The Chingford factor

The debt that Sheffield City Morris owes to Chingford Morris cannot be understated. They were Bob’s inspiration and the team’s yardstick for dancing excellence. The first time we danced with them was just after many of their experienced members had left to form another Morris team, the Albion Morris Men. I was in awe; if this Chingford team was but the residue, what was the team like before the split? They danced brilliant Morris and dazzling rapper and were involved in the training of a boys’ team who amazed us with their speed and precision. Chingford had also developed dances and created their own style.

With our isolated existence, the making up of Morris dances was not taboo, but rather the natural progression of the ideals. Sheffield City Morris Men had often talked about developing their dances and saw that option as a long term project. However, as outlined above, the seeds which had been sown made the development occur much more rapidly.

Making a mark:
The Upton-on-Severn Handkerchief Dance

Having decided that an impression must be made and that Bledington must go, it was inevitable that the “Black Book”, Lionel Bacon’s A Handbook of Morris Dancing, was scoured for inspiration. I have the utmost appreciation for this work, but for a dancer with my limitations, it was of little use. As Bacon himself states, the book is an “aide-memoire”4 rather than a training manual. With my lack of experience the book had no memory to jog. The only thing that caught my eye were the notes on the Upton-on-Severn Handkerchief Dance. The most distinctive feature of this Upton dance is what we call the “set change” whereby numbers one and six, who are at opposite corners, approach each other and the set reorientates itself so that one and six are the middle couple (see Figure 1). In fact, Bob had already developed the Upton figures, so with only hand waving and the set-change figure to develop this seemed the ideal vehicle to “boost my ego”.

This was, of course, more difficult than I had anticipated. How does one develop a method of hand waving that is neither a straight “lift” from another tradition nor a complicated and contrived attempt at uniqueness? What was developed is as follows: both arms work together, each held at a right angle at the elbow, similar to a child pretending to be a steam engine. From this starting position the arms are thrown upwards on beat one, describe a horizontal circle (right hand moving clockwise and left counterclockwise) on beat two, and are lowered back to the starting position on beat three. I imagine some readers are thinking, “Surely, that’s what Chipping-of-the-Bush do” or “He said things could become contrived, and he was right.” If it is from “Chipping-of-the-Bush”, I offer both thanks and apology to that tradition. To those who view the movement as contrived, I would perhaps ask them to see the movement in performance, and then I will quite willingly accept their criticism.

To some extent, perhaps the arm movements we developed for the Upton Handkerchief Dance are contrived, for while they are executed within the space of three beats, a single step takes one beat but commonly occurs in groups of two or four as dictated by the music. This means that the arms and feet are not fully coordinated, and this led to further complications when working on a transition into the set change. Because of its distinctive nature, we wanted to draw attention to the set change feature, and we found that leading into it with four capers added flare without complexity. So, in relation to standard eight bar, or sixteen beat, Morris tunes, this transition would consist of twelve single steps and four capers. When we tried this, however, we discovered that the arms, after twelve beats, were down, in the starting position, making it very awkward to go immediately into four capers. The choices were either to put in a feint step, change the hand movement, or alter the music to twenty beats so that the arms would be in the raised position before the capers. Not wishing to alter the hand movement, and finding the feint steps in Bledington unappealing, we chose to find music that fitted the dance, that is, twenty beat music. After some searching, we discovered the tune “Oats and Beans and Barley”.

read more…                back