18 May 2013
We went to a fair at Beaconsfield today, just west of where we were staying outside London. We walked around looking at the stalls, and admiring all the little arts and crafts that people were selling.
Suddenly, we became aware of a crowd gathering in an open space among the stalls. A couple of accordions and a fiddle were playing a pretty tune, and I could hear little bells ringing too.
“Oh, Flat Kathy, you have to see this,” said Paula excitedly.
We found a spot on the edge of the crowd, which had formed a circle around a group of dancers. All were adorned with brightly coloured ribbons, their hats bedecked with colourful flowers, and their jackets covered in all manner of badges. They also wore little bell pads around their ankles. Some were holding bright red scarves, and waving these about, as they danced to the music. A couple of them were holding wooden sticks; they began to dance in a circle, weaving in and out and around each other. Ever so often, they paused, to lightly hit each other’s sticks with a ker-thunk.
“Paula, what are they doing?” I asked, thunderstruck. Paula held me up so that I could see better.
“These, my friend,” she declared brightly, “are the Phoenix Morris Dancers. They’re dancing some traditional Cotswold Morris dances.”
“What is Morris dancing, Paula? Where does it come from?”
“It’s a type of traditional folk dance that dates back to the 15th century, possibly earlier. I read somewhere about a Shakespearean actor, called William Kempe, who actually morris danced all the way from London to Norwich – a distance of over a hundred miles. He didn’t do it one go, though, but it took him nine days, which he spread out over several weeks. He even wrote about this event in a book called ‘Nine Days Wonder’.”
“It is popular in the rural villages of England, and the dances and music are passed on down the generations. Many are very specific to a certain area, with each location developing a particular style and pattern of dance. These groups of dancers are known as ‘sides’; the sides were originally made up of men, but now also include women. As you can see, the dancers dress up in colourful costumes.”
“Why is it called ‘Morris’ dancing? Was there a Mr Morris who created it?”
“No!” chuckled Paula. “To be honest, I’m not sure. But I think it may be because the dancers sometimes blacken their faces, and so they looked like the Moors of North Africa. So they may have been called ‘Moor-ish’ dancers originally. Or perhaps this type of dancing in fact came from the Moors… Who knows…”
We settled down to enjoy the performance, and cheered and clapped afterwards. What a fun tradition this is!
(When we got home, I did some googling on the internet – and discovered that there is a new movie called Morris: A Life with Bells on, which is about Morris dancing. It looks like a lot of fun! And if you can’t imagine what it actually looks and sounds like, you can also watch the Phoenix Morris Dancers in action in this YouTube clip – and learn a bit more about it in this short clip.)