Gallery: Why I'm sticking with the Green Dragons
'There is still time for new blood to get ready for the spring fertility offensive,' exhorted the man from The Morris Ring.
'There is still time for new blood to get ready for the spring fertility offensive,' exhorted the man from The Morris Ring. Best get cracking, then, thought Steven Russell. So he picked up a stick and sallied forth to discover if morris dancing was really on its last legs
IT'S a Friday afternoon and I'm naked to the waist in an unfamiliar bathroom and with another man's wife waiting downstairs. The make-up on my fingers is thick and oily, the sponge rough on the skin. I have heard tell of such things in Suffolk villages . . . but this is not one of those Suffolk villages. This is about discovering if morris dancing - one of those quintessentially English activities that, like bicycling country parsons, has sentimental ex-Prime Minister John Major weeping into his warm beer - is really ready for the last rites. It's said one must experience something before being able to write about it with knowledge and authority (though it's best to draw the line at brain surgery) so here I am: a Shrek lookalike, bells lashed to shins, braced for initiation.
Morris dancing is about bearded and ribboned, middle-aged white men in white trousers and white cricket jumpers waving dainty handkerchiefs, right? Well, in some places, yes. But there's much more variety than that.
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Take Green Dragon Morris over in west Suffolk. These enthusiasts not only share the Incredible Hulk's facial hue (when they've got their facepaint on), they don bright jackets covered in rags, tall hats adorned with pheasant feathers, dark glasses that shield their eyes, and thunk sticks together.
And - shock! horror! - they have girls within their ranks as well as guys. In fact, there are more women than men. One is Amanda Kingsnorth, who for the past three or four years has been the foreman, or dance instructor. Rather rashly, she's volunteered to teach me a few moves.
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The side favours a style of dance known as border, thought to have been born on the cusp of England and Wales and whose physical nature dispels any preconceptions that morris is for pansies. Let go at the wrong moment during a vigorous arm-swing and the centrifugal force will propel you towards Thetford before you can say “Three jolly black sheepskins” (one of their dances).
Border doesn't wave hankies; that's something synonymous with a style called Cotswold. They don't have a fool twirling a pig's bladder on a stick, either. With border, there's no messing - it's straight to those sticks. Pick-axe handles made of hickory have been wielded in the past, but some dancers found them a tad heavy to heave and a less heavy stick is now favoured.
Even so, your body knows it's been exercising. The Green Dragon normally performs two 20-minute sets at engagements - fetes and suchlike - and that's more than enough exertion.
“Cotswold dancing tires you out because of the muscles you use; border tires you out because of the physical effort. You're trying to move the furthest, get the best swing, 'stick' the hardest, shout the loudest!” smiles Amanda, mum to four-year-old Jenni, who's outgrown her own “tatters” jacket and needs a new one.
“Border is perceived by a lot of people to be quite good fun. It comes across to some as aggressive, though it's not; some of the dances are meant to be 'fighty'.
“It's like a speeded-up ceilidh, really. The thing about Green Dragon I'm quite proud of is that we dance quite fast. You need to have something that separates you from the crowd and we tend to be quite energetic. A lot of the lads we see in Bury, just out of the pub, tease a bit. 'Well, come and have a go then.' They don't find it so easy! But normally the only ones that are loud enough are also half-cut, so inevitably they're going to find it a bit difficult. Then they tend to shut up; they've had a go and found it's not pansy-ish - it's tougher than it looks.”
The dances certainly have evocative names: Bedlam, Skirmish, Vandals of Hammerwich.
Injuries are uncommon but not unknown. Amanda suffered a likely broken thumb while dancing at a festival in Kent last year, twacking it with one of her own sticks. She chose not to see a doctor, and it sort of healed, “but it's never been the same since”.
Amazingly, morris dancing was a well-kept secret for Amanda for many years. “I had no idea about it - didn't know it existed. I might have heard the term, but not in relation to anything. It's the same kind of thing as being a trainspotter, in that no-one else knows very much about it, but once you're in it a whole new world opens up.”
A Londoner, she and then fianc� Crawford had moved to Oxfordshire, where she became involved in
amateur dramatics. In the mid-1990s her group performed Lark Rise to Candleford, about rural life at the end of the 19th Century, and recruited the Icknield Way Morris Men, a males-only side, to add colour.
“Crawford came to see the play with a friend of his and they thought 'That was fun. Shall we have a go?'” Amanda got involved on the fringes, “holding the coats and driving them from pub to pub!”
When they moved to Suffolk, Crawford joined Green Dragon - a mixed side. “I thought 'Ooh! Might as well join them now. If you can't beat them . . .' So I joined in about 1998,” says Amanda, now his wife.
Green Dragon Morris had formed about five years earlier, aiming to create a group with a different style to established west Suffolk sides.
Pioneering members grappled with various forms. Trying North West and border dances brought the most laughs, so the side chose to combine those styles, along with anything else that took their fancy. The aim, explains the Green Dragon website, is “to have fun with flamboyance and finesse!”
Amanda is also a member of the Haverhill Harlots (ooh, er, missus) morris, so it's clear she's a committed convert. What's the attraction?
“For me, there's a buzz about dancing in public. I can't see the point of practising if you're not going to go out and show off! I have times when I don't want to go to morris dancing, but I know that when I come back I'll feel energised. It's a very happy feeling.
“With the Harlots I have more of a laugh, because I'm not teaching and don't have my serious teaching face on! I'm a perfectionist, but that's because I want to make it as good as it can be when we go out, because that's the pinnacle. If we can go somewhere where there are two sets of dancers and a huge crowd, and the crowd watch us rather than them, as far as I'm concerned we've done it!”
A few weeks ago we had the warning from The Morris Ring - founded in 1934 and representing more than 200 male sides - that morris could go the way of the dinosaurs within 20 years because young people were embarrassed to take part. Amanda's far from convinced.
“My personal view is that morris is not dying out. Morris is healthier than it has been for a long time. There are 450 sides in The Morris Federation [another umbrella body]. There are about 100 sides in Open Morris, which is the third organisation. Between the unaffiliated sides, the Federation, the Ring and Open Morris, there are probably 1,000 sides. So for a tradition that people ridicule, day in, day out, and don't consider to be part of England . . .”
If you include Haughley, there are four sides in the Bury St Edmunds area alone.
There's no doubt morris is on the decline as an all-male institution, and has been since the 1900s, she believes. “I don't think it will die out, but it's got to evolve. I think that's where the problem is. You do get old male sides that don't want to change - and that's fine - but they will die out.”
The keys, really, are to dance in areas where the audience is likely to have a decent proportion of younger people, to present a welcoming face, and to try to actively recruit. Amanda mentions a London side that she never saw dancing in the capital, and thus missed the chance of raising its profile.
It's important to sow seeds with children. They might drift away between the ages of about 17 and 23, when there are a lot of other things going on in their lives and morris is seen as a bit uncool, but many will return to it later.
Quite a few children of Green Dragon parents tag along at dance-outs and pick up the bug virtually by osmosis. The group doesn't have a dedicated section for youngsters, but it did create a “children's dance” for them. Keen teenagers can join in with some of the adult dances.
It has to be said that many people are wary of morris dancing, perhaps through ignorance. Is it a bit pagan or tree-huggy? Is it a bit camp? Is it a bit too middle-aged-men-with-bushy-beards-and-rounded-tummies?
“I think the biggest misconception is about paganism. I think that's what a lot of people are frightened of. I don't know any pagans that eat babies!” laughs Amanda. It's true quite a few dances relate to waking up the ground after winter, and Northamptonshire's The Witchmen do major on “distinctly masculine pagan fertility dances”, but being a card-carrying pagan isn't a prerequisite.
Amanda knows pagans who dance, “but I couldn't tell you if it was 10% or 2% - it's not something that comes into it. We had a vicar in our side until recently, until she moved away. It's not something that impinges on morris dancing; it's one of those misconceptions”.
The heftier styles, such as the stick-wielding border dance practised by Green Dragon and The Witchmen, and the non-speaking molly dancers in funereal black and hobnail boots, do much to combat the fallacy that morris dancing is all a bit too girly for grown-up guys.
In any case, says Amanda, the Cotswold style might be effeminate-looking with its hankies, but it's not a doddle. Dances actually pose a technical challenge. “I like doing Cotswold because it's complicated; it's hard. Border is easier - it's skipping.
“I think men who are comfortable with their own 'being' don't have an issue with morris dancing. But, at the same time, they wouldn't necessarily go round and talk to their workmates about it.”
Has she found it easy over the years to speak to colleagues about morris? “I normally build up to it a bit! These days people will say 'What did you do at the weekend?' And I'll say I was dancing. 'What kind of dancing?' 'Oh, I'm a morris dancer.' 'Are you! What's that all about?' It's quite an ice-breaker.”
She currently works for a scientific company in Cambridge - a job that involves driving from Suffolk to a park-and-ride site, unlocking her bike from the fence, and cycling into the city centre.
“In Cambridge, with the university, there are lots of Europeans, who don't have any concept of what it is, and they love it.” They think it's eccentric? “Yes, quirky English. The whole world knows about Irish dancing and Scottish dancing, so I think they consider it quintessentially English.
“When Crawford started dancing, he was at work and walking down a corridor in a world of his own, practising a Cotswold step, and his boss was coming the other way. He looked at Crawford and said 'You're a morris dancer, aren't you?' Crawford said 'Y-ea-a-h . . .' and the boss said 'So am I!' They hadn't told each other until this time. And then a whole new friendship opened up from there.
“I think it's like anything you do outside work; it's not necessarily the first thing you talk to people about. But, if I'm asked, I'll certainly tell people, and then you get into the whys and wherefores of what it's all about.”
Green Dragon has about 10 female dancers and seven men. “I think the side is seen as being very open and welcoming. People say we seem to have a laugh, that we do look as if we're enjoying it, and we do it quite well. As long as we entertain, that's the main thing.”
Web link: www.greendragonmorris.org
SO, what kind of man rises above the jibes and enjoys morris dancing? Can Amanda Kingsnorth speak for her husband and explain what he likes about it?
“Crawford is one of the most eccentric people I know,” she smiles, “and I think that's why it appeals to him: it's different. I consider myself a show-off on stage but quite quiet in real life; Crawford used to teach at Northgate (high school in Ipswich). They had a non-uniform day and he went in full kit. It's a comprehensive of, what, 2,000 kids . . . I would never, ever do that! It's mad and eccentric, and I think that appeals to him.
“With Icknield Way, his first side, he liked that you could go out with your mates for a pint afterwards.”
A lot of the boys had university doctorates, as he did. “It's relaxing to do something away from your normal routine. He was a scientist when he was dancing with them, and I think it was escapism.”
Nowadays Crawford teaches science at Thetford Grammar School, and starting a morris dancing club there is being mooted. “That's why I don't think it's dying; he's had 70-odd kids who want to do it.”
One of morris dancing's newest recruits is Erin Brown, who arrived last September - fulfilling a desire going back to when she was four or five. The 21-year-old's dad used to play in a band with some of the dancers, and she knew Amanda and some of the other Green Dragons, but there's never been time enough to get involved.
There were also her own musical activities. Erin was 15 when she became part of a new band called No ID, playing mainly Irish folk, and she played (and still does) with relatives as The Brown Family.
She used to live in Newmarket and, without transport, getting to weekly practices in Bury was tricky. Moving to the town has now made it possible.
“I used to do Irish dancing, but always wanted to do something that was more about 'display'. I'd always liked the style of dancing Green Dragons did - I liked that it was quite forceful - and I can remember seeing The Witchmen when I was little and thinking they were scary!
“It is good exercise as well; two hours on a Monday night and you certainly get tired!”
An even younger Green Dragon is Owen Green, a 17-year-old sixth-former at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds. He admits the commonly-held image of old men with beards in white garb and waving handkerchiefs is “not a good look, is it, for promoting it to young people?”
His mum, Jenny, started going along in 1996 - “and then, when they were short of dancers, Dennis, my husband, got roped in temporarily; and then he liked it and joined permanently”, she says.
Owen tagged along as a young boy - decked out in hats, tatters and sunglasses just like the grown-ups, the children practised their own little dance - and now dances with the adults in his own right. He also plays the accordion.
“There's a social aspect, getting involved with older people - which you wouldn't normally get the opportunity to do,” he says. “The festivals are very good; it's such a nice atmosphere, being with like-minded people. You can do a couple of dances in the day and then watch some bands in the evening -ceilidh bands, Irish bands and folk groups.”
He reckons the border steps are quite easy to pick up. “You've just got to turn round the right ways It's not very difficult.” Morris dancers sometimes come in for a bit of teasing, he admits, “but that's what we go out in camouflage for!” Some friends and other people have displayed a curiosity, because morris is not something they often come across, “but I've never had anyone interested in coming along, unfortunately!”
Mum Jenny, whose dancing days have been limited by a damaged Achilles tendon, says: “I suppose there are many people who wouldn't have anything to do with it because it's dancing, but maybe if more men knew about our style they might be interested. It's not so flouncy. We're all about noise and show and making the tatters fly.”
Green Dragon Morris takes its name from an old inn in Guildhall Street, Bury St Edmunds, where dancers used to drink
It is mention in The Oakes Diaries, written by local yarn merchant John Oakes, who lived from 1741 to 1829
A side's boss is called the squire
The bagman organises bookings
Amanda Kingsnorth plays the melodeon and washboard
Her most embarrassing moment was getting her bell pads tangled, tottering about and falling flat on her face in a pub car park
Husband Crawford was once a hat seller at Harrods
Morris dancing dates back centuries, though its origins are unclear
It probably goes back to the late 15th Century
In 1600 the Shakespearean actor William Kempe morris-danced between London and Norwich
“It may have come from a Moorish background in the Middle East; who knows?” says Amanda Kingsnorth. “It may be pagan. I'm not a pagan, and nor do I have anything against pagans, but my feeling is that people used to dance for their supper.
“Farmworkers were paid pittances, and the reason they black their faces in border morris and wear the shapeless coats is so that you can't be recognised. You can't be known from front or back.
“They'd quite often dance on the squire's land. People would pay them in money or beer. The squire would come out and chase you off. On that principle, I would say it was 'singing for your supper'.”