Dancing Out – The Novice’s Tale, Part 2

The long range forecast said rain. The symbol; a large, black cloud with two tear-shaped droplets falling from it – not just any old rain, but prolonged, heavy rain. I asked tentatively if there was a wet weather contingency plan. They’d never needed one. Don’t worry, it never rains on the Morris, came the soothing reply.

            To be honest, rain was the least of my concerns. I had gone to my first ever practice night in September and within a week or two, as my willingness to stay and learn became clear, it was decided that my first ever dance in public would be on Mersey Morris Men’s annual Boxing Day outing in Willaston. A mere three months away, but ample time, it was judged, for my dancing skills to be honed before being unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

            I’m not what you might call a natural dancer. Enthusiastic, yes. But proficient? Not so much. However three months is a long time when you really think about it (a quarter of a year, an entire season, twelve weeks, ninety days, two thousand one… well, you get the picture…), surely that would be long enough even for me to learn a dance well enough to perform in public without risking total humiliation.

            Four dances?

            And another two in case I’m needed as back-up?

            Six dances!

            Suddenly those two thousand one hundred and sixty hours (you see I did bother to work that out) didn’t seem quite so long! I have to admit, I was worried.

            The first challenge was learning the footwork – Or in Morris parlance, the stepping. Broadly speaking there are two types of Morris stepping; single step and double step. Confusingly neither of those two names gives an accurate description of the actual action involved in performing them. I assume this is some sort of practical joke by the Morris Elders of Yore to play on unsuspecting newbies. Single stepping to my mind would be better called ‘Double stepping’, whilst double stepping would be better called something more like ‘That dainty little skip thing that looks really good when done properly, but is guaranteed to make novices look like they’re having some sort of spasm.’ Though I appreciate that might be a little unwieldy.

            Ultimately though, learning these new movements was simply a case of creating muscle memory. Movements so ingrained that they become unconscious. Like walking, riding a bike, or (if you’re English) queuing. Practice was the key. I took to practicing whenever the opportunity arose. I even practiced while waiting for the kettle to boil. Come to think of it I drank a lot of tea last autumn!

            The next hurdle was learning the dances themselves. Breaking these dances down into their component parts they were quite simple – it goes without saying that the dances I would be participating in were amongst the simplest dances known to (Morris) man. The real problem I had was remembering the order in which these component parts occurred. Usefully though, for each dance an experienced dancer is nominated to call the dance. Or to put it another way, to shout out what comes next for the benefit of the less experienced members of the side. Quite often a sharp shove in the back to get you moving in the right direction is also dispensed by these gurus of the dance.

            The major problem I encountered though, was with the heys. No, not the informal greeting, but a particular type of dance move in which everybody participating in the dance swaps places in a specific way. Unfortunately there are numerous ways in which this can be performed and in my beginner’s brain these different ways merged and became confused.

            September became October, which in turn gave way to November. Leaves turned brown, fell to earth and swirled in the streets in heys that only mother-nature could conceive. The date of my first dance out was rapidly approaching and I still needed to organise my kit. A hat was donated and decorated. A crisp white shirt was purchased. My talented other half hastily converted some black trousers into britches. Knee length stockings were found. Bell pads were made, baldrics were measured for, fitted and stitched. A spare royal-blue cummerbund was passed on to me from one of the other dancers. I tried it all on in front of the mirror and an expression ran through my mind: ‘All of the gear and no idea.’ Would I be ready for the big day?

            November gave way to December and the first storms rolling in off the Atlantic. My mind was filled with worries; Would it rain? Would my hat stay on? Would I remember which hey went with which dance?

            It never rains on the Morris.

            It always rains on me.

            An unstoppable force meeting an immoveable object!

            Christmas came and went.

The big day arrived and yes, dear reader, it was absolutely chucking it down. A host of canines and felines tumbling from the sky. And you know what? It didn’t matter a jot. At the last minute the village hall was put to use as a back-up dance location by the ever resourceful officers of MMM. But even had we danced outside in the rain, I don’t think it would have mattered much. You see, in all my preoccupation with the weather and my dancing ability I had forgotten one terribly important aspect. It had not once occurred to me to consider the reception we would have from the people who came to see us dance that day.

Family, friends and strangers alike, the warmth of their response to this centuries-old tradition of ours highlighted to me what Morris is all about – a shared moment of joy to lift the heart and banish the worries, even if only for a dance.

Morris For Me … The Novice’s Tale

On my frequent trips to Cornwall, I always remember to take my bodyboard with me. I’m not particularly good at it – not like some of the locals, who seem to cut through the water with all the ease and grace of dolphins – but I do manage to catch my fair share of waves. In truth, it’s not that difficult. You wait until there’s a decent size wave coming at you, you turn to face the shore, and then, at the optimum moment, you jump onto your board and kick for all you’re worth. More often than not, the sheer momentum of the water will propel you along. And in that moment you will have found bliss.

            I had an idea that morris dancing would be… kind of the same?! – Spoiler: It isn’t. But more on that in a moment.

            It was never my intention to become a morris dancer. I have morris-dancers-in-law. But me? God no! Shudder at the thought! I grew up in inner-city Liverpool. Dancing was what you did in The Krazy House or Cream on a Saturday night. And if you saw a gang of men armed with sticks you ran the other way. Morris dancing? That’s a country thing, surely!

            So time passed.

            And yes, I’ve always liked folk music; listening to my Dad’s old Spinners records as a kid. Then, as a teenager and into my twenties, I got into the ever so slightly heavier sound of The Levellers via my soon-to-be wife. The likes of Spiers and Boden (Bellowhead) followed. Later my father-in-law introduced me to Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Albion Band. But no, morris dancing was not for me.

            And yes, I’ve always liked dancing, be it in the aforementioned clubs, at Ceilidh dances, at wedding discos, birthday parties, or simply in my own kitchen listening to the radio. But no, morris dancing was not for me.

            As I got older, and with my 40’s looming on the sadly no-longer-distant horizon, it occurred to me that I wasn’t as fit as I used to be and I should probably take up a sport of some description; or at least go jogging. At any rate, something regular and vigorous to keep me moving. But no, not morris dancing.

            Did I mention that I’m a real ale drinker? I’ve been known to travel miles for a decent IPA in a good pub, or an interesting stout at a busy beer festival. But morris dancing…?

            Last summer a chap I know through work, who happens to be a morris dancer with Mersey Morris Men, mentioned in passing that they would be dancing at my local pub in a few weeks’ time, if I happened to be around. By chance, I was free and – never one to miss a good excuse to go the pub – I went along to see the MMM.

            I’ve seen morris dancers on a number of occasions and, though I’ve always been impressed with their skills and enjoyed a good show, it never crossed my mind to get involved myself. That fateful evening, however, I was talked into taking part in their audience participation dance. I won’t kid myself that I was anything other than terrible, but I DID enjoy it.

            A lightbulb flickered dimly in my brain. Good music? Yes. The dancing, the exercise, the beer, the women (OK maybe not the women. To misquote Douglas Adams: It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as a morris dancer”.). Didn’t I want all this?

            I had been handed a leaflet from one of the dancers that night, so I knew there was an open evening planned for the start of September. I’m not exactly a social person and I don’t mind admitting that I find meeting new people a bit scary, but I made the effort – if it turned out it wasn’t for me after all, I could always just not go back again.

            When it came to the dancing I had the vague impression that, like the Atlantic breakers I mentioned earlier, I could simply go with the flow. Point me in the right general direction and let the momentum of the other dancers carry me along.

            Morris does not work like this.

            Every dance seemed different and overwhelming. I had information overload. What should my hands be doing? Where are my feet going? Half gips, cross-overs, double stepping, heys, twisty-backs! Ilmington, Adderbury, Bledington. Maybe this wasn’t for me after all…

            But no…

Morris dancing WAS for me.

            In the pub, at the end of the night, tired and a bit confused, I also realised something else; I’d not had this much fun in ages! I suppose that like a lot of things that are tricky to master, it feels good when you do get it right. I doubt I’ll ever be a great dancer like those dolphins of the morris dancing world (to crowbar in an analogy), but maybe one day I’ll be competent. That evening, I was a way off even that. But through some excellent tuition from all concerned, I learned enough little things in that first evening’s practice to muddle through a few dances and spark in me a desire to be a morris dancer proper. Caught up in the dance I had found a moment of bliss

            My only regret so far is that it took me so long to realise that I needed The Morris in my life. If only I’d done it sooner!

Mersey Morris Men’s 2nd Cotswold Morris Music Workshop Day

For the 2nd time in 2 years, the residents of a quiet Wirral village may have caught a waft of mysterious music on the breeze as their Church hall echoed to the sound of melodeons, violins and a recorder playing odd but wonderful lumpy tunes with quite a lot of Oomph. Yes, it was Mersey Morris Men’s Musicians’ 2nd Music Workshop Day, a challenge in apostrophe-placing and chance for our large group of Musicians to get together and focus on how we play.

Jon, Emma & Toby Melville – skilled Morris musicians & dancers with a wealth of experience between them – put Mersey musicians through their paces with a variety of discussions, group and solo playing.

Mersey Morris Music Day 2019

Group playing is a challenge for Morris, as the more usual situation of only one or two Musicians allows great flexibility and manoeuverability between musicians and dancers. Without a lot of thought and practice, a group of Morris musicians can be stodgy, muddy and not together.

 Working with the tutors, the musicians practised playing staccato, getting melodeon bass patterns to match the feet of the dancers, plus using ‘oomph’ to encourage the dancers to get airborne. Then there was a chance to practice leading the dance, with the leader setting the pace and following the dancers while everyone else follows the leader closely. Sounds simple, but in practice, leading a large group of musicians which may contain those who’ve done it a million times before and think they know exactly what speed old Joe will do his slows at and therefore think they don’t need to watch the leader, can be a tad tricky!

Group playing can, however, also provide an opportunity for adding spice to a performance by improvising counter melodies around a tune. With the proviso of not interfering with the underlying tune and disconcerting the dancers, this can add great interest and enjoyment to both musicians and audience. The dancers may even notice sometimes too! With Emma leading on piano accordion, the musicians were encouraged to improvise around ‘Speed the Plough’ – being allowed to play anything except the tune – with pretty pleasing results.

The tutors also challenged all the musicians to play solo or duo for a jig – a nerve-wracking experience, especially being critically assessed by other musicians. Impressively, everyone stepped up to the mark and played for either Jon or Toby to dance ‘Nutting Girl’. Considering this father/son combination of Musician/Dancer won the solo jig competition at Sidmouth a few weeks ago, this stirred up some considerable nervous excitement within the ranks. There was a 2nd chance later in the day to play the same jig for a Mersey dancer, and a plan to include some solo/duo jig practice in the winter practice sessions.

After a tasty and all home-made lunch of soup, bread, cakes and some fruit to balance it all out, afternoon sessions concentrated on ways of varying the large group performance to provide light, shade and interest, whilst mirroring the shape of the dance. Using the ‘break it down then build it up again’ technique, figures were accompanied by strings & recorder, then adding box right hands and then the chords again in the choruses. Silent choruses were also used. When a bevy of hungry Mersey dancers arrived for the final hour, and once extricated from the cake table, the musicians then got to try this out to a set of dancers, whilst also rotating the leadership.

After a triumphant final dance, musicians and tutors retired to The Harp – a rather lovely old-fashioned pub on the edge of The Dee estuary, for a well-earned pint! All in all, an excellent and enjoyable day, with much to take back to Music rehearsals over the winter.

And a final take-home message from the tutors:

The leader plays to the dancers, others accompany – if you don’t know who’s leading, don’t play – if you can’t hear the leader, you’re too loud – and remember – not everyone needs to play all the time!

Bordering on Poetry

No-one really knows what inspiration drives people to write poetry……A time? A place? An event? An idea or notion?

This was well-illustrated when MMM visited Chester for their annual Border/Molly Tour. Who knows what happened that day to drive two dancers to pick up their keyboards……………


Chester, Chester, oh city fair; we’re on our way to give you a scare.
With instruments blaring, and men in smocks, we’ll march around and wave our sticks in your general direction.

DC


Of all the fair maids across this land, the Morris Molly is fairest to be found.
Demur of manner and kind of heart, in a bare knuckle fight she’ll stand her ground.
Of great reserve, impulses she’ll not divulge, and beneath her skirts an unusual arrangement of hosiery.

DC (again!)


There was a young maid called Molly.
Her dancing and skirts were jolly,
Till she lost her heart
to a despicable tart
who lifted her skirts with a brolly

PM

Border and Molly in Chester

Although primarily a Cotswold side, every now and then Mersey Morris Men like to don our rag coats and do a bit of Border and Molly dancing.  In fact, if doing something more than once makes it a tradition, then we have just had our third traditional annual February day of dance in the ancient city of Chester. 

Chester is well known for a number of things, one is that it has a complete City wall running round the centre, and another are the world-famous Rows. For those who have never been to Chester (you should, it’s a beautiful old city), these are four streets that have two-storey shops, dating back to medieval times, with a covered gallery that runs in front of the top row.  Because the city centre is pedestrianised these make perfect audience viewing positions for watching the dancing in the street below.

It was an unseasonably warm, sunny early spring Saturday and the city was full of shoppers and day trippers. We danced a total of 30 dances during the day in six different spots, by the walls, by the river (another thing Chester is known for) and between the Rows.  We have a small repertoire of Border and Molly dances, our two Border dances were both written by one of our members and one of our four Mollies was written by another member.  We supplemented these six with the traditional Upton Stick Dance.

So next year on the 3rd Saturday in February come and see us as we continue our new-found tradition.

From our on-the-spot reporter Matt King.