Part the second – The rudiments of the art, or how I learnt I have three left feet
So I went.
I thought all I’d do is just stand around watching them and have a swift half at the end of the evening and that would be that. How wrong I was. First of all I was greeted by the two gentlemen I’d met on Saturday and learnt that they don’t wear bells all the time and that they were named Phil and Nev (the two gentlemen not the bells). Second I was introduced to a gentleman called Richard and was told he was the Foreman who did all the teaching.
Another 16 or so gentlemen and one lady, the lovely Eve, arrived and Richard introduced me to the rest of the group – or as I was told – the ‘Side’. This immediately caused problems as there was another gentleman called Matthew so I was christened Matt 2.
We were gathered in a circle and the musicians, who included Eve on violin and three or four gentlemen on accordion type things, were asked to play a tune. I was told by Richard that there are two basic steps in Morris Dancing, the single-step and the double-step. Sounds simple enough, I thought. He asked if I could skip. I said I could when I was five years old. It was then explained that single-step was a bit like skipping but instead of it being ‘hop, step’ it was ‘step, hop’. The subtlety of the difference may not immediately strike you, dear reader, but believe me it is very important. I will return to this at a later date. He also said that whereas in skipping the non-hopping foot tends to be lifted behind the hopping foot, in Morris it is lifted in front.
We then started to single-step on the spot in the circle to the music. I initially felt a bit of a fool but then realised that everyone else looked just as daft as I did, so I got on with it, if not with gay abandon then at least with less self-consciousness. After a couple of minutes of this I realised two things. One, it was actually quite hard, and two, it was knackering.
After this initiation Richard went on to explain the intricacies of the double-step. You will recall, if you have lasted this long, that the single-step consists of multiple sequences of ‘step, hop’ so if you are like me you might imagine that a double-step would be ‘step, step, hop’. Oh dear reader, how wrong we are. A double-step is ‘step, step, step, hop’. Why is it not, therefore, as logic suggests, I hear you cry, a treble-step? All I can say in reply is “Don’t ask.”
So we started to double-step on the spot in the circle. That is to say they all started to double-step on the spot in the circle. I really don’t know what I was doing. Sometimes I managed to do it a few times then my brain seemed to lose the ability to count to three. Fortunately we didn’t do it for long, Richard put me out of my misery and was very complimentary – I don’t think he had been watching.
Richard then told the side to get into two sets of six men as they were going to demonstrate a simple dance called Greenbanks that they get new members to do. I was to watch and then have a go – yeah right.
They danced, I watched, I went home. Well that is how I thought the sequence would go after they danced it. But no dear reader, they danced it, one of the set then handed me a three-foot long stick and I was told to stand where he had been. We then proceeded to walk the chorus of the dance. [Technical note – most dances are like songs in that they have verses and a chorus that is repeated, except the verses are called figures.]
This involved hitting the floor with the stick twice, then hitting your opposite man’s stick twice, then the floor again and then the other stick three times. Then we single-step half way round a circle and do it all again. We did this a couple of times and by some miracle I still had the correct number of fingers and more importantly so did my opposite number.
We then spend 15 or 20 minutes going through the figures individually and then we put it all together as a dance. Not wishing to blow my own trumpet, but I was rather pleased with the result. I hadn’t tripped up, I hadn’t fallen over, I hadn’t hit anyone with my stick and I only went the wrong way in every figure. But I did get the chorus right – well nearly.
Much more importantly – I had thoroughly enjoyed myself.
After this the rest of the side got on with practicing another dance and I thought I had been transported to another world with talk of gips, half-gips, back-to-backs, hooklegs and capers.
After a cup of tea when I was introduced to Tony the Squire and Andy the Bagman and another hour’s dancing when I stood and watched, Richard said we would finish the evening with another go at Greenbanks.
OK I thought, I’ll show them. Oh, dear reader, it was awful, pathetic, pitiful. But we all had a damn good laugh.
I was then invited for a drink in the Seven Stars public house; purely for rehydration purposes I was told. Who was I to argue?
I quickly realised that not only are the Mersey Morris Men very good Morris Dancers but they are also very good company.
I went home to my dear wife who had got me into all this and was able to tell her I had had the most enjoyable evening with my clothes on for a very long time.
I was hooked.