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Wednesday, 5 June, 2002, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
Confessions of a morris dancer
Champion morris dancer Simon Pipe has little truck with suggestions that the tradition is dying out. Here he argues that bell ringing and stick waving still has a place in modern society.
Forget free speech and democracy: if you want a sure sign of a decent society, I give you morris dancing.

Simon Pipe
Leaps and bounds: Simon Pipe in action
There's something basically all right about any country in which men, women and children can leap about in public with bells and other improbable adornments attached to their bodies.

All cynicism is cast aside when the squeezebox wheezes into life - and with it, all that tosh about the English being stuffy and inhibited.

Now a report by a think tank, The Future Foundation, says the morris is no longer seen as the quintessence of English traditional heritage.

Dying tradition
Just 24% of young Britons see morris as key part of heritage
Future Foundation survey
We're ranked just below The Rolling Stones in popularity. And the think tankers say that morris won't even feature in 50 years' time.

I doubt it. The morris has come through worse than this over the past few hundred years.

Revival of interest

In 1899 there were just a handful of teams still performing when it was discovered in Oxfordshire by Cecil Sharp. He pedalled round the Cotswolds, pouring beer down old rustics to elicit the details of the dances that were distinctive to each village.

Oxford village dancers
Morris dancing is well loved in Simon's village
Today there are more than 1,000 teams across the UK, North America and the Antipodes.

The regional variations are many: black-faced hooliganism on the borders with Wales; men dressed as women in East Anglia; and stern-faced types with gardens on their heads, stomping in clogs on Lancashire cobbles.

In Oxfordshire and surrounds, we wave hankies and clash sticks, the way folk always have round here.

In my own village of Adderbury, we can tell you the names of men who were dancing on our green more than 100 years ago.


Good morris has guts - the sap rises and adrenaline surges

Nowadays there are two rival sides in the village, fiercely divided on the way morris should be done but united in the passion of the dance.

Over at Bampton, in the west of the county, they've been dancing every Whitsun for more than 200 years. They start at dawn and dance on pubs forecourts, in private gardens and at the old folks' home.

Stirring stuff

Old men and young lads go through time-honoured figures that are absorbed, not learned, and no one has to ask why they do it.

Women morris dancers
Women no longer stay on the sidelines
It's nothing to do with fertility rites: in the old days, they did it for the drink and the money, but mainly in the hope of a good fight afterwards.

Nowadays it brings together plumbers, academics, farmers, the chief executive of lastminute.com and yes, BBC News Online journalists. Morris dancers are practically a secret society.

There's lots of bad morris, but the good stuff has guts. The sap rises and the adrenaline surges.

The legendary Hammersmith Morris Men used to be followed around London by cohorts of adoring young women - so they claim. Nowadays, the women are more likely to be dancing themselves.

Simon on his hobby horse
Simon's troupe turns heads wherever they go
And we're ambassadors - and innovators - for England.

My own side, The Outside Capering Crew, has just gone down a storm in Dubai. We shared a hotel with Shaggy, the rap star, but it was our hobby horses that turned heads in the lobby.

We slap faces, pull hair and rub bottoms and leapfrog over up-ended brooms. It's not traditional, but it's still morris.

Which just goes to show: times change, but the morris endures, always evolving.

See also:

01 May 02 | Europe
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