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Naked in Nets
Morris dancing usually brings a smile to people’s faces, though frequently it’s more of an expression of disbelief that anyone could still do anything so ridiculous and uncool, accompanied by a pleasure that at least the speaker is above all that nonsense.
I’ve been resolutely uncool all my life, though, and I’ve found enormous fellowship and enjoyment out of morris dancing. The desire to spread the enjoyment and uncover some of the secrets of this reclusive pastime was part of what lead me to make one of the heroes of Blue Eyed Stranger a morris dancer.
There’s so much misinformation about the hobby out there, aimed, I think at an attempt to make the thing look more serious and more manly/traditional/sacred than it actually is.
Did you know, for example, that women have always danced the morris? Right from the earliest records, where we find a gloriously entertaining condemnation of the dance by one Christopher Fetherston in 1582:
I myself have seene in a may gaime a troupe, the greater part wherof have been men, and yet have they been attyred so like unto women, that theyr faces being hidde (as they were indeede) a man coulde not discerne them from women. What an horrible abuse was this? What abhominable sinnes might have hereupon ensued?
The second abuse, which of all other is the greatest, is this, that it hath been toulde that your morice dauncers have daunced naked in nettes: what greater entisement unto naughtines could have been devised?
Sorry, I included that second paragraph not because it had anything to do with women dancing morris but just because it made my mind boggle. There are some traditions I find I’m happy to allow to gently lapse. O.o
It’s relatively well known that in 1600, William Kemp, (a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s men along with one William Shakespeare) morris danced from London to Norwich as a sort of early publicity stunt. It’s less well known that he was joined by a different female dancer at two separate points along the way.
And in 1769 Thomas Blount published an account of some village customs which included the following:
At Kidlington in Oxfordshire, the custom is that on Monday after Whitson Week, there is a fat live Lamb provided, and the Maids of the Town, having their Thumbs tied behind them, run after it, and she that with her Mouth takes and holds the Lamb is declared ‘Lady of the Lamb’, which being dressed with the Skin hanging on, is carried on a long Pole before the Lady and her Companions to the Green, attended with Music, and a Morisco Dance of Men, and another of Women,
John Cutting, from whose book ‘History and the Morris Dance’ I have lifted these quotes, thinks that the village in question was actually Kirtlington – which had a Lamb Ale up until 1858 – rather than Kidlington, which didn’t.
But that aside, given that our earliest piece of evidence for the existence of Morris dancing in the UK at all is in 1448, and our evidence for women dancing comes only a century later, I think it’s pretty conclusive that this Victorian insistence that women shouldn’t morris is in truth something made up by the Victorians, in the same way they made up the idea of horns on Viking helmets and many other modern myths.
There is also zero evidence that Morris is a survival of ancient pagan ritual dance, other than the fact that the first collector of the dances, Cecil Sharp, was a bit of a fan of The Golden Bough, and inclined to see survivals of ancient pagan traditions all over the place. From what I have seen so far, morris is inconveniently silly, and serious minded people have a tendency to try and turn it into something more important and more folklory than it is. Witness this:
The Abbot’s Bromley Horn dance is a dance that can claim to be older than morris, and to have been danced in Abbot’s Bromley for over 1000 years. Surely if any dance is a pagan survival, this is it. Now this is a modern reinvention of the Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance:
and it is eerie and unsettling and easy to believe that it’s a survival of something mystical. But in fact, this is a version specially slowed down and folked-up for the popular imagination. This is the real thing:
I read an article in The Times Online, a while back, AA Gill meets the morris dancers that seemed to reflect this. After exercising his wit in order to prove just how much he is above all of this, for one brief moment the author of the article finds himself enjoying himself. Oh noes! How could a man so sophisticated as himself possibly enjoy such a stupid pastime exercised by such lumpen, ugly, beer-drinking proles? It can’t possibly be because ordinary people dancing and having a drink or two is an entertaining thing to do. It must be because he was feeling from afar the influence of the deeply hidden ancient spiritual meaning of the thing! Well, thank goodness for that!
In Blue Eyed Stranger, I’ve drawn on actual experience of having been a morris dancer myself with two different sides (a group of morris dancers is called a ‘side’) one mixed, one ladies only, and involved in playing music for a men-only side. So I think I can safely say you’re getting the inside gen on this bizarre but fun hobby.
The Stomping Griffins are not a real side, sadly, but their interpersonal dynamics are taken from experience 🙂 And their dancing style is similar to that of Boggart’s Breakfast who I think you can see are pretty exciting as these things come.
To prove where I stand on the whole thing, here I am dancing Padnall with the Ely and Littleport Riot women’s Border morris side. Not naked in a net, you’ll be glad to hear.
Blurb: Billy Wright has a problem: he’s only visible when he’s wearing a mask. That’s fine when he’s performing at country fairs with the rest of his morris dancing troupe. But when he takes the paint off, his life is lonely and empty, and he struggles with crippling depression.
Martin Deng stands out from the crowd. After all, there aren’t that many black Vikings on the living history circuit. But as the founder of a fledgling historical re-enactment society, he’s lonely and harried. His boss doesn’t like his weekend activities, his warriors seem to expect him to run everything single-handedly, and it’s stressful enough being one minority without telling the hard men of his group he’s also gay.
When Billy’s and Martin’s societies are double-booked at a packed county show, they know at once they are kindred spirits, united by a deep feeling of connectedness to their history and culture. But they’re also both hiding in their different ways, and they need each other to be brave enough to take their masks off and still be seen.
About the Author: Alex Beecroft is an English author best known for historical fiction, notably Age of Sail, featuring gay characters and romantic storylines. Her novels and shorter works include paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary fiction.
Beecroft won Linden Bay Romance’s (now Samhain Publishing) Starlight Writing Competition in 2007 with her first novel,Captain’s Surrender, making it her first published book. On the subject of writing gay romance, Beecroft has appeared in theCharleston City Paper, LA Weekly, the New Haven Advocate, the Baltimore City Paper, and The Other Paper. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association of the UK and an occasional reviewer for the blog Speak Its Name, which highlights historical gay fiction.
Alex was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the English Peak District. She lives with her husband and two children in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist.
Alex is only intermittently present in the real world. She has led a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800-year-old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone.
She is represented by Louise Fury of the L. Perkins Literary Agency.