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Published: August 3rd 2012
A Wicket Brood womanIf there's one thing which would convince visitors to our fair shores that the English are barmy it would have to be: grown men and women wearing quaint costumes, bells on their legs and weird hats planted with flowers and feathers, dancing in a pub car park to the sounds of squeezeboxes and diddly-di-do songs while waving handkerchiefs in the air and menacingly clacking together wooden sticks.
...with great hat and makeup.
These strange affairs are called 'Morris dancing'.
They're ancient folk dances, once thought to be pagan rituals, with carefully-choreographed steps, accompanied by music played on one or more melodeons or accordions and sometimes with a rhythmic, booming drum and a wind-instrument or two for good measure.
Personally, I suspect it's all an excuse for a good booze-up; after all, you'll seldom see these dances performed anywhere except in pub car parks or outside the beer tent at a country festival! Of course, the dancers will tell you they're upholding traditions from days gone by while enjoying themselves dancing, singing and playing instruments - and, if there happens to be a pint of beer close by, it would be rude not to sup it, wouldn't it?
We recently enjoyed a demonstration
Bob - a Border morris man
...and a very good melodeon player.
of the art outside a pub in Lemsford, near Welwyn Garden City in the county of Hertfordshire (that's about 25 miles/40kms north of London for the non-Brits among you)
. Two groups, more correctly called Sides or sometimes Teams, performed from dusk to moonrise surrounded by cars and interested spectators. It was a fun evening for all concerned.
One Side was named Wicket Brood (their home town is Bricket Wood, near Watford. Bricket Wood > Wicket Brood, get it?).
They were joined by the Letchworth Morris Men
from the country's first Garden City, Letchworth, towards the north of the county. The two Sides were very different in dress and style, both traditional but one perhaps a little more serious than the other.
A bit of history
I'm reliably informed that the term 'morris' derives from 'moorish' dance, known in the 15th century as 'morisk', 'moreys' or 'morisse', and becoming known by its present name in the 17th century. It was given the kiss of life in the early part of the 20th century and, in the 1930s, the 'Morris Ring' was founded by six groups of exclusively male dancers to ensure that the traditions could be handed down to future generations;
one of those early groups was the Letchworth Morris Men. At that time, it was considered improper for women to dance the morris and, while Letchworth maintain the all-male tradition, there are now male, female and mixed Sides. One of these latter is the Wicket Brood.
A word about styles
The Side from Letchworth dance in a style that's known as 'Cotswold morris'. Not surprisingly, they mainly perform dances customary to the area in and around the Cotswold hills, particularly in the counties of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire.
They're all men, dressed in white shirts with coloured belts (called 'baldrics' - probably something to do with carrying swords once upon a time)
across their chests, trousers that only reach down to their knees, and lots of jangling bells strapped around their calves over long white socks. They wear straw 'boaters' decorated with flowers or badges acquired at gatherings they've attended. There are usually six or eight dancers with much waving of big white handkerchiefs and banging of wooden sticks. A single, very accomplished melodeon player plays the tunes to which the Side dances. There's also a fool, appropriately attired with a jester's hat and colourful coat; in the
case of the Letchworth men his coat had large bells and bunches of rosemary and lavender added to it. He encouraged dancers by shaking a tambourine and bashing them with a couple of inflated pigs' bladders!
Wicket Brood's style, on the other hand, is known as 'Border morris'. They're a much larger Side of men and women, a group of more than twenty of them performing dances from the English - Welsh border. Their style is much simpler, more vigorous and, to my mind, more fun-loving. Border morris Sides wear 'tatter jackets', often just black but, in the case of Wicket Brood, the strips of torn fabric are multi-coloured, with mauve and green predominating. Even their miniature dachsund mascot has its own tatter jacket! They also wear hats - top hats, bowler hats, old trilby hats, many of them adorned with pheasant and peacock feathers. They have bells too, but fewer of them, tied in a strip just under their knees. Oh, and their trousers keep on going right down to their feet!
Traditionally, Border morris dancers also have blackened faces - in days gone by it was probably a disguise to prevent them being recognised. Wicket Brood
The dachsund didn't dance
...but he did wear the costume.
use mainly mauve for their disguise, women painting pretty designs on their faces, while the men colour their beards if they have them. I was told by one of the men that the colour washes out with soap and water - well, they'd look daft with mauve and green beards except in a pub car park wouldn't they? The Side playing on this night had nearly an orchestra of musicians: three melodeon players, an accordionist, a saxophonist, a whistle or recorder player, and a big lady beating out the rhythm on a big drum.
The whole thing is full of tradition. Even the Sides' committee members have names like 'squire' (the leader or administrator),
'foreman' (the trainer, responsible for the style and standard of dances)
, 'bagman' (the accountant or secretary)
and 'ragman' (who co-ordinates the costumes)
. They take it all very seriously, even if us spectators think it's just a bit of fun.
Jolly morris dancing is thought of as something peculiarly English, but I hear there are also Sides in many far-flung places - including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, and various parts of Europe and Scandinavia. Well, they like their beer in all those countries
The strips of fabric that are sewn all over a Border morris costume.
too - which probably confirms my suspicion! Please scroll down for more pictures, then click on Next for even more!
Since writing this, I've discovered an interesting four-minute BBC video in which Morris dancers talk about the traditions and symbolism of their dancing - click here .
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