Esperance Morris Book vol 1 - online book

A Manual Of Morris Dances Folk-songs And Singing Games With Sheet Music And Instructions

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THE ESPERANCE MORRIS BOOK.                                                             3
" Harke, harkc, I hear the dancing And a nimble morris prancing ; The bagpipe and the morris bells That they are not farre hence us tells."
Old Madrigal.
I N writing this chapter I want to go right back to first impressions and give a word picture of what is so difficult to understand, without a living dancer, a picture of the essence and spirit of the English folk dance.
It is a far cry from the twentieth century with its teeming city life, its culture, its effete and luxurious civilization, and its self-consciousness away back to the Elizabethan reveller, to the days when England was merry-England because her heart was young, to the days when men took life in both hands and lived spaciously, fighting, loving, adventuring, and making their dancing and singing express the surging life within them. A writer in the Times of July 10th, 1909, says that the virility and vivacity of the morris dances prove that they were not the inven­tions of a down-trodden peasantry, but of free-born freedom-loving Englishmen. And once when an old sailor, himself a folk-song singer, saw some of the Esperance girls dancing he said to me, "That is the dancing of my heart, it's clean dancing, and I would not have missed the sight for two big apples!" These sayings recall to me my first impressions as I watched the first two countrymen who came to teach the London girls to dance the morris. Freedom, cleanness, sturdy vigour, robust jollity in most of the dances ; an added seriousness of ceremonial in others.
But there was a total lack of self-conscious posturing, of anything finicking or dainty, nor was there any resemblance whatever to ordinary ball-room dances. Now that these dances are sanctioned by the Board of Education for use in our nation's schools, it is of the utmost importance that their special national character should be preserved. The very success of the revival of their practice brings its dangers.
A lady, who is on the staff of one of the colleges of physical training, told me the other day that, thinking to make the morris dance more graceful and more suited to modern use, she had, when teaching it, modified it here and there, altering it where she thought it could be made prettier. Then she came to a performance given by the Esperance Club, and immediately saw that she had quite spoiled the dances, and she said to me, " I see now how entirely right you have been in keeping true to the traditional way of dancing and to the spirit which inspires it. I see now that by altering the dances I completely spoiled them." Neither in describing these dances can such words as subtlety and delicate nuances be used. No words less descriptive of these peasant dances danced to rejoice in the strength of fisticuffs, in the planting of seeds in spring, in the hunting of Judas Iscariot, who stands for all time as the treacherous friend, the riding to the fair of " Jockie," and scores of other simple, healthy, unlettered ideas, could possibly be imagined. No, if we do not admire vigour, stamping, virile open-air dancing, with thick shoes and tinkling bells, the clash of sticks, and the bright colours of the ribbons and rosettes we must go elsewhere for our dances and to subtler people than the English peasant.
Lately I spent some time talking to an old man, a generation older than the Oxfordshire men who first taught the dances in London, and I collected many stories and old traditions about the revels in connection with the morris, and always the same atmosphere was there, all was simple, direct, unselfconscious, vigorous.
There are some interesting traditions in connection with these dances which go back to the year 1700. At that time the people in one street outside the borough outnumbered those in the town proper, and thought they ought to elect the mayor. A beast was slaughtered and roasted, and a fight took place for the horns. These were won by the people of the one street, who elected their own mayor, who had the privilege of carrying the horns mounted on a pole in the morris dance. A set of horns is still in existence mounted on a bull's head made of wood, painted black, and with flaming red nostrils and lips. The date 1700 being painted across the head.
Our old friend who taught us the dances had been mayor of the morris nine times. " The squire," another dancer, carries a sword and a large wooden cup and a tin box for collections. All these are still to be seen, and are those in the photograph of the Berkshire morris dancers. These dances are danced round the town on June 19th, and are in connection with a fair which takes place on June 21st, the longest day. This date and the old tra­dition of the slaughtered beast seems to point to the fact that these dances are survivals of some ancient pagan festival connected with the worship of the sun. As we further investigate these matters and follow up all the clues there will doubtless be many interesting traditions brought to light which, from an archa?ological as well as a merry-making point of view, will be well worth knowing.
Another old morris dancer, aged 72, who used to dance in his youth in Oxfordshire, told me that in his village the head of the morris carried a lamb in his arms and at intervals he put the lamb down while the dancers danced in front of it. They danced near Whitsuntide, and the ceremony was called " Lamb Ale." This again seems to connect the morris with a pagan ceremonial sacrificial rite.
In reading a book on the history of theology called " Orpheus : A General History of Religions," by Salomon Reinach, I was interested to come across the following passage : —
In a chapter on the Art of the Cave-dwellers, he says, speaking of the pictures of animals pierced by arrows, that perhaps these pictures were drawn with the idea that the reality might be brought about by the image. " We find the same conception in the Middle Ages, when a spell was cast upon an enemy by sticking pins into a waxen image made in his likeness. Here we lay hold of the magic origins of art, the object of which is to attract the animals, which served the tribe for food, by a sort of fascination. It is very probable that these animals were the totems of the different clans, that the caves were the scenes of totemic ceremonies, and that the engraved or sculptured objects made of reindeer horn and called commander's balons played a magic part in the worship." (I am quoting from the translation of Florence Simmonds.) Is this possibly the origin of the batons used in the morris
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