There's something sinister about Morris dancing

The hair on my neck crawls when I see Morris dancers performing, because their quaint costumes and tunes reach far back into our pagan past and raise apprehensions that defy analysis. What is the origin of their white shirts and trousers, the white handkerchiefs waved in their hands, the flowers in their straw hats and the bell-pads on their ankles? What is the significance of the hobby horse, worked by a man inside a dummy head? And what is the meaning of the fool, who runs round belabouring spectators with a blown-up pig's bladder and a lamb's tail?

Whitsun is the traditional peak of the Morris men's year, and this weekend teams will be out all over the country, especially on Monday. None will be more active than the Gloucestershire Morris Men, who are due to perform in six different places, including Broadway (at 10.30am) and Hidcote Manor (at 12.30pm and 1.45pm).

To learn what makes them tick, I joined them for supper one evening at the Black Horse in Cranham, a village tucked into a fold of the Cotswolds high above Cheltenham. Already the side had danced three times that day, and at 6pm they sat down in the pub amid the jingle of bells and roars of laughter to a supper of beef and Guinness pie.

My mentor was Steve Rowley, resplendent in a coat of tatters - hundreds of strips of coloured material, each (traditionally) torn from the petticoat of a conquest. Once the European representative of a computer firm, now a sculptor, Steve was refreshingly straightforward about his hobby. Suggestions that he is waking up the land from its winter sleep leave him cold. No, he says: Morris dancing is pure entertainment.

Certainly it has medieval origins, and a century ago almost every Gloucestershire village fielded a team (the name may be a corruption of "moorish", once a synonym for anything outlandish). But in the early 1900s the tradition nearly died out. Its survival owed much to the enthusiasm of Cecil Sharp, a professional musician and teacher who spent years collecting songs and dances. His work led to a revival in the 1930s, and now there are over 400 teams in Britain, besides others in such unlikely places as Australia and Bahrain.

Just as the grotesque horse (which can gnash its teeth, blink its eyes and shed tears) is still liable to frighten children, so the strangeness of the clothes increases mystique and creates the impression that Morris men are not quite human. But behind their antique facade they are reassuringly normal. According to Steve Rowley, "One reason we dance is to keep tradition going. But the main thing is that it gives us a kind of companionship we couldn't get elsewhere."

Even if its significance has been lost in the mists of time, tradition survives in many ways. The dances and tunes - Orange in Bloom, Constant Billy, Young Collins - are centuries old, and some have obvious echoes of fertility rites: in Bean Setting the men jab at the ground with short sticks, as if dibbing-in seed. The leader of each group is known as the Squire, the treasurer as the Bagman.

The Gloucestershire men train assiduously all winter. Then, come 1 May, they sally forth and dance until September, planning their programme to take in favourite hostelries. As in the old days, vigorous dancing is followed by vigorous drinking and singing: half the point of the exercise is to pile into the pub afterwards for a few pints and a rousing singsong. Last Saturday in the Black Horse, the atmosphere was highly convivial. Yet when the team began to perform in the road outside, I swear magic crept back into the air.

It was a damp, grey evening, spitting with rain; but as the dancers twirled against the grey limestone of the cottages, and the thin notes of the pipe and tabor went out over the valley, people began to filter up the steep village streets as if drawn by the Pied Piper, and time, far from standing still, took a rapid spin backwards to a simpler, less frantic age.

Suggested Topics
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

    £300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

    KS1 Teacher

    £95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

    HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

    £32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?