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Lords of the dance

PUBLISHED: 11:38 15 January 2009 | UPDATED: 10:23 23 August 2010

WARLINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 26:  The North Wood Morris Men,Morris dancers perform on December 26. 2006 in Warlingham, England. A Morris Dance is a form of English folk dance. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers.   (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

WARLINGHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 26: The North Wood Morris Men,Morris dancers perform on December 26. 2006 in Warlingham, England. A Morris Dance is a form of English folk dance. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

2006 Getty Images

TRAIPSING through the snow towards St George s Hall in Wrotham I exhaled an icy cloud of trepidation before stepping into the mysterious world of Morris dancing.. With recent reports suggesting this ancient folklore was on the wane and young people were

TRAIPSING through the snow towards St George's Hall in Wrotham I exhaled an icy cloud of trepidation before stepping into the mysterious world of Morris dancing..

With recent reports suggesting this ancient folklore was on the wane and young people were describing it as 'embarrassing' I decided to cheer up a chilly January night and check it out for myself.

Of course it's a big step to wear a straw hat with ribbons, jig about with bells tied on your knees and clack a big stick about to represent some sort of ancient fertility ritual but I was determined to make sure the 'no' in my Hey Nonny experience wasn't going to ruin my night.

I needn't have worried. As soon as I'd opened the creaking door to the hall I was greeted by the 15 smiling faces of the Hartley Morris Men all attired in their familiar white costumes with ribbons trailing and bells a chinging.

It was a gentle lead in. I was shown some easy steps and Brian Tasker, Squire of the Morris Ring organisation, explained some of the reasons behind certain steps and gestures.

For instance the sticks are banged to keep the rhythm and the bells make for heady accompaniment. "So is it a Pagan pastime?" I asked him during mid shuffle. "No," replied a dancing Squire Brian, "it actually has its roots in the Moorish dances of Spain. It came to England way back in the 15th century. Some people still peddle the Pagan thing but there's no truth in it."

But what is it all about? Why gather in a public place, usually outside a village pub, to make such a spectacle? According to the Morris dancers there's all sorts of interesting reasons. One of them even suggested it was associated with fertility rites and this is illustrated by one of the dancers carrying an inflated pig's bladder on a stick. If a member of the crowd is touched by the balloon like bladder then there'll be a child on the way. I then asked Squire Brian about the recently publicised suggestion by the Bagman of the Morris Ring, Charlie Cocoran, the tradition which celebrates the rites of Spring was dying out.

Brian, 62, said: "What we've got to do now is move on. If you want to attract new members, you've got to adapt. Costume is a big barrier to young people. It's got a real image. It is so totally out of tune with what teenagers are in to. They really would not be prepared to go out in public in them.

"Some sides do have very modern costumes, and that's one thing we can do. We could perhaps experiment with some more modern music. There are plenty of people who don't want to change. There is a strong element of people who are saying 'we love what we do, we've been doing it for 50 years and we're not going to change' and that's fine, but those sides will die. They will die."

Squire Brian didn't think Bagman Mr Cocoran's comments were helpful but that Morris Dancing needs to get with the times.

He added: "Young people need to grab this thing, and turn it into something which is meaningful to them. They have to turn it into their dance. What you don't want is young people coming along and dancing with a load of 60-year-olds - they should form their own side. They are young and they should be dancing more vigorously than us and developing their own style. You don't want the youngsters learning to dance like the old men"

Some of this Brian revealed to me over a pint in the pub before we began the dance rehearsal. I learned he hadbeen dancing with Hartley Morris Men for 38 years and took office as Squire last September. Since it came to England, Morris Dancing has always changed with the times but that the dances from the start of the 20th century have stuck. He said: "Point was that the Morris was constantly changing before then. It was continuously evolving and keeping in tune with the times. We should absolutely modernise the Morris - because it's always changed anyway."

After spending an evening dancing and drinking with the Hartley Morris Men I was impressed by their willingness to accept criticism and admit Morris needs to change. They even described my own efforts as 'very good for a beginner'.

Squire Brian got involved with Hartley Morris Men in 1971 after meeting members through the Farningham Folk Song Club.

He said: "Back in the early 70s the Morris was really expanding. On the back of the folk song revival, the number of people joining absolutely muscled.

"The problem is that all these people joined at the same time and they were all in their 20s and the same people are now in their 60s. The social climate was more conducive then to Morris, it was the age of Bob Dylan and such like. But as the years have gone by the dances have stayed the same. And what we do now doesn't fit with the youth of today."

Nick Miller, 59, joined the Hartley troupe about 8 years ago and admits the age of members can be an obstacle. Ben Grabham, 33, is the youngest member of the Hartley Morris Men. He said: "I grew up with Morris, my dad was really into it, and I have known a lot of these men for a long time.

"It's good fun, really. I takes you all over the country. It's like a big family really. It's very social. But it could do more to attract new members. The fact is it tends to be out in rural pubs. I would love to see more young people get involved."

Terry Heaslip, 60, tole me he joined in his early 20s and have had 40 years having a 'cracking good time' with the Morris men. It's the exercise, the social stuff, it's just a great fraternity to be in.

"I can understand young men in their teens getting embarrassed about it because there's a bit of a stigma about Morris and maybe that's not the best age to try and recruit them."

But Squire Tasker put stomped on the idea that Morris Dancing is mostly a man's sport.

He said: "The sides that formed in the 70s were largely men. Then women became interested and formed their own groups and now there are probably more women's sides than there are men's sides.

"Back in the 70s there used to be a lot of reluctance among men's side to dance with women's sides. And although attitudes have changed dramatically, there are still some people who think that Morris is a men's dance."

That night on the way home through the snow I felt more confident about the future of Morris Dancing. The Hartley gang had made me feel so welcome and their attitude towards modernisation was awe inspiring. Indeed the suggestion this tradition is hopping towards its final days is a merry myth if the Hartley Morris Men have anything to do with it.

Anyone interested in joining the Hartley Morris Men should call: Tony Tomlin on 01622 685960 or visit: www.hartleymorrismen.org.uk

FACTFILE

Today, there are five main styles of Morris dancing.

1: Cotswold, which is the style Hartley Morris Men dance, originates from the West Midlands and uses bells and sticks to accompany hand movements. This is what most people understand to be Morris Dancing and more people dance this style than anything else.

2: Sword dances are more common in Northern England and dancers are always linked by their swords.

3: The North West Morris style originates in Lancashire and Cheshire. It is a processional dance where dancers wear clogs and parade up and down the streets. It is very noisy and quite bold.

4: The Border dances come from the Welsh-English border. Dancers black up their faces to disguise themselves and wear a kind of rag costume. They usually do stick dances and it is quite wild according to Mr Tasker, who also said it is more popular with young people.

5: The Lolly style from East Anglia is similar to the Borders style, but not quite so vigorous.

elizabeth.thornton@archant.co.uk

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