As part of the Talkative Tuesday’s at Home of Compassion in Thames Ditton,
we had the Thames Valley Morris Men visit us to present on the history of Morris Dancing.John (Squire -leader) and John (Bagman – treasurer, keeper of the bag) turned up in their dancing gear and treated us to a dance to kick off the evening. This particular gig did not involve wearing bells on their legs, but there was plenty of nifty legwork and waving of handkerchiefs, which we apparently cannot call handkerchiefs! Other parts of their get-up include white trousers, white shirt, a blue Baldrick, straw hat and a blue waistcoat. The waistcoat can only be worn after you do your initial solo gig in public, which is a daunting task for any novice dancer. When you are awarded your waistcoat, each individual dancer needlecrafts the back of it and the essential motif must be a dancing tree but the rest can be left to your own imagination. I suspect many of the wives and girlfriends are responsible for the dazzling array of embroidery. And before you ask, a blue Baldrick is not a picture of a cold Tony Robinson, but a crossed over sash worn on the torso.The Thames Valley Morris Men subscribe to the Cotswold style of dancing and attire. The two John’s explained the differences between all the varieties of Morris Men throughout the country. Border style is quite a shock to those of us who are used to seeing a white uniform in the Southern counties; considered one of the more controversial outfits consisting of wearing black and red rags with blacked out faces. Some sources claim this was because they came from mining communities and had coal dust to hand to paint themselves, others consider it a slur on the influx of immigrants during the slave trade period. Others suspect it was a way of local men not being easily recognised, which given the current trend of grown men being embarrassed about dancing is fairly believable. Maybe it was a bit of all of the above, no-one really knows.Both John’s admitted that care had to be taken when selecting underwear to be worn underneath their white trousers, the great British sunshine shows off anything coloured.To add to our entertainment for this presentation we were introduced to two characters probably best known in the film the Wicker Man. The Hobby Horse and The Goat paid us a visit and very scary they were indeed. Lots of snapping of nashers and bobbing around gently spooked the audience.Although many of their dances take place in pubs across Surrey, they regularly dance in Europe and try to plan at least one trip across the water each year – Normandy was a recent weekend away – they danced in squares, town hall, museum, local market, old folks home and even in front of the local police station – the arrival of them caused quite a stir and was even advertised on the police video display so that all locals knew when and where to see them.On a sad note, it seems the Morris Men movement is a shrinking one. The average age of the Thames Valley bunch is 75, however the mixed sex groups seem to be having a resurgence, as women across the county value it’s folk traditions and use it as a viable alternative to the gym as a way to stay fit and healthy. After the WW1 the movement almost died out, as plenty of men were killed in action, however it was saved thanks to the musicologist Cecil Sharp, who described the dance routines he came across in The Country Dance Book. You never know, perhaps a modern musician will revive the tradition again, anyone have the number of Sam Smith’s agent?Although Morris Men dancing does not seem seasonal, traditionally Cecil Sharp arranged for dancing displays throughout villages on Boxing Day of each year, and TVMM do this with aplomb in the local village of Claygate, even starting at the pop up pub on the platform at Claygate station on Boxing Day morning. After a hearty round of dancing at five local pubs, they take a well-deserved rest at the final stop.In the summer we hope to gather many groups of Morris Men to our lawns which lead onto the River Thames for their version of a dance off. Watch this space.