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)

Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments