Wessex Morris Men: The sight and sound of summer
Benjamin Blech meets a group of the county's best-known Morris dancers
Published in May ’14
It’s all in the dance. Sunshine, long still evenings, clear blue skies, thriving green fields and joyful faces without a care in the world. For centuries, bell-clad ankles, clashing wood and the driving sound of the concertina has been rural England’s way of celebrating the summer season; Dorset is no different.
The ‘Cotswold traditions’ danced by the Wessex Morris Men have hardly changed since the group – known as a side – first moved to Cerne Abbas in the mid-1950s, explains the side’s longest serving member, Don Byfleet, outside the first stop on a tour of three West Dorset villages.
Cecil Sharp is widely regarded as the man to thank for the continued existence of the Morris. When the dance was on the verge of dying out in early 1900s, Sharp meticulously catalogued a range of Morris traditions and in 1907, he published his ‘Morris Books’ – the first definitive records of Morris traditions – which remain some of the most trusted guides to the dance to this day.
Forty years later, there was an ‘absolute explosion’ of new Morris sides, explains Don, who discovered the joys and challenges of the Morris as a teenager in 1948.
‘I used to belong to a scout group in Weymouth, where there was one of these idiots who came down from Cambridge, who used to do Morris dancing’, he recalls with a chuckle. ‘We thought “that sounds alright, lets have a crack at it”. But he was such a rotten teacher that after about three weeks he left and we all gave up. A couple of years later I met a very experienced Morris dancer who’d got a side going in Yeovil; when the leader left, I more or less took over.’
In 1957, the Morris side – which Don ‘was tearing up from Weymouth’ to dance with every Monday night – became known as the Wessex Morris Men. Over sixty years on, he still dances with the side and has no plans to hang up his bells any time soon.
‘We do about fifty dances and eleven traditions, and try and do them all as well as we can’, says David Chiplem. ‘We practise every Monday in the winter months. We’re not just messing about: we take it very seriously’.
‘It is, though,’ says Don, ‘the “après-Morris” in the pub that’s the best. It’s all an excuse to work up a thirst, but part of the enjoyment is in getting it right… and taking pride in doing it.’
‘[The Morris] is a young man’s dance, says David with calm conviction. You’re trying to show how strong, virile and agile you are, and how high you can get off the ground.’
The two things that the Wessex Morris Men have in common is that they all started young – most in their late teens or early twenties – and that they’ve been dedicated to it ever since. Don’s story is an example not of a rare exception, but of a consistent theme of enduring commitment to the art and culture of the Morris; it is a journey that frequently spans forty, fifty, even sixty years.
Everyone identified Morris dancing as being ‘great fun’ and that it was the pleasure they got from doing it that had kept them dancing for so long. With wives, children and friends all part of a close travelling community, camaraderie and comradeship are as much part of life as a Morris dancer as the dance itself.
‘I love the company, the sheer enjoyment of being out with the blokes, explains lead-man and musician Howard Gorringe. ‘We’ve got teachers, gardeners, local government employees, a rocket scientist, farmers. It doesn’t matter what your background is. It’s one of the most classless things I’ve ever come across.’
Jeremy Wilton agrees: ‘Morris dancing is for anyone. I don’t consider myself a “folkie” and I don’t play an instrument. I do it because I enjoy it.’
An evening with the Wessex Morris men is a night out like no other. But there is one troubling issue: their struggle to attract younger members, who will ultimately keep the Morris going.
‘The impression is we’re a side of old men, and that therefore the attitude will be old, which means some 18-25 year-olds might not feel it’s for them, which is a great shame’ says Howard Gorringe. ‘Sides which attract younger people tend to be based around their children. None of us has had youngsters who have stayed in the area and, as a consequence, it has been difficult to attract younger people.’
Some of the side’s experiences suggest that part of becoming a Morris dancer, particularly for young people, is learning to live with the negative perceptions of a relatively small minority. ‘It took me some time to be open about the fact that I was a Morris dancer’, admits Jeremy Wilson with a smile. ‘I think some young people feel it might spoil their “street cred”.’
‘When a colleague first insisted that I give Morris dancing a go, my initial reaction was: “No. I’m not doing that,” David Chiplem recalls with a chuckle. That was 13 October 1978.’
The Morris has seen its ups and downs over the centuries – even rising from the dead once before – so the next revival may lie somewhere on the road ahead.
‘I was 25 when I joined,’ says David. ‘There was an influx of young people taking up Morris dancing then, so maybe that’ll happen again. At the moment there’s a lot of interest in folk music and song, and Dorset already has many groups attracting younger people, so maybe that’ll spin on.’
As midnight approaches in West Stafford, the Wessex Morris men and their families sing soulful American blues ballads in perfect harmony. Each song tells a story of ordinary people sharing part of their experience of life. Beneath everything the Wessex Morris Men say about life as a Morris dancer, it seems that very same sharing of experience, as well as the opportunity to come together to share a moment and be part of a community, is what ultimately inspires them to keep on dancing. ◗