Morris dancing 101


They say Morris dancing is good for aerobic fitness. Plus, you get to drink cider and belt people with sticks. I was musing about this while getting down on one knee in the kitchen looking for a salad bowl and, having found it, then thinking about having to get up again. I’ve increasingly noticed a difficulty/disinclination to rise from sitting/ kneeling/squatting to the upright position. The physiotherapist and the yoga teacher tell me this is a deterioration in ‘core strength’ as one’s body ages.

The last six-week yoga session was eventful for the number of movements which (a) caused me pain or (b) were not possible at all. There are many ways those in the 65+ category can keep our bodies in shape and work on maintaining the core strength that makes everyday movements as easy as they were in our youth. (It should be pointed out to musicians that playing the piano, harp, fiddle, mandolin or guitar for two hours straight is not exercise).

No, I’m talking about yoga, Pilates, tai chi, aerobics or aqua aerobics, jogging, swimming, surfing or the more conventional group fitness activities like dancing, sparring, gym sessions and bike riding. There’s a local group known as the “Lycra Lizards” who put on helmets and bike riding gear then pedal to points far away and back again. A while ago, I met one of the Lycra Lizards aged 60+ who was hobbling up the main street. He told me they (the Lizards) had just ridden to Brisbane (93.9 kms) and a few rode back again. Others put their bikes and their smarting bodies on the train to Landsborough where mobiles came out and texts were sent to partners/friends to pick them up at the station.

NB: Holding a kindle upright is not exercise

In my book, riding a bicycle from Maleny to Brisbane and then back again (including the notorious 14.9 kms uphill climb from Landsborough) qualifies as extreme exercise. My fitness yardstick is to walk from the creek at the bottom of our property 250m uphill to the mailbox without huffing. Unhappily, I’m flat out making it to the lemon tree half-way up.

My GP is more than happy with my cholesterol levels, blood pressure and general fitness. But as any personal trainer will tell you, there is a lot of difference between walking to town and back and doing something which challenges your level of aerobic fitness (like rowing, kayaking, jogging, hefting weights, skipping, sparring or hauling both wheelie bins uphill to the kerb). If you are curious about your aerobic fitness, see how long it takes your pulse to return to normal after aerobic exercise. The YMCA yardstick for men over 65 is 59-81 seconds (good), 130-156 seconds (very poor). Do this at your own risk.

And now he talks about Morris!

This brings me to the Morris tradition, a relentless form of dancing that involves every muscle in the body. When my Morris dancer friend Eric turned 70 I asked him how much longer he could keep on dancing and he said he’d still be doing it when he’s 100. So of course I wrote a song along those lines, sitting hunched over my guitar for as long as it took to develop RSI symptoms.

For those who came late to Friday on My Mind, this is episode 103, the first of which, on May 2nd 2014, explained the ancient rituals of Morris dancing. This year, finally, I made it to the summit of Mt Coot-tha at dawn on the 1st of May to help the Morris men and women of Brisbane and surrounds dance up the sun. You might remember this:

“Songwriter John Thompson (Cloudstreet) penned a song a few years ago which starts: “Dance up the sun on a fine May morning, dance up to sun to call in the spring…” and traces the English tradition that spawned this annual event. Morris dancing is so old it figures in Shakespeare’s writings and it was ancient then. The May Day legend has it that if Morris men (and women), do not dance up the sun, the sun will nevermore rise.

Those with even a passing interest in folk music and folk festivals will have seen and heard Morris dancers as they walk around festival sites with bells attached to their legs. Dancers either use garlands of flowers or hankies for the gentle dances, or they clash sticks and bump bellies, symbolising the battle between the seasons. Morris dancers usually wear hats with flowers, and “tatter coats” and many paint their faces, but there are as many variations in dress and dance style as there are Morris teams. The tradition flourishes in the UK, but there are also about 150 Morris teams in the US and it lives on in colonial outposts like Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Morris dancers are the traditional butt of jokes among the folkies who prefer to sit around tables in pubs playing tunes. You know the ones – the A part and the B part repeated until whoever is running the tunes session changes to another tune of the same ilk. This is a curious irony, as Morris dancers are accompanied by three or four musicians thumping out folk tunes using instruments like accordions, whistles, drums and hurdy-gurdys. The tunes are typically in 2/4, 6/8 or 4/4 time or a slow march tempo so the dancers have time to execute dramatic stick clashes, accompanied by visceral screaming and occasional bodily injuries.

Those who have no time for Morris men would remember this, from Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder: “Morris dancing is the most fatuous, tenth-rate entertainment ever devised by man. Forty effeminate blacksmiths waving bits of cloth they’ve just wiped their noses on. How it’s still going on in this day and age I’ll never know.”

Well to hell with Blackadder – some of my best friends are Morris dancers. A bunch of them came to my 60th birthday party and dragged me up for the Upton on Severn Stick Dance. I’m OK now.

That Australia’s Morris sides get up early on the first of May is a credit to them, as this is typically a misty mid-autumn day Down Under. What they are actually celebrating is an ancient Northern Hemisphere Spring festival – the darling buds of May and all that. May Day celebrations pre-date Christianity. The Romans celebrated the festival of Flora (the goddess of flower) and in Celtic countries this dates back to the Beltane festival.

These pagan traditions were stamped out when Europe was Christianised, but the maypole dance survives in many countries as a reminder of what Sigmund Freud interpreted as a phallic fertility ritual. Dancers assemble around a tall pole, each holding a coloured ribbon as they dance in a circle. The multi-coloured ribbons form a rainbow around the pole and when the dancers turn and go back the other way, the ribbons unravel.

Just don’t tell your kids about Freud – silly old man.”