The Maypole Dance
In its most simple form, the dancers simply stand in a circle around the maypole and, in time with the music, take 4 steps towards the maypole, 4 steps back and the circle for a count of 8. As they approach the maypole they can raise their arms, and then lower them as they back away.
The step to use for music based on jigs or reels is a lilting walk or skip. For hornpipe rhythms use a step-hop-step-hop alternating from one foot to the other. For waltz-time music, take 3 even paces for each waltz bar of music.
The next level of complexity is for the dancers to attach ribbons to the top of the maypole and to divide the dancers into 2 groups of equal numbers. Most maypoles have a static (non-rotating) crown so the ribbons plait onto the maypole as the dancers circle around.
To get used to using the ribbons, make sure that all the dancers are facing in the same direction and holding their ribbon in the hand furthest from the maypole. The hand nearest to the maypole is used to guide the ribbon over other dancers as they pass each other but, in this first ribbon dance, everybody will be going in the same direction. Now start the music and all dance around the maypole in the same direction without overtaking. Eventually there is no length of ribbon left as it has become wrapped around the maypole, at which time the order is given to reverse your steps and unwind the maypole. If you unwind without any knots you have successfully completed your first dance.
The Grand Chain; The next dance to master requires one of the groups (we will call them Group 1) to dance in the opposite direction to Group 2. Make sure that 1s and 2s are spaced alternately around the maypole with each number 1 person facing a number 2 and then start the music. 1s should pass right shoulder with the first number 2 person that they meet and then left with the next (do not turn back on yourself), carrying on alternately until the ribbons are again exhausted. To unwind, remember to retrace your steps accurately, remembering to pass your last person first and then alternate shoulders until the ribbons unwind. Make sure that everyone dances at a constant pace and that no one overtakes. You have now completed your second ribbon dance.
You can vary this dance by having pairs of people weave in each direction together.
In each case, look at the beautiful pattern that you have made on the maypole during the dance.
The Gypsy Tent; In this dance you will make a web or tent that builds from the top of the maypole outwards away from the pole. Two circles are made with Group 1 on the outside ring and Group 2 inside (it is easier if the shorter people go in the inner circle). With each person holding their ribbon in their right hand and standing in front of another in the other ring, start the music. While Group 1 stands still, each Group 2 person dances around their opposite and then moves to the right around the next Group 1 person. To unwind, simply reverse the moves.
There are many variants of this dance, with each group taking a turn to move or with one group passing two of the other group before dancing around them. You can easily experiment but remember that the goal is to be able to unwind cleanly after you have used up all of the ribbons during the wind up.