"It’s all a silly business, as you can see.

As the old folk sing and make music

The foolish youngsters prance over the eggs."

(Unknown Flemish writer)

Whenever anything is especially difficult to do, the Germans say "It’s like the egg dance". There is no particular reason to believe that this custom was connected with a specific time of year, but an egg dance was in fact performed on an Easter Monday, in the late 15th century, at the wedding of Margaret of Austria and Philip the Handsome, Duke of Savoy. It was the year 1498. A hundred eggs were laid out and two young couples, who had been told that they might marry if they could finish without breaking an egg, performed the dance together. This had to be done three times in succession.

Perhaps there is a link between this ceremony and the eggs which are such an important feature at traditional wedding celebrations in many parts of the world.

The egg dance seems to have been an ancient custom, and is referred to in an Elizabethan comedy by William Wagner, called "The Longer Thou Livest the More Fool Thou Art":

"Upon my foote pretely I can hoppe

and Daunce it trimely about an egge."

Dancing upon one foot was a favourite feat of the Saxon gleemen and Norman minstrels, and hopping matches for prizes occasionally took place in the 16th century.

Hone, in his Year Book, describes an egg dance which he saw at the Utrecht Fair in July 1828, performed by a ten year old girl, who was blindfold: "Fourteen eggs were arranged on the ground at about two feet distance from each other . . . it must have required considerable skill and practice to avoid, as she certainly did, treading on the eggs."

When Dr Johnson visited the Continent he saw an "egg dance" performed in the streets of Paris (1775), but gives no further details. Laborde’s – Views of Spain, published in 1809, describes such a dance among the Valencians: "In the first they place on the ground a great number of eggs, at small intervals from each other; as they dance round the eggs in these intervals it seems as if they must crush them every moment, but notwithstanding the celerity and variety of the steps they display, they never touch one of them".

Eighteenth-century memories of the egg dance also come from Denmark. Aeggedans was performed at carnival time before Lent.

Egg danceIf the egg dance was performed at Sadlers Wells, it was also arranged as training for the Royal Corps de Ballet in Copenhagen. First a man, then a woman, and finally a couple, had to dance between a fixed number of eggs laid out on the floor, without breaking them – this version was from Seeland.

Although there does not seem to be any definite evidence that the egg dance as such was an Easter dance, carnival occasions establish a link with that time of year. A correspondent of Notes and Queries noticed in Lausanne in 1870, a procession which took place on Easter Monday. The local butchers donned fancy dress and paraded to the public promenade, where Easter eggs were placed on the ground at certain distances. Various games were played and one consisted of leaping backwards through the eggs without breaking them, whoever was successful winning the eggs.

Perhaps the most detailed description of the egg dance which we possess is the one in the Goethe’s novel ‘Wilhelm Meister’.

Another popular pastime, resembling the egg dance in many ways, was egg gathering. Originating in the Germanic countries, it was also carried to German communities abroad. They are also favourites in other Germanic countries – the Tyrol, Switzerland, Denmark – and in France.

Basically the game falls into two parts, the job of the "reader" and the job of the "runner". The reader has to collect a large number of eggs, generally about a hundred, which are laid out at intervals along the ground. Often every tenth is coloured or boiled. The eggs must be taken and put in a tub, while the runner covers a specific distance, generally to the next village. He might be told to visit a certain inn, drink a glass of wine and return.

Sometimes competitors wore fancy dress.

In Belgium the sport had definite religious associations, for it was connected with a big pilgrimage to the church at Loos. The game itself was played on Easter Monday.

What could have been the significance of this curious game, which bears such a close resemblance to the egg dance? Some commentators have tried to see a link with the Apostle’s Run. This appears in certain Passion plays, documented since 1100, and is based on the following passage: "So St Peter and the other set out and made their way to the tomb. They were running side by side, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first".

The performance of the reconstructed Egg Dance, included in a past Albert Hall Folk Festival, was largely thanks to the efforts of the Egg Marketing Board, who had done their best to discover if such a dance actually existed. The Humberside Egg Dancers who appears on this occasion, also perform locally. Blindfolded after noting the position of the eggs they danced in the manner of A Morris Jig, one man performing a figure, followed immediately by a second dancer, who repeated it. Public interest in these performances was considerable.

(Adapted from a longer article by Venetia Newall)