For Folk’s Sake: Morris Dancing and Me – BBC 4

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Passing through town on the Metrolink on Saturday, I was intrigued to see a group of Morris dancers performing outside Manchester Central (G-Mex). Cecil “the Prophet” Sharp would have been over the moon about that! It turned out that it was part of the Joint Morris Organisations National Day of Dance, launching the 2019 Manchester Folk Festival Programme. Those involved included the Stretford-based Manchester Morris Men, who featured prominently this BBC 4 documentary. Morris dancing in North West England, and in some other parts of the country, traditionally included women, but the “Morris Ring”, founded in 1934, only admitted all-male sides … until last year. With numbers dwindling, it agreed to admit mixed-gender and all-female teams … and a lot of the blokes are not happy about this.

We’re not talking a storm in a teacup here. In one village, a woman who’d joined the local Morris side – not even as a dancer, but as a musician – had been given such grief that she and her husband had moved to another part of the country!  Feelings on this matter run very high. There’s the “adapt or die” issue – new blood is urgently needed. And some men, especially the younger element, feel that society has changed and people now prefer to socialise in mixed gender groups. However, others feel strongly that admitting women to their sides would destroy Morris dancing’s traditions. It’s partly about the actual art of Morris dancing – one man compared it to admitting women to a male voice choir – and partly about heritage.

It’s hard to know how much of the Morris dancing traditions are genuinely historical and how much were the invention of folk revivalists looking for ideas of a mythical Merrie Englande, but the general idea of Morris dancing is thought to go back to the 16th century. The revival of Morris dancing, after it had largely died out amid the social and economic changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is considered to have dated from 1899, and is closely associated with Cecil Sharp – founder of the English Folk Dance Society and known to me and other readers of “Girls’ Own” books as “The Prophet” in Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books.

As Richard Macer, the presenter of the programme, explained, Cecil Sharp at one time worked closely with a woman called Mary Neal – who sounds absolutely fascinating, but that’s another story. However, they fell out, and, one way and another, the idea that male Morris dancing was superior to female Morris dancing took hold. It was also explained that Morris dancing had experienced a heyday in the 1970s, but had been declining since then. With a lot of Morris dancers now ageing and approaching a point where they’ll probably have to consider retirement, what does the future hold? Part of the programme involved Richard himself learning Morris dancing, with the Manchester Morris Men, and, at fifty-odd, he was about twenty years younger than the average age of the side.
It would be very sad to see the tradition die out – and traditions, in cultures all around the world, die out frighteningly easily.

So what’s going wrong? I love to watch traditional dancing, in any country or region. And Morris dancing’s linked with other traditions, too. The programme started off by showing Morris dancers escorting a May queen at a procession through a Norfolk village. And, towards the end, it showed the wonderful Saddleworth Rushcart ceremony. At one time, there were rushcart ceremonies all over the area, usually during local wakes weeks, but they’ve pretty much died out. The one at Saddleworth, though, is a really big event, and that’s largely due to Morris dancers.

But … well, the dancers themselves admitted that Morris dancing doesn’t exactly have the coolest of images. Flowers on hats, bells on knickerbockers, brightly-coloured socks and ribbons, waving hankies … it’s often seen as a bit naff. Yet no-one would ever think of Spanish flamenco, Scottish reels, Russian kazatskies or Bavarian schuhplattler dancing as being naff, would they? As one of the men said, maybe we just get embarrassed very easily in England!

Another issue is that, in many rural areas, Morris dancing is a big local “thing” and young lads would traditionally follow their dad, grandads, uncles et al into the local Morris side, and that was how the sides kept going. With more and more people moving away from where they grew up, that’s becoming a problem. And, in towns and cities, that idea of Morris dancing as a community thing doesn’t really exist anyway. I must say that I had no idea that there was a Morris dancing side in Stretford! They train in a church hall which is about a mile and a half from the two Old Traffords. It’s not exactly somewhere I’d particularly associate with folk dancing.

But will women join, given the option? We hear about a lot of arguments over male-only or female-only organisations, most famously the row over admitting women to The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. It’s usually a case of members of the excluded gender demanding admission. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The Morris Federation and Open Morris both admit male-only, female-only or mixed-gender teams, and there was no suggestion that female Morris dancers were all that fussed about being excluded from the Morris Ring, and certainly not that they were lobbying for admission.

The suggestion came from an all-male side, in Leicester – and even that particular side hasn’t actually admitted any women! Whilst the vote on the issue resulted in a landslide majority in favour of admitting women, it was left to each individual side to decide whether they wanted to do that or not. And most of them, so far, have decided not to.

Do women even want to join sides that are currently men-only? Richard spoke to some members of a women-only side – all considerably younger than our Manchester Morris pals – and they said that they preferred to operate as an all-female group. No-one (I hope!) wants to see anyone suffering discrimination, but most of us do like to spend some time socialising in an all-male or all-female environment. There’s an issue with arrogance here, as well. There’s long been this attitude that male-only Morris dancing is better than female-only or mixed-gender Morris dancing. And the Morris Ring, which has been a bastion of that attitude, is only prepared to admit women now because it thinks that its sides aren’t going to survive otherwise, and hasn’t made any secret of the fact.

But I didn’t get the impression that any of the men Richard was talking to were male chauvinists. They just wanted to keep their traditions, and they also wanted to have some male-only time and activities. Richard pointed out that it’s usually male-only organisations which are coming under pressure to admit women, not the other way round. It has to be said that that’s a fair point. You don’t hear of campaigns for men to be allowed to join the WI, do you? And we weren’t talking about the days of the FA banning women’s football, or women being denied access to top level golfing facilities or the best seats at cricket grounds. There are women-only and mixed-gender Morris sides. By the end of the programme, I found myself hoping that the male-only sides would be able to continue, and – hey, I’m the person who’s always reminding everyone that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst! – I hadn’t expected to feel like that.

And Richard had clearly ended up feeling like that as well. He’d got really into it, especially after discovering that his granny and grandad had met through Morris dancing and his great-aunt had corresponded with Cecil Sharp. He was rather upset at being told that, unfortunately, he wasn’t good enough to dance at the Saddleworth Rushcart ceremony, and delighted when he was deemed good enough to dance at an event in Mossley. The guys were really into their traditions – the names used for people holding particular positions in the sides, the annual meet-up to honour the memories of old Morris dancing friends who’d died, and so on. And these were the traditions of a male-only organisation. He observed that some of them felt that there was honour in sticking to traditions even if it meant that the sides couldn’t go on.

A crucial point he made at the end was that male-only Morris dancing was about masculinity and male bonding without any hint of the “toxic masculinity” culture which is sometimes associated with men-only activities. He even said that male Morris dancers could be role models for young men – and, as he said, the idea of bells and whistles and flowery hats being associated with masculinity sounds a bit mad, but it does actually work. And they were enjoying themselves! They were having such fun, and so were the people watching them – and they were also keeping an old and important tradition alive. It would be a tragedy if Morris dancing died out.

But, having said all that, the Manchester Morris Dancers didn’t participate at Saddleworth, because they weren’t able to muster a full side. And they’ve now voted to admit women members, largely because they need to boost numbers, and hope that admitting women will attract more people, especially younger people, both female and male. I really hope they’re able to keep going, and the same with other sides across the country. Morris dancing is not seen as cool, and that’s the big problem – but who’d have thought that knitting and sewing and baking and so on would become cool? Is “cool” still a cool word? I am old and out of touch!! So maybe there’s hope for Morris dancing. I really do hope so. Richard Macer got rather attached to the Manchester Morris Men, and to Morris dancing in general, because of this programme. I did too!