As we steam towards the first day of summer, the Wessex Morris Men will be celebrating the first sight of the sun in the wee small hours on May Day at Cerne Abbas in a ritual dating back centuries.
With the new Dorset Ooser in tow, and playing quite a part in the party, the Morris men will be hanky swinging, bell ringing and stick clashing as their rebel spirit shines on.
Nobody knows for certain why or indeed when Morris dancing began, although the tradition was considered ‘old’ in the days of Shakespeare.
Speaking on behalf of the Wessex Morris Men, Bagman Ray Dyson, said: “We do know that it was taking place locally in Poyntington, near Sherborne, in 1606 through evidence put before the Star Chamber where Sir Edward Parnham, who was a close friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, was tried for promoting a church ale with bull baiting and to have joined in Morris dancing.
“The origins are thought to be based on male fertility rites designed to please Mother Earth, a figure common to the religions of all races in the northern hemisphere, and thus ensure fertility, fecundity and crops, kin and community. Evil spirits would be driven off by the waving of handkerchiefs, the clashing of sticks and the jingling of bells. These sounds also served to wake the Earth, bringing forth new life each spring.”
The Wessex Morris Men formed in 1957 as a ‘revival’ side to keep these distinctive village traditions alive.
Ray said: “Many Morris sides of our vintage started out in the folk ‘revolution’ of the late fifties and sixties and have grown older together as a band of brothers, with the occasional recruit arriving from another part of the country, unlike sports teams where you leave once you’re ‘past it’. Morris sides perpetuate almost as ‘social clubs’ which you can still be part of until you leave the side ‘feet-first’.
“We obviously need new blood to carry on the tradition and more importantly bridge the gap between the younger family man and the grandads, who form the majority of the side. It’s a fun, fit and fulfilling pastime which hopefully brings joy to the wider public who witness it.”
And so true, to this day no cultural caper or May Day event would be complete without a ‘side’ of Morris dancers.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that it looks likely that Strictly Come Dancing will fade away long before the Morris dancing tradition. But to join a little bit of bravery and a rebel spirit will keep you in good stead.
Ray said: “The photos taken at Sherborne Castle Country Fair by the wife of one of our newest recruits, a brave chap in his thirties who’s dared to be ‘different’ and expose himself in public as a Morris dancer with the rest of us dancers, aged 60 and many aged 70, who don’t give a fig what people think about us!”
The Wessex Morris Men will be performing dances of Fieldtown, Headington and Adderbury, among others at a host of events this year, including the Sherborne Country Fair and the Bath and West Show, along with folk festivals in Weymouth, Bridport and South Petherton.
Ray said: “Part of the tradition is ‘passing the hat’ and as we say, ‘the more you put in, the better your luck’, so thank you, and good luck to you all – we hope you enjoy our dancing and company!”
If you would like to join the Wessex Morris Men, the best time is autumn when practice season starts on Mondays at Pulham Village Hall at 8pm.
Ray added: “Whether you have danced before, or are a complete beginner, Wessex Morris Men are a welcoming bunch.”