Plaiting of the Maypole

Maypole, hidden history

The upcoming festival celebrating the African American Heritage Trail is all about community history and roots – and that includes the Plaiting of the Maypole, a tradition reaching back many years in St. Petersburg.

“Our outdoors festivities will include a tradition from the childhood memories many of us share,” said Renêt Dennard Cole, who is organizing the Maypole dance.

The plaiting takes place on Sat., Oct. 11 as part of the three-day festival that formally inaugurates the heritage trail along the 22nd Street South and Ninth Avenue South corridors.

Twenty markers along the corridors tell the story of the neighborhood, which in its day contained many of the retail, professional, entertainment and religious venues for African Americans.

Children in the 8 to 12 year old range are invited to take part in the Plaiting of the Maypole. Two rehearsals will be held. Those interested should contact Cole. Her email is renets@aol.com or phone 727-822-3109 or 727-686-9807.

The maypole dance comes from the Druids of the British Isles, with May Day –May 1 – being the second-most-important holiday of their year because it brought with it the Beltane festival. May 1 was seen as the beginning of a new year, and fires were lit as part of the celebration, Cole said.

The ritual also has strong meaning for African Americans, wrote Florida State University professor Jerrilyn McGregory in her book “Downhome Gospel.”

In parts of north Florida and Georgia, the Maypole dance was a tradition in observing Emancipation Day activities on May 20, just a few weeks after May Day.

“Due to the proximity of the holidays, the maypole syncretizes well into the fiber of the Twentieth of May,” McGregory wrote.

“Maypole plaiting is an ancient rite of spring as well as a political pirouette for independence and freedom movements,” she wrote.

The dance also is considered iconic in the culture of Jamaica and other areas of the Caribbean.

In their day, both 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue symbolized individuality and freedom to African Americans.  Youngsters learned the Maypole dance in local schools. “Here in St. Petersburg, Davis, Jordan and Wildwood Elementary schools involved the children in third grade . . . and performed the plaiting as part of our own celebration of welcoming spring. This activity, along with other youth entertainment, took place in Campbell Park and was attended by the entire African-American community,’’ Cole said.

All the traditional Maypole steps will be observed, including the introductory dance, the first plaiting dance and the grand chain.

“We will use the song “Happy” and I will visit and work with each group of dancers. I will also set schedules for rehearsals according to the participant’s availability,” Cole said.

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