Saturday, 21 November 2009

One man's morris

On the 26th December 1899, Cecil Sharp, a forty year old composer, was dining with his wife at the home of his mother-in-law, Mrs Dora Priestley Birch, in Headington, Oxford. At some point during the day, a rag-tag group of men betook themselves Mrs. Birch's home to perform a traditional dance. The leader of this group, William "Merry" Kimber, a bricklayer by trade, was hoping to make a bit of extra cash during a slack period in the building trade. Kimber and his men were morris dancers. Sharp had never seen anything like them before, so he asked Kimber and his fellow dancers to return and perform the following day so that he could make a proper record of the tunes to which they had danced. This event marked the start of Sharp's interest in, and his attempts to, keep the tradition of morris dancing alive; a tradition that would almost certainly have died without his intervention.

So, why am I telling you this? Because I have recently decided to do my bit to ensure that morris dancing doesn't fade forever into the mists of history...I've joined a morris dancing side. Long Man Morris, to be precise.

Long Man Morris were formed in 1978 to perpetuate the traditions of Cotswold morris. Most of the dances they perform were collected by Cecil Sharp from Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire. Warwickshire and Northamptonshire in the early years of the 20th century. Within those counties, village morris sides had their own traditions and styles of dancing; thus, the morris dancers of Adderbury would have performed different dances to those in Bampton, Brackley or Upton upon Severn. Long Man have also started their own form of dance (which they call the Wilmington tradition), some of which I'm currently attempting to learn!

To the uninitiated, morris dancing looks like a load of old men waving hankies or sticks around. But to dismiss it as such is to do it a grave disservice. Each morris "side" has a repertoire of dances, each dance having its own accompanying tune, its particular footwork, its pattern of dance (heading up, heading down, back to back, hay), and any number of peculiarities to confuse or confound the novice dancer (ie me!) A dancer of many years standing recently told me, "You wait till your first dance in public. There'll be lots of people watching you. Most will be watching you wave your hankies; they're the public. A few will be watching your feet; they're the off-duty morris dancers." And it's getting the feet right that's currently occupying my efforts at our Friday night practice sessions, a two-hour workout that leaves me exhausted, with aching knees and a terrible thirst that can only be slaked by a pint of Harveys best bitter.

Although I'm not yet proficient enough to "dance out" with the side, I trundled off to Hailsham last night to watch Long Man dance. They were accompanied by a couple of "Border" style sides; Hunter's Moon and Old Star Morris. Take a look at Hunter's Moon here. They are an extraordinary bunch of people, with blacked up faces, tattered coats, and an exuberant dance style that is quite fascinating. Towards the end of the evening, Mrs. H made a rather interesting observation. She said, "Just about all of the audience have gone home. They're just dancing for themselves." And she was right. Morris dancing isn't about putting on a display for the public (although this does help to raise a fair bit of cash for local charities), but it's rather about a bunch of like-minded people getting together to keep a tradition alive. At least, that's how it appears to this particular novice.

In his novel Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy introduces his readers to a group of mummers; purveyors of simple, traditional plays acted out on village greens from time immemorial. He notes that genuine mummers can be distinguished from modern revivalists in that the former perform their plays with a sense of gloomy obligation, whereas the latter will appear to be enthusiastic. Under Hardy's rule (if it can be applied to morris dancers), I'm afraid you'd have to mark us down as revivalists!

It isn't a speedy process, becoming a morris dancer. One of the most recent recruits took around three years to become a "full" member of the side, and he probably didn't have two left feet like me. It seems to be a matter of constant practice and repetition, until the moves become second nature and you suddenly realise that you're keeping up with everyone else. When this is going to happen to me is anyone's guess!

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, traditional Chinese folk dances were much in evidence, both during the opening and at presentation and award ceremonies. There are, apparently, no plans to feature morris dancing, or any other traditional form of English, Scottish or Welsh dance into the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London. Cecil Sharp, where art thou?

6 comments:

Rattling On said...

Just de-lurking to query whether you are also doing your bit to keep alive rural hostelries? Another vital function of Morris Men, I'm led to believe.
(Another Mrs H.)

chris hale said...

Rattling On - Thanks for de-lurking! Oh yes, the rural hostelries of East Sussex will definitely benefit from our patronage...forever, I hope!

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

I can see you doing this! How much does the top hat cost?

Angela Montague said...

Good on ya. I recently watched some morris dancers outside Lincoln Cathedral and was totally distracted by the one who was completely out of time. It made the whole thing much more entertaining. So if you find yourself fulfilling this role, don't worry, the audience will love you more for it.

chris hale said...

Derrick - I know there is a local place in Lewes - The Vintage Shirt Company - that knocks them out for three hundred pounds. Ouch! I think I'll have to look on Ebay!

Angela - Have no fear...it's a racing certainty I'll be the one out of step; a bit like Corporal Jones in Dad's Army!

Madame DeFarge said...

All a bit baffling for us Northern types. Have seen them at several beer festivals, always seems fun, but not quite sure why.