Pull the other one, it's got bells on

1st December 2006 at 00:00
Try anything once, the saying goes. Except morris dancing. Stephen Jones throws in the handkerchief

Teach me to morris dance in one night: that was the challenge I set the London Pride Morris Men, one of a plethora of morris sides who dedicate themselves to keeping the rural tradition alive in urban settings.

The site of the Pride's practice hall, on a west London estate just across from Latimer Road Underground station, couldn't be much more urban. On a chilly evening, the locals are out exercising their pit bull terriers, while boys are firing salvoes of festive rockets from a balcony of the tower block.

Inside, though, it is as if someone has snipped off the corner of a peaceful Cotswold village green and dropped it down in this heart of city darkness.

We start with a bit of chat as the dancers arrive. Peter Kanssen is the London Pride bagman, meaning he is treasurer, secretary and dogsbody all in one. All sorts of people - teachers, accountants, stockbrokers, civil servants, landscape gardeners - go in for morris, he says. His side includes a university pro-vice chancellor, a journalist and an undergraduate reading Arabic at London University's school of Oriental and African studies.

This is the close season for morrising. Throughout the winter they practise, before starting on a round of performances at Easter.

As the other dancers begin their warm-ups, I notice that not all have beards. One in particular doesn't: Ezra, Peter's son, is 8 years old. At the other end of the scale is John, who is 80 and has been happily morrising since the days when England had a king on the throne.

The musicians strike up and suddenly Shepherd's Bush becomes Bourton-on-the-Water. John on the concertina is accompanied by the reedy drawl of Peter's oboe. The dancers take the floor to show how it's done before I have a go. With practised ease, the half dozen men cavort, waving their white hankies with attitude.

Now it's my turn. Why didn't I just stay at home and watch television? My teacher is Antony, the number one man, or "old man" in morris terminology.

He is short but formidable. "I'm willing to teach you, but you've got to be willing to learn," is the unspoken message.

First, some basic steps. Try this, he says. Right, left, right, hop. Left, right, left, hop. It's so easy a child can do it. Next to me, I'm aware, a child is doing it. Hmm.

I have always prided myself on knowing my right from my left, but now I'm not so sure.

Next, we try some simple backwards and forwards movements. Antony stands across from me, his appraising eye like a gimlet, a dagger, a dirk. I must pass him on the left, step across to one side, and reverse pass on the other side. We collide at a combined speed of 6mph. Is that on his left or mine?

The real challenge is still to come. Much of the skill of morris involves weaving in and out of the other dancers. It's called a hey. William, a mild-mannered man who is one of the bigwigs at Middlesex University, offers some advice. It's the same as a reel, he says, like in Scottish country dancing. I point out that we don't go in for a lot of country dancing, Celtic or otherwise, where I come from in north-east London.

It's crunch time. I'm going to have to put the moves together and take part in a whole dance. Someone brings me a pair of white handkerchiefs. I try to wave them purposefully, forcefully, like I mean it, but an urban morris man with attitude I am not.

Antony calls out the tune to the musicians. The oboe keens. The squeezebox wheezes. My brain commands but my feet refuse to move. I have forgotten everything I have just learnt.

Somehow I bumble my way through. The dance only lasts for a couple of minutes but it feels like 20. Never mind. I have been blooded. I came; I saw; I danced.

Puffed with the pride of achievement as I wait for my train home, my toes begin to tap again. Left, right, left, hop. A woman moves further down the platform. Right, left, right, hop. By George, I think I've got it!

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