GREENWICH MORRIS MEN CELEBRATED THEIR BUSY FOUR DECADES OF DANCE THIS YEAR AND NOW THERES A CHANCE TO JOIN THEM SAYS JULIAN MAY…….
This summer Greenwich Morris Men have had the honour of dancing before the Princess of Wales, the Duke of York and the Duchess of Cambridge…….and several other nice pubs, too. That’s a traditional Morris dancers’ joke, probably as old as the dances, some of which go back centuries.
The earliest known reference to Morris dancing was in 1448, when that other outfit with local connections, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, paid seven shillings, a tidy sum back then, for a ‘morysk daunce’. Now, more than 500 years later, you may well have seen the men in white, with brown waistcoats, baldricks and bells, performing a ‘morysk daunce’ with sticks or handkerchiefs, somewhere or other about the Royal Borough.
For Greenwich Morris the year begins at dawn on May 1st, alongside the donkey ride outside the south entrance to the park. As the sun rises over Blackheath we dance to welcome the summer, starting with the ‘Brockley Bash’, a stick dance recently devised, followed by others more ancient, including hanky dances with names such as ‘Valentines’ and ‘Banks of the Dee’. We have an appreciative audience of thousands: coachloads of people watch us – and give us a wave and a honk of the horn as they speed to or from Dover along the A2. There are always, too, a few hardy, sleepy souls who have heard, but can’t believe, that there are people actually dancing at 5.15 in the morning, with musicians playing for them live, despite the cold nipping their fingers. They need to come along to witness this for themselves.
Then, every Thursday evening – until it gets too dark for us to catch the sticks – and on many weekends, Greenwich Morris dance somewhere local including by the Cutty Sark (both the ship and the pub!), by the park gates and the Old Naval College. We dance at festivals such as Rochester Sweeps and sometimes venture further afield. Recently a side in Guernsey invited us to join them and we spent a wonderful weekend dancing all around the island.
We recruit by doing – most of our members saw the side dancing somewhere, liked the look of it, came to have a go, and stayed. We’re a friendly bunch, always welcoming new people, who pick up the dances pretty quickly. We welcome musicians too – the tunes, played mostly on assorted squeezeboxes, are terrific (which is why our finest classical composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth collected folksongs and dance tunes and incorporated them in their pieces).
Greenwich Morris are in such demand for community events – Surrey Docks City Farm Spring Celebration, the summer fair at Shrewsbury Park and the wassail in in East Greenwich Pleasaunce – that we have, reluctantly, to turn some invitations down.
Whenever and wherever we dance people ask about the origins of Morris dance. No one really knows, but there is a long standing idea that Morris is a contraction of Moorish, and that the dances might have come from North Africa. I’ve heard a reliable eyewitness account of six men dancing in two lines of three, dressed in white, with bells and handkerchiefs – at a desert festival in Libya. There might, then, be something in this theory.
This summer Greenwich Morris celebrated our 40th birthday, with several other sides joining us for a day of dance. It was a colourful and cheerfully noisy spectacle as about 100 people from different Morris traditions danced beside the river.
Morris dancing in Cutty Sark Gardens is like having your performance beamed around the globe: the audience of passers-by comes from all over the world. This summer I met people from India, Israel, Germany, Malta, Cyprus and Spain, all of whom told me there are similar dances where they come from. One man, from Eritrea, thought we had actually learned dances from his country.
So Morris dancing, seen as quintessentially English, is a member of a global family of street and village dances. That’s great, because it means anyone with some sense of rhythm, and a bit of stamina can enjoy doing it. Neither is Morris stuck in the past: contemporary choreographers and hip-hop dancers are incorporating Morris in new works. There’s video of us dancing and swapping moves with Tommy Xpensive, the famous and fabulously funky You Tuber from Ivory Coast. People from India and America have danced with us and one current member is originally from Indonesia. And we come from all walks of life; there’s an electrician, an educational psychologist, a town-planner and one who was in Stars Wars and Dr Strange, acting with Benedict Cumberbatch. There’s no starting and no retirement age: our foreman (who teaches the dances and keeps an eye on standards) began when he was 11; another regular is in his eightieth year. Morris dancing keeps you healthy and happy – if not wealthy and wise.
The nights are drawing in and Greenwich Morris Men have retreated from the streets to our winter home, Mycenae House, in Westcombe Park. We’re not hibernating, but practising and learning new dances – ready for our return, with the sun, on May Day next year. Now is your opportunity! We have some vacancies. If you would like to join us, to have a go at this wonderful, ancient, modern, English and global dance of the people and the streets, or if you are a musician and would like to play, please come along on Thursday evenings, 8 -10, followed by essential rehydration in the bar.
90 Mycenae Road
London SE3 7SE
Every Thursday 8.00pm