Whole new worlds open up to you when you meet new people. Some of those worlds are scary. Some are eruditely erudite. Others are downright forgettable. But not the one I’m about to divulge to you. The narrowboat beside my neighbour Eddie’s is named ‘Last Chance’. One, Kevin, is the captain. His good lady, Lesley, does not live aboard but is around most weekends. Boat living isn’t for everyone.
But the duo have something in common beyond anything nautical. They Morris Dance. Kevin got into it because of Lesley. The whole damned thing is so infectious. More on that later. They are part of a Morris dancing troupe known as Wicket Brood and members of a wider umbrella group, Border Morris. More on that later too.
I had heard vague murmurings of something called Morris Dancing in my years living in Canada. Sounded silly at the time. Someone named Morris coming up with a strange dance involving bells and hankies. That’s what we all thought. Funny how ignorance perpetuates forms of ridicule and torment for what is supposed to simply be a form of legitimate dance. Do we laugh at Billy Elliot? I think not.
Dancers of the Morris don’t seem bothered by what the rest of us think. They’re too busy having a good time, on and off the pitch….um, dance floor, street, park or pub. They practice their dances….many and varied….and socialise like there’s no tomorrow. Great bunch of people, the ones I met.
The history of anything is as complex and often as complicated as my mobile (cell) phone is to me. You get different stories about origins depending on the source. No one knows for sure how it all got started. The best I could scrounge was that the name Morris come from Moorish. So, we have a dance with African roots, possibly from the Moors in Spain, that apparently became popular in Italy and then brought to the courts of England back in the early part of the 15th century. How the dance got into the general population is arguable, but by the mid 17th century, it was quite common….in various forms, but always with bells around the lower part of the leg and sometimes the arms.
Only men danced at first, in troupes of 6-8. In 1600, it is reported that the Shakespearean actor, William Kempe, Morris danced from London to Norwich, a distance of around 116 miles (187kms). Dances were performed mainly at Whitsun (Pentecost) which is the Christian version of May Day. Pagan rituals were often turned into Christian high days to thwart the practice of paganism. It’s not clear who used Morris dancing first on these occasions, Pagans or Christians. That would have been some dance off. Dear old Oliver Cromwell put a stop to Morris dancing during his short tenure, citing it as distinctly Pagan.
Morris Dancing lost some of its popularity and lustre during the Industrial Revolution. The hoi-poloi were probably too exhausted at the end of a long day working in the mines, mills and factories to feel anything like Morris dancing. But a faithful few kept the dance alive. A man called Cecil Sharp saw a dance on Boxing Day 1899 and began collecting some of the tunes he heard. Together with Mary Neal, who had a girls dance troupe, tunes were added to dance and the revival was on.
But women had not been allowed to Morris Dance before this and a group was formed after Mary Neal’s dancers performed called the Morris Federation and eventually an Open Morris group where just about anything goes. The Morris Ring have tried….and still do….to keep Morris dancing traditional in the old sense, male and small troupes. Their influence is seen mainly in the Cotswalds and Oxfordshire. Living in the past…never wise. Things tend to die out more quickly.
Each region in England seems to have its own indigenous style of Morris dancing. North West Morris is more military in tone. Yorkshire and south Durham use both steel and wooden swords in groups of 6-8. Cambridgeshire is famous for its Molly dancing where one male in the troupe dresses as a woman. The Ploughstots of Yorkshire use flags and hankies on Plough Monday. I leave you to look that one up. There is even a Rapper group that has nothing to do with Rap music. From Northumberland and County Durham, they have groups of 5 using short sprung steel swords.
As I said, Kevin and Lesley’s troupe is Border Morris, the border being between England and Wales. They are known for painting their faces black (or any other colour these days) and wearing colourful outfits. They also tend to have a simpler, looser, more vigorous form of dance. Not sure how much of that they’d agree with. You know what it’s like. You research something, write about it and then those that actually do it laugh at the findings. Be that as it may, I think you get the idea that Morris Dancing is a many splendoured thing in a rather small country.
So, my neighbours told us they were going to dance at our local pub with a Morris troupe from Rickmansworth. They were called Phoenix Morris. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that some groups have a Fool, Beast or a Hobby. Not sure about that last one. It’s usually someone dressed as a fool or an animal or bird who interacts with the crowd. The Ricky group had a beast….or rather a bird….I suppose it was supposed to be a Phoenix, but looked more like a goose.
First, one group dances, then the other. All the dances are different. The Ricky group had an accordion and two squeeze boxes to play the music. Our troupe (I say our troupe in deference to my neighbours) has everything, even drums. Very cool. The Ricky group has more bells and they used hankies as well as sticks. Our group had sticks. Thick hickory sticks. Knuckles have been rapped. Injuries have occurred. Not for the faint of heart. Old sea shanties and jigs are played, the repertoire is varied. Our guys even did a James Bond themed dance (very loosely).
The Ricky opposition came back with scarves and bells ringing. Very impressive.
They even got me up to dance with them….me and some others in the audience. They showed us a few moves and then had us dance. My version looked more like a lame version of the funky chicken. Of course by this time in the evening I was sozzled. I love the social part of the whole deal and we were, after all, at a pub. It was getting dark by the end of the evening and both troupes danced a last dance together. I leave you with the last Morris Dance of the night…with drunken commentary. You’ll get the idea that I loved the evening’s proceedings. I did. Even if I did embarrass my poor neighbours. And by the way, even though they say the two dance groups are not in competiton, our troupe won the dance off….according to me.