It’s a tradition full of colour, energy and soul, but what is Morris dancing really all about? STUART ANDERSON went to a performance of Portsmouth’s very own side to find out.
It’s a mellow night at the Havant Brewery, a clean-and-simple watering hole at the back of an industrial estate, not too far from the town’s high street.
But the approaching clamour of bells means there’s something special in the air – the Victory Morris Men are about to arrive.
There are about 20 of them, decked out in knee-length breeches, red waistcoats, tricorn hats and neckerchiefs.
Ale flows, tongues loosen and before too long, it’s time to dance.
‘It’s about having fun, it’s about tradition, it’s about keeping fit and it’s about socialising with a wonderful bunch of lads,’ says Mark Taylor, of Havant, the self-described ‘bagman’ of the group.
‘It has absolutely nothing to do with drinking, it’s a complete myth,’ he jokes.
The men empty their pewter mugs and form up upside for the dance – a whirl of studied movements and flying handkerchiefs made to the rhythmic sounds of a melodeon.
Then it’s back to the bar for what has become a trademark of this ‘side’ of morris men – a hearty chorus of folk songs and sea shanties till the landlord calls time.
‘We sing about drinking, the seasons, we sing sea shanties and personal songs about working life, be it industrial or agricultural.
The side performs at pubs every Thursday between May and September.
Mark says the reception they get varies.
‘Sometimes we get the best response in a quiet little-back street pub in Portsmouth,’ he says.
‘They can be a lot more enthusiastic than at some extravagant rural pub out in the country.
‘The people of Portsmouth welcome their local side so it can be very nice performing in a pub like that.
‘I think it has a certain appeal to all ages.
‘No everyone wants to participate themselves, of course, but I think most people enjoy watching it.’
There are several different kinds of Morris dancing, including northwest, border and Cotswold.
The Victory side dance in the Cotswold style, which is characterised by flailing handkerchiefs.
This year is a special one for the side’s 30-odd members – they are celebrating the group’s 40th anniversary.
They have already had one party to mark the milestone, an event called an ‘ale’ which took place in Southwick in March.
Mark says there will be another anniversary event on July 25.
Mark says: ‘That will be our 40th anniversary Day of Dance.
‘We’ll probably have more than 200 morris dancers coming to dance with us from all over the south of England.
‘There will be dancing all over the city.’
A highlight of their calendar are the May Day celebrations, which start at 5am with a sunrise dance.
‘We dance the sun up and then on till breakfast, which we have in a pub,’ explains Mark.
‘Then we go off on a mystery tour, drinking, dancing, singing all day long and then we return to Portsmouth to dance the sun down in the evening.’
The side raises money for a different charity each year. This year’s beneficiary will be Southsea school, the Mary Rose Academy for children with learning difficulties.
Where and when: The side sings and dances at different pubs around the area every Thursday night between April and September. Their next Portsmouth dances will be on June 11, when they will be at the Lawrence Arms in Southsea at 8pm and the Phoenix in Southsea at 9pm. They practice on Thursday evenings at the Portsmouth Irish Club in Southsea in the colder months.
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The story of the dance
It’s a tradition that goes back centuries, but no-one knows exactly how it began.
Kerry Manning, a member of the Victory Morris Men, says the dance sprang out of a social trend in the late Middle Ages.
‘It was first recorded in England in the 1400s. There are stained glass church windows up in the Midlands with pictures of morris men dancing, so we know it was going on back then.
‘The name “morris” may have come from the word Moorish, because at that time the royal courts were very influenced by what was happening in France and Spain.
‘What the royals did in their palaces the lords and ladies did in their big houses and the village halls did later on, so it comes down from that.’
Kerry, from Chichester, says the morris dancing really came into its own in the 1600s and 1700s at village celebrations to mark the start of spring and the harvest.
‘On the high days and church days in the villages you had festivals,’ he explains.
‘They had social dancing and then the lads had a chance to show off how fit they were.’
Kerry says the dance fell into disrepute during the English Civil War because it was too closely associated with the church, but gradually came back into favour.
As the Industrial Revolution got underway in the 18th century people were drawn from villages to seek work in northern cities such as Manchester, and a different kind of Morris dancing developed. Kerry says: ‘It was much more processional, with the heavy clogs we wore in those days.’
Today, there are several different kinds of Morris dancing, including northwest, border and Cotswold, which is the style the Victory morris men dance.
Young member is still a veteran of the dance
He’s one of the youngest members of the Victory Morris Men but that doesn’t mean he lacks experience.
Jeremy Cooke, 27, took up morris dancing soon after he learned to walk.
‘I’ve done it for 23 or 24 years, so I was very young when I started,’ he says.
‘My dad’s done it since he was 12 years old himself, so that’s how I got into it.’
Growing up in Bristol, Jeremy remembers getting dressed up in his morris man’s kit every May Day and heading off dance with his dad’s side from the age of eight.
‘It was an interesting childhood,’ he says.
‘When we were younger we did quite a few weekends away to dance – a few trips to France and Germany.’
Jeremy says he grew up thinking of his fellow dancers as much like a family as anything else.
‘The social side of it’s nice. Back home in Bristol from it was my extended family.
‘So instead of seeing my real extended family I saw my morris family every week.
‘It meant familiarity and comfort.’
Jeremy, who works in IT, moved to Southsea about three years ago to take up a new job.
‘I’d known of Victory for many years. It’s quite a lot like my home side.
‘I thought I might as well get involved with the locals.’
Traditional dancing right around the world
The Great Wall of China must be one of the least-likely places in the world you would expect to run into a troupe of morris dancers.
But Portsmouth’s Victory Morris Men used the famous fortification as a stage on one of their many trips abroad over the years.
Morris dancer John Bartlett remembers: ‘The Chinese didn’t quite know what to make of it. ‘They began just by looking at us and then halfway through the dance they just roared with laughter. When we finished they all came crowding in. It was hilarious.’
John, 62, from Rowlands Castle, is one of the longest-standing members of the side, having joined Victory more than 30 years ago.
He says: ‘I’ve always enjoyed doing it. The camaraderie is fantastic.’
John says people tend to make light of morris dancing, which he thinks is unfair.
‘We’re probably about the only country in the world that takes the mickey out of its national dance. It’s a shame really – you don’t take the mickey out of the Irish dancers and they don’t do it on the continent either.
‘Having said that, once you do it, it feels like a terribly British thing to do.’
John says meeting others with the same passion for the dance was part of the fun of being in a side.
‘We enjoy going off to meet other morris men up and down the country,’ he says.
‘A meeting called an ale is when you have about six different sides, and then there’s something called a ring meeting where there might be up to 20.’
John is also a keen singer and songwriter, and performs with fellow morris man Pete Luscombe in a group called Whole-Hearted.
He also sings sea shanties and folk songs with the Portsmouth Shanty Men.
John has even committed some of his own creations to CD.
‘I got it into my head to write a brand new album of sea shanties,’ he says.
‘They’re all of my own composing and I call it Tin Bath Sailor because none of them have ever been sung at sea.
The Portsmouth Shanty Men are singing it with me so it’s got good choruses.’
Playing in the band
With her bright, floral hat and boxy melodeon around her neck, Carrie Swinburne cut a conspicuous figure among the ranks of the Victory Morris Men.
But the 59-year-old from Southsea says she has no qualms about being the only woman in the group.
‘It’s men-only dancing,’ she says. ‘But they’re all right with women as musicians.
‘They’re a bunch of reprobates,’ she jokes.
‘To think, you could be sitting at home watching the television!’
Carrie says she joined the side about six years ago after her husband got involved as a musician.
‘I bought my husband an accordion and he started coming along to Victory, so I used to come along and listen,’ she says.
‘I had a fiddle in the cupboard and one day I realised I could actually play it because I had all the tunes in my head.
‘So I started coming along and playing that every week.’
Carrie recently switched to the melodeon after ‘requests’ from the dancers.
‘They always shouted at me because I couldn’t play the fiddle loud enough so I got myself a melodeon,’ she says.
‘It makes much more noise and it’s more punchy.
‘Plus, you can carry it more like a handbag.’
Carrie says she enjoys being part of the tradition of morris dancing, and has even written some of her own tunes.
‘I’ve written a couple of the pieces and a few of the others write their own songs but most of the stuff is traditional drinking songs and country songs.’