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

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Would you fork out to spend time on Sting's Tuscan estate?  

Happy to pay for the privilege of picking olives? Then Sting might have a job for you...

John Walsh
Clockwise from top: Zafran Ramzan, Razwan Razaq (main picture), Adil Hussain, Umar Razaq and Mohsin Khan were sentenced for grooming teenage girls for sex in 2010.  

Nothing can make up for the trauma of Rotherham's abused young girls, but many more heads must roll

Jane Merrick
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?