Wassail!

15th June 2001 at 01:00
Shake those bells and wave that handkerchief. Morris dancing might be the butt of bar-room jokes about sticks and fiddles but for devotees it's a serious - and time-consuming - hobby. Andy Farquarson meets one teacher who finds a bit of folk culture the perfect antidote to an exhausting day in class

It'S an idyllic English scene. A village green, its pub shaded from the summer heat by a horse chestnut, is hosting a team (properly termed a "side") of white-clad figures morris dancing to the accompaniment of a violin and squeezebox. Look again - if the dancers are all women and the pub is in Oxfordshire, there's a fair chance one of the side will be junior school teacher Sheena Powell.

Ms Powell, 49, teaches key stage 2 pupils at St Joseph's RC primary school on the Bretch Hill estate, Banbury. Her initial forays into traditional music and dance coincided with her entry to teaching: after she took her first job in the north Oxfordshire market town, she met Chris Leslie, a local violin-maker and fiddler who plays with Fairport Convention, the doyen of folk-rock bands. Mr Leslie was, and remains, a morris devotee, and he introduced Ms Powell to the local Adderbury morris side. "It was a revelation," she says. "I'd never heard a melodeon before and it struck a chord with me. Those English tunes were - and are - fabulous."

The bug bit and, with Mr Leslie's encouragement, Ms Powell began to teach herself to play fiddle. "It was a slow business - and I'm still learning." Not content with fiddle-playing, she then learnt mandolin and guitar, and is also the caller for a local ceilidh band. "I've even been known to thump out some chords on the school piano during assembly." When she first got involved with Adderbury morris, she was teaching at Banbury's Queensway school where a musical and supportive head encouraged her to introduce both morris and country dancing to the pupils. "They loved it. And once they'd progressed, they got the opportunity to dance with Adderbury - joining the big boys."

After 12 years in Banbury, Ms Powell spent a decade in Portugal teaching at an English-speaking school where she directed several musical productions. "I was also able to teach English danceI in fact, it has similarities to some of the dances found in the Iberian peninsular. Some authorities believe the name morris is a corruption of 'moorish'. But it's hard work dancing in 80 degrees Fahrenheit."

She came back to the UK in 1996 and, after a short spell supply teaching, took up her present post at St Joseph's, a seven-teacher school of 200 pupils. "When I came here, it had just received a very bad Ofsted report and was in special measures," she says. "The staff turned the situation around and we have just had a really good Ofsted.

"I'm lucky to be in a profession I love. I chose teaching when I was 18 - it's the job I've always wanted to do." But Ms Powell does not romanticise her work. "I think that today's teachers are under constant pressure to justify themselves - at one time our professionalism and experience were enough. Nowadays, we hear too much rhetoric about 'weeding out poor teachers' and far too little about the good teachers who make up te vast majority of the profession. No wonder so many are dispirited at the end of the day."

In 1997, she joined Bloxham morris, an all-women morris side based a few miles from Banbury. "I dance and play fiddle," she says. "Those of us who both play and dance take it in turns. Sometimes we are accompanied by just the melodeon; at other times, by melodeon and fiddle."

Bloxham morris practises every week and dances in public about a dozen times a year, mostly in the summer. "We dance at festivals, do pub tours, or accept invitations to dance with other sides," says Ms Powell. But the groups dance all year round; some gatherings, such as the wassail in nearby Long Itchington, are held in the bitter cold of early spring.

The Bloxham side dance in Cotswold-style, dressed in the familiar white. "Cotswold is probably the best-known and strongest tradition, but there are many regional variations," says Ms Powell. "For example, sides from the northern tradition often dance in dark regalia with 'blacked-up' faces. Border sides from the Welsh marches are different again. And some sides are all-women, some all-men. Others are mixed."

What attracts Ms Powell to morris dancing? "Tradition is very important to me. It's great to have seen morris and other folk dances and traditional music enjoy such a revival. It's rewarding to know that we are continuing something that has happened for hundreds of years."

And she finds dance and music a perfect antidote to the rigours of the classroom. "It's a complete contrast, a brilliant way of refreshing after an exhausting day in school."

MUSIC OF TIME

Most frequently associated with the Cotswolds, morris is a centuries-old English folk dance. It is stylised and ritualistic and, although its actual origins are lost in time, is associated with fertility and the agricultural cycle. Teams, or "sides", traditionally dance at significant points during the calendar: spring, harvest and so on. They perform in sets of six or eight dancers, usually accompanied by traditional folk melodies played on a variety of instruments: pipes, whistles, melodeons and concertinas, and the fiddle.

Documentary evidence of morris dancing stretches back to the 1500s. Many believe its rituals and symbolism, if not its form, are pre-Christian. The dancers are often dressed in white and wear bells at the knee. Some authorities maintain that the waved white kerchiefs entice benevolent spirits, while the clashing raised sticks represent the battle between light and dark, cold and warm.

There are various theories on the name itself: some maintain the dances derived from North Africa, others that the burnt-cork face blackening used as a disguise suggested Moors (Africans), while it may derive from the Latin moris (custom).

Morris dancing declined with rural populations as industrialisation advanced. However, it has seen a significant revival since the 1970s. In part, this has been due to the efforts of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

For more information, contact the EFDSS, Cecil Sharp House, 2 Regent's Park Road, London, NW1 7AY. Tel: 0207 485 2206; email: efdss@efdss.org


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