Having a go at dancing with Rutland Morris in Ashwell Village Hall
There aren’t too many physical activities that put a smile on your face - so those that do should be embraced heartily.
Gym-going brings grimaces. Jogging is a tear-jerker (especially when it’s cold). Even summer sports such as tennis have elbow issues.
But morris dancing? Rollicking around with bells and bashing other people’s big sticks until they splinter can’t fail to be amusing - and is strangely addictive.
Their first foray into mixed-sex dancing came in the form of a taster session in Ashwell Village Hall on Sunday. And nearly a dozen of us ventured along for a go - including several women.
A brief introduction from Dave Casewell, ‘squire’ (leader) of the side (group), introduced some morris vocab, then it was on to clothing.
I didn’t discover why his squire attire included a Mad Hatter-esque top hat, but we were enlightened that the cricket whites look was that of the ‘Cotswold’ sides while the tattered cloth jackets (raggies) owed their origin to the ‘Border’ teams.
Adornments included baldrics (criss-cross straps in the green and yellow colours of Rutland’s flag), rosettes, and straw hats decorated with flowers.
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Next up was a run-through of the basic stepping motion: enough movement to ring below-the-knee bells but not over-enthusing into a full-on can-can.
Then it was time to attempt a Border dance called ‘Not For Joe’, and Cotswolds dances ‘Constant Billy from Headington Quarry’ and ‘Bonny Green Garters’, each helpfully broken into short demos by Jonathan Unna, a founding member.
Keeping up fancy footwork in tandem with arm movements proved impossible for a novice like me. If I was banging a stick or waving a hankie then the feet were planted on the floor or, at best, adopting the sort of trotting motion a child might do while pretending to ride a pony.
On our final ‘Constant Billy’ of three full run-throughs I at last managed to clunk sticks in time with my saintly patient partner for the dance, Richard.
Boy, it felt good.
And that is the joy of learning to morris dance - especially with the Rutland side, who don’t seem to take it too seriously. Getting it wrong is amusing and getting it right feels great. It’s a win-win.
It’s also good for keeping fit without being sweaty hard work. Some of those who have danced for years used to jump higher, bang sticks harder and wave hankies with greater gusto. But they haven’t stopped, and what they might have lost in power they make up for in experience and precision.
Similarly, it’s exercise for the brain. Learning the routines and listening for movement cues as the music moves on must be doing the grey matter good, and on top of this is the feel-good factor, as mentioned.
Throw in friendships made and camaraderie felt, plus the chance to visit pubs more frequently (morris dancing and pubs go hand-in-hand) then this is a hobby a lot of people could enjoy.
Pete Emmott, who joined Rutland Morris last year, doesn’t appear to be a traditional morris dancer - if such a stereotype exists. Heavyset and with a sardonic sense of humour, he seems more ‘army veteran' than twinkle-toes, but has already learned the moves.
“I saw some morris dancing going on and thought ‘that looks good fun’,” he said.
“And when I found out when this group meets - on Monday evenings - it fitted in with other commitments.”
On St George’s Day (April 23), practice gives way to ‘dancing out’, which includes dancing at pubs, dancing in the dawn at 5.17am on May 1, attending fetes and festivals, and walking tours.
This year is a special year for the side, which was established 50 years ago by Mike Harnett from Ashwell, a skilled dancer who died in September following a long illness.
He was the Rutland’s first squire and helped the county to host several national meetings over the years.
Rutland Morris has danced for the late Queen Elizabeth, and even appeared in a Bollywood film, Bride and Prejudice.