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Give it some stick

Morris dancing often provokes sniggers. But, as Stephen Manning discovers, one inner city teacher is brave enough to take up her bells and staff and give the old English custom a try

It may have been officially declared an icon of England, but few pastimes are subject to more ridicule than morris dancing. What might be more surprising is that it's not restricted to village greens, but is now breaking out and invading our sacred inner cities.

In this environment, it's the brave teacher who dons the flower-adorned hat, attaches the bells to their shoes and goes into battle waving the handkerchief. After all, the risk of humiliation in the classroom may seem too great. But Jo Klaces, a 56-year-old teacher at Queensbridge School, an inner city secondary comprehensive in Moseley, Birmingham, is spending much of her summer doing just that, and she insists there are many positives to this most beleaguered of pursuits.

She did the deed for the first time last summer when she joined a group who were rehearsing for a performance at a local arts festival in Moseley. "We have a core group of about 15 members, of all ages, including quite a few younger people. I enjoyed the rehearsals in the church hall and now we have performed in public a few times."

Morris dancing seems like a complete package the clothes, the carefully choreographed dance steps, the music, as well as its strong heritage claims. For some, morris dancing morris is supposedly derived from "moorish" is one of the few remaining things seen as uniquely English, though in truth, morris dancing and related activities have gone on all over the world, including in France where it is known as "la morisque".

An outsider might expect the members to be disciplined, perhaps even cult-ish, but not so. Jo admits that, of the group, she is not one of the leading lights. "I am useless at dancing, as physically I'm uncoordinated. I don't like ballet. But I do like exercise, and it's especially good for that."

The uniform is quite strict white shirt with elastic waist, black socks, bells on your shoes and, as Jo puts it, an appalling hat. But she does not have to spend time working on her costume that is provided by the group's organisers. She does not go in for the clogs that some do, which she describes as very heavy of hoof. Instead, she wears her school plimsolls.

"I like the festive, communal atmosphere and the fact that it needs to be accompanied by live music," she says. "It's my kind of music, really, being something of a folkie we are accompanied by fiddle and accordion." On occasion the musical ranks are swelled by a wind section, guitars, banjos, a big bass drum and yet more fiddles, playing traditional folk tunes such as Grenoside or Heart of Oak. "As an English teacher, I also enjoy the old-fashioned names and terms, such as rant (a type of dance step) and caper (sticks rapped together above heads)."

Jo joined Queensbridge School in January so only a few colleagues, and none of her pupils, know her guilty secret, as yet. Would she like, in theory, to introduce it to her school? "If I was any good I'd think that would be a great idea. I'd love to get the pupils doing it. The patterns you can make are quite lovely, and I would get them to do the kind of stickwork we do, holding sticks above your head and knocking them together, almost like fencing."

Strut your funky stuff

Morris dancing what is it good for? Well, learning about algebra, says Chris Budd, professor of applied mathematics at the University of Bath, who last year lectured on the "mathematics of morris dancing" at the BA Festival of Science. "Morris dancing can also teach us about symmetry and patterns," he says. "In fact, we can even study the patterns using algebra. The x, y and z of algebra become dance moves and combining them gives you a dance. Using maths you can then design your own dances, which could then be performed in front of the class.

"For example, to dance a reel (a folk dance where the participants interweave), get four pupils to stand in a line, call them A, B, C and D. Then the middle two swap places (in this case B and C). The line-up is now A, C, B, D. Then the first and second swap, and the third and fourth swap. Now they are C, A, D, B. How many times would you repeat the two moves for the four pupils to end up back as A, B, C, D? (The answer is 4)."

Chris Budd and Christopher Sangwin's book Mathematics Galore (published by OUP) has a chapter called Dancing with maths.

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