Sue Kirkpatrick, a musician with Wyld Morris, explains a tradition that sees dancers greet the dawn
On Wednesday evenings, in the darkest wettest depths of the English winter, a heavy rhythmic thumping echoes through the dense and otherwise silent gloom shrouding a small Dorset village. The Morris side is practising. It is the sound that has now accompanied ten years of Wyld Morris, so called because this team was founded by a member of the community of Monkton Wyld Court. In this old and beautiful setting, the pagan nature of this traditional dance is slightly contradictory, given that the Court was once a vicarage.
The term ‘Morris’ is possibly a corruption of ‘Moorish’ dancing, credible as its first mention of this style is in documentation from the Guild of Goldsmiths in 1448, along with ‘guising, sword dancing, and mumming.’ There is also a theory that the ‘sticking’ and thumping could have been a part of a young knight or squire’s training, even preparation for fighting the ‘Moors’ in the Crusades. Many of the weapons used in the medieval crusades were based on poles, for instance the pole-axe, and hand to hand combat was too often necessary, so agility, alertness and the ability to work together as a force were vital, and skills still relevant to present day Morris sides especially during energetic stick dances. Knuckles sometimes get a bruising, although mistakes for the dancers nowadays are not normally fatal. Strictly traditional Morris teams are still for men only, but Wyld Morris was founded as a mixed side so that women in West Dorset were not excluded, the only physical qualities necessary to join a side being energy and stamina, which of course are not simply male attributes.
Another widely held belief is that Morris dancing has pagan origins. This is probably because the high points of the Morris calendar are dependent on the seasons. Having practised almost every week throughout the winter, sides are ready to burst out of the darkness into the spring to dance, taking advantage of the light summer evenings and the opportunity to explore many local pubs and entertain the sometimes startled clientele.
For sides all over England, and for Wyld Morris, the season begins as dawn breaks—at 4.30 am on the first of May. Even for those who at best have seen the dawn only after a very long night, the sun rising over the sea towards Portland Bill is a spectacle, worth a wake-up call in the pitch dark, to travel to the top of Stonebarrow Hill, the beautiful cliff top downland which overlooks Charmouth. Sometimes, of course, there has been a pall of cloud and fine drizzle or even fog, dense enough for the dancers to identify each other only with difficulty. Most surprising is that several otherwise sane members of the public also turn out to see the Morris team greet the dawn. After breakfast, the side travels closer to Bridport to dance with a hundred or so children, hopping up and down in a school playground before their normal day begins. Then by midmorning the hankies will be waving in a residential home in Bridport as a small danceside does its best to avoid bringing down the lampshades. For many of the elderly residents, the Morris music and dancing sparks reminiscences as they bear witness to living history. The percussion section is expanded to allow for the residents to respond to the strong Morris rhythms as the band has a variety of bells and beaters for enthusiastic participation.
Lastly on May Day there is always a performance scheduled in the heart of Bridport, which Wyld Morris identifies as its home. The team has a strong sense of its contribution to the community, and the annual seasonal events which follow May Day take place in the town. The Community Orchard behind St Mary’s Church is a local treasure, lovingly maintained by volunteers who tend a variety of apple trees whose names are rich in history, for example Slap Ma Girdle, Golden Dawn, Ribster Pippin, and Worcester Pearmain, which is even older than the known origins of English Morris. Wyld Morris dance here for Dorset Apple Day in summer, helping to celebrate the crop by sampling locally produced cider and apple juice. Families come with picnics and listen to storytelling and maybe the Bridport Mummers who, by their own disarming admission, “never knowingly perform in sobriety”, and are always the source of great hilarity.
At Christmas Wyld Morris band will be singing carols and playing at several places in Bridport as part of the town’s Winter Fair, and then in early January they will be back in the Orchard for an undoubtedly pagan Wassail ceremony, when the apple trees will be blessed and offerings of bread left in the branches, and libations of cider poured onto the roots. Wyld Band will be helping to make as much noise as possible to drive evil spirits out of the trees so that they bear good harvests. The Wassailing tradition stems from the poorly-waged agricultural labourers, who were given a kind of licence to prevail upon their employers for a few groats and something from the wealthier cellar. The present-day colourful ‘tatter jackets’ worn by many sides is a reminder that originally the working men’s clothes were turned inside out for dancing so that the ragged linings were exposed. Sometimes the Morris men would black their faces to hide their identity for fear of repercussions. These days this practice is less popular as the tradition has been misinterpreted.
Wyld Morris usually has a busy summer weekend calendar, being invited to festivals and fairs most weekends throughout the summer season, ranging from the bustling Melplash Show to Stoke Abbott Street Fair, and also to local folk festivals such as Sidmouth, Lyme, Swanage and Weymouth. These are great opportunities to see other Morris teams dance, and to shake the bells of course. Sadly, of course, this year Wyld has become a virtual band but the spirit lives on via the small screen and practice continues once a week in maybe a dozen Dorset kitchens.
Although personnel has changed several times since Wyld Morris began ten years ago, such is the commitment of both dancers and musicians that many of the earliest members are still part of the team. Anyone who wishes to join the side is always welcomed, as dancers or musicians, and sometimes former members will turn up to cheer the side on. Besides being a wonderful way to exercise, it is a very sociable activity which has made its members into valued friends. There is much good humoured mockery for those who are literally wrongfooted when learning a new dance, but there is a general wish to present careful timing and precise stepping for the best overall performance from the side.
The dances come from different traditions. Wyld dances both Cotswold and Border, styles, but the programme also includes the East Acton Stick Dance which was apparently invented by the Goons, and, to the great pride of everyone who has mastered intricate stepping without being tied in knots, Bridport’s very own Rope Dance. This was created by a much loved member of the side in honour of one of the town’s oldest industries, and will make its debut this next season.
The present enforced social distancing will give the team plenty of time to polish baldricks, trim the beribboned straw hats, and embellish tatters jackets, all in the Dorset colours of white, gold and red. The connection with the rural landscape gives Wyld Morris ‘kit’ its extra colourful splash of green, and beige.
The season will be very different this year, of course, as lockdown has prevented the usual May Day celebrations. Like everyone in the country whose activities have been put on hold, the side will look forward to an end to our present troubles, so that planning can resume for a deferred 10th anniversary celebration next summer when Wyld Morris expects to host several other ‘sides’ who will travel from all over the country, as they have done also for the Bridport Folk Festival, another strong local tradition successfully revived three years ago, in which Wyld Morris are proud to represent the town.