in London for the first time in 300 years. Janet was part of the giant building crew, designing and making the clothes as well as acting as archivist for the group.
The big chap was retired in 1990 and in 1992 a second giant ( 15ft tall) Bertilak the Green Knight was built, followed in 2000 by Morgan le Fey. They were retired in 2004 and Janet became Guardian of Giants.
After a spell in Janet’s garage they went to the Champs Libres In Rennes France, where they were on display as part of their “Arthur in Brittany “ exhibition for 9 months. They were in the equivalent of the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern.
From there they travelled to Myth Stories in Shropshire for 9 years , moving to the University of Chester at Shrewsbury. After a change of policy the giants were made homeless. No one in the UK would take them until the House of Giants in Ath , Belgium, agreed to take them. They are still there. Although ownership of the giants has passed on – in her heart Janet remains Guardian of Giants Bertilak and Morgan le Fey.
Janet is currently working on a history of the activities of the Graund Order of Guisers and their Giants.
A request from local orchard in Devon for someone to help with wassailing led to Janet with Liz Owen, creating a small wassail ceremony which has spread across the community. Wassail is a celebration of the apple trees normally done near Jan 17th. Having attended several wassails as a member of the Graund order of Guisers Janet worked with local musicians to put together a short programme of celebration – story, song, dance and perambulation around the trees.
Lockdown Plays – a sort of mumming and a panto
During the first covid lockdown in March 2020 Janet wrote a women’s mummers play (what else was there to do!) which was rehearsed on Zoom, filmed on personal phones and then edited together. Some of the cast have still not met each other. Recognising that there is the Sidmouth Traditional Mummers, she called the group Guisers- which has a similar traditional meaning.
Sidmouth Sister Guisers – a midsummer play
With Covid dragging on in October 2020 Janet wrote a pantomime working with the cast from The Sidmouth Sisters Guisers, with some members of Sidmouth Traditional Mummers, Sid Vale Storytellers and members of Sid Vale Community Productions who all filmed themselves at home on their phones. She approached (socially distanced) random strangers on the streets to act out a line that she filmed and received clips sent in by the local community in response to a newspaper campaign. Over 100 local people took part.
“When Covid caught Father Christmas.”