Morris dancing

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Shut up, I can't stand it," shouted the man in the black suit waving a huge Union Jack. "You're vicious degenerates with no respect for British values." The old-world charm of Bradford-on-Avon was disrupted last weekend by what had been billed as a cultural armageddon, the long- awaited confrontation between several groups of morris dancers and the recently formed Camda (Campaign for the Abolition of Morris Dancing Altogether).

"I cannot be held responsible for my members if the dancing gets out of hand," said Binkie Braithwaite, founder of Camda. Then a pack of outraged dancers pounced on his black-suited colleague, seized the flag from his grasp, and held him down while bells were buckled to his knees and his arms forced into morris garb. When the poor fellow was dragged on to the green and forced to dance, however, his proficiency confirmed what most observers had suspected all along: Camda is nothing more than a front for the propagation of morris dancing.

Mr Braithwaite stoutly maintained his anti-morris position throughout the day's events, but most of those present felt it was only be a matter of time before he was outed as a closet bell-jangler himself.

The First Avon Morris Bashing Festival began with a display of dancing and ritual abuse before adjourning to the bar of The Dandy Lion for the main confrontation. The opening polemic by Mr Braithwaite was roundly condemned in a stirring speech by Jonathan Knibs of Holt Morris, who accused Camda of representing "sinister forces in society" and being "a cankerous campaign hell-bent on world domination". He vowed to continue the unending battle of good against evil.

The battle of morris dancers against abolitionists continued with a contest of wits. The two teams were required to answer questions on their specialist topics (morris dancing and not morris dancing, respectively), to prove their cultural credentials by completing a limerick beginning "A man who had bells on his knees", to demonstrate financial control by transferring a pound coin from nose to mouth without use of the arms, and to find unusual uses for bells, sticks and handkerchiefs.

The result was a complete vindication of morris dancing, their team emerging clear winners by 28 points to 221/2. The spectators finished a close third with 22, thanks in part to their suggesting the best use of a stick: sell it to a dim-witted Australian as a straight boomerang.

When questioned informally on what morris dancing is really all about, however, the winning side was less convincing. Mark Vyvyan-Jones, of Bristol Rag Morris, explained that the earliest known reference is in a will of 1456 in which a woman named Alice bequeathed a bowl featuring an engraving of morris dancing. There is some evidence, however, that its traditions go back to the ninth century. Nobody is even sure where the name comes from - the most popular suggestion is that "morris" is a corruption of "Moorish" and refers to the practice of blackening the faces of some dancers.

At its height in the late 1500s, morris dancing was suppressed by various acts of parliament and had almost disappeared by 1900, when the great morris revivalist movement began. That is when, according to Mr Vyvyan- Jones, the myth came into being about morris dancers having to be men. Many of the morris sides created in a spirit of Victorian purity still do not admit women, but historical evidence suggests a tradition of both sexes joining in.

Why do they do it? Well, he explained, mostly for social reasons, though the sacred elements of an old fertility rite and the making of noise to frighten away evil spirits also play a part. "There are one or two in every side who do it for sacred reasons." Watch them at the start of the dance as they beat the ground with their sticks. The ones who take it seriously are driving off demons to create a hallowed space for their efforts. The others are just banging the ground because they like banging the ground.

The Wild Hunt Bedlam Morris and Bristol Rag Morris will perform at St James's Church, Piccadilly, next Monday, 7-9.30pm, in an "ancient period knees-up" to celebrate the spring equinox. Spectators will be taught a morris dance. Tickets at the door (£5 or £3 concession); bring your own percussion instruments to awaken the spring.