A spring in the step

It’s been a while. In fact, it’s been months. I’m afraid the collective Mrs Wilkins’ tend to hibernate over the winter. We have been known to pop our heads out around new year occasionally, but generally we hide away in our warm burrows until the daffodils come out, the weather warms a little and it’s past Easter. Well the weather, and thus the daffodils, aren’t playing ball this year: most of them were over and done with by the time of our first dance out at Oxford Folk Festival, and we were more concerned with whether it would snow than blooming flowers.

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We’ve had a successful winter. Steadily practicing since January – reminding ourselves which foot is left and which is right. And welcoming new dancers into the fold. Our ‘Give it a Go’ session in January surpassed our expectations. We’d normally be ecstatic if we got two new dancers. On that one night we had five. It was actually quite scary having to introduce six newbies into the fold on one night – a lot of assistance from the few Mrs Wilkins’ who weren’t involved in the dance helped it along. We chose a dance for four so we could do it for 12 dancers and spread everyone out a little. A nice single step dance to get the feet sorted and to help them concentrate more on where they were going. One slight issue which I hadn’t expected was the fact it is a left foot dance. This might not sound important, but the majority of our dances start on the right foot. This one, the Hindley Street Dance, doesn’t. It has had the unexpected knock-on effect that our new dancers seemed a little left-footed/left-handed as we moved on to other dances, which are all right-footed. Right seems natural to me, a right-hander, but I hadn’t realised how much the first dance you learn could affect subsequent assumptions on the part of a new dancer. Luckily, we’re now three or four dances into the learning process, so this issue has abated, but it was a valuable lesson for me.

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The ‘Old timers’, as I’ve come to call the ongoing members of the side, have been great at helping our ‘Newbies’ along and welcoming them in to the side. We’ve also introduced a couple of new innovations with their help. We now do a general warm up before we start dancing – even some of the musicians join in occasionally. It doesn’t seem to be a major innovation, and some of you who may be dancers are probably surprised that we haven’t done this in the past. It’s always been something that one or two of the members have tried to introduce, but having a Newbie along who had experience of doing such exercises helped the process. We now do it regularly, and it moves on to stepping practice, which we had done in the past, but not quite this way.

As I teach a dance, I notice what steps cause problems and where the co-ordination of hands with feet trip up one’s concentration on moving in the right direction. Stepping practice is a chance to address these issues – hopefully with a little fun thrown in. Whether it’s practice at keeping in straight lines, dancing backwards without hitting anyone or anything in the process, or working out how to rant sideways without turning your hips so your feet go forwards and your shoulders go sideways, it’s all valuable to everyone. It’s not until you teach a dance to a new learner that you might realise how often we take a few steps backwards in a figure, or have to, somehow, go sideways in a circle holding garlands above our heads.

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Now that the dancing season is really getting going – we have two dance outs this weekend – we can spend less time teaching a dance progressively. It’s another step in the learning curve for the Newbies as they have to dredge up figures for each dance from memory when we can spend less time taking them through all the figures before we start to practice. When you have to practice four or five dances in one night for two dance outs, there is little time left for the gentle reminders there have been so far. With the Oxford Folk Festival we’ve started this process. It’s another change in mind set for the Old Timers as well. We have to check our kit over, find the socks, iron the shirts and repack the bags to take out the remaining detritus of last season.

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Oxford got us off to a good start – we were dancing in front of the Ashmolean Museum on a lovely flagged surface that makes the stone ring as the clogs hit it. A hard surface to dance on, not just because it’s unforgiving, but because we love making a noise and tend to dance harder. The tingling feet at the end of the day often gives us a clue as to how hard our feet have been working. Hopefully the weather will be kind again this weekend – it’s been a little unpredictable so far this year. There’s quite a few dance outs lined up – including a few unusual ones.

Hopefully by the middle of the year our Newbies will no longer be Newbies, but fully-fledged Mrs Wilkins’ as they join in the dance-outs. We’ve started on the kit muster for them, usually involving detailed discussions on hem levels as the poor Newbie stands in stocking feet in a skirt in the middle of the room whilst the length of their legs and visibility of bloomers is under examination. Clog orders have been placed for those who need them, silk flowers are bought for the hats and long socks procured.

Perhaps a little more slowly than some sides, but 2016 is now officially underway.

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Jingle Bells and Happy New Year

Turning the capstan

The time has come when we lay down our slings, our mandolins, our clogs and our hats. The darker winter nights, howling gales and driving rain start to make dancing out a challenge almost more than a pleasure – indeed, they can make getting to these events or even a practice night an adventure. We really only undertake one event at this time of year – our Christmas dance out. It’s often the most well-attended event of the year for the dancers and musicians alike as we enjoy a (usually) rare opportunity of dancing in the centre of Bath. To make sure of a suitably captive audience, we also undertake this at the busiest time of year for the city in the stromash (sorry, human maelstrom) that is the  Bath Christmas Market. Carving a place on the pavement with sufficient space for our sets can be a challenge. We not only have to create the space, but make sure that a stray buggy-pushing Yummy Mummy doesn’t charge through the clear space in the middle of the set just as the music hits that vital moment when the dancers launch forth, desperately trying to remember the chorus for this particular dance. We also traditionally dance for a couple of charities – one local and one national – splitting the take between them. The audience is, to do them credit in the middle of the Christmas financial frenzy, very generous and we can usually manage a respectable sum.  This year the chosen charity is one which has a local and national presence, Headway. It is in honour of the imagehusband of one of our dancers – a dancer and musician himself – who went through the ordeal and trauma of major brain surgery earlier this year. His recovery has been steady since the operation, although there’s a long way to go. Luckily, he still has his ability to play music, and he loves coming along to the performances of both Mr Wilkins’ Shilling and his own side to play along, or even just watch. His wife, in the middle of all the drama and stress, also managed to be the mainstay of the organisation of the Day of Dance for the Morris Federation in September.

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After the dance out we will lay down our tools and uniform over the ‘festive period’ as we prepare for, recover from or just plain survive Christmas and the New Year. The first practice in January we catch up on the gossip and try to remember how to dance before we hold our Try Out evening  on 16th January (8pm in our new home at the  Batheaston Catholic Church Hall, Brow Hill Villas). This has been known by several names over the years – New Starters, Beginners, etc. Now we’re trying to market it more as a Give it a Go session rather than an encouragement to come along and you’re committed forever. I have noticed several sides advertising their recruiting sessions online through Facebook and Twitter, and I will follow their example (when I get a little more organised and perhaps after Christmas). Some sides are seriously struggling imagefor dancers – such as our friends and neighbours, Priston Jubilee Morris – and may fold if they don’t get new blood in to help them out. We aren’t getting any younger as a side, and more things are aching, complaining and needling us through the year and the practices. There’s also the question of families – whether it is the older generation getting older and needing more time, or the younger generation(s) getting younger and baby-sitting duties call. We’ve struggled at points this year with having enough dancers committing to the few dance outs we’ve accepted – and we’ve turned down or cancelled even more of them. We’d like to have new dancers with new enthusiasm and more options for sets at performances.image
I’m sounding horribly defeatist, but I don’t want to be. Like any other ‘hobby’, morris takes time and commitment. I love it for the fact it gives me a chance to meet a very different group of people to those I meet at work – and the Day of Dance this year was great fun and it was such a pleasure to see so many people – dancers and audiences – enjoying themselves in the late summer sun. Yes, it can be a bind coming to practices, but they also provide a routine. The dancing keeps you more supple and fitter than if you were sitting watching telly all night. It gives you a chance to get out to places you would otherwise never think of visiting if it weren’t for the dancing – Sidmouth, Swanage, Downton, Upper Vobster. I started morris at the encouragement of my then-boss (and also then then-Squire), Stevie. I was intending to resurrect my childhood by Scottish Country Dancing (a very formal affair in England), but I’m glad I tried something else. Ignore the reputation morris has for being a niche, middle-class pastime and give it a go. I promise you it will be different! I mean, how often do you get to dance with dragons, horses and phoenixes?

 

The Carnival is Over

It feels like it was weeks ago.  For the last couple of weeks before the Day of Dance we were running around doing those hundred and one last-minute things you can only do at the last minute. And some of the things we should have done earlier, but had left until the last minute. In the end, even the weather co-operated in the best way ever.

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We were going to disrupt Bath in a style that happens rarely. And, lets face it, Morris dancing has a reputation (to ‘normal’ people) of being strange men (usually) jumping around with bells on and waving hankies (which some of us actually do occasionally). So, Mrs Chief Organizer Wilkins spent a whole day a couple of weeks before the event going round all the shops in the vicinity of our dance spots with flyers.  Just to let them know that the bells were coming. And, for the most part, she got a very positive response.  As long as we didn’t impede their customers, they were happy with anything that might bring more people in their doors.  And this approach worked on the day – none of the shops were surprised, and only one landlady objected (she thought we’d stop the rugby fans getting in to watch the England match). On the day a steady stream of Morris dancers buying pints quickly ameliorated the situation. As if Morris dancers needed any encouragement to enter a hostelry.

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The only thing which did seem to fail was the publicity.  Both the Morris Fed and Mr Wilkins’ Shilling tried to promote the event with national and local radio, tv and print media.  Emails, tweets, FB messages. None of it seemed to work. I did manage to phone up the local radio station on the Saturday morning with a notice for local events happening that day.  But the media weren’t interested. Not even our local newspaper – they went to the Chilli Festival instead it turned out. I’m not sure what’s the best solution – perhaps a planned bombardment? Morris bells at dawn beneath their windows?

Anyway, early Saturday morning we were up and running – crockery and cakes being delivered; sound systems dropped off; chairs moved and kettles warmed up.  We were almost beaten to it by the first arrivals at 9am, although that turned into a blessing as it meant some sides were registered and getting ready earlier than others – 34 sides all at once might have been a little too much! Our whole side had joined in to make the day work – we started with a quick final briefing for the stewarding team who included some very helpful husbands. I’d even manage to rope in a non-dancing friend to act as our (ultimately unneeded) First Aid cover. We know Bath can be a confusing place to navigate around and we also knew there were some things that you’d have to be made aware of as the sides moved around, so the stewards had a list of all the hazards and all the dance spots.  Some of them even learnt a little geography of the city (not all of them live here). The worst thing dancing in a new town is not knowing if you are in exactly the right place as the hosts have arranged – and a friendly face helps too. At the end of the day many of these stewards also headed back to the Friends’ Meeting House and helped with the clearing up and cake-eating duties. But they all did it with a grin on their faces – they had a great time watching all the sides, many of which they’d never seen before.

Bath has a Mayor.  The position doesn’t hold any political power (in fact, it’s supposed to be apolitical), but to be a representative of the city for events in the city and elsewhere. It’s a bit of a leftover from the days of a City Council, and Bath is one of the six towns with Charter Trustees who elect a Mayor – a compromise with the creation of unitary authorities in 1996.  Councillor William Sandry, Mayor of Bath this year, opened the proceedings for us in Kingston Parade.  I think he’d probably be the first to admit that he knew absolutely nothing about Morris dancing. But he went around various spots for over an hour watching the dancing, and I think he had a much greater appreciation of Morris afterwards – as is often the case. In fact he was so impressed by the whole day of dance and cheering up of the city, that he suggested we might like to organise another one next year…

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It was fantastic to see so many sides in Bath. As a side we don’t often dance in the city – 2 or 3 times a year – and usually on our own or with the Widcombe Mummers. 34 sides all at once is virtually unheard of. You couldn’t turn a corner in the city centre without hearing bells or the beat of a drum, and I loved it. Admittedly, the weather made it perfect. But seeing tourists lighting up with surprise at the unexpected traditional dancing, new Bath Uni students and their parents wondering what they had just signed up for, and confused-looking rugby fans all enjoying the bonus entertainment in the streets makes all the hard work worthwhile.  Oh, and the dancers/musicians having a ball, greeting new friends and old, and scoffing lots and lots of cake (there was still some left – you should have eaten more of it). And a special mention for Northfields Morris – a new side this year – and Persephone Women’s Morris at their last Day of Dance, ever.

Of course this was a team effort:

  • The dancers, musicians and the ‘other halves’ turning up to steward, pour tea and scrape plates, or just pick up the rubbish. Without whom it just wouldn’t have worked.
  • Mr Wilkins the Mandolin Player for organising our ceilidh band, All Blacked Up.
  • Mrs Wilkins the Tea Lady for organising the cakes, teas and coffees, as well as the gang of helpers who made it all run smoothly.
  • Mrs Wilkins the Treasurer who took in all the bookings and money for the ceilidh, sorted the programme and kept a good accounting.
  • Mrs Chief Organiser Wilkins who sourced the halls, filled in the mounds of paperwork, babysat the Mayor, sweet-talked the Bath Buskers into giving up one of their most lucrative days of the year, battered her way through the labyrinthine corridors of the Council and did a hundred and one other things of which I am blissfully ignorant.
  • Mrs Wilkins the Squire for being cool, calm and collected and keeping her head when all around her were having the screaming willies. And helping with the registration.
  • And, of course, the Morris Federation and all the sides who attended. Without whom there would have been no point.

Beetlecrushers (Gurney Slade, Somerset); Belfagan Women’s Morris (Cockermouth, Cumbria); Bell’s Angels (Holt, Wiltshire); Berkshire Bedlam (Wokingham); Chinewrde (Kenilworth, Warwickshire); Chippenham Town Morris (Chippenham, Wiltshire); England’s Glory (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire); Full Moon Morris (South Wales); Garston Gallopers (East Garston, Berkshire); Hammersmith Morris Men (London); Heage Windmillers (Heage, Derbyshire); Hips & Haws (Biddestone, Wiltshire); Kettle Bridge Clogs (Maidstone, Kent); Malmesbury Morris; Mason’s Apron (Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire); Minden Rose (Alton, Hampshire); Northfields Morris (Northfields, London); Persephone Women’s Morris (Hunsworth, West Yorkshire); Pigsty Morris (Bishopston, Bristol); Priston Jubilee Morris (Priston, Somerset); Red Cuthbert Morris (Bedford); Redbornstoke (Ampthill, Bedfordshire); Shrewsbury Bull & Pump Morris; Shrewsbury Lasses; Somerset Morris (Bath); Standon Morris (Standon, Hertfordshire); Treacle Easter Clog (Yeovil, Somerset); Twostep Clog (Tyne & Wear); Widders Welsh Border Morris (Chepstow, Monmouthshire); Windsor Morris (Windsor, Berkshire); Winkleigh (Winkleigh, Devon)

Check out our Facebook page for lots of photos and some videos of the day from various sides.

Weather it is better to suffer the cats and dogs of outrageous rain showers…

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning or in rain?

rainy puddle

We’re now less than a fortnight from the Morris Federation’s 40th Anniversary Day of Dance (and I still haven’t found a better way of saying that). And one of the (many and varied) things near the top of my mind is the weather… We’ve had a rather motley year with the weather, and we’re now heading into autumn so anything could happen.  But morris dancers are a hardy bunch, and British, so will dance in all variations of thunder, lightning or in rain (well, maybe not all of that, but you get the drift).

The temperature heads upwards

The temperature heads upwards

Early in July we danced at a school fete – glorious sunshine, blue skies and hardly a breath of wind. And it was really hard work.  I find hot weather difficult to deal with – it got to nearly 30 degrees C that day – so I was struggling.  I also burn very easily being a fair-skinned northerner.  I drank a lot of water that day, and lay on with the sunscreen, but I was seriously knackered by the end of it with the heat sapping my energy extra-quick.  I forgot the sunscreen at Weymouth earlier in the year and ended up with sunburnt arms up to my short sleeves.  Took me a week to stop scratching, just in time for another hot day at the Widcombe Street Party. At least at Weymouth there was a nice breeze, so it felt cooler (which is why I got burnt, cause I didn’t notice how hot it really was).  I don’t know how you Border sides survive in your rag coats in that kind of weather.  I think I’d melt.

On the other hand, those rag coats would come in useful for some of the dance outs we do at the very end of the season, or early in the spring.  Cheltenham Folk Festival must be the earliest in February.  It’s often gloriously sunny, just freezing cold, especially in the shade.  And I’m convinced the town planners there aligned the streets just so they’d catch the wind.  Removing three layers before we dance is not unusual, but we’re often very enthusiastic to make sure we stay warm.  It’s harder on the musicians who are, relatively, standing still.  We also do an annual Christmas dance out for charity in Bath city centre.  It’s never been cancelled in ten years due to weather (that I can remember), and in fact we can have some wonderful days with the low sun angle warming up the Bath stone to a gorgeous honey colour.  It’s just cold – definitely long sleeve weather, although we haven’t yet succumbed to dancing in our cardigans (well, not often anyway).

Bundled up to keep warm at a sunny Christmas dance out

Bundled up to keep warm at a sunny Christmas dance out

So, we’ll dance in the the heat, and in the sun, and in the freezing cold.  The wind can cause other problems with hats and hoops and skirts flying around.  It’s not often that a dance out is cancelled to the wind, but we did come to that point this year.  We were supposed to be dancing at the Somerset Wagon in Chilcompton with Priston Jubilee Morris.  It hadn’t been a nice day weather-wise and it just got worse.  Very windy with a little bit of rain thrown in to make life interesting.  I felt sure someone would cancel, but no phone calls came through or emails or anything to make me stop getting ready, so I set off.  I kind of figured that Chilcompton was far enough away and in the Mendips not the Cotswolds, so it might be better weather down there… Who was I kidding! It got worse, and windier.  But pretty much all of Mr Wilkins turned up – even if we sat in the pub and drank coffee (most of us were driving, OK?) – before some of Priston came in (they hadn’t had a cancellation either).  So, we didn’t dance outside, but some hardy folk danced inside in very cramped conditions and the musicians got an impromptu session in the pub – so they were definitely happy.

That’s the only dance out that has been cancelled (eventually) due to the weather this year.  There have been a couple of close calls – drizzle on a dance floor laid on a sloping lawn was probably the diciest.  But that was about the dance surface, not the weather really. Rain on some surfaces can make for a very dangerous dancing surface, particularly if lots of turns are needed and our clogs have absolutely no grip on them.  One year in Chippenham – the last before they brought the stage under cover – we had to wait until they had finished taking the squeegee to the surface before we could start. We were very careful.

It was tipping it down this morning as I walked to work – and home again – and this is what got me thinking.  At what point will Morris dancers call a halt and refuse to dance due to the weather conditions?  This morning’s rain would really put a dampner on any dancing – at least until it stopped and the puddles dried up a little.  Some sides might dance in wetter weather than others (partially depending on footwear).  We have a wet-weather alternative, but that will never be as suitable as dancing outside. So I will be putting out a little word towards Maahes, Thor, the Theoi Meteoroi, Jupiter and Caillech to ask for clement weather for our little shindig. Sunny with a slight breeze would be nice. Anything but today’s downpour. Please?

With apologies to William Shakespeare Esq.

Different audiences

We’ve been a little busy over the last month (for us), so it’s taken me a while to grab some time to ponder over the events we’ve been to.  Quite a variety, and with a variety of audiences (and weather).

First came the Party in the City on a Friday evening in May.  This is the first night of the Bath International Music Festival: there are free public performances of music all over the city – in the Abbey, in churches, halls, on the streets. In last couple of years it has co-incided with Museums at Night where museums around the country open for free after normal closing hours. Combine the two, and you get free music in the museums as well.  P1180328The city was full of people in the late evening, spilling out of the Abbey doors into the cool evening air. People stopped and started as the fancy took them – and we provided some music and dancing in Kingston Parade right outside the Abbey and Roman Baths.  Interspersed with performances by the Widcombe Mummers, we provided the folk tradition interval between the children’s and adult choirs in the Abbey. The audience, therefore, was whoever so happened to stop by.  The Mayor of Bath stopped off for a while before she moved on to other venues.  Many tourists, most of whom were probably unaware this festival was going on that night, also stopped to watch on the way past.  We often get asked to explain a little more about the dancing, music, kit, sticks, clogs etc. as they watch, and we’re always happy to oblige.  Most of them are pleasantly surprised that they enjoy it – morris dancing has a reputation for being one of those boring things beardy folk do outside pubs (I’ll come to them later…).

A few days later, after a damp weekend, we were at the Chippenham Folk Festival for the Bank Holiday Monday.  I’d dropped by on the Sunday and saw some great dancing  – Wheal Sophia were dancing up a storm on the stage (one of the noisier ones to perform on in clogs). Lots of visiting sides make the trip, and many visitors come back year on year.  P1180696Monday was a little thinner on the ground for morris sides – I think there was another day of dance on in the neighbouring county that drew away some of the Hampshire sides. But the weather held and we had a great time as usual performing for a quite knowledgable audience.  Some of them seem to have their favourite style of morris and often ask when we are next performing. It was great to see Devizes Morris there with their affiliated junior side, Rigel Morris, from Roundway School.  Only the kids’ first dance out and they also managed to take part in an adult dance that they had never performed before.  Keep going guys, you did great.

Our next performance was the Wessex Folk Festival in Weymouth.  We don’t often get down to Weymouth for this one, and we did only have 7 dancers so were pulling together some of our smaller dances for this event.  But there was a large enthusiastic crowd at the seaside that day.  Glorious sunshine (I forgot my sunscreen and paid for it), but dancers do like an audience.  We've moved!One of the spots was due to be round the back of Cooper’s Yard, but this was abandoned and moved due to lack of audience (other than ourselves).  Other morris sides make a great audience, just not as good as having loads of people in the main part of the event.  So we set off to round the back of the ambulance – which moved to alongside the ambulance to not disturb a local resident.  It probably helped that we were near a tearoom and pub, both with outside seating (the pub also served really nice local ciders). One of the problems with the site we were on – a road alongside the river – was the width of the site.  Plenty of space to dance, if you didn’t mind dancing straight towards the public almost walking through the middle of your set.  I can avoid the odd person, but baby buggies are a little harder.  I haven’t been to Weymouth for many years, and I enjoyed the return visit.

We were next supposed to meet up with Priston Jubilee Morris for a pub dance out in Chilcompton (the so-called ‘beardy’ folk dancers outside the pub).  We did this last year as well, and enjoyed ourselves as long as the light lasted, but the weather was not being kind to us this time.   Most of Mr Wilkins turned up – we hadn’t been told otherwise – and at least had a drink.  An impromptu music session was held and the dancers even managed a couple of (small) dances inside the pub itself before retiring for the evening.  Many of the pub dance outs we do are in the evenings, so we have a limited audience.  Unless it’s a warm evening, the patrons often stay inside, so the audience may be limited to just the dancers.  No less enthusiastic, and often an opportunity to catch up with familiary faces from other events through the year.

P1190260Last on this list is another unique local event.  For many years we took part in an event called Widcombe Rising, which became very popular and quite large.  It had started as a protest to get the priorities for a local road changed and remove heavy traffic from Widcombe Parade and make it safer for pedestrians and residents.  This campaign succeeded a few years ago and the Rising was stopped.  Now the road alterations have finally been finished and, to celebrate its opening (at last), the local Widcombe Association held a party to celebrate.  And we went along to help celebrate after attending so many of the Risings through the years.  Blessed with another gloriously sunny day, we were dancing in the middle of the brand new road surface which was, unfortunately, very narrow just where we started as it was a crossing point.  Made for some interesting squeezes in some dances, but added to the laughter.  The audience was out in force, determined to enjoy themselves, and the PA announcer was on our side as well, so we had a good build up to the performances.  The last spot especially garnered a bigger audience (it was a wider bit of road, admittedly), and even got a round of barking from a couple of enthusiastic dogs who weren’t quite sure what to make of the whole thing.

It’s the variety that makes events interesting.  Some fall a little flat, and some are great fun despite the hindrances of space or weather. What makes them work for good or bad is often the audience.  So please go out and support your local morris sides.  They all appreciate a good round of applause.

Dancing on the side of a hill, and other hazards

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Well, that was fun! We’ve just had our first pub dance out of the year.  We were invited along by Somerset Morris, who had been temporarily kicked out of their practice hall due to the general election (it’s other alter ego is as a polling station). Our host pub was the Bird in Hand in Saltford, a great family pub down by the River Avon. We’ve only had one dance out so far this year, at the JMO Day of Dance in Bristol – we’re not one of the sides willing to get up at the crack of dawn to dance in May Day. This night gave us a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the vagaries of outdoor dancing instead of in our nice comfy practice hall.

P1180258As is normal, we had part of the car park cordoned off for us – which didn’t stop the usual customer deciding that the cones weren’t meant for him and he could park in the space at the top that had so conveniently been left when the rest of the car park was almost full. Luckily, one of Somerset Morris got to him before he’d even switched off the engine, and he moved the car off our dancing surface.  Now, we’re used to dancing on all sorts of surfaces that come in all sorts of shapes and sizes surrounded by varied hazards.  This car park appeared relatively benign. Until we started dancing.

A wall at the top of the slope had a set of steps down on to the tarmac delimiting one side of the space.  Cars lined the other side, so not much room off the arena allowed for overspill. Not usually a problem as most of our dances, being North West processional in style, are danced in a rectangular shape which fit nicely into the shape provided.  That is until we got to the final figure of one dance – Butterly Brick – where we all line up across the dance area… In which case our line ended up wider than the dance space available and Dr Mrs Wilkins ended up dancing on the bottom tread of the steps.  Well we are adaptable, but we don’t usually practice for these sorts of circumstances.

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Wearing clogs we need a hard surface to dance on.  The best is usually based on wood of some sort – we once had a particuarly bouncy surface at Beckington on a makeshift stage based on railway sleepers with plywood on top – as it has some give in it. More often than not we dance on tarmac, concrete or some other paving surface.  Acutally dulls the sound of the clogs slightly, and we often end up with aching feet by the end as there is very little shock-absorbancy in the wood on tarmac combination. So this car park is well within our usual limitations.

What we don’t usually specify is exactly what counts at flat. The tarmac was flat – it hadn’t got any potholes, gravel or even the frequently danced-around manhole cover – so that was fine.  What we don’t define is what angle of slope is acceptable.  I mean, we don’t go out with an inclinometer to check it’s acceptable. We usually find out as we’re dancing.  The first couple of dances are fine and we have enough puff to laugh about going uphill.  Towards the end of the evening we do tend to find ranting backwards uphill a little more troublesome.

So, if you see a morris dancer kneeling on the ground peering at a spirit level, then it’s probably Mrs Wilkins checking the angle of the slope is within acceptable limits.

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Where to dance?

Well, time is advancing and the AGM is getting closer. Lots of planning going on, and the application forms will be going out with the next Morris Fed newsletter. When those start coming in, it will really start to feel real. In the mean time, there are still things to finalise, not least where we’re all going to dance.

As a Northwest side, wearing clogs, we have quite specific needs for a dance surface – flat and hard. Although we are quite adaptable and have danced in tiny spaces & strange-shaped places; on cobbles, flagstones, and roadways; we cannot dance on grass or soft carpets despite what we have been offered at times. On the other hand, the Morris styles that don’t wear clogs – such as Border and Cotswold – may perform on grass or other softer surfaces. But if you are trying to arrange dance spots for a range of Morris styles, you have to take account of all needs: surfaces, space, seating, audience etc. It’s been an interesting exercise.

Our Squire and I spent a damp, but ultimately useful day touring central Bath eyeing up opportunities. All the sites have to be passed by the Council to ensure they won’t clash with other events or roadworks etc. Some sites are bypassed, however fantastic they may seem, because the landowner is known to charge an extortionate fee for the use of the space. Which left us with about 26 sites to look at and assess. I never realised there were so many possibilities in the city, but we are lucky with quite wide pavements (due to a lot of pedestrianisation or pavement widening through the years), and good surfaces in general. We also have some quite famous spots to choose from – Morris in front of the Royal Crescent? One of our considerations.

Georgian Morris dancing?

Georgian Morris dancing?

The main down side to Bath are the hills. I know a lot of places have hills, but some of ours are quite steep and they divide the main part of the city centre from its fringes – the river cuts off the southern side. The reason the Royal Crescent was built where it was is because it was above the 18th century town centre, giving views to the south – but this also means that it is a fair climb out of the centre of town. This, unfortunately makes it one of our fringe sites, even though it would be a good opportunity to frighten the life out of the visitors heading for the Georgian splendour of the museum at No 1 Royal Crescent being confronted with a Border Morris side in full flow…

Dancing in the street is fine without pedestrians

Dancing in the street is fine without pedestrians

Some potential pitches are right in the heart of the city – in the middle of the street in fact. This poses other problems. Let’s face it, not everyone in Bath will be there to stop and watch us dancing, much as we might like them to. Some of the pedestrians will be locals just trying to wedge their way past the tourists, Festival-goers (the Bath Children’s Literature Festival starts the same day), 4×4 baby buggies and other shoppers to get on with their shopping list. So some pitches will come with a warning to ensure we allow space to the sides of the street for those poor shoppers just trying to get into WHSmith or buy a new pair of shoes. Hopefully they may stop and watch as well.

Of course Morris sides can make a lot of noise, in case you hadn’t noticed. Whilst we’re happily clumping around in clogs or jingling up the street in bells to dance to the sound of melodeons, trombones, drusms and various other instruments, not all the shopkeepers or householders will be quite so happy.  We are hoping to at least warn them in advance.  I’m quite sure the pub landlords won’t be too unhappy though.

Mendelssohn v Morris?

Mendelssohn v Morris?

Another consideration that cropped up in discussions was ensuring that there wasn’t a wedding that morning… The main dance area will be right outside Bath Abbey – we wouldn’t want the Wedding March drowned out by the Lass of Richmond Hill, or vice versa. It’s surprising how much music can carry, and the recent contretemps over amplified busking in this area causing the suspension of Evensong was the talk of the local newspaper. We have been assured that there are no weddings planned for that day – although it would be an appropriate day for a Morris wedding.

Keep an eye on the line in the paving stones

Keep an eye on the line in the paving stones

There are some places we just have to stand and look at wistfully and dream of dancing there. Not because they’re of particular heritage importance (which is an issue in a World Heritage Site), but because they’re of commercial importance. This is a particular issue where the land is controlled by a corporation not a council. The corporation has no requirement to make allowances for local artistic groups or community performers. They may intend to keep out the buskers by their policy, but they also end up barring everyone unless they can pay – a lot. So we can dance in some places as long as we, literally, toe the line. Paving changes mark a change in ownership and allows us to dance on one side, but not the other. So watch where you put those toes as it could be expensive.

Buskers are another question. Bath has a lot of buskers, and they are quite protective of their busking sites, how long they use them for, and on what days. Mrs Wilkins the Secretary has built up a good relationship with the ‘organiser’ of the buskers – there isn’t a formal organiser, just someone who keeps the rest of the buskers informed about things. When we’ve danced in the city in the last few years we’ve done it with the blessing and pre-arranged agreement of the buskers since we are taking up one of their revenue-generating spots for a period of time. As you can imagine, we are going to be taking over a lot of their prime spots for most of a Saturday during school holidays. We are being very nice to them to, hopefully, prevent arguments and misunderstandings. After all, they can’t really just nip round the corner from where we’re dancing as a busker singing Nessun Dorma or playing a Spanish guitar isn’t going to match up to the British Grenadiers very well.

It’s not until you start looking into these things that you realise how many details there are to think about: spaces, surfaces, permissions, buskers, weddings, Council Highways Department, shops and shoppers. So, when you look at the timetable and the place you’re dancing, there’s a lot of factors that have been considered before we arranged to use that site. And there will be a steward there to warn you when your toes get too close to that line.

Dancing outside the pub (Mr Wilkins' first public outing 27 years ago)

Dancing outside the pub (site of Mr Wilkins’ Shiling’s first public outing 27 years ago)

Blowing out the cobwebs

Welcome to the new year. I hope you are all back upright and raring to go for a new season after the revels and revelations of the holidays? I’m not. Takes me until about February I think even with the current gales to spur me on the way. But the dancing has restarted already.

P1130272Rewinding a little… We had a successful, slightly windy and (ultimately) sunny Christmas danceout on 7th? December. The crowds came and went as they negotiated the usual pre-Christmas shopping chaos and left us their cash for our nominated charities. I even managed to film a bit of the dancing this year and put it up on YouTube.

Our Christmas party marks the end of the year’s events for us – we don’t partake of Boxing Day or New Year dancing as most of manage to disperse to the four corners of the country, if not the world. We invade a kind member’s home for the party – the spouses make a hasty departure to a quiet corner as the rest of us has another good blether. I’m afraid it’s one of the side-effects of ladies’ sides – lots of talking. But the up side is that there’s usually good food around as well. By some telepathic process we end up with just the right balance of food to nibble (we save the cakes for other meetings…).

Just desserts left

Just desserts left

We also swap Christmas cards. To save the hassle of writing so many, or the embarrassment of forgetting someone, we have a unique way of exchanging cards (well, unique in my experience). We all bring a cards for ourselves then send it round for everyone else to sign. It’s a great idea – we get the card that we want, and no-one is left out accidentally. At the same time we send round a bowl to take additional money to add to the collection from the Christmas danceout. This year we raised enough between the two collections to send a cheque for £165 to each of the nominated charities – Prostate Cancer UK and the Jessie May Trust.

And now our clogs are firmly in 2015 it’s back to the dancing. The first dance practice of the year always takes a bit of getting used to. Blowing the cobwebs from the brain to remember the figures and warming the muscles up to remember the steps. So maybe it wasn’t one of our best practices. But we enjoyed it, which is the point after all.

Now that we’re all warmed up, it’s time to get some more dancers in to the practice. Our New Starters/Beginners/Welcome evening is next week(never quite sure what the title of this event is – it’s really just an excuse for more tea and cakes 🙂 ), and I have to work out what we are going to dance. What we, as a side, find easy, is not necessarily easy to a beginner. And some dancers find some dances easier than others, just as they find single step easier than ranting (at least to start with). Do you start with interesting, but a little challenging, to keep them curious enough to return? Or do you start with simple but a little staid and boring to give them enough confidence to continue and think that they can do this. It all depends on the individual, and we don’t know who’s going to turn up yet….

So, if you are already a Morris dancer or musician, I hope you have a good 2015.  I may even see you at the Morris Fed AGM and Day of Dance in September – yes, I will keep mentioning it for a while yet.  If you aren’t yet a Morris dancer, then may I encourage you to give it a go?  Great fun, good exercise, great craic, tasty buns and cakes, lots of pubs, new people and interesting places you never knew existed before.  Even better… if you’re in the Bath area, why not come along and visit us one Thursday evening in Batheaston.  Don’t worry if you can’t make the 15th January, we’re open to new dancers any time.

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Swanage Folk Festival – beach weather

“Didn’t we have a loverly time, the day we went to Swanage?” (sorry, now you won’t stop humming it). Actually, we had a great time. Swanage is one of our favourite festivals and it marks the end of the majority of our dancing season. Being towards the end of the year, it’s like a big party and everyone has fun. We did have to avoid the roadworks on the sea front, which left it a little crowded along there, but we’re used to that. The Procession even went off quite well – we got in Zig Zags twice, which we often don’t get to do at all. Funny how the little things can make you inordinately happy.

View from the amphitheatre, Prince Albert Gardens

View from the amphitheatre, Prince Albert Gardens

We even got the weather for it this year. Perhaps a little muggy, which tires out the muscles quickly, but a little light breeze, not too much direct sunshine and (practically) no rain – the few drops were more like the clouds complaining it was too humid than real rain. Weather can have quite an effect on a Morris dancer, let alone the musicians, who really don’t react too well to rainfall.

We’ll dance in most weathers, although very wet can be dangerous for clog dancers as we have no grip on slippy surfaces. Border and Cotswold, with their soft shoes, generally get on better and can often be seen braving torrents of water to entertain the more waterproof members of the crowd. Chippenham Folk Festival has often flirted with some very damp weather in May – we were once first on the stage (before they enclosed it in a tent) at 11am after they had swept off the worst of the water. We gave up dancing later that day, soaked through, and retreated for tea and cake (and a tumble dryer).

Swanage Folk Festival 2009 - a very windy seafront Blackadder

Swanage Folk Festival 2009 – a very windy seafront Blackadder

Wind poses different problems. Heavy rain will make us take our hats off (straw isn’t waterproof and goes a little soggy in the wet), but if it gets windy we keep them on as long as possible and tie them down a little more firmly. Swanage can often blow up a strong breeze, being beside the sea, which can make some dances a little more interesting. As we have quite long, though fairly heavy, skirts, they can blow around and threaten to trip us up. Hoops get blown left, when we should be going right, and long hair doesn’t help visual acuity. But we keep going – some Border sides have a little more trouble with their spectacular top hats filled with feathers and flowers and an adverse windage factor.

Occasionally we have pulled out of a festival or had an event cancelled on us due to bad weather, but no-one considers cancelling for good weather. In some ways, that can affect a dance even more adversely. Sun overhead, little or no wind and high temperatures can make for some very uncomfortable conditions. Lots of drinking water on hand helps, but sometimes you only discover how bad it was afterwards when the sunburn shows up and you glow red for the next week.

We do a Christmas dance out each year, for charity, in Bath, and you would think this would qualify as our coldest event (thermals, long sleeves, fleeces etc required). But the coldest event we attend? Cheltenham in February. Bring the hot water bottle and arctic gear!

Dancing on the seafront

Dancing on the seafront

Sidmouth Folk Week – Sunday on the Prom

As I couldn’t make it to Sidmouth, Mrs Wilkins the Quilter has stepped up to fill us in on the day’s activities:

Coffee at Duke's to start the dayAs a side we have been dancing at Sidmouth Folk Festival, off and on, for more years than we like to remember. Every time the instructions are the same, “meet at the Marlborough or whatever it is called these days”. (It changed its name to Dukes about 15 years ago!)

Anyway the 10 of us who were going to dance were reduced to 8 by the evening before; a broken toe earlier in the week dropped one dancer, and a bug infection dropped another. Then I fell down the stairs, hurrying to get ready that morning and so 8 became 7; a tiny bit of a problem when most of our dances are for 8.

But we all mLunch on the 'Beach'et up at Dukes, as planned, for a coffee before dancing started. A bit of a conflab later and it was decided to perform those dances that lend themselves to being performed in reduced sets of 4 dancers: Blackadder, Shawforth, Bollin and, of course, our favourite Richmond. A quick talk through, because we hadn’t danced it for a while, and we felt confident to add Plymouth Reel for 6 to the list.

Our unofficial Morris Correspondent had met up with Green Willow Clog the day before and so it was agreed that we should share a dance spot with them by the Lifeboat Station. The prom was packed with spectators and morris dancers all vying for space but we managed to find a little bit of tarmac to call our own as we danced turn and turnabout with Green Willow. It is always good to watch other sides, to share experiences and dances and today was no exception. Green Willow invited us to join in with one of their dances and then later in the afternoon they joined us for Plymouth Reel.

After a lunch break and the chance for some to picnic on the beach, we headed down the other end of the Prom. We had the chance to share spots with Ragged and Old from near Stroud; our neighbours Somerset Morris, from Marksbury; and Green Willow Clog again. The dancing in the afternoon was threatened with spots of rain, enough to leave off our hats (they don’t like getting wet) but not enough to dampen our spirits.

Dancing over there was time for a quick wander around the music and craft stalls before a cream tea at the Grosvenor Tea Rooms, with some of the best scones ever, before heading home.