Why Morris is more than a minor interest

Leeds Morris Men  Dancing in the market square at Settle.
Leeds Morris Men Dancing in the market square at Settle.
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They are a common summer spectacle in villages, but just how traditional are Morris dancers? Roger Ratcliffe met a team off on their Diamond Jubilee tour of the Dales.

It’s hard to imagine how odd they must have looked to the people of the Yorkshire Dales during the early 1950s, before television had broadened everyone’s experience of the world.

But on Whit Monday, 1952, a group of men with bells strapped to their legs, coloured sashes crisscrossed over their white shirts, and flower-garlanded hats arrived in the centre of Kettlewell.

They formed a wide circle and began to dance about while waving long handkerchiefs.

Back then Morris Dancing was not a rural tradition in Yorkshire, and even in the villages of the Cotswolds – where many of the dances originated – it had almost died out for many decades until a revival of interest following the Second World War.

But in 1951 a group of lecturers and students at Leeds University decided to form a dance team, calling themselves Leeds Morris Men.

The following year they set off by bicycle for a Whit Weekend tour of Wharfedale that took them to Kettlewell and the astonished gaze of locals and tourists.

Few had heard of Morris Dancing, far less seen it.

The name is thought to be derived from “Moorish”, a style of performance borrowed from a Spanish pageant depicting the Moors being driven out of the country by the Christians.

It was popular in England during medieval times and the word “Morris” was in use by 1600 when it had become part of spring and summer rituals – possibly pagan in origin – especially around May Day and Whitsun.

Shakespeare’s favourite comic actor, Will Kempe, famously Morris danced all the way from London to Norwich and wrote an account of it in his chronicle Nine Daies Wonder.

The musicologist Cecil Sharp played a key role in its revival.

In 1899 he saw one of the last remaining Morris sides perform at a friend’s house near Oxford and he collected several of their tunes.

It was some year before he collected the dances for a young women’s group in London to perform.

Today, there are over 600 Morris teams in England, 60 of them in Yorkshire, and their bell-jingling, stick-thwacking and dance-calling to the accompaniment of penny whistle, melodeons and other acoustic instruments have become a quintessential sound of summer.

But on a cold and showery spring night in the backyard of an Otley pub, summer still felt a long way off, even though Leeds Morris Men were strutting their stuff to melodeons and concertinas.

They were having one of their weekly rehearsals in readiness for what will be the Diamond Jubilee of that 1952 Dales Tour.

The event has grown over the years, and for four days to June 4 the Leeds Morris Men and their entourage number well over 200 as they move from village to village from Settle in the west to Leyburn in the east, taking in Malhamdale, Wharfedale and Wensleydale in between.

A founder member, Norman Peacock, has attended every Dales tour and will be there again although, now in his 80s, he no longer dances. Another veteran, John Schwarzenbech, will also be there.

Watching today’s team rehearse in Otley, John says: “Back in the 1960s, when we met to dance outside The Racehorses Hotel at Kettlewell, everyone loved it.

“There would be lots of people waiting for us when we turned up, and the Wharfedale service bus would wait for us to finish then we’d clear a space to let it go through.

“These days the event has grown quite big. Over the years we have built up links with other dance teams in Yorkshire and beyond, people like the Whitchurch Morris Men from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, and these teams are invited on our Dales tour.”

Despite gender equality laws, many dance teams are open to men only. One of the three national organisations, the Morris Ring, is determinedly all male, despite the fact that the Morris dancing tradition was largely kept alive by women during and after World War One. Many male teams were wiped out in the trenches.Other teams are mixed and there also many all-women dance groups, such as Otley’s Buttercross Belles and Bradford’s Persephone teams.

The most familiar style of Morris dancing – the one chosen by Leeds Morris Men – is known as the Cotswold, and is normally danced with handkerchiefs or sticks to accompany the hand movements.

Some dances involve a “fool” – usually someone dressed in brightly coloured costume – and an animal or hobbyhorse.

Their main function is to engage with the audience, try to make the dancers look silly, and sometimes bring a member of the public into the dance itself.

As the Cotswold name suggests, it emanates from the Cotswolds hills of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, where a score of villages have their own distinctive dance traditions.

Yorkshire’s traditional Morris dance is the longsword, as practised by the Grenoside team of Sheffield.

There are also dances peculiar to the villages of Kirkby Malzeard, near Ripon, and Goathland on the North York Moors.

The music accompaniment has always been provided by instruments such as the penny whistle and a hand-drum called a tabor as well as fiddle, melodeon and concertina.

Leeds Morris Men have resisted the temptation to have their music put through amplifiers because this changes the status of their performance to one which requires an entertainment licence.

Their dances are from Cotswold villages, each of which has its own set of distinctive dances, and over the years their repertoire has become huge.

A decade ago, to celebrate their 50th anniversary, the Leeds Moors did 50 different dances as they moved from pub to pub along a well-known pub crawl route known as The Horsforth Mile to the north of Leeds.

John Schwarzenbech says the Dales tour is expensive to stage and is paid for partly by collections, although those are only possible in pub yards with consent of the landlords because of laws on street collections.

“It costs us a lot to do the tour but it’s always worth it, both for the dancers and for our wonderful audiences.

“When I started it was a minority interest, but it’s amazing how it has grown. We are all so glad to be keeping a tradition alive.”

On tour – With bells on

The Leeds Morris Men Diamond Jubilee Dales Tour is based at one of the prettiest villages in the Dales, Burnsall beside the River Wharfe.

The tour features dances at many villages in Wharfedale, Malhamdale and Wensleydale, including Burnsall, Grassington, Settle, Cracoe, Linton, Malham, Kirkby Malham, Gargrave, Bolton Abbey, Arncliffe, Litton, Kettlewell, Aysgarth, Wensley, Middleham, Bainbridge, West Burton, Leyburn, Hawes and Askrigg.

The climax is usually the traditional dancing of “The Rose” at 10am and 6pm at Kettlewell on Monday, 4th June.