watervole: (Default)
 There was quite a bit of interest in my previous post on Carnival Morris, so I'll try and show the evolution.

Here, one of my favourite pieces of morris insanity is the Saddleworth Rushcart procession:


Now, the Rushcart procession often used to be accompanied by morris dancers dancing as part of the procession.  Why aren't they dancing with it now?  Well, as you can see, they're all pulling the rushcart!



This is an old photo of Whitworth Rushcart procession. You can see the Coconut dancers in the foreground (Coconut dancing is an almost extinct offshoot of North West morris) and the morris men along the side processing down the road with their garlands.

Especially in the North West, which was really into carnivals and processions (home of many marching brass bands as well), the dance style evolved to work well with processions. This means a focus on formation moves (rather than complex footwork), choruses that move you forwards, and  moves that work well with music with a steady rhythm and a steady drum beat.  You're moving at a steady pace, and there may be other bands in addition to your own, so you can't afford to be dependent on music with complex tunes.  A lot of North West dances have a chorus that is either forward/backward when static, or forward/forward when moving in a procession.

It's likely that somewhere around a third of traditional NW sides danced in clogs.  It used to be believed that this was because a lot of mill workers wore clogs (which is true), but people often wore their best clothes for dancing.  My personal belief is because of the sound.  Listen to an NW side dancing on cobble stones or tarmac or any hard surface.  They provide their own percussion, and it keeps the dancers in sync. You can tell instantly if anyone is off the beat.

See this video and scroll to 3 mins, to see Customs and Exiles.  You'll see exactly what I mean about clogs being useful in a processional environment.



See Mendip Morris Men below for an example of  a North West morris processional dance.  (In all honesty, they're not terribly good, but it does show you the general idea.)  They're using 'slings' in their hands.  North West morris usually used slings or short decorated sticks or  garlands. The slings may well have had their origin in knotted handkerchiefs.  Nowadays, anything that swings well can be used.  Often short lengths of decorated rope, or sometimes old mill spindles with rope coming out the end.  (You hold the spindles in your hands)

Having said they aren't that good, notice how the footwork suddenly becomes much better as they get closer to the audience.  There's no point in exhausting yourself in a long procession in the bits where there's hardly anyone watching.  



Here are Earlsdon morris, an excellent men's side from Coventry.  They're dancing a modern North West dance that is pretty much in the general style of the tradition.  The focus is on formation and crisp polka steps. The short decorated sticks are the norm for North West morris.


So, how's our bastardised offspring looking against the tradition?


I can recognised the stepping. If you allow for the fact that the girls are dancing on their toes, rather than in the flat-footed style demanded by clogs, the main steps are virtually identical. The girls also dance with a higher knee-raise, but I've seen younger NW sides aiming for a much higher knee raise as well.  There are similarities in a lot of the arm movements too - though you've obviously got to look at dances with sticks rather than with slings.  There is the potential for processions as well, the dance on and off were very well done.

The biggest difference seems to lie in the curiously static nature of the figures.  In traditional morris, the moves between figures are much faster and more fluid.  In Carnival Morris, the emphasis is far more on the stepping and it takes a long time to move from one figure to another. It's possible that this may relate to the high degree of teamwork and precision in Carnival morris.  There's probably a trade-off between speed and precision.

The girls are also able to dance on grass. North West dancers perform on grass with reluctance. It's very easy to skid when doing fast moves in clogs (even when the clogs have rubber on the soles).  Other forms of morris are a bit happier on grass, though wet grass is a high risk factor for any dancer of any kind.

If you've read this far, share your thoughts... Questions, disagreements, comparisons with other traditions, all welcome.
watervole: (Default)
 I've just discovered the Internet Archive - an absolutely wonderful resource for old books.  Project Gutenberg has better quality text because the scanned books are gone over by volunteers to correct all the scanner errors, but if a book isn't on Project Gutenberg, then try the Internet Archive.  There are masses more books there, simply because scanning is so much faster.

Lots of universities are scanning their old books.  I've just discovered that there was an American university tradition of maypole dancing about a century ago and have downloaded several books of dances that I'm looking forward to reading.

I've also found an online copy of Alfred Bruton's Rushbearing.

If, like me, you're interested in rushcarts and rushbearing traditions, then this is the only decent book on the subject.  Originally published in 1891, it was already referring to a tradition that was mostly in the past.  Bruton writes about the rush carts because he wanted to preserve the information before they were gone for ever.  (Luckily, there are still some modern rushcarts - see link above for more details)

Rushcarts are strongly linked to North West morris.
watervole: (Default)
 Because it's my day for talking about folk traditions...

Here - with comments on each photo to explain what is happening - is Saddleworth Rushcart procession.

This is a modern rushcart - and the event is totally unadvertised and totally amazing.

 I took the photos last year.  I'd have gone again this year, but I'd already booked for Discworld and it clashes.

I took four short video clips - they're called Saddleworth Rushcart 1,2,3,4 if you want to view any after the first...



watervole: (Morris dancing)
 This is the only photo I've ever seen of historical North West morris garland dancers.  It's from 1910 and Whitworth Rushcart procession.
You can see the Quayside Cloggies in my icon doing a hoop/garland dance, but this photo has all male dancers (as I'd have expected historically).

I've always assumed, but with very little evidence to back it up (which is why I'm rather glad I found this photo) that hoop/garland dances were tied in with the rushcarts as the churches were often decorated with garlands when the new rushes were laid on the floor.

It's rare now to see male dancers doing a hoop dance.






The guys in small skirts at the front are the Coconut Dancers - a dance that is, amazingly, still performed in the same costume today.
The Coconut dancers are  one of the many interesting quirks of morris history and no one is quite sure where the tradition came from, but it's a Lancashire dance just like North West Morris.



They have small wooden discs on their hands and knees, which is the sound you're hearing when they pass their hands over their knees.

Notice, that like all good Lancashire traditional dancers, they're wearing clogs.

watervole: (Default)
The partner programme to the clog dancing programme is this one - Still Folk Dancing After All these Years

Catch it before it vanishes off the BBC iplayer.

I enjoyed all the programme, but the highlight for me was the footage of the Saddleworth Rushcart.  A fabulous piece of theatre.  Look at the number of people involved in the procession. Hear the sound of the dancers clogs as they step in unison while pulling the cart.  There, immediately, you understand why North West morris was so often performed in clogs.

Now look at some of the hills they take that cart up and down and realise why there are so many men behind the cart - they're the brakes!  That cart is HEAVY.

For those who can't get the iplayer, here's a feel for what the procession looks like




Saddleworth morris also have what are possibly the best decorated hats of any side anywhere.  They always use fresh flowers.



Next summer, I simply must go and see the rushcart procession for myself.  I'm a northener - this is part of my heritage.  It's also the birthplace of the kind of morris that I dance.

watervole: (Morris dancing)
This is unlikely to be of interest to anyone except those interested in North West morris dancing or English traditions.

I'm reading up on rush-bearing traditions at present. 

In the days of earth or stone church floors, they used to cover the floor in rushes for insulation and to provide a softer surface to kneel on.  Castles and houses likewise used rushes.  (You'll find plenty of references in Shakespeare to strewing fresh rushes for guests)

In areas like Lancashire, the annual renewal of the rushes became a big, festive event and processions would bring the rushcart to the church - accompanied by morris dancers and many others. 

Here's a bit more about the tradition.



This is Saddleworth rushcart - a recreated tradition, but the rush cart (going by a rather rare book that I own) is pretty accurate.  The cart can easily weight a couple of tons.  Note the ropes leading to a bar held by more men in front (I've seen pictures of carts with over a hundred men pulling them with long bars with ten or twenty men to each bar).  Now, look at the men behind, there's plenty of those too.  They're the brakes!  Very necessary if the cart has to go down a hill...

Also note the classical North West morris costume.  The hats decorated with flowers are typical of many Nothern sides (especially men's sides).  The knee britches are often seen as well.  Bells on the shoes go without saying (it's possible that it is the bells that gave morris its name, but more on that another day)  They're wearing clogs.  Not all traditional side would have worn clogs; normal shoes would actually have been more common.  Modern North West sides like clogs as they give a link to the past, they also emphasise the footwork and make a distinctive sound.

Bluffers guide to morris dancing. If a morris dancer is wearing clogs, then they're dancing North West morris (unless they're the Dorset Button rapper dancers who wear clogs becasue they double up as the band for the Dorset Buttons North West morris team).  However, absence of clogs does not prove that they are not North West dancers.

An interesting outlier in rush traditions (in that it's not in the north west and isn't connected to morris) is an annual rush day service that still takes place in Bristol every year at St Mary, Redcliffe.

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Judith Proctor

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