Photo Credit: Maria Mafla

Maypole is a ceremonial folk dance associated with Carnival where dancers in colourful costumes weave multi-coloured ribbons, traditionally made of satin, around a bamboo pole. The ribbons are woven into different patterns in an over/under style, directed through verbal instruction from someone designated as a Captain.

Maypole participation involves costumes, dance, drumming, mask, songs, whips and whistles. The group is headed by a Captain who organises practice sessions and instructs the dancers during a performance. Cultural practitioners describe Maypole as a community event since it brings together a diverse range of skilled arts and crafts people to create all the elements that are part of the dance. Many current practitioners were introduced to the tradition in childhood by older family members.

Traditionally, the dance would be performed to original song compositions but, in recent times, there has been a shift to recorded music.

Communities particularly known for Maypole include the villages of Windsor Forest, St. David, and Limlair, Carriacou. Preparations for the Maypole start in May and continue until Carnival in August. Practitioners interviewed concurred that the tradition of Maypole in Windsor Forest started in the Antoine family’s backyard, pioneered by Cyril Antoine, the grandfather of Lady Cheryl.

In the case of Carriacou, cultural practitioners in Limlair mentioned that the folk dance is an annual event which also features at festival in February and at key cultural events throughout the year like the Maroon Fest in April, Regatta in August, and Corn Fest in October. Other communities on the sister island reported that while Maypole dancing continues, the practice is much less frequent than before.

Practitioners on Grenada include Cheryl Antoine, Gary Antoine, Tyrell Paul and June Paul, and on Carriacou, Marilyn Thompson.

All the practitioners agreed on a standard list of items which formed the ensemble for Maypole dancing. These include:

  • Traditional bamboo pole
  • Traditional costume/wear
  • Whip
  • Whistle
  • Kettle and Sangba drums
  • Bass Drums
  • Mask
  • Bamboo crowns
  • Willows (an accessory worn by the dancers on the feet to create noise)

The female dancers often dressed in short skirts, with polyester shorts or leggings underneath the skirt and a top with puffed sleeves. The male dancers wore short puff-sleeved dresses with a kang kang underneath and a petticoat decorated with a lot of willows. Willows were also used to decorate the tails of the dress.

Traditional songs or local songs, storytelling, drumming, and the singing of a road march or chant are also part of the tradition.

On Grenada, participants are typically recruited when the Maypole group goes around the village before a major pageant, gathering a crowd as they make their way from one household to the next.  People who express an interest in joining the group are invited to attend scheduled practice sessions and are assigned roles.

There is an acknowledgement of the need to recruit dancers from villages across the island as this would improve the chances of the tradition surviving into the future.

In Carriacou, recruitment of dancers occurred initially in Windward village, on the North side of the island. Interest has since spread across villages and there has been a shift from adult dancers to younger participants. Recruitment is now island-wide and mainly from the schools, but it has become difficult to have consistent attendance of students outside of the Limlair location due to the additional cost of transportation and lack of financial support to the element from the government.

There is optimism about the future of the Maypole tradition in Windsor Forest because the founding family feels confident that they can continue to recruit young people but there is concern about the low level of funding from SpiceMas Corporation, the lead organisation charged with safeguarding cultural heritage. Practitioners interviewed cited finance as one of the biggest challenges to the sustainability of the Maypole tradition.  They related having used their own resources to sponsor the activity and would be willing to do so again but financial support from central bodies or businesses would be preferable for long-term safeguarding of the element.

Some of the challenges to the traditional aspects of Maypole include the fact that composing traditional songs based on events in the community is no longer common. In fact, due to the younger demographic participating in Maypole there has been a change from the traditional type of songs to current styles of music such as calypso, soca or reggae.

There is also a move away from using bamboo to make the pole with some practitioners preferring to use PVC pipe.  It is not clear why this is the case in Grenada where bamboo is abundant and readily available as it goes from planting to maturity in five years.

The use of a mask which was traditionally worn on the face has been discontinued for a number of years.  The mask can still be worn on other parts of the body to indicate its cultural significance.

Whilst practitioners are willing to do everything within their capacity to facilitate the transmission of the element, cost is an element posing a threat to its long-term continuation. Practitioners felt that recruiting players directly from the schools as well as incorporating it into the curriculum could help safeguard the tradition. Practitioners are willing to broaden the geographical spread of the Maypole to work with students in different schools if the relevant government department would fund transportation costs.

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Photo Credit: Maria Mafla
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