Grandview Heights Moment in Time

Wayne Carlson
Grandview Heights/Marble Cliff Historical Society
The maypole dance, shown here performed by a group of Grandview Heights girls, has been a European tradition since the 15th century and is often performed as a May Day celebration.

The maypole dance is a form of folk dance that originated in Germany, England and Sweden about the same time. The most popular version of the dance consists of eight to 16 girls (the traditional dance alternates girls and boys around a circle) that perform circle dances around a tall, sometimes garland-festooned pole.

The record for the largest maypole dance consists of 163 couples, or 326 participants, doing a seven-step dance around a 40-foot pole, according to Guinness World Records. The feat occurred May 9, 2015, in Manheim, Pennsylvania.

These 1918 photographs are from the Grandview Heights/Marble Cliff Historical Society's Alleyne Higgs collection. It shows a group of Grandview girls participating in the maypole dance. Each dancer holds a different-color ribbon and moves in a circle around the pole. As they continue, the dancers intertwine their ribbons either in a web around the pole or to plait it to the pole itself. The pattern on the pole is determined by the choreography of the dance. 

In a simple form, every other girl goes the opposite direction and alternates, moving in front of or behind the girls moving in the opposite direction (as the inset photo shows), weaving the ribbons around the pole. A challenge for the dancers is to retrace their steps exactly in order to unwind the ribbons.

Some historians believe the first maypole dance originated as part of Germanic pagan rituals. However, the more common belief is that maypoles were erected simply as "signs that the happy season of warmth and comfort had returned." Originally, participants danced around a living tree. 

Although dancers usually perform this dance in the spring on May 1, or May Day, those in Sweden perform it during their midsummer celebrations. The celebration has become common throughout Europe and in the United States and has seeped into popular culture. For example, a scene in “Frozen” shows the maypole being erected as Elsa’s coronation is beginning, and it has appeared in several “Mad Men” television episodes. 

This historical narrative from the Grandview Heights/Marble Cliff Historical Society was provided by Wayne Carlson.