Hell's bells! The joy of Morris Dancing

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Beards, silly outfits and wooden sticks – the traditional English dance has been the butt of jokes for decades. So can a new movie celebrating its charms teach us to appreciate it? Jonathan Brown joins the throng

I am standing in a Scout hut on a rainy Wednesday night in a leafy suburb of York, preparing to be initiated in to the ways of morris. Few would imagine that danger is at hand. Morris dancing – with its tinkling bells, clink of pewter tankards and brightly-clad participants – evokes the timeless, gentle charm of an English village. It may be atavistic and some may even find it a little unsettling. But ultimately it is plainly harmless and above all, safe.

Yet I am now learning that what I believed to be a risk-free if rather unfashionable activity is in fact fraught with peril – a contact sport in the finest traditions of bone-crunching Sumo and tooth-spitting Aussie Rules. I had assumed that the greatest menace – apart from the occasional derisory comment – might be a nasty case of hanky burn brought on by a too-vigorously brandished snot rag; or perhaps a poke in the eye with a flailing pig's bladder – even a mild bout of tinnitus courtesy of those chimes. But that was before I witnessed the spectacle of the Skirmish.

The good ladies of the Acorn Morris, York's first all-female team (who have been strutting their stuff since 1977), have already nurse-maided me through a gentle Shepherd's Hey – really a dance for children but deemed suitable for a beginner such as myself – before progressing to the slightly more vigorous Brighton Camp, which involves some enjoyable knee-slapping and culminates in a satisfying gurn. I am also allowed to backswagger and caper (these are technical terms) along to a (for me) rather demanding Jenny Lind Polka, named in honour of the celebrated Victorian opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale and still widely venerated in morris circles.

But the Skirmish, with its crashing wooden staves and double-speed chorus, is strictly off-limits for novices. The Skirmish sees teams hit their staves together fore and aft – punctuating key points in the music and filling the room with the earsplitting sound of clashing wood. Far from the broom handles of popular mockery these are serious clubs capable of doing damage which must be wielded with surprising speed and above all accuracy.

Even the most experienced dancers can occasionally lose concentration in a Skirmish and bring their stick crashing down on an unsuspecting finger or worse, resulting in a smashed bone or dislocated joint. And it is clear that, though the dancers' smiles are broad, this is no laughing matter.

To see the Acorn team dance the Skirmish is to forget the tedious old instruction of Sir Thomas Beecham about morris dancing and incest being two of life's more optional leisure interests and instead seek out the stirring description of Philip Stubbs, the 16th-century pamphleteer. Writing in his The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), a sort of Elizabethan version of the Daily Mail which excoriated the declining state of England and the degenerate behaviour of its people, Stubbs turns the full force of his censorious quill on the morris men: "They strike up the Devil's Dance withall: then march this heathen company towards the church and churchyards, their pypers pyping, the drummers thundering, their stumpes dancing, their belles jyngling, their hankercheefes fluttering about their heads like madde men." More than four centuries later, they are still doing so; in fact, the pastime appears to gaining popularity.

Later this month in cinemas across Britain a new film exploring the strange and deeply-held passions that continue to be evoked by morris is to enjoy its national premiere in our cinemas. Morris: A life With Bells On cost just £500,000 to make but is already looking like becoming – thanks to a series of little-publicised screenings at morris societies countrywise – the word-of-mouth hit of the year. Starring Sir Derek Jacobi as the sinister head of the fictional governing body the Morris Ring and Dominique Pinon of Amélie and Delicatessen fame playing a mystic Gallic dancer inspired by hallucinogenic cider, it tells the story of Derecq Twist, an earnest and passionate devotee of the morris ways whose avant-garde tendencies earn him powerful enemies within the deeply-conservative establishment.

Shot in mockumentary style that evokes The Office and This is Spinal Tap, A Life With Bells On is an affectionate if uncompromisingly comic examination of this most peculiar of English traditions.

The forthcoming national screenings have not only excited the judges of the Seattle Film Festival who gave it a runner's-up prize earlier this year but have also girded the loins of Britain's 14,000 morris men and women. Those who have seen the early showings, if not exactly dancing with joy at the depiction of their hobby, have given a broad hey nonny yes to the film – glad that for once the outside world is sitting up and taking notice. The screenplay is written by former lawyer, banker and entrepreneur turned actor and voiceover artist Charles Thomas Oldham who also plays the central character Derecq Twist. It was inspired by the death of Oldham's "surrogate father" Donald McGregor Campbell, a former morris man who showed the then-16-year-old from the Surrey stockbroker belt the ways of the bells when he took him in after his parents moved to Australia. "I did not want this to be nasty or sneery," says Oldham, who admits to finding the dancing scenes "strangely enjoyable". "I just did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did," he confesses. Oldham recalls how his adopted parent regularly used to enliven family gatherings by knocking out a Sweet Jenny Jones or Constant Billy with morris-loving friends.

"Even as a 16-year-old I could spot the humour in it," says Oldham. "But I was worried his family might see the film and think it was nasty so it was a great relief when I saw them chuckling at it. In the end it is a nice film about good people."

But convincing the distributors there was a market for it was another matter. "They said it was too niche and on some level there is a perception that anything to do with the folk world is small scale. But there are thousands of morris dancers out there," says Oldham.

One champion of morris who rode to the rescue was Cat Moore of Bicester, Oxfordshire. Having seen an internet trailer and heard favourable reports from friends who had been to some of the sold-out village hall screenings in the South West she was so disappointed at the prospect of it not going nationwide that she set up a petition. Within a few weeks some 8,000 people had signed up, demanding A Life With Bells On be given a wider airing with the result that the Picturehouse chain agreed to put it on 50 screens later this month.

"I know people who've seen it and I don't expect it to be a documentary about morris dancing where you'll learn something about it, but I've heard it is just a very good and very funny British film," 28-year-old Ms Moore said. Life With Bells On is indeed funny. But it is also touching. Take the opening scene – shot with reckless expense for a low-budget film from the air above the rolling hills of Dorset – revealing the isolated figure of Twist dancing beside a chalk man, concentration fiercely etched across his face. We know that morris dancing, in some parts of the country at least, is facing a protracted death. There is a shortage of new recruits who, reared on the airbrushed sirens of music TV, are too embarrassed to join in, whilst the increasingly-aged profile of existing dancers prompted the real-life Morris Ring (no relation to the fictional Morris Circle), which represents 200 all-male troupes, to warn earlier this year that in a mere two decades there could be no one left to keep the traditions alive.

But it is not the first time that morris has teetered on the verge of extinction. As Victorian Britain enjoyed the pinnacle of its imperial and industrial greatness, the customs of an earlier agrarian age were being all but forgotten. Many dances and their accompanying tunes existed only in the folk memory of a few elders. A working-class population on the cusp of modernity derided such retrogressive practices with their half-remembered allusions to bountiful harvests and fertility rites and their antler-clad predilection for animistic ritual and pre-Christian folklore. The upper classes and the Church, needless to say deplored the morris men's penchant for what today we would call "binge drinking" on the feast days of May Day and Whitsun. Indeed one celebrated team's philosophy was summarised as "dance until the sweat comes down and then drink until the water comes down" – repeating the process over and over again.

An unlikely saviour of morris appeared in the guise of Cecil Sharp, an Oxbridge-educated professional musician who on Boxing Day 1899 came across a performance of the Headington Quarry morris team. This was the time of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the middle classes were responding to the machine age by looking backwards towards a period of greater "authenticity".

Not that morris was always popular. The first dances are thought to have arrived in England around the time of the Tudors – an adaptation of the Spanish pageant known as the Moresca, which celebrated the defeat of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula. Shakespearean actor William Kempe morris danced all the way from London to Norwich chronicling his achievement in the book Nine Days Wonder, published in 1600 while John Milton introduced the dancers to a wider audience in his celebrated masque Comus.

But the Puritans had little love for the morris men or their traditions – as attested to by the observations of Stubbs – and the "ungodly" sound of jingling bells in the village greens and market squares of Cromwell's Commonwealth was systematically repressed along with most other forms of public enjoyment. Morris dancing then was subversive, dangerous, and threatened the status quo.

The Restoration signalled not only the return of the king but the resumption of popular events such as the Whitsun Ales and in the years that followed so there was a flowering of the art of morris: Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire became the hanky-waving stronghold of the Cotswolders; clog dancing ruled the mill towns of the 19th century North West. On the Borders, dancers donned blackface and turned their clothes inside out to go "raggy" while Yorkshire resounded to the dances of longsworders and out-of-work ploughboys entertained East Anglian crowds (sometimes with more than a hint of menace) with their molly dances. Yet by the early years of the 20th century this rich tapestry of local tradition was unravelling. Sharp was enthralled by his encounter with Headington team and the musician set out on an odyssey that was to see him scour the country excavating the memories of those that could still recall the old dances and painstakingly recording the steps and noting down the tunes for posterity. His establishment of the English Folk Dance Society helped ensure that the centuries-old ways were not lost in the slaughter of the Western Front just three years later.

Interest grew during the inter-war years but it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that yet another revival was to occur. The explosion in interest of traditional dance was fuelled by the resurgent appeal of folk music – a phenomenon that had been building steadily in the post war years on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain it evolved from a search for the music of the ordinary people in keeping with communist sympathies of pioneering writer/musician/activists such as Ewan MacColl and AL Lloyd. In the United States it gave birth to the protest song movement of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. But though recruits spilled out of the folk clubs into the church halls and scout huts where the morris practiced, dancing remained an all together less doctrinaire activity – the pursuit of left-leaning teachers and other professionals seeking fun, exercise and convivial company.

The Ring's current Squire is Brian Tasker. Though the head of the largest – and some might say most conservative – of the three morris organisations, the 62-year-old former chartered accountant from Tunbridge Wells bears little resemblance to the unyielding and ruthless Quentin Neely, played by Sir Derek Jacobi in the film. Although the Ring still only represents male teams, Tasker says his organisation is a broad church incorporating a wide range of opinions on the thorny issue of women dancers. Change could come one day but is not imminent.

"It is really just a matter of tradition. In the future we may open up but at the moment the situation is fine," he says. More worrying he says is the failure to recruit new and younger members and so he welcomes the film and was consulted by the producers. "We need all the publicity we can get," he admits. "So if the film can trigger interest that will be good."

Tasker believes there are three areas in which morris can become more relevant. The first is by updating the costumes – many of the more traditional ones he concedes can be off-putting to younger people. Then there is the question of the music. "These were popular songs of the 19th century and they are very beautiful but many people cannot relate to them today. We should be very traditional and use popular songs of the present day," he adds. The final issue is the dancing itself. While ceilidhs and – God forbid – line-dancing continue to attract followers, morris in some parts of the country struggling. "The dances have always been evolving and changing with the years but it hasn't done so very much in the last 30 years. We have to think about what dances would be interesting to young people," he says.

Three days after my lesson with the Acorn Morris, I find myself in the centre of York. The city is ringing with the sound of the bells for the highlight of the local morris dancing calendar, the city's festival of traditional dance. In the medieval surroundings of Parliament Street, Saturday lunchtime shoppers are sheltering from the drizzle as teams from across the country mill about in colourful contrast to the wet flagstones. I suddenly realise that it is one thing to dance before fellow believers in the anonymity of a late-night scout hut, but quite another to perform in front of hundreds of strangers in the crowded centre of your home city. Yet as the Acorn's squire Chris Bishop calls for volunteers to join them in a Brighton Camp I resolutely step forward and prepare to dance formally in public for the first time in 30 years. Yellow hankies clutched in moistening hands, I listen as the whistle and accordion strike up.

"Some people think it is a bit odd and you get ribbed a bit and we can take a bit of stick," Acorn member Norna Scott, 34, had told me. "But it is a wonderful thing and you really can't do it without smiling." She is right. As the music stops and the ragged sound of applause drifts across the damp square I feel great.

"Morris: A Life With Bells On" opens in cinemas nationwide on 27 September

Steps apart: The morris glossary

Morris: No one really knows the true origin of the term, but it is most likely derived from the Spanish moresca dances which celebrated the defeat of the Iberian Moors.

Team/side: A morris troupe. Despite the terminology, morris dancing is rarely competitive

Squire: The morris team leader who calls the dances and arranges the programme.

Bagman: Looks after a side's money and equipment and may act as secretary and treasurer. Not to be confused with the ragman, who is in charge of the costumes.

Fool: Extravagantly dressed and outgoing extra who interacts directly with the crowd, separately from the morris team. May carry a pig's bladder on a stick.

Ale: Private party/feast where morris teams gather together and dance for their own enjoyment.

Cotswold: The dominant form of morris dancing based on routines widely practised in the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly in Oxfordshire.

Longsword: A hilt and point sword dance still common in Yorkshire. Closely related to the shorter rapper sword dances of the North-east.

Border: Practised on the English side of the Welsh border. The tradition is characterised by ragged dress, stick-clashing and politically-incorrect blackened faces. Was revived in the 1960s.

Molly: Dance made famous by East Anglian ploughboys in which one dresses as a woman, or Molly. Disappeared in 1930s but later revived.

Hoodening: A winter solstice tradition in which teams brandishing a hooded wooden horse's head on a pole seeks money in return for their tomfooling. Still performed around east Kent though now money goes to charity.

Mummer: Traditional folk play performed in the streets which can be traced back to the Middle Ages

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