It tends to be at the larger, public displays over the summer that incredulous members of the public, often stumbling across the spectacle by chance and uninvited, look searchingly into one’s eyes and ask, ‘Why do you do it?’. A fair question and one perhaps each of us has considered. Certainly there cannot be many born to the art or who harboured a childhood ambition to be a Morris dancer. Indeed, unlike other “callings” or vocations, those that fix on it as their destiny must be few and far between. However, perhaps there is something brewing in those early, formative years that create a character that may have certain predispositions.
From the very start perhaps those predispositions are the product of a desire to express oneself, perhaps to make good other shortcomings or deficits. Might this form of expression make good, or get away from feelings of isolation or being undervalued? Over time, through experience and practice it may be that projecting a certain persona might yield advantage or benefits. Playing the clown in the school playground to avoid the zealous attention of the bully; a sense of levity to compensate for the disappointments that life might throw in one’s way. Via such means there comes a growing clarity around one’s place in world, what one hopes to achieve, certain aims, objectives and ambitions. So it is that it might just be possible to consider this and devise some universal answer as to why we dance.
There are four great motives for dancing which exist in different degrees in every dancer. They are:
- Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about. Certainly there is a degree of complexity to dancing the Morris which is not as easily grasped as may appear from the outside. Thus, as with any skill or practice, a side of Morris dancers can set themselves aside from the “norm” as elite. It is self-centred, requires concentration on the self, and getting it right can make you feel good. It is physical and mental exercise, and being able to sustain a performance hints at a sense of machismo. Could it be possible that spectators look on in awe at the stamina, endurance and control? The hope that they do feeds the ego and pushes you on. The most flamboyant and demanding dances become all the more so in the face of a jeering crowd. The clash of the sticks all the more aggressive, egged on by an audience baying for blood. Serious dancers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than others who exercise, though less concerned with social acceptability.
- Aesthetic enthusiasm. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. There are many forms of art that surround us in our modern world, why not embrace expression through dancing the Morris as an aesthetic form? It is all too easy to go about one’s day-to-day life without encountering the romanticism of the Morris but why should people be so denied? It can be an art of measured performance and expression that can lift the eyes and spirts of an otherwise sullen onlooker. There is colour and spectacle to it, not to mention the enticing, catchy, repetitious tunes. Yet, ultimately no end good comes of it: there is no tangible output or product. Those that participate do not become richer via its practice; for the most part we do not become more integrated into society. The spectators are but passers-by: these are fleeting encounters unlikely to build into anything more meaningful but, nevertheless, there is beauty and so value to it. Above the level of the most moribund of dances, no form of dance is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
- Historical impulse. A desire to display the state of things, to seek out origins and store them up for the use of posterity. It is a truism that the most fatal trap that any unassuming member of the public can fall into is to ask any one of our number what it is all about and where it comes from. In large part it is our history and heritage that spurs us on. It is for this reason that we dedicate ourselves to ensuring that our hankies are rotating in the right direction, or reaching their peak at the appropriate time. It is absolutely traditional in its forms and committed to replicating the past. Morris dancers are all historians and historical artefacts. We take pride in the past and dedicate a good deal of time to preserving it. This also serves to validate us and give us standing, however illusory that may be. It is why when that unsuspecting member of the public poses such an unassuming question that they may yet take root on the spot to upwards of half an hour. Partly perhaps it is an excuse to justify what we do for fear that it would otherwise verge on the ridiculous: because it happened in the past, because it is on-going and has persisted in the face of adversity makes it right and worthwhile. We act out our roles as protectors and custodians of the past. Yet this also blends with sheer egoism as we are empowered to say what that history is and to shape its future. Not only do we borrow from the past but we project ourselves into the future. Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past. Since we are committed, we have faith and belief; we believe that this is worthy history that should live on: we dance to give it life.
- Political purpose – using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Imagine the scene whereby Joe Average rouses himself of a morning determined to indulge in the ultimately futile “leisure” pursuit of shopping. Taking himself along to the regimented consumption pantheon, he slips into well-known, well-understood grooves of conduct and practice. All is known, there are expectations which prove reassuring. However, what if that easy passage is disrupted by the unexpected and unknown? What if progress is impeded by Young Collins? A challenge is presented that nudges routine out of its grooves and upsets the “normal”. In effect, dancing the Morris in busy public places speaks to the postmodern: securities are challenged, regular patterns disrupted as “normality” gives way to the carnivalesque and chaotic. I see this as a “public service” and accounts, in part, for why I dance. There is every danger that we live within a cossetted and confined world, only encountering the known and expected, rather than challenging ourselves to live a life less ordinary. Morris dancing forces itself onto the public stage and asks of those passing to take a different perspective, whether they want to or not. We cause a rupture and encourage change. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
Without doubt, the preponderance of one or the other of these motives will shift and change according to situation and circumstance. On some occasion it may be that just one of these motives drives one on or is satisfied. At other times perhaps all may come together in joyous harmony but they all play some part at some time, in some way. The commitment in all ways to the practice of Morris dancing is not something taken lightly or purely for the sake of it. Were that the case it would very soon cease to exist. But it has purpose and drive, it seeks to achieve certain objectives, to satisfy these motives. Dancing the Morris can be a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.
Dr D. J. Clampin FRHistS
(with profound apologies to George Orwell).