There's something sinister about Morris dancing
Saturday 25 May 1996
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.
Life & Style blogs
Nokia no more: Microsoft drops once-ubiquitous mobile name – in favour of its Lumia brand
Fake goats’ cheese found in supermarkets
Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
Uber France apologises for sexist promotion offering men free rides with 'incredibly hot chicks' as drivers
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
- 1 Marijuana use by teenagers does not result in a lower IQ or worse exam results, study finds
- 2 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 3 Jimmy Carr's controversial Oscar Pistorius joke goes too far at the Q Awards
- 4 Australian café owner sparks debate after saying 'No' to having unruly children on premises
- 5 NHS staff banned from drinking tea or coffee on the job because it looks like they're not working hard enough
£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...
£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...
£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...
£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...