“You have to really use your hankies to help you leap into the air,” our teacher Merv explains as she throws up her arms and jumps with surprising height. Today we are learning a ‘caper’. It doesn’t look that difficult but I spend about ten minutes watching the feet of the other women and trying to replicate it without once getting it right.
I have been a member of Dacre Morris, a women only ‘side’ based in Blackheath, for three months now. I had only expected to come along for a few rehearsals to have a go at the dancing and interview people, but something has kept me here. I think it might be the sheer abandonment of ego required as you skip around with bells on your feet, flinging your hankies into the air and feeling utterly ridiculous. But all with an enormous grin on your face.
On the morning of May 1st, I dragged myself out of bed to watch the Greenwich Morris Men ‘dance the sun up’ at 5:38am; a May Day tradition that numerous other Morris sides from across the country would also be taking on this morning to mark the start of summer.
They looked striking, all-white costumes with thick leather straps against the morning sky. As the light began to seep through the clouds over the next hour we were blasted with beeps from passing cars and lorry drivers. “Oi-Oi” they shouted out of their windows, grinning and waving. I felt a real sense of community, of being a part of this ancient tradition that still courses through the veins of Britain.
The community was surprisingly difficult to infiltrate at first. I spent hours emailing and calling various sides around the country to find out how I could get involved.
“We are a men only Morris side” was the response each time. One side even added, “Sadly, if we started to let women in, too many people would leave”.
I hadn’t realised Morris Dancing would be so divisive, as if the tradition has been frozen in time, unaffected by the tides of societal change. Perhaps it’s the desire to preserve something as it always was, to retain Morris in its original male-only form. Or perhaps it’s just the desire to have one night a week away from the Missus.
So I set about finding a women-only side and happily discovered the ladies of Dacre Morris, most of whom are over 50 and retired. My first ‘dance out’ with them was the Rochester Sweeps Festival in East Kent.
In Victorian times, the chimney sweeps of Rochester would take to the streets and dance in order to make ends meet during the summer months. Begging was illegal at the time so they would cover their faces in soot to avoid recognition from the authorities. The tradition outlived the open fireplaces, and over the years the sweeps were replaced with Morris dancers, slowly evolving into the festival it is today.
The event now attracts over 50 Morris sides every year, travelling from as far afield as Nottingham and Stockport to represent the numerous different traditions within the Morris family.
Dacre is a Cotswold Morris side, a style of dancing that originated from the villages of the wider Cotswold region. Dress is typically conservative and the dances involve elaborate steps, bells, sticks, hankies and a lot of jumping.
Another heavily represented Morris tradition at the festival is Border Morris, a style that originated from the Wales/England border country. Most sides are dressed in ‘disguise’ with blackened faces and jackets made from ripped pieces of cloth (‘tatters’). Border typically attracts a younger crowd and a lot of the groups are mixed gender. The tradition uses simple steps, accompanied by deep drums and a lot of ‘whooping”’.
“We refer to it as ‘the darker side of Morris’” I am told by a fellow Dacre member.
I counted seven Border sides in total that had a ‘Gothic’ theme to their costumes, complete with top hats and brass goggles. Most were in their thirties and forties and consider themselves part of the wider Goth community. One side in particular, ‘Steampunk Morris’, looked like they had stepped straight out of Whitby.
As our first dance edged closer, I became increasingly nervous. I only had a vague knowledge of the two dances I had learned and had no idea how this was going to pan out. My nerves were heightened by a mild sense of embarrassment at what I was wearing; a long red smock with leather badges and tri-coloured ribbons running over the seams, complete with strips of bells around my wrists and across my red-tasselled shoes. I don’t think it was possible to look any less cool.
I tentatively approached the performance area for our first dance, the ‘Upton Hanky’. Colin the musician picked up his melodeon and began the rocking melody. ‘This time’ yelled Deborah and we all swung into action, skipping on the spot (always left foot first) and tossing our hankies high into the air.
All was going well until I ‘tree topped’ (weaved) the wrong way in the second movement. For about 20 seconds my confidence was shot, but it only took a perfectly executed ‘hay on the side’ to bring me back to form. The audience erupted in a cheer as we gathered in a circle to end the dance, one leg cocked and our hankies in the air as we all yelled ‘Woooooo’.
For the next dance we downed our hankies and picked up our sticks, ready to dance my nemesis, the ‘Adderbury Bluebells’. The worst happened. I got the sticking wrong in the first chorus and nearly hit my dance partner in the face. Without saying a word she grabbed my hand and yanked it the correct way round.
“I’m so sorry!” I said to her after the performance was over.
“Don’t be silly!” she said to me in a brisk Mary Poppins manner, “and sorry to be so brutal with you – it wasn’t a time for words – it was a time for remedial action!” She nods her head sternly and walks off.