How long have the Knots of May been dancing?

The Knots of May was formed in the autumn of 1974 by a group of women who met in Brighton folk clubs. Sheila Magill obtained notations of some half-a-dozen dances from Tubby Reynolds of Bath City Morris, and the first couple of practices were held in the cramped but friendly circumstances of her basement flat in Brighton. Once we’d decided we were getting somewhere (up the walls?), we booked the upstairs room at the Springfield Hotel (then used for a Friday folk club) to practice in. The ceiling of the bar below has never been the same since! With the invaluable help of three of the partners of founder members, and a couple of day practices with Betty and Tubby Reynolds, and the incomparable Roy Dommett, we puzzled our way through the notations, and on 14th February 1975 gave our first public performance at the St. Valentine’s Day ceilidh at the Springfield. Those who were there feel their senses reel yet at the terror of the memory! Our reception amazed us by its warmth, vigour, and genuine admiration. By now we had a name too, culled by Mike Stevens from Radio 4’s ‘My Word’, where Frank Muir explained that ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May was really a corruption of ‘knots of may’ i.e. hawthorn blossom. Had it never occurred to you that May is a bad time to gather nuts? Be honest!

Our male mentors, Ed Bassford, Eric Moquet and Eddie Upton stepped down gracefully, passing the task of instruction to our best dancer, Maggie. They had been so kind (at some risk to their reputations in the Morris Ring): we were saddened and daunted to see them go, and immensely proud and determined to think we could do without them! Emboldened by success, we went on to perform at a ceilidh at Sussex University the following month, and by April were confident enough to join in a procession for Eastbourne Folk Day. We used the Marston Dance as the processional, and finished with a sea-front display in a stiff sea breeze. At least the garlands were lighter in those days, having acquired clumps of flowers only. It took another two years for them to come into full bloom. (New members should here repress any fancy ideas!) Other events of that first season were Shoreham May morning celebrations (this started at 6a.m. AND many of us had been up Chanctonbury Ring at midnight May eve!); Michelham Priory Folk night; Lewes Folk Day; a day of dance with Bath City Morris: various fetes and ceilidhs and one or two pub stands.

In a remarkably short time we had become a strong and enthusiastic team. Greedy for new dances, we engineered a marriage between Maggie and Eddie Lyons (October 11th 1975) in order to provide an occasion for our first performance of the Gisburn Processional Dance, which was shared between ourselves and the even newer Chanctonbury Ring Clog Dancers. We kept up the tradition of a men’s and a women’s line in this dance for a staggering few months; but we found we had insufficient time to keep it together. Eddie and Maggie seem to have fared better! By summer 1976 we had a logo and badge, designed by Anna Lodovska, and a full dancing programme which included two day tours with Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men, a weekend at Bracknell Folk Festival, and a reprise of Lewes Folk Day. We had published an interview with Radio Brighton in April (Angie B. in the hot seat), and were already turning down fetes…

We had come a long way in an exhilarating two years. Numbers had swollen from 8 to 20 dancers, Marion Campbell had developed an inimitable announcing style, and we had an established band of excellent musicians, whose patience and dedication has never ceased to amaze us.

Where do the clogs come from?

Briefly, Lancashire! They were standard cheap footwear for the mill-workers of the industrial towns who danced the Morris in the late nineteenth century. Fancy, heavily decorated clogs as worn for ‘Sunday-best’ were adopted for dancing. Dancing clogs are now made by craftsmen in various parts of the country:- Shoes were used by dancers from the market towns of Cheshire, like Knutsford and Peover, and we follow this tradition.

What do the sticks and garlands represent, and where does the kit originate?

The dances are embellished by hand movements emphasized by sticks or garlands. The sticks are thought to have been originally made from the detritus from the cotton-mills: bobbins decorated at each end with bundles of cotton waste, and variously known as mollies, tassels, tiddlers, throw-ups or tittle-eras. The girls’ teams which developed the Carnival Morris competitively drum-majorette style in the North West after the Second World War use shakers: sticks decorated with large bundles of crepe paper. The garlands used by the Bacup Coconut dancers are also decorated with paper.

The garland dances in our repertoire are generally relatively recent origin. Marston and Gisburn were both originally stick dances: the remainder of our garland dances are either modern compositions or foreign imports. The style of our garlands can thus be claimed to be as authentic as anyone else’s! The exception is ‘The Rose’ from Sunderland in which the use of the garlands is reminiscent of sword-dancing.

One might suspect that sword dances were adapted for garlands, or perhaps inspired teams to invent similarly structured dances for garlands. Garlands are widely used in European festive folk dancing, from Flanders to Spain, and we have adopted some of these dances into our repertoire.

What is the origin of our kit?

Our kit dates quite clearly from the fashions the early 1970s, when maxi-dresses were in vogue. These were felt to be suitable both to our own time and reminiscent of the styles of the 1890s to 1910s, when Lancashire Morris was being danced traditionally,and Mary Neal, began the widespread revival of the Cotswold Morris, starting in her girls’ clubs in the East End of London. The apron was adopted as a link with the Lancashire mill girls for whom it was work attire. The actual pattern was published in a women’s magazine: it was suggested as suitable gear for entertaining! It is interesting to note that in the mid 197Os, an advantage of the kit, with the different coloured dresses, was that once the pinny was removed, the dancers could blend in with the crowd at whatever event we were!

What happens to the money Morris dancers collect?

It is used to defray expenses, and nowadays to make charitable donations. It is worth noting that collecting for charity as such is illegal unless you have a licence, collect only on the day specified, and STAY STILL. Collecting seems likely to have originated as a glorified form of begging, along with other traditions such as Penny-for-the-Guy, street theatre, garlanding and busking. In the late nineteenth century the men of the Cotswold villages got so good at it that it provided then with a tidy addition to their income. As itinerant agricultural labourers, they managed to combine following the harvest with a trip to London to dance and collect: it seems that energy for cash, dancing was more lucrative!*

*’Village Life and Labour’,p.51.

Where do the dances come from?

English Morris dances are of several distinct types. Most widely known are the Cotswold dances, mostly for six men, and using sticks or handkerchiefs. These were collected by Cecil Sharp and others from the Oxfordshire villages where they were still performed by traditional sides (spasmodically) in the last years of the nineteenth century.

Sharp and his friends revived many of these dances during the first decade of the twentieth century, working on notations and tunes culled from traditional dancers’ and musicians’ memories. A notable contributor to the process was the concertina player William Kimber, of Headington Quarry. In 1905, Sharp was introduced to Mary Neal, who was running the Esperance Girls’ Club for working class girls in the East End of London. Neal adopted the dances and music with characteristic energy and enthusiasm, went to visit Kimber, and with Sharp’s support began teaching the Morris at the Esperance Club. Performances at the club’s 1905 Christmas party were such a success that a public performance was arranged for the spring of 1906. Neal saw the Morris as a means of restoring a lost culture to a dispossessed working class. The dances were taught through an expanding Guild of Esperance Clubs, and given wider currency through public concerts put on by the girls. Teachers from the Esperance clubs were despatched to various parts of the country to spread the gospel. The movement grew very rapidly: in our own locality in 1907 a ‘May Day Revel’ organised and performed by the gentry, supplanted the Lewes Garland Day through which over the preceding 30 years the same class had supported and encouraged the native and essentially working class practice of garland bearing. Neal and Sharp soon quarrelled; he felt that her dedication to popularising folk music and dancing threatened to compromise the artistic integrity of the traditional material itself (see Roy Judges article ‘Mary Neal and the Esperance Morris’, Folk Music Journal Vo1.5 No5, 1989).

The revival was under way, however, and despite the hiatus caused by the First World War, dance clubs, supported by the English Folk Dance Society, formed in 1911, and later to become the EFDSS, continued to burgeon. The Morris Ring (an association of men’s Morris clubs) was formed in 1934.

The women’s dance revival took longer to recover. A surge of new revivalist clubs, many performing Cotswold dances, was apparent in the 1970s. The Knots of May is essentially part of this development, although we chose to adopt dances from a different strand of the English Morris.

In the North West of England, centring around the industrial area of Manchester and environs, a tradition of clog dancing had developed.

Sharp was aware of these dances, but found them a debased form and their collection was pioneered by Maud Karpeles , who did some work in the 1930s, which been augmented by numerous collectors, most of them involved in the movement as dancers in subsequent years . This work is still proceeding among the clubs in the areas where the dances are thickest on the ground. The North West tradition differed from the Cotswold in several material respects . It employed clogs, ‘tiddlers’, and extravagant decoration (hats, beads) rather than beribboned working garb and simple handkerchiefs. The dances were expandable, being designed for multiples of four, and lent themselves to performance in the kind of processions festive spirit. As they were not static in character, so they were not fixed in place of origin as the Cotswold dances seem to have been. Rather any given dance was the property of the Conductor or instructor who taught it, and might, with his permission, be freely reworked by a new team with whom he became associated. This pattern of development reflects the relative geographic mobility of the industrial over the agricultural worker.

At its height Morris was extremely popular. There were, for example, upwards of a dozen teams all based on the great railway works at Crewe , all operating independently and simultaneously. The involvement of women as dancers seems to have had informal beginnings before the First World War, with groups of friends working out bits of dances for themselves with the occasional cooperation of a male dancer . The inter- war years saw the mushrooming of girls ‘ dance clubs : the birth of the ‘ Fluffy ‘ or ‘ Carnival’ Morris. Between these clubs the dancing was – and still is – fiercely competitive. This factor is at least partially responsible f or the way in which Fluffy Morris has developed. Dancing is, almost exclusively , done to taped music ; the stepping is characterised by a high knee-lift; the kit is military in fashion ; and probably most important , the evolutions of the dance are slowed and simplified to give the maximum impact to a highly disciplined, straight-lined, straight-backed performance by the largest possible team. It is an impressive thing to see (Roy Dommett has a video), but clearly has more in common with the performance of a troupe of drum-majorettes than with anything the Knots of May do.

Nevertheless, Fluffy Morris has proved a valuable source of dances : we share with them the Preston Carnival Dance, for example.

Other types of English Morris are Longsword dancing (one of the most famous comes from Grenoside); Rapper dancing using short, flexible double-handled swords and originating in the North- East of the country; Border dancing from the Welsh borders, which forms the basis for John Kirkpatrick’s much copied work with the Shropshire Bedlams; and Molly dancing from East Anglia.

Our repertoire includes a number of ‘composed’ dances. This is very much in the North-West traditional way of doing things; indeed the salient feature of our composed dances is that they are so recently invented that it is still possible to trace those responsible. In addition we use a number of foreign imports: the Basque dance from a Tubby Reynolds notation; the Wain and the Lacemaker from notations supplied by Roy Dommett and, in the case of the Lacemaker, extensively reworked by Keith Phillips. How ‘traditional’ these are in their own countries is beyond my skill to say.

Where do the tunes come from?

The dance notations we had originally from Tubby Reynolds came complete with suggested tunes. Of these, we still use a version of ‘Bobby Shaftoe’ for Marston, but have otherwise adopted the traditional North-West practice of selecting appropriate tunes from a variety of sources. This task has fallen almost entirely to our musicians, heckled by any dancers who were alert enough to perceive changes in the music. For information on specific tunes, it is necessary to refer members of the public direct to the musicians, pointing out, of course, what truly wonderful people they are to perform this very skilful service for us. It is relevant that some of our musicians are dancers of some experience and prowess in various fields in their own right, and that their judgement as to a tune’s ‘danceability’ is extremely sound.

How can you book the Knots of May to dance?

Approach should be made to the secretary. It is advisable to give extremely good notice, as the season gets booked up very early. People are sometimes impatient for an answer because they fail to appreciate the complex logistics of assembling 24 or so free-thinking individuals with a plethora of other commitments. However, it can be possible to get a side together at very short notice for an event that sounds really good fun! People should understand that it is customary to offer something by way of expenses.

What is the origin of Morris dancing?

Many of the public have clear expectations about this question. They want the Morris to be shrouded in primeval mist and preferably to be associated with fertility rites, akin to copulating in the new- ploughed furrows (bloody cold, in January!). If this is what makes them happy, I am inclined to let them have it: they’ll put more in the pig, go home satisfied, and in any case won’t believe any historically more accurate explanation like ‘nobody really knows’. You can elaborate on their nascent theories by quoting the case of ‘Bean Setting’, a (probably fairly recent) Cotswold dance, totally unlike anything the Knots do, in which sticks are banged on the ground in clear imitation of a gardener setting out her runners.

If you get someone who is actually interested enough to explore possibilities, you can probably make it up between you using the following information ad lib.

  • The word ‘Morris’ is thought to derive from a corruption of ‘Moorish’ i.e. the sort of dancing which was brought into Europe by the invading Islamic hordes in the 7th century. This also gives an explanation(!) for the practice of blacking up.
  • The word Morris can be seen to derive from a corruption of ‘Mary’s dancing, implying a Christian sanitization of pagan ritual.
  • Associations of Morris dancing with coal mining could be sought, and, no doubt established, to account for the practice of blacking up. The explanation for blacking up which I actually believe is that it is the simplest form of disguise, enabling the participants to place themselves outside the usually accepted norms of social behaviour. Links along these lines can be explored with phenomena like skimmity riding, scapegoating, Lords of Misrule and Mardi Gras.
  • Morris dancing is a spectacle: it is not merely a social dance for anyone who wants to join in, but a performance by a specific group, for an audience, done at identifiably ‘special’ occasions e.g. Whitsun Fairs, Wakes Weeks, Rushbearing, Plough Monday celebrations. It is celebratory in character, and not merely festive.
  • Documentary evidence for the existence of Morris dancing dates back only to about the 15th century, and even then it is unclear what the nature and occasion of the performance was.
  • The aprons worn by most women’s Morris sides are vestigial shrouds, recalling that originally the dancers were swathed in white from head to toe. They were powerful ghostly images whose vigour in the dance affirmed the belief in resurrection and the victory of life over death. This is, of course reflected in the white shirts and trousers favoured by men’s Morris sides.
  • Invent similar associations for anything we wear, say or do. Your guess is as probably as good as anyone else’s. It’s fun to speculate!

Angie B 1990