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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

    Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power