“I’m quite happy just to practice with you,” I’d told the gathered six or seven Morris dancers at their Roma Street Parkland rehearsal spot. “It’s just about learning the moves, isn’t it?”
“Oh no!” they laughed. “You’ve got to do it in public,” said Ian, their fearsomely grey-bearded leader. “With the bells on, and the tatter coat. Otherwise it doesn’t count as proper Morris dancing.”
Which is how I ended up in the City Botanic Gardens on a wet Saturday afternoon, with bizarre facepaint, a blue raggedy jacket and bells tied to my shins.
Friends had put me in touch with Ian, and his “Ragged Band” of Morris dancers. He’d kindly invited me along to rehearsal, and I’d turned up not really knowing much about the form, apart from its reputation for being a little bit naff.
It turns out Morris dancing is a little more complicated than jiggling hankies and flittering around maypoles.
“Where do you start?” said Eric, an Englishman now resident at Maleny. He and his wife Joyce commute every week for dance practice, and he was quite the expert on regional styles and differences. It turns out Morris has been around for at least 700 years, but people only began noting down the actual moves about 100 years ago.
The Ragged Band’s milieu is “Border Morris”, which originated in the England/Wales border country. Forget hankies, the traditional accoutrement of the Cotswolds dancers; Border Morris goes all out with sticks. They’re like the kendo masters of the Morris world.
At practice, I had learned two dances, and we broke them both out in front of a few bedraggled onlookers out front of the Botanic Gardens rotunda.
The first, Dillwen, was done with short sticks, made of heavy Tasmanian oak; the second, Ravensheart, with longer, lighter sticks. All dances are done in a number formation, and are broken up into different “figures” that are interspersed with a repeated “chorus”. The figures have familiar dance names such as “reels”, descriptive ones such as “diagonals” (ie, moving in a diagonal direction), and more traditional ones such as “Squire’s Hay” and “Bagman’s Hay”, which represent certain positions in the formation.
The structured nature of the dances meant it had been easier than I thought it would be to pick them up. However, Ian’s helpful yelling of the moves as we went along was invaluable. I nearly had a few people’s eyes out with incorrect stick slamming times. But then, Ian had said there was room for flexibility. “If something goes wrong, just make it look like you meant to do it that way.”
Music was provided by four of five keen members on accordions, and a charming relative of the bagpipe called a “hurdy-gurdy”. I thought it was the most brilliant instrument I’d ever seen – players twirled a crank at one end of the machine to create sound, then hit keys to refine it into notes. It was magical, like something out of an Enid Blyton novel, and it helped create a joyous, country fair type of sound, that spoke at once of harvest time, and spring festivals, and all those things you somehow know are connected to Morris dancing, even if you’re not quite sure why.
I’ll come straight out and admit it – I had an absolute ball Morris dancing. It’s fun, energetic and wonderfully, marvelously uncool.
And that’s what impressed me most about the whole experience – the attitude of the Ragged Band members themselves. At one point, after I’d done my two dances and was watching the others perform an extraordinarily intricate stick-slamming routine, a small group of teenagers wandered up and started sniggering. The Ragged Band danced on, not caring in the slightest.
They didn’t give two hoots what anybody thought of them. All that mattered is that they were friends together, doing what they loved, and having the best time in the world. As someone who’s spent a good portion of her 20s fretting over what people think of me, I found that incredibly freeing and inspiring.
After we finished dancing, we all went – still made up and in kit – across the road to the Royal on the Park for a drink. I was a bit worried such a smart hotel might not be too keen on having a bunch of funny-looking folk in their schmick lounge bar. But to their credit, staff were as helpful and polite to us as they were to the guests of a big fancy wedding being held somewhere upstairs. It made me think how lovely the world is when we just accept each other, and get on with the business of having a pleasant time.
So thank you, Ragged Bank. I honestly couldn’t have met a warmer and more welcoming group of people. I can’t wait to dance with you all again.