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

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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.

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