Men behaving madly

Why do Morris dancers in Essex wear condoms on their heads? And are Morris women anatomically incorrect? Pull the other one, says Anthony Clavane

The quiet, medieval streets of Thaxted will witness another orgy of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll this weekend. Or, as the Morris Ring would prefer, a celebration of fertility, real ale and folk music. After 60 years, the Essex villagers have got used to the annual invasion of happy hanky-wavers and barmy bell-janglers. Whether their crops have flourished accordingly is another matter.

Certainly, lots of noise will be made to frighten away "evil spirits", such as the female lancers challenging one of the last, great bastions of male supremacy. And sticks will be banged on the ground to drive off "demons", like the leather-jacketed louts who wave spanners, bash each other with scaffold poles and wear condoms on their heads.

Over the coming months, Britain will be awash with back-to-basics festivals featuring traditional song and dance. Some will parade the talents of the dreaded mixed Morris groups, who point to a tradition of female involvement stretching back to 17th-century Kidlington. Others will showcase the absurdist antics of biker groups, who point to a tradition stretching back to 1960s Python. But the anatomically correct Morris Ring continues to declare itself a testosterone-charged, headbanger-free zone.

John Couch remembers seeing women at a Ring meeting once. "But they were serving at the feast. They're not even allowed on the coaches which take the groups out to the dance sites. Some of those 42-seater coaches were half full. It's a bit ridiculous, really." With his bushy beard and abiding interest in English folklore, John might easily be mistaken for a Morris traditionalist. But, having experienced the sad decline of the pastime during an intense 13-year involvement, he has become a Morris modernist; if it were not for the infusion of new blood in the early 1990s, his beloved Mount Bures dancers would have surely gone under.

Alf White, the group's sagely squire (Morris-speak for leader) strokes his greying whiskers and nods in agreement. "Most teams are short of dancers. There's just not enough men to do it!" He begins a short, sharp history of the movement, only to be interrupted at the end of the Great War ("when the lady schoolteachers kept it going").

"Alf, we're doing the Postman's Knock," a feisty female voice informs him. "You are required please." Sarah, the bagman (secretary), wants to finish the double-footer so they can all get down the pub before closing time. "Shortly," mutters Alf. Sarah clicks her tongue and, in a matter of seconds, her father-in-law is joining in the traditional mantra: "Every morning as true as a clock, somebody hears the postman's knock." The violin starts up, followed by the melodeon, and soon he is hop, skip and jangling around the village hall in time-honoured fashion.

After its near collapse three years ago the "re-mixed" Mount Bures team is enjoying a revival. Not that this impresses fundamentalist Stuart Moxon. Despite acknowledging "a big problem with recruitment", the Thaxted member insists Morris must remain a male fertility dance. "Over the years the ladies have felt a bit left out, I suppose. But it just doesn't look very nice." In what way, exactly, does he find female dancers aesthetically displeasing? "Well, it's just their, er, anatomy." Brian Baird believes the the presence of women cramps the chaps' style. "We can't perform the same opposite them." His Belchamp Morris Men performed "completely starkers" on 1 May, something a mixed group might have found extremely awkward.

Would Stuart and Brian approve of the Royal Liberty Morris Men? Being an all-male team, which exuberantly upholds the heritage every Thursday night at Hornchurch Arts Centre, their appearance at this weekend's gathering would seem assured. But, according to the programme "all the clubs that seek membership of the Ring must be up to the required standard". These standards, presumably, do not include bashing each other over condommed heads with bits of scaffolding.

"A lot of people look down their noses at us," complains squire Kevin Bulmer. "They think we're not doing it seriously." How can he expect anyone to take Morris Men in cool shades, fetishistic footwear and studded leather jackets seriously? "Yes, we wear contraceptives on our heads but that's for the fertility dance. Yes, we're a bit outrageous. But we uphold all the traditional values." Which ones? "Well, we don't think it looks right having women dancing on the set." His team was banned from the Ring a few years ago for loutish behaviour. "They didn't like us drinking at breakfast."

Perhaps the traditionalists, no strangers to the joys of inebriation - nor, indeed, to cavorting naked in empty fields at the crack of dawn - are threatened by this tongue-in-cheek approach, considering it a twisted reflection of their public image. Hunt The Morris Man has replaced Hunt The Squirrel as a national pastime; Morris baiting rather than Morris dancing has become embedded in our folk consciousness. "You should make a point of trying every experience once," Sir Arnold Bax once famously advised, "excepting incest and folk-dancing." Even our nerdish Prime Minister joined in the fun last year when, to loud guffawing in the House, he joked that a Blair government would undoubtedly install Paddy Ashdown as Minister for Morris Dancing.

Tony Forster argues it is "an exciting, entertaining, creative and contemporary art form". But, as Morris Federation chairman Janet Dowling acknowledges, "the bulge of people who took up dancing 20 years ago in the revival are now getting progressively older". The children of those fortysomethings who joined during the 1970s folk boom tend to go for hipper forms of dance music. "It's just not street cred," sighs Brian.

Mike Garland, of East Suffolk Morris Men, says 200 years ago fathers passed the tradition on to sons. "But now, especially in large urban centres, it's difficult to attract young men. They're just not interested." Surely, one way for this exciting and entertaining art form to survive into the millennium would be to pass it on to daughters. "But it's a male tradition. Part of our folk heritage. It's a question of whether that path of heritage disappears or not."

Best of the traditional country fairs: POTTY MORRIS FOLK FESTIVAL: SHERINGHAM

Colourful, musical street festival involving 400 dancers from 20 teams, including one each from Germany and Belgium. A wide variety of ceremonial dancing will be on display, including North-West Morris, Garland, Border, Cotswold and Rapper. In the evenings dancers "do their own thing" in local pubs.

6-7 July ; details from Reg Grimes, 33 Beeston Road, Sheringham, Norfolk NR26 8EJ (01263 824343)

KEIGHLEY FESTIVAL

A community festival featuring juggling, Asian cookery, harp-playing and Morris workshops, walks and talks, a variety of sports and two folk concerts. But the main attraction is, as ever, the wonderful Keighley Vocal Union. All events will take place at Victoria Hall.

1-9 Jun; details from Carol Wood, 408 Skipton Road, Utley, Keighley, West Yorkshire

BUNTINGFORD FESTIVAL

A one-day event promoting traditional English music, dance and song. Northumbrian smallpipes and Border music in the village High Street and a chance to learn the traditional dances of East Anglia from Ouse Washes Molly Dancers. Tom McConville talks about the fiddle and teaches his style of play.

8 Jun; details are available from Hawksmoor Arts, 109 Radwinter Road, Saffron Walden, Essex, CB11 3HY (01799 528046)

MUCH HADHAM FESTIVAL

Under the banner "Let's Celebrate Our Heritage", the festival stresses the participatory role of folk music, with sing-ins and a great deal of busking in the bars. Local band Gas Mark Five will play at the barn dance, and top traditionalist Dave Burland performs at the village hall.

1 Jun; details available from Hawksmoor Arts, 109 Radwinter Road Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 3HY (01799 528046)

TOWERSEY VILLAGE FESTIVAL

Towersey has a reputation for being a little village with big ideas. The whole village joins in over August Bank Holiday Weekend, with concerts, dances and market stalls. Features some of the best folk music in the country.

23-26 Aug; details are available from Steve Heap, c/o Mrs Casey Music, PO Box 296, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP19 3TL or by calling (01296 433669)

SIDMOUTH INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF FOLK ARTS

Traditional roots music and dance, particularly Morris, features heavily but the Regency seaside town is also proud of its international flavour with 700 performers, representing seven nations, taking part. Some 60,000 people are expected to visit more than 70 venues.

2-9 Aug; details from PO Box 296, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP19 3TL (01296 433669)

REDCAR FOLK FESTIVAL

An event noted for its emphasis on children-orientated events - clowns, Punch and Judy etc - and participatory dance workshops, from Cajun to Morris. Ceilidhs, concerts and singalongs at the Redcar Bowl, Swan and Coatham hotels plus "chance-to-meets" and competitions in the pubs.

12-14 Jul; details from John Taylor, Fern Cottage, Dalehouse, Saltburn, Cleveland TS13 5DT (01947 840928)

CREWE AND NANTWICH FOLK FESTIVAL

Friendly and relaxed, this is a local, at times parochial, affair. Officially, the full day's Morris dancing, American-style Appalachian and step dancing are the big attractions, but the many informal sessions in the pubs give the self-styled "Folk 96" a wonderful buzz.

7-9 Sept; details from Tim Halliday, 4 Hargrave Avenue, Crewe, Cheshire CW2 8NW (01270 663120)

DANCING ENGLAND RAPPER TOURNAMENT

The Bass Museum of Brewing in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, is the unusual setting for a dance form traditionally found in Northumberland and Durham. Rapper is a shortsword dance featuring hilt-and-point rings of dancers consisting of five men, usually accompanied by a "Tommy" and a "Betty".

26 Oct; details from Nigel Moss, 80 Mickelholme Drive, Alrewas, Burton- on-Trent, Staffordshire DE13 7AU (01283 790088)

THE 5th ISLE OF BUTE INTERNATIONAL FOLK FESTIVAL

The "Bute bash" disproves the widely held notion that folk isn't fun, with many wild balls, barn dances, pub sessions and "plenty of crack doon the watter". Other highlights include a beach party and world ceilidh band championship.

18-22 Jul; details from Danny Klye, Festival Director, 126 Renfrew Road, Paisley PA3 4BL, Scotland (0141-887 9991)

INVERNESS HIGHLAND GAMES

Bught Stadium in Inverness is probably the best arena for the games. Many competitions, like piping and junior Highland Dance - and a more sporty feel, with particular emphasis on athletics and cycling.

13 Jul; details from Robert Steadman (01463 724262) or write to: Cultural and Leisure Services, Town House, Inverness IV1 1JJ

GLOUCESTER FESTIVAL

A colourful kaleidoscope of events, including firework displays, film shows and carnival processions, in a 15-day community arts festival. Traditional Scottish, rural and line dancing is favoured although the music tends to be more contemporary.

27 Jul-10 Aug; details from Lesley Pritchard, Gloucester City Council Leisure Services, Herbert Warehouse, The Docks, Gloucester GL1 2EQ (01452 396666)

NATIONAL EISTEDDFOD OF WALES - BRO DINEFWR 96

The legendary National Eisteddfod - Wales's largest arts festival based on 800 years of tradition - is in the beautiful surrounds of Dinefwr this year. Choirs and dancers compete in a "cultural village" built in an open field watched by an estimated 150,000 visitors.

3-10 Aug; details from Eisteddfod office, 135 Rhosmaen Street, Llandeilo Dyded (01558 823111)

LLANGOLLEN INTERNATIONAL EISTEDDFOD

Held annually in the North Wales town on the banks of the River Dee, it is local in organisation but international in performance; competitors are drawn from 24 countries. Star turns by the likes of James Galway in a giant pavilion, holding 10,000 people, do not capture the spontaneous feel of the spectacle as much as the informal, often impromptu, street performances.

9-14 Jul; details from Royal Pavilion, Llangollen or (01978 8620236)

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