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New Westminster cancels century-old May Day dance

The Royal Lancers may have danced their last dance as a tradition that dates back more than 100 years is being axed from the May Day banquet.

The Royal Lancers may have danced their last dance as a tradition that dates back more than 100 years is being axed from the May Day banquet.

New Westminster city council has decided to cut the Royal Lancers’ dances at the annual dinner that’s held on the evening of May Day.

“Each year, the May Queens describe the lancers’ dances at the banquet as being one of the most memorable highlights of their day,” Dave MacGrotty, chair of the Royal Lancers, said in a press release. “Spectators cheer and clap to the music, especially during the ceremonial march around the hall.”

According to the Royal Lancers, city council decided to quash “quadrille” dances, which are similar to square dances, at a closed council meeting. The Royal Lancers are men from the community, including former school trustees, principals, city councillors and businessmen.

“I don’t believe council realizes the implications of their action,” MacGrotty said. “These dances connect us all to New Westminster’s past, foster strong community links between participants and families, and help solidify the social and cultural fabric of our city. We have never received one complaint – not one. Nor has the school district. The Royal Lancers are committed to continue this aspect of May Day for many years to come and we will not just walk away.”

The Royal Lancers are launching a campaign to challenge council’s decision and encouraging community members to write letter of support and appear at city council meetings in the coming weeks to oppose the decision to stop the dance.

“We are shocked and extremely disappointed with council’s direction and question their reasoning to proceed in this manner,” said former school trustee Brent Atkinson, who has been a Royal Lancer for more than 25 years. “The traditional dance elements involving 10 hours of cooperative participation annually by each dancer to learn and perform, create a positive experience between youth, adults and seniors. We are at a loss to understand this move by council. It appears the current mayor and councillors have not been directly involved in the May Day planning over the years, yet have suddenly decided to remove these positive aspects of community participation. Quite simply, we are seeking a full reversal of this decision.”

Mayor Jonathan Cote said council has decided to eliminate the lancers’ dance from the evening banquet that the City of New Westminster hosts on May Day.

“I think the city has been trying to modernize the banquet for some time. We haven’t had a lot of progress over the years. I think the city decided that we host the banquet in the evening and we wanted to move it forward and focus the event on the children,” he told the Record. “Certainly, that wouldn’t preclude anything else during the day, which is not organized by the city. Given that the evening banquet is a city event, we wanted to refocus it and focus it on the children, which we think May Day is about.”

According to the press release, the Royal Lancers’ history in New Westminster dates back more than 100 years, with the lancers performing traditional dances with the May Queen Suites annually at the May Day banquet, May Day in the park and other venues.

“I think the traditions we have in New Westminster is what makes New Westminster a great place. Certainly this is about having May Day be a part of our history and continue,” Cote said. “I am a strong supporter of May Day. Quite often traditions evolve over time, and I think that is what this is about.”

Cote said he’s attended the banquet in the past and watched as the royal knights “sit on the floor and do nothing” while the girls in the May Queen Suite dance with the Royal Lancers. He thinks it would be more fitting to have the girls in the May Queen Suite and the royal knights participate in an activity together.

Since news of the change to the lancers’ role at the May Day banquet was announced Monday, Cote said he’s been contacted by people who have thanked the city for making the change they felt was “long overdue” as well as by supporters of the longtime tradition.

 “There is going to be two sides in every issue and I have a lot of respect for those who have been involved,” he said. “We are trying to handle this in the most respectful way we can.”

The lancers, however, are concerned that council made its decision to put an end to the dance at a closed meeting.

“We and the community are appalled with council’s direction to bypass any public process in making this decision,” MacGrotty said. “This lack of transparency exhibited by council, and the timing of the decision this close to May Day, are most disturbing, with dance rehearsals already scheduled and everyone looking forward to the evening.”

Incamera meetings are usually reserved to discussions related to property, personnel and legal matters.

“I wanted to be able to communicate with the lancers, instead of them finding out through the media,” Cote explained. “We had gotten some complaints last year, how some of the communication was going through the media. I didn’t think that was a respectful way to communicate with the lancers’ group. When the city did receive the letter from the school board, then we had an opportune time to talk about it. I wanted to meet face-to-face with the lancers, which I did right after that meeting, to talk about it before we had anything out in an open meeting. My reason for wanting to do that was to have the most respectful dialogue with the lancers’ group as possible.”

In a Feb. 20 letter to city council, Superintendent John Gaiptman said the May Day Committee wanted to clarify the district’s position about the Royal Lancers. While the group once consisted of New Westminster principals and was informally overseen by the district, he said that’s no longer the case and they aren’t considered school district volunteers.

Last year, the city eliminated the waltzes between the lancers and the girls in the May Queen Suite and hinted that more changes could be made in the future. Since then, no consultation has taken place on the issue.

“The city was solely making a decision on the evening dinner that we were having and which we were hosting, and what activities were taking place,” Cote said. “That doesn’t close the discussion about what happens with the school district or anything else with the May Day committee about other events at May Day. But I think, given the city is hosting an evening event to celebrate May Day and the children, I think it is definitely within our jurisdiction to make those kind of decisions.”

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