Morris travellers

WR Mitchell recalls how traditional folk dancing was revived in the Dales.

A sunny day at Bainbridge was enlivened for me by Morris dancers from Leicester, a folk dance group from St Neots and a glimpse of the badge featuring an owl on the back of a burgundy waistcoat to indicate that Leeds Morris Men were also represented.

I had spent a day or two on a Yorkshire coast almost blotted out by parked cars. Now I was traversing Wensleydale, the most attractive part of my homeward journey, enjoying an open road. When

the capacious green at Bainbridge appeared to view, I saw a flurry of white outside the Rose and Crown hotel. Morris men were present.

As they cooled themselves in a traditional way, sipping ale, and spectators and friends settled down on the greensward opposite the inn, the Heartsease Folk Dance Group, in its 30th anniversary year, took over. St Neots is in what is still fondly remembered as Huntingdonshire.

Morris dances are the traditional men's dances of England. In Yorkshire, they appeared as the Long Sword Dances of such places as Ampleforth, North Skelton and Kirkby Malzeard.

The Leeds Morris Men, formed by a group of University lecturers around 1950, danced longsword for some years, then adopted cotswold. An annual Dales Tour has been a notable part of their programme. The 50th tour was marked by "fizzy wine" at the Kettlewell Show.

My own association with folk dancing is modest but interesting. I began at school, earned the folk dance badge of the Boy Scouts and proudly stitched on to my tunic the emblem of crossed swords. When it became known that I earned it from dancing, the teasing led me to claim it was the Firelighter's badge.

I persisted with dancing, if only for the exercise. And through it I came to know the work of Leta Douglas, who left her mark – literally in some cases – on generations of North Craven school children as physical education organiser. Leta revived some of the almost forgotten traditional dances of the Yorkshire Dales by getting the details from old folk in the Dales villages.

I recall Leta when she was past her most active phase of life.

She was a large woman, clad in tweeds. Her withering gaze could put ice crystals into the bloodstream and yet under a seemingly severe exterior was a heart of gold.

She came into her own in the 1930s, which were lean years, being a period of industrial depression. Yet in that period came a re-discovery of the countryside. Hikers and cyclists, many unemployed or on short time, joyfully explored the Dales.

There was an upsurge of patriotism. Vaughan Williams collected old English folk songs and wove the tunes into some of his most memorable works. Cecil Sharp was nationally renowned for his researches into the folk melodies of Old England.

The Dales dances were saved from oblivion by such as Fred Falshaw of Buckden. He taught the visiting dancers Meeting Six, Buttered Peas and Kendal Ghyll. On the same day, George Turnbull of Oughtershaw demonstrated the steps of Turn off Six. Mrs R Metcalfe, of Grassington, demonstrated Huntsman's Chorus, which became a firm favourite with folk dancers. As they made their springtime tour of Craven, the musical accompaniment was provided by James Allen, who played a melodian.

Leta published two collections of dances. The first, Six Dances of the Yorkshire Dales, appeared in 1931, when she was living in Giggleswick. It ran to 13 editions and copies were sent to various parts of the world.

The second book was Three More Dances of the Yorkshire Dales, with the addition of the Boosebeck Traditional Long Sword Dance.

The help of Fred Falshaw and Sam Stables of Grassington was acknowledged.

Leta died as the result of an accident in 1951. The memory of this indomitable woman is kept alive, at a time of line-dancing and the like, by those who hark back to the time when Yorkshire dalesfolk entertained themselves through lively music, nimble steps and music from a piano accordion.