Woodside Morris Men dancing at Rickmansworth Folk Festival

All the Fun of the Folk

22nd September 2017

As Woodside Morris Men celebrate their sixtieth anniversary, Lisa Botwright meets one of their members to chat camaraderie and customs…

Folk arts have seen a massive resurgence in recent years, with bands such as Mumford and Sons making singalongs with a fiddle ‘cool’, and a wealth of festivals celebrating all-things-folk popping up all over the country. Even in our corner of Hertfordshire, the scene is thriving, with numbers attending the Rickmansworth Folk Festival reportedly more than doubling over the last few years.

But while Michael Flatley joyously reinvented the image of Irish dancing and put the sex into Riverdance, Pete Bradshaw of Woodside Morris Men is waiting for a similarly messianic figure to do the same for morris dancing. “We get inundated with requests to perform. So many people are interested in watching it, but no one wants to do it. People are very reticent in England to celebrate our traditions.”

The origins are hazy, but by the late middle ages, records show morris sides (as groups are known) connected to many English villages. The dances were possibly brought over from Spain (Morris… Moorish) and were first performed in courtly circles, but by the fifteenth century appear to have been adopted by ordinary farming folk and linked to festivals celebrating the harvest cycles.

With the rise of urbanisation in the nineteenth century, there was a corresponding decline in rural traditions, and morris dancing may well have died out, but for a Victorian academic called Cecil Sharp. After watching a dance by an Oxfordshire side in 1899 he was inspired to collect as much information as he could from remaining sources and became the founding father of the folk revival in England in the early 20th century. He was helped by philanthropist Mary Neal, founder of the Espérance Club, a dressmaking co-operative and club for young working women in London, who wanted dances for them to perform – and so the revival began with young women in the capital.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, spurred on by Sharp’s ‘canon’ of dances, several men’s sides were formed, and in 1934 the Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides. In the 1950s and especially the 1960s, there was an explosion of new dance teams, some all-men (like Woodside), along with women’s or mixed sides.

Woodside Morris Men, which Pete joined in 2003, was formed in 1957 – exactly sixty years ago this month, in fact – and was originally part of the Woodside Folk Club in Finchley. As the side’s members began to move further out into the suburbs, the meetings moved to Watford; first to Watford Road near to Watford Junction and then to The Pump House Theatre, where rehearsals have taken place from the 1970s until now.

The members (there are about eighteen) practise through the off-season, from September until April, until festivities kick off at Whitsun, traditionally the most important date in the calendar for morris dancing. “St George’s Day is also becoming increasingly popular,” Pete tells me. “Morris dancing is the first thing people think of when they want to celebrate with something typically English.”

Invitations come in from pubs, community events from fêtes to festivals, sports clubs, schools, and even from abroad. They also occasionally get requests for corporate events: for team-building or for events with a competitive element. “We would love to do more of these things,” laments Pete, “but with so few members, we can’t commit far enough in advance.”

All the engagements are carried out on a voluntary basis, with most of the team also working full-time. Collections are taken at the time, but the money is reinvested into costumes and travel expenses, with any profit given to charity; they pick a different local and national charity each year.

Ah, the costumes – those distinctive bells, hankies and floral hats. “Historically, the bells would announce the morris dancers’ arrival as they processed through the village,” Pete explains. “But on a much more practical level, they help us to keep time.” The other components of the traditional paraphernalia are symbolic of fertility and nature. “We bang sticks to wake up the earth and we wave hankies to purify the air; while we decorate the hats with seasonal flowers to represent our links with the countryside.”

Pete particularly enjoys the community aspect of morris dancing. “The combination of social activity and tradition is compelling,” he confides. Dancers need an element of the showman about them. “I didn’t quite expect how much there would be in the performance and audience relationship,” he says, and gives an example of a performance in Germany, part of a town-twinning exercise between Amersham and Bensheim. “We took part in a mile long procession, with hundreds of people lining the streets. It was really quite exhilarating.”

At a grassroots level, he feels it’s important to pass on the traditions involved in morris to a younger audience and to champion its cultural heritage. “We went into a primary school recently, and asked the children where they thought the dances came from. Wales, came one answer, then Scotland, then Ireland. With only one possible answer, they still looked puzzled. ‘Isle of Man?’ ventured one little girl. Such a shame.”

Pete, now 60, belonged to a folk club at university in Nottingham. He tells me how much he loved to dance in junior school, and fondly remembers country dancing competitions in the 60s. “So many children love to dance when they’re young, but then stop as it’s not seen to be the thing to do.”

He didn’t marry these two hobbies up until much later, when he joined a folk club that also incorporated folk dance. Then later, when he moved back to Watford for work (he has a background in teaching computing), he specifically looked for a morris side to join, to meet like-minded people, “just as someone else might look to join a church or a golf club, or find a local pub.”

He recognises that his side might lack diversity, but is keen to encourage as many people from all walks of life to join. “Sides are traditionally formed by groups of friends, that’s why we’re all of a similar age and background. As well as inviting people to join us, we’d also love to lend our support to others too, perhaps another folk group interested in branching out to dance.”

Woodside does have one ‘youngster’ as a member: 20 year-old Callum Fleming, who explains that two things led him to morris dance: “Firstly, there is the traditional aspect of carrying on a piece of our culture, history and traditions. Secondly, the social aspect of going to places I would not normally go and meeting new people – all over a pint, of course.”

Dancing, meeting people, keeping fit and making friends – at the same time as enjoying a pint – and all the while celebrating a cultural heritage that goes back centuries…sounds like fun. And who knows, maybe there’s an English Michael Flatley figure waiting in the wings after all, ready to shake things up.

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