The pandemic of the last year could not have come at a worse time for The Men of Wight Morris. The year 2020, was the 50th anniversary of our foundation and the team had big plans for a celebration in June. Much of the year had been spent on the planning of the 2020 programme of events, including our normal “summer” programme which normally comprises about 30 dates. Of course we were also planning a big 50th anniversary with a celebration weekend with a number of guests who were either original side members or were instrumental in our formation, many of whom had to be painstakingly tracked down. Then it all changed of course.
But first let me explain how we got to 50 years of our Morris team on the Island:
In England, Morris Dances originates from times which stretch back more centuries than anyone can reliably count. There is a possibility that it started as a set of Court dances, known as Morisco's, which spread to the population where they evolved and were adapted over the centuries. On the Island the earliest mention of Morris Dancing is from the time of Queen Elizabeth the first, specifically in 1567, when the Morris Dancers were part of the Mayday celebrations in Newport. The Morris dances that we know and perform today come from a much later period, from the records of Victorian collectors published in the early 1900's.
Here on the Island our own Morris revival started around 1968 when the local representative of The English Dance and Song Society, Peter Dashwood, taught some Morris dances at the country dance sessions at the Sloop Inn at Wootton. Members of the Sloop Folk Song Club and Circle Wight country dance group then made attempts at learning the traditional dances. This developed further when an experienced Morris dancer moved to the Island. Finally, in September of 1970, The Men of Wight team (the Morris term is a 'side') was formed at a meeting in the back room of the Eagle Tavern in Ryde. That team was male only but in recent years we have changed policy to one more in keeping with the current world and now include female members.
Over the ensuing 50 years, The Men of Wight became an integral part of the Island scene, entertaining on Thursday evening at spots all over the Island and performing at events and functions. In that time we have achieved some amazing things, we set a high altitude record for Morris dancing, organised and ran 5 major meetings for the national organisation The Morris Ring. We also worked on TV programmes with Keith Chegwin, Michael Palin and Warwick Davis, we featured in several news items, performed at the inauguration of Lord Louis Mountbatten as Lord Lieutenant of the Island, attended many UK Morris meetings and we performed at the opening of the Island Games at Carisbrooke Castle. Over the years we made many friends amongst the Morris community and made many trips to Europe to dance at international festivals in Germany, France, Spain, Holland and Belgium. We also have (up to now) maintained the custom of greeting the dawn on Mayday every year by dancing at the Longstones at Mottistone. In those 50 years we have performed on over 3000 occasions.
So back to 2020: our initial reaction was that it was a complete wash-out, everything was cancelled. However we are not a group to be put off by adversity and looked to how we could continue our activities at some level.
We are fundamentally a dance group, so a reasonable level fitness – both physical and mental – is important. National Health England have recommended dancing as an ideal exercise, as it is a combination of physical exercise, mental exercise and provides a good social scene. The style of dancing practiced by The Men of Wight is a great exercise regime as it involves fairly short bursts of moderate physicality and it also stretches the memory with over 40 dances in the repertoire each year and the countless steps and moves to be to remembered, and of course we are a very social group.
Initially when meeting together was forbidden, we looked to technology to help us continue our practice sessions, so started using using Zoom meetings. Now, anyone who uses internet meeting technology will know that the time delays in seeing and hearing the other members of a meeting presents problems. The situation was worse when working with music as it is impossible to synchronise everyone. So we worked on ways of overcoming these difficulties, quickly realising that the solution was to concentrate on our solo jig dances.
Solo jigs are, as the name suggests, dances usually performed by a single dancer, usually to show off their individual prowess. Amongst the Morris traditions there are over 60 solo jigs notated with names such as “Jockie to the Fair”, “Shepherd's Hey” and “Bacca Pipes”. We have currently concentrated on just 5, in order to not confuse ourselves too much!
This approach is ideal for Zoom sessions, as a single musician can play and the dancers can perform the same dance but in their own location and time. We sent out dance notes and recordings of the music in advance, talk through any difficulties that an individual might be having and then perform the whole thing to live music.
When regulations became more relaxed at one point last year, it became feasible for us to meet for live, but socially distanced, practices. (In Morris, the dance and the music are closely intertwined so live practices are vital to allow both dancers and musicians to fine-tune their performances.) Maintaining social distancing, meant we had to adapt our routines even further and we re-invented a number of the “traditional” dances.
So now we are in 2021, looking for other things to celebrate and ways to celebrate them. We have scoured our old diaries and found that our first performance in public was on Thursday 15th April 1971, and coincidentally the 50th anniversary of that date this year is also a Thursday. That original event was a performance in Ryde Town Hall for the WRVS Derby & Joan Club. Oh, how far we have come since then!
The 15th of April would have been an appropriate date to commemorate we would have normally produced a group photo, but of course this has not been possible. Are we disheartened? Of course not, we will keep practicing and look forward to the time when we will be performing in public again.
We welcome new members every year, please contact our bagman Malcolm Hector <firstname.lastname@example.org> or just have a chat when you see us out and about.
Mike Butler, Musician for The Men of Wight