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It's the crowds that fascinate me most.

When Whittlesey's Straw Bear was dancing in front of me on Saturday – much fleeter of foot than I anticipated – there was a very glamorous group of young women taking selfies, excitedly following the bear as they adjusted their skirts or pulled their faux-fur coats closer.

A group of young men attracted pointed fingers due to their beacon headwear: a matching set of flamingo hats, each straddling the heads of the wearer. Their hands were occupied by pints each time I saw them.

Another group of twenty-something men – originally local, moved away for university and returned for the festival – were discussing the traits of Whittlesey people for continuing the tradition. 'As a biologist, I can only say that there must be something genetically different about Whittlesey people.'

A little girl waving her Straw Bear flag as excitedly as she'd inevitably anticipated Father Christmas only last month. 'It's alive!' she squeaked when the Bear lurched towards her and she had her photo taken.

'Is this a traditional dance?' a man asked another behind me. We were watching blacked-up molly dancers, throwing themselves around a square demarcated by traffic cones and tape. I couldn't get a good look at them, but I imagined watery, red-rimmed eyes and tweed caps, waxed jackets. 'I presume so. I don't know the first thing about it,' his companion replied in a strained voice.

Another man was keen to show off his knowledge. As a Border side finished their dance, he caught my eye. 'The Witchmen. If you want to pack off your husband for an hour or two, send him to their practices in Kettering.' He assumed my uncle was my husband. He assumed I was local and, from the tone of his voice, that I had never encountered folk dance before. 'Good idea!' I said in response.


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