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Fools, squires, and bagmen

Miranda Kaufmann discovers that there is more to Morris Dancing in Oxford than just old bearded gentlemen with bells on
Instantly recognisable by their white outfits and strange accoutrements, all Morris dancing groups have their own identifying quirks.
“The Ancient Men” is a fairly appropriate moniker for the Oxford University Morris Men, reflecting the average age of participants. Some dancers are female, easily spotted by their lack of beards. Purple waistcoats and breeches are exclusive to the Maids of the Ducklington Morris.
In the unlikely event you spy a group of beardless Morris men, they may be the 18-30 group on a dancing weekend. If accompanied by a hobby-horse, they may be linked to Banbury (of nursery rhyme fame). You may also see props such as lobsters or sheeps’ skulls on sticks. No group is complete without a Fool. The leaders of the Morris dancers have suitably antique names, such as Squire and Bagman.
The Morris is an ancient tradition, possibly of “Moorish” origin. Dancers used to perform in black makeup. While we might find this politically incorrect, our Puritan forebears were more worried by the sacrilegeous implications: “They strike up the Devil’s dance withall: then martch this heathen company towards the church and churchyards, their pypers pyping, the drummers thundering, their stumpes dancing, their belles jyngling, their handkercheefes fluttering about their heads like madde men.” (Philip Stubbes ‘Anatomie of Abuses’ 1583) This was the sort of dancing that Cromwell did away with.
Morris dancing was revived in the early 20th Century by the Tabs. Yes, it was our cousins in the Fens who are responsible for all this mirth. Joseph Needham, Squire of the Cambridge Morris, initiated the formation of the Morris Ring, the national federation of Morris dancers, in 1934. The commitment of these early enthusiasts is unquestionable. Walter Abson fell asleep in an initial meeting and awoke to find himself appointed Bagman. The onerous bag-dragging duties were presumably unlikely to be accepted while conscious.
On the weekend of 21-22 May, you could go along to Kidlington Lamb Ale, a revival of an age-old village festival. Here, in 1679, the custom was: “On Monday after Whitsun week there is a fat live lamb provided, and the maids of the town, having their thumbs tied behind them, run after it attended with music and a Morisco dance of men, where the rest of the day is spent in dancing, mirth and merry glee.” The glee was no doubt enhanced by copious consumption of Real Ale, still the Morris dancers’ favourite tipple. This year’s event will conclude with a barn dance.
If this sounds rather too lively, Morris dancers can be observed communing with nature at the annual Ducklington Fritillary. Here, the dancers adorn their sleeves with purple and yellow ribbons, the colours of a rare local flower, the snake’s head fritillary. If you can’t make it to Ducklington, the flower can also be found in the grounds of Madgalen College.
If, inspired by these traditions, you are keen to try Morris dancing for yourself, you could join one of twenty different groups found in Oxford and its environs. The Oxford University Morris Men practise weekly, as do the Rogue Morris, a women’s group.ARCHIVE: 0th week TT 2005

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