If I was to ever write a personal FAQ – other than the sort of mock-humorous 20-questions style FAQ which adorned previous incarnations of this internet resource – one of the definite contenders would be “[expression of enquiry involving various degrees of astonishment] made you get into morris dancing?”. Examples:
“How’d you get into morris dancing?”
“What in the world got you involved in morris dancing?”
“But you’re Australian – why the bloody hell are you doing that ridiculous thing?”
and so on.
So, for the record, the way it happened was this:
In 1989 at the tender and impressionable age of 13 I joined the backstage crew of the Adelaide Gang Show. Why the hell I did that still remains a mystery. I think I was too shy to join the cast, but thought it’d be fun to get on board. Whatever. Anyway, during show week one of the sketches was about morris dancing – a load of blokes in flowery hats and baldrics stood in a long line and said some unlikely things in terrible Zummerzet accents, and there were 2 dances to some apple-cheeked English tunes; one of which involed hankywaving and the other bashing sticks together (complete with Ted Wilkins and the running joke of him dashing offstage to get bigger and bigger sticks, until he took stage with a hockey stick and armour).
Fast forward now to early 2003, when I decided that the only thing better than living in a house with ludicrously cheap rent was to share it with someone and thereby pay half as much again, and managed to convince Mike to occupy one of the spare bedrooms. Mike was, at the time (and it seems, once again), the Squire of the Adelaide Morris Men, and would periodically disappear for the day in white shirt & trousers & black top hat (a sort of quasi-Clockwork Orange getup). The sort of thing where I’d say “What you up to this weekend mate?”, and he’d reply, “Oh I’m off morris dancing”, at which I’d nod wistfully, safe in the knowledge that I only had a distant & vague idea of what that involved.
It must’ve been around January 2004, when I was preparing for my imminent departure to live in the UK – I’d severed each weeknight commitment I had, and in the interests of saving a few bucks was spending more time around the house than previously. Mike, ever the astute fellow, noticed this and launched into the now pivotal exchange:
Mike: I’ve noticed that you’re not busy on Thursday nights at the moment. I therefore put it to you that you should come to morris dancing practice.
Me: Now Michael, why in the hell would I be doing a thing like that?
Mike: Well, there’s a number of reasons really…
- It’s good fun.
- It’s good exercise.
- They’re a good fun bunch of lads.
- They don’t mind a pint – which I’ve noticed is an area you’re more-than-casually interested in.
- You’re leaving the country, so if you hate it there’s an easy get-out clause.
- It’s a new skill, and learning things keeps the brain active.
But I guess most importantly…
- You have a car, and I need a lift to practice.
Unfortunately, being a fairly logical fellow I couldn’t find a fault with any of that, so I went along. Though I can’t profess to being particularly good at it, or a fast learner, it was pretty good fun – and in March 2004 I went on my first public danceout at the Moot Yang Gunya Festival in Mundulla, SA. I didn’t have baldricks or anything, so just had white shirt & trousers and some borrowed bellpads. It was a top event, and the crowd really seemed to get into it. The men were a little short-handed, so they put me in a couple of dances which weren’t in my “ready to be danced outside the practice hall” list, and finished off the day with a dance I’d never seen before – the famous “Vandals of Hammerwich”, which the guys said “don’t worry, it’s not hard – we’ll talk you through as you go!”. And I reckon we broke about 6 sticks in that one. Great fun – woodchips flying everywhere, and an appreciative crowd all supporting my maiden voyage.
Upon landing in London it occurred to me that I didn’t know anyone, so I figured it made sense to see what was around in terms of morris dancing, and fortuitously there were a couple of teams in easy distance from where I was staying. Contacting the first – the Westminster Morris Men – I learned that it was their final practice for the year, but they were having their annual Day of Dance on the Saturday, and I was welcome to come and watch. It was quite a spectacle, with over a hundred morris men in Trafalgar Square – certainly more than I’d ever seen before! I also checked out the Hammersmith Morris Men (aka The Smiffs), who were also great fun & a top bunch of lads.
Something drew me back to the Westminster lads though, and they very accommodatingly let me tag along on some of their country trips in my white gear, and let me join in to the farewell dance at every spot, Bonny Green Garters.
And I’ve been with them ever since! They’ve been incredibly patient with me, and there’s a rumour going around that my dancing’s now fit to be seen in public…
It really is top fun – not just for the reasons Mike outlined back in Adelaide (although 5 and 7 are less relevant over here): we also do some pretty cool stuff, like all the weekend trips away to bits of Britain I’d probably have never seen had I just remained a tourist. We have an annual weekend in The Cotswolds, a bi-annual trip to Devizes (in Wiltshire), occasional trips up to Chester, and then there’s been various other one-offs, such as our Gloucestershire tour, Southwold (Suffolk), Exeter, Eastbourne, Dartington, Ripley, Saddleworth…
Probably the one event that stars in the photo album would be the time that we were booked to perform at a garden party at Lambeth Palace for the Archbishop of Canterbury.
A close second though would be the Westminster Day of Dance – which I’ve somehow been jostled into position as the organiser for for the last 2 years – and the opportunity to put on our kit and dance at some of London’s most famous landmarks, such as Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Chinatown, St James’s Park and Westminster Cathedral.
Intriguingly, one of the things which initially drew me to the whole thing was that it felt like the most ludicrous thing a bunch of blokes could do together. Some of the dance moves seem really silly, which impresses me immensely (my favourite is called a “galley”, which sort of looks like an Arnold Rimmer salute, but using the foot). After now having been at it for 5 years though my giggling has mostly subsided, and now that I know several dances well enough to not have to concentrate intently on each the puerile chortle has been replaced with a sense of attention to detail & doing one’s best to work in symphony with the other dancers in the set – you can just tell when you’ve nailed a dance, and it’s a real buzz when audience members come over and compliment you. One of my favourite dances ever was the Longborough-style dance, “Loveless”, which I recorded in Thaxted earlier this year – to me it just looks beautiful, with straight lines throughout and coordinated hand movements. The lads did a great job, I reckon!
I’m still very much in contact with the Adelaide Morris Men – I pop in to practice whenever I’m back home for a visit, and they came over for a tour of the UK in 2005, and are currently in the final planning stages of another tour in 2010 which we’re all looking forward to immensely.
So it doesn’t really make a hell of a lot of sense, but I genuinely love it. Though it’s frustrating, exhausting, and seems to take up bizarrely large amounts of my time, joining a morris dancing side is probably one of the best decisions I’ve made in the last decade. You get bizarre looks from strangers, prospective girlfriends screw their faces up in puzzlement, and the British press seem to have a constant campaign afoot to get it abolished because they haven’t got the imagination to respond to it in any way other than derision. But I’m crap at tennis, and besides, the music’s nicer.