The following article was recently published in Daily Telegraph Weekend Section and is reprinted with due acknowledgement:-
A Fete Worse Than Death - An Article by Veronica Lee on the Morris Scene
A fete worse than death? - It was the unacceptable face of English summers but morris dancing has now found credibility. The Royal Ballet has a troupe and it's being performed at the South Bank. What is going on?
It would be easy, not to say predictable, to begin with Sir Arnold Bax's oft-quoted line, but let's save that for later. Less predictably, morris dancing, like comedy and poetry before it, is the new rock 'n' roll. It's a bit of a stretch to believe that those men with bells on their calves who prance around with sticks and handkerchiefs at every village fete you will visit this summer might be the new GaIIagher brothers, but it does appear that morris's moment may have come.
Morris has seen a tenfold increase in clubs (or sides, as the dance troupes are known) in the past few decades. There are now about 800 sides in Britain, and more than 1,000 worldwide. What was once an esoteric pastime for men with beards is now a thriving part of the entertainment industry. There is even a touring stage show that hopes to do for morris what Riverdance did for Irish dancing, and there are now university courses in the subject.
The national tour of Steve Rouse's dance show "England Dances" will, he hopes, lead us to see morris's true worth, while the universities of Brighton, Surrey and Chichester offer morris as part of music and performance courses. The Royal Ballet - no, this really is true - boasts a morris troupe which, I am told, will dance at the drop of a white handkerchief while on foreign tours. At Greenwich market in South East London, shoppers for New Age remedies and retro clothing are treated every week during summer to a morris display, not by crusty old buffers but by the new crusties - young men and women more in keeping with the trendiness of the location. And if some morris exponents do insist on keeping it all male, little wonder that one of the fastest-growing groups is to be found in Brighten, famous for its gay population. Morris dancers have been invited to perform at the Dome and, the last place you might expect to see them, on the South Bank, just up the road from Tate Modern, that hip symbol of New Britain.
But - and there's always a but - there's a dark side to this seemingly most innocent of pastimes. Some support the idea of "pure" morris, while others believe that it's a great excuse for a laugh and a knees-up and that it doesn't matter if the steps aren't exactly as our ancestors did them. Such divergence of opinion is reflected in the fact that in Britain alone, morris dancers need three separate organisations - The Morris Federation, Open Morris and The Morris Ring - to keep the tradition alive. Such differences of opinion have existed since Cecil Sharp "rediscovered" the dance form at the end of the 19th century. Sharp, a music teacher, first saw morris when a team of Oxfordshire dancers led by William Kimber, the Headington Quarry Men, knocked at his door on Boxing Day, 1899. He was immediately hooked and had Kimber teach him all the dances that had been handed down through generations of morrisers.
Sharp went on to become a fanatical collector of English folk song and dance and almost singlehandedly invented the concept of the English folk movement. But while he believed that each morris dance should be preserved, unadulterated, for the nation - part of a never-ending search for a British Arcadia indulged in by Thomas Hardy, William Morris, Ralph Vaughan Williams and others, Kimber thought of it as simply an honest-to-goodness pastime for working men. They argued, but as Kimber, a builder, was doing up Sharp's house at the time, it was his master's voice that spoke the louder.
Given the diversity of regional disciplines that are termed morris - Cotswold (considered by many to be "pure" morris), North-West, Border, Rapper and Sword - it's not surprising that it takes three groups to oversee it all. The Morris Ring is the most conservative (or traditional, depending on your point of view), founded in 1934 and strictly all-male. It likes to think of itself as the keeper of the morris name. The other two were founded in the 1970s and welcome male and female dancers.
The growth in interest in the 1970s was sparked by the folk-rock movement and provoked a furious debate over the correct history of the morris and whether women should be 'allowed' to dance. In fact, there's never been a time when women haven't danced morris. William Kemp, one of Shakespeare's acting company, who danced from Norwich to London in 1599 (don't ask), said the person who danced farthest with him was a serving wench who'm he met at an alehouse along the way. Indeed, it is women who probably kept morris alive during the First World War, when complete villages were stripped of their young men in the slaughter of Flanders.
As to its history, little can be stated with any authority. Morris is certainly pre-Elizabethan, and was mentioned in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but like many an enjoyable pastime, such as dancing round the maypole, it was banned by history's original dogs in the manger, the Puritans, who described it as "the devil's music" and as a "satanic dance". By the time Cecil Sharp discovered morris, it was dwindling, the Industrial Revolution having put paid to many an innocent country pursuit. As for authenticity, one group of dancers - Kimber's - provided the model for what Sharp claimed to be definitive.
The warring groups seem lately to have come to a stand-off, as all believe that they have the correct historical take on morris, while each maintains a holier-than-thou attitude. For most morrisers, the question of whether women can dance it is a tired argument that they recognise will never be settled. "Old hat," says Laurel Swift of The English Folk Dance and Song Society, herself a keen morris dancer. "Those arguments were done and dusted in the 1970s. Those who wanted women in went one way, those who didn't went another. But all groups co-operate with each other."
Up to a point. Many men's sides still won't dance with mixed or women's troupes, and you don't have to search very far on the three groups' supposedly unified website before you unearth festering feuds, with much declaration that their form is "real" and "traditional". As with beer, the two words are not necessarily synonymous with taste, still less purity. Talking of beer, what would morris be without it? Which will probably get me into trouble with at least one morris organisation, maybe two, though Open Morris would probably just say, "Your round!" Open Morris, on its Web home page, urges people to remember that morris is FUN!. Ms Swift defends this boozy image: "Most social activities in Britain involve drinking - I don't think morris is any more beery than other pastimes. And don't forget, a lot of morris is danced at village fetes and pub outings, so what do you expect? But we wouldn't be drinking at a primary school display, obviously."
Anthony Allen however, who has been a morris dancer for 27 years takes a more sober view. "There is an association between morris and drinking, which I think is very dangerous and a modern thing. It came to the fore because it was a way of not being seen to be airy-fairy people prancing around with handkerchiefs. That's irrelevant to me because I don't need to defend what I do - this is the first and only generation in England that has considered dancing effeminate. If you go back to Victorian or Edwardian times, it was never considered effeminate or strange that men danced; being able to dance was part of being a fully rounded human being."
But at least the morris as bruiser has, unlike most morris traditions, a verifiable past. Most pre-revival morris sides (that is those having a continuous link going back several hundred years) were composed of tough working men - miners, quarry workers, farmers and the like. Perhaps this piece of advice from the English Folk Dance and Song Society's HQ, Cecil Sharp House, explains it: "Call a morris man quaint and he'll bounce you on your head."
In fact, anyone describing morris men as quaint had best not do it in Marlborough. Several years after the event, a running battle between visiting morris dancers and locals is still talked about with awe in the Wiltshire town. Some youths made the mistake of questioning the dancers' manliness; the dancers carried on with their performance and later in the pub were perfect gentlemen to the ladies, stopping off from polite conversation only to deck any local lad who came into sight. Not one would-be Malborough hard man was left standing by the night's end.
But back to the latest morris fracas. Dr Allen, an academic at Queen Mary and Westfield College in London who is involved in space research, is also director of Stepback, an organisation that seeks to have traditional English music and dance recognised as source material for modern forms and for it to be taught routinely in university courses. This, he says, will ensure that we will gain a perspective on morris and see beyond the crowd-pleasing cliche. "We are much more interested in the dance that lies underneath the theatre" he says.
"In fact, in some performances, we actually go on stage without the bells to force the audience to look at it as a dance form. It's a bit like wearing a false beard - people know it's false, but can't see what's underneath. The bells have that effect." That's fighting talk to a lot of morrisers. For Ms Swift, morris will always be "a fun, earthy pastime" and academic deconstructions are as welcome as women dancers still are for some old bell wearers.
Tom Whitehead, a former morris and rapper sword dancer, agrees with Swift. "Essentially, morris is a folk form maintained by people at a grass roots level. Unfortunately, the trendies are now descending on it, not necessarily to take part, but to change it to meet their own agendas. It's being taken away from the people and repackaged by arts professionals who want to teach and stage morris without any of the traditions - they even want to incorporate kodo drummers or traditional dance steps from the Massai - or, in short, anything that can get them a grant. It's as if morris is not good enough simply because it is quintessentially English. It has to be changed to meet the aethestic requirements of a class of people who are ashamed of any English art form, and the fact that morris is a folk movement also means it's not exclusive. So you aim it at an elite and secure major funding from the Arts Council for it."
Without coming over all Jerusalem about it, it is strange that a lot of British music fans are more likely to identify with a South Central LA rapper singing 'bout the 'hood or flock to Riverdance, rather than appreciate their own indigenous culture. That suggests either a nation so at ease with itself that it readily embraces foreign art forms, or one so lacking in a positive national identity that it champions others' cultures while deriding its own. Even John Major felt happy to joke in Parliament that Tony Blair vould make Paddy Ashdown "Minister for Morris Dancing" in a Lib-Lab coalition.
The point is though, that neither Snoop Doggy Dog or Micbael Flatley reduces people to laughter because - like or loath what they perform - you sense their authenticity. By identifying morris so particularly with England (despite its almost certain associations with continental folk traditions), Cecil Sharp gave morris a cod "ye Olde Englande" quality that explains the derision. So much so that even a respected dance critic will happily write that "all dance (with the obvious exception of morris dancing) can be sexy".
In claiming ancient origins for an art form lost in the mists of time, Sharp raised so many interesting but unanswerable questions. Where do the costumes (which vary from village to village) come from? Is morris an ancient fertility rite? Is it a pagan crop dance? Was morris originally a working-class send up of the courtly dances of the day? Is the black face used by some sides a nod to its Moorish origins (hence the name), or does it hint at more nefarious doings where the dancers would protect their identities as they went from house to house collecting pennies - "pay up or we'll kick your head in"? Who knows? Who cares? As The Morris Federation says, more truthfully than it knows, "The sad and rather dull fact is that no one really knows". It is probably true then that much of the "history" of the morris is spurious. "Oh yes" says Dr. Allen. "But it is a tradition in that there is a continuity of dances handed down from before written history. And, yes, it has to be said that what we do now may have nothing to do with what our ancestors did."
There are countless examples of morris traditions going back over, oh, all of five minutes. My favourite, almost surreal, example concerns American actor Richard Chamberlain, who in 1971 was spending Christmas in Kent while filming Lady Caroline Lamb. He wanted to see something "traditionally English" so the local morrisers, the Ravensbourne Men, put on a dance specially for him. It has become an annual fixture. But for Dr Allen that willingness to adapt an ancient art form signifies morris's very essence as a living, breathing thing. 'We are part of living tradition; but we are not librarians, we are not historians. I always say I am the tradition - it's not something I do, it's something I am. I am morris."
To Mr Whitehead - who danced during his student years because "it's the most fun you can have with bells on" - that sounds like tosh, and the very reason why he packed up his white trews a few years ago. He finds some of its characters too precious for words and understands why many people regard morris as ridiculously fey. "There are blokes who dance the morris who literally do believe in it as a fertility dance to the Goddess, and that if the dances aren't done correctly, the harvests will start to fail and the seasons won't rotate as they have always done."
"Like many, I drifted away from it when I grew up and got married, but I'd like to think it will still be there when I'm a stereotypical fortysomething, bearded real-ale drinker in the same form that I left it." And so say all of us - who are we to deny grown men the chance to behave madly, like drayhorses doing dressage? Oh and Sir Arnold Bax's maxim? "You should make a point of trying everything once - except incest and morris dancing."