Cole Moreton: Dare to dance the Morris, the laugh of the century

Share
Related Topics

Daft, isn't it? Leaping about with a hop and a skip to a wheezy melodeon in a Morris dancing style is ridiculous. Bonkers. That's one reason why so many people are trying to see Morris: A Life With Bells On, a gentle, funny movie currently touring the West Country. Go along to the Lord Nelson pub in Norton sub Hamdon in Somerset this Tuesday night. The screen will be set up in the skittles alley.

Big distributors declined the film, despite the casting of Derek Jacobi, Harriet Walter and Greg Wise. You can understand why: there have been some truly awful English movies (Who can forget, however hard they try, Sex Lives of the Potato Men, which did what it said on the sack. Unfortunately). But word of mouth is making Bells a sleeper hit. The website is getting hundreds of thousands of visits, a petition for distribution is gathering support and the alley will be full.

Before you see it, though, I have a few secrets to share about "the Morris" (as dancers know it) having been drawn in of late (I even had a go last week, for professional reasons, you understand). The first is that it's not dying.

Last month the Morris Ring said it was because young people were too embarrassed to get involved. Which sensible teenage boy would want to be seen jangling his bells in public with a "side" of bearded hankie-waving blokes? They're all men in the Morris Ring, you see. The organisation has 200 member sides, but none of them allow women.

The second thing you need to know is that the "classic" all-male, white-clad style of Morris – called Cotswolds, because it comes from that area – is not the only one. Far from it. There are Molly Dancers in hobnailed boots, sword sides skipping over sharp blades, goths in black shades and seriously alarming Bedlam Morris men and women in masks who look like they're carrying out wild rituals. Then there is Border Morris, the fastest-growing form, whose followers belong to the rival Morris Federation.

Dancers dress in rags, yell as they bash big sticks together and wear blacked-up faces (nothing to do with Carol Thatcher; it is said to be a remnant from the days when dancers needed to disguise themselves from the squire. Very useful if you're a shy teenager, and you get to meet equally eccentric girls). It's loud, dramatic and – bear with me – highly sexual. For one dance, you plant your legs, lean back, grab your stick and hold it up like an erect penis while your partner whacks it about with theirs.

How do I know? Because I had a go with Hunter's Moon, a Sussex side that started as part of a local pagan festival. Out of costume, the gardener, the company director and the teenage students looked pretty normal. Here's what shocked me: it's really hard work. Exhausting. Try hopping on the spot. Add in a skip. Now take some turns like country dancing and slam your stick about. Splinters fly. The rhythm becomes addictive.

Keep it going for five minutes. Do it for hours in the summer sun but get the timing exactly right or suffer. It demands such skill, they rehearse all winter. Watching were people on crutches who had come to rehearsals for the camaraderie. As one of the dancers joked, "Lion taming would be safer." But not such a laugh, I think.

I can report from the post-practise pub that the men and women who take the Morris seriously know how daft they look. "You've got to laugh at yourself," one of them told the director of the new film "otherwise you'd be missing the joke of the century." So if you see them on some village green, do have a laugh. Then have a go. I dare you.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established managed services IT...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bahrainis on an anti-government protest in May  

Hussain Jawad's detainment and torture highlights Britain's shameless stance on Bahraini rights

Emanuel Stoakes
August 1923: Immigrants in a dining hall on Ellis Island, New York.  

This election demonises the weakest

Stefano Hatfield
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003