The male bastion women just didn’t want to keep

From boardroom to battlefield, female influence is unchallenged – except in Morris dancing. But this is no thanks to the efforts of men, says Iain Murray

The advance of the victors was unstoppable, One by one, the undefended citadels of maledom fell. The armed services, the fire brigade, the boardroom, the rugby pitch, these and more were invaded until the very essence of what it means to be male – the fecundating function – was conquered and bottled. It was a rout. Nor, it has to be said, were the victors willing to observe the Churchillian maxim “in peace, magnanimity”. They rubbed it in. And nowhere more so than in television commercials.

One example: there is an ad currently running in which a bright-eyed, alert young woman explains the function of a household cleaning product to a man whose inability to comprehend the simplest sentence is implicit in his maleness. Only when she says that, thanks to the speed of the cleansing chemical, they will be able to get to the pub more quickly does a small glimmer of understanding flicker across his narrow brow. That’s men for you: stupid, and able to appreciate only the simplest pleasures.

And yet, despite this craven capitulation in the war of the sexes, there remained one small redoubt, one pocket of resistance, a corner of human activity in which a man could give free rein to his masculinity and be true to himself, by tying bells and ribbons to his ankles and prancing about in the company of like-minded brothers. And no sisters. I refer, of course, to Morris dancing.

Imagine the dismay, then, the deep downcast sense of gloom and loss when at a recent public event there appeared a group of female Morris dancers! All across England, a pitiable howl rose from the bowers and groves where men who wear flowers in their hats gather together. One broke cover and wrote to The Daily Telegraph.

“Sir – I was taken aback to note that, at the Destinations 2004 Travel Show at Earl’s Court, England’s national dance was represented by a bevy of lady Morris dancers. The English Morris is a ceremonial dance for men sworn to manhood, fiery ecstasy, ale, magic and fertility: it is a male dance entirely. For women to perform it is a contradiction in terms. From Gordon Ridgewell, Hertford, Herts.”

Though not a Morris man myself, I must declare a sense of affinity, at any rate in part, with the dancers. I’m all for manhood, ale, and a spot of fertility. Magic I’m not so sure about, and fiery ecstasy is, frankly, beyond me. Does it perhaps refer to tobacco smoking in the days when that substance was less stable than it is now?

To understand Morris dancing it is necessary to look at bygone days, to peer into the mists of time. Everyone agrees that it is a centuries-old custom, but quite where it came from is unknown. It is generally agreed that it started in the Cotswolds and has something to do with fertility and the rites of an agrarian society. Even the name Morris is a mystery. Some claim that it is a corruption of Moorish, indicating that the dances may have their origins somewhere in Africa.

Fortunately, I am able to shed some light on these mysteries. Morris actually comes from the English word “mawkish”, still in use today and meaning “feebly sentimental”. It can be traced back to the comment of a wife who, in the days when times were but mists, stepped outside her front door and spotted her spouse dancing and flapping a handkerchief in an unmanly way.

He was merely bringing home a custom he had picked up at the pub – or rather outside it. These were the days when licensing laws were rigorously enforced and men who arrived ahead of opening time were obliged to stand outside and wait. Over time, and especially on cold days, they took to hopping up and down and stamping their clogs on the hard ground, partly in an effort to keep warm and partly to remind the landlord within that they were without.

From there, it was a logical step to tie bells at the ankles, don flowered hats and bring along tambourines, pipes and tabors, the logic being that the more colourful, noisy and embarrassing the spectacle, the greater would be the eagerness of the publican to throw open his doors and halt the racket. Stung by criticism that there was something vaguely effeminate, perhaps even a little limp-wristed, in wearing forget-me-nots and flapping hankies, the Morris men incorporated the traditional male practice of hitting each other with sticks.

Later and grimmer events are recounted by Dr Theresa Buckland, dance anthropologist at De Montfort University, who says that at the end of the 19th century girls took over Morris dancing, which dwindled as a male activity. “There followed a revival of interest when the form was taught in schools, mainly by women. In the Thirties, men reclaimed their dance and began to dominate it again.”

If true, Morris dancing was not the last, but the first casualty of the sex war. Damn.

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