Saturday, 1 May 2010

Conscious incompetence on the Bluebell Line

The morris dance practice season is now at an end, and all over the country morris sides are 'dancing out' at pubs, fetes and festivals. And (if you don't count my impromptu inclusion in The Vandals of Hammerwitch at Eastbourne Library at the tail end of last year) I have recently had the honour of dancing out with my worthy brethren of Long Man Morris for the first time.

My first outing was on the 23rd April at the Wheatsheaf in Willingdon, where we were joined by another local side, the Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men, to celebrate St. George's Day with dance, song and, let's not deny it, a few glasses of Harvey's bitter. As a relative 'new boy' I haven't yet made the leap to hanky dances, but managed to give a reasonable performance in a couple of stick dances. Unfortunately, I was in the process of getting over a cold, so my attempts at joining in with the singing afterwards just made me sound like some wheezy old accordion. You can see some footage of us dancing here.

Yesterday was the first of May. And, for the first time for about a year and a half, I was up and out of the house before 5am. Driving through the wet, dark lanes of East Sussex, avoiding rabbits and toads, I soon found myself in a small car park in the village of Wilmington. A few hundred yards away, barely visible through mist, was Windover Hill, and the chalk-white outline of the Long Man of Wilmington, England's largest hill figure. This was my second 'dance out' with the side, who, by tradition, dance in the lane at the foot of the Long Man on the first of May every year. And this year the BBC were there to film us.

The senior members of the side were fully kitted up: corduroy breeches, white shirts and stockings, red spotted kerchiefs, bell pads, top hats, and ribbons and baldrics in the side's colours. Some wore black waistcoats or frock coats, bedecked with dozens of badges - a record of the hundreds of events they had danced at. They put me in mind of seasoned military men; men who have seen just about everything in their long careers, for whom today was just a little gentle exercise. Some have been dancing for more than thirty years, and are still just as keen and eager to dance as if it were their first outing. Some are older than me, but their ability to execute the dances without expending huge amounts of energy - dances that leave me sweating and hungry for oxygen - never fails to amaze me. The BBC crew - a young man and woman - introduced themselves to us. The young woman was on crutches, not (as we supposed) in honour of the Long Man and his two staves, but because of a Dancing Accident. She too was a morris dancer, and had sustained an ankle injury dancing a solo jig. Dancing can be dangerous.

The word was given. We formed up and processed down the lane to the designated spot. Thankfully, the earlier rain had stopped, and we stood ready to dance. A small crowd had gathered, and the BBC crew set their camera rolling. And then we danced, I again being permitted to take part in a number of stick dances. I felt quite honoured when Dave, our Fool, introduced me to the early risers, who had turned out to watch us, as Long Man's new recruit, and when he temporarily renamed one of our dances - Young Collins - as Young Christopher. I especially liked the 'young' bit. But it still seems strange to be the 'new boy' at the age of 55.

At the conclusion of this event, the sticks were packed up and the small crowd melted away, probably to return to bed. The BBC crew told us that their footage was to form part of a BBC4 programme on folk dance, and then bid us goodbye. Most of the experienced dancers set off on a dancing tour of two local railway preservation societies. I went home, and joined them later at Sheffield Park station on the Bluebell line. We danced for twenty minutes or so on the station platform, accompanied by the hiss of steam and the shrill whistles from the locomotives.

To the outsider (as I think I have said before) morris dancing just looks like a bit of stick or hanky waving, but there is much more to it than that. Dances must be executed using particular stepping patterns, the rhythm of which can vary from dance to dance. It is also imperative that you start on the correct foot. Get this wrong and your ability to be in the right place at the right time is severely compromised. Speed and agility are also vital, as is an awareness of what the dancers either side of you are doing. Lose sight of these and the whole thing becomes ragged. My own bĂȘte noir is a manoeuvre called the 'half gyp', which requires you to throw your weight forward and advance to the other side of the set, then fall back and turn until you resume your original place. I struggled so much with this that the cry 'Keep up, Chris!' was often to be heard during the Friday night practice sessions. I'm convinced the phrase will be written on my tombstone. I've now been dancing for around seven months, and have at least reached the stage where I know when I have made a mistake and can take steps (no pun intended) to rectify it. So, dear bloggy friend, I have reached the stage of conscious incompetence as stated by Howell (1982):

The transition to this state from being unconsciously incompetent can be a shocking and sudden realisation, for example when you meet others who are clearly more competent than you, or when a friend holds up a metaphorical mirror to your real ability.

I couldn't have put it better myself. I know what I don't know.

Some people don't 'get' morris dancing; probably in the way I don't 'get' football. But there's something about the morris that grabs hold of you; that makes you wish you'd started thirty years earlier. Alright, so I do get nervous before dancing, and I do make the odd mistake. But I make that mistake with a smile on my face. And although it would be easy to use such hackneyed phrases as 'The morris makes one feel closer to nature' or 'it is a way of connecting with our forbears', I genuinely feel that Long Man helps to keep alive one of our traditions that would almost certainly have been lost, had it not been for the work of Cecil Sharp at the tail end of the nineteenth century in preserving the details of Cotswold morris dances; those same dances that we performed in a damp, misty lane at the crack of dawn, under the watchful gaze of an ancient hill figure.