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.