When Ted Purver danced two jigs at a carnival at Leeds University in March of 1950, it was believed to be the first public performance of Morris dancing on campus. His routines were ones one that would lead to the formation of what is today known as Leeds Morris Men, a club that this year is celebrating its 70th anniversary.
Purver had been a member of the Cambridge Morris Men before moving to the university as an assistant lecturer in Spanish. He was disappointed on his arrival to find no Morris organisation existed in the city and set to work to remedy the situation.
He attracted interested from two initial collaborators - Cliff Barstow and Norman Peacock - and the trio formed the club with Purver becoming its first squire (a captain of sorts).
The group’s first practice was held in October 1950, and by the following February, a team of six men danced its first public performance at the Inter-Varsity Folk Dance Festival. Alastair Sayles, who is a foreman of the group, researching and teaching the dances, picks up the story.
“Through the 50s, it was a really good, strong side,” he says. “The 60s sadly there were a lot of changes, a lot of people moved away and the period was a bit of a downtime in the club’s history where there weren’t a lot of people. The 70s was the opposite. It was boomtime again. The 70s was very much the time of the hippy era and lots of people getting into folk music.
“When I joined the team in the 80s it was quite strong then and it remained strong through the 80s and 90s. Unfortunately, the club struggles a bit now. We’ve got a lot of ageing members and it’s hard to recruit new people in.”
The group still harks back to its early foundations with every performance; dancers’ outfits are burgundy, green and white, in a nod to the university’s colours. In the past few decades, the kit has also featured an owl, a mark of the club’s association with the city of Leeds, where the coat of arms includes three of the birds.
In the early days, Leeds Morris Men performed the Yorkshire tradition of Longsword, a dance which usually features six or eight people who interweave in a circle with swords. Throughout its history, members have also danced Cotswold Morris - performed in with hankies and sticks - and today the club focuses almost exclusively on routines originating from villages in the Cotswold hills.
“We’re what you think of as the archetypal Morris dancer - white trousers, white shirt, straw hat with flowers in, bell pads on our legs, waving handkerchiefs, skipping, clapping - that’s essentially Cotswold dancing,” Sayles, 54, of Woodlesford, says. “It’s quite showy.”
As part of the club’s anniversary year, members had planned to take the dances back to their home villages, performing a tour of the Cotswolds later this year. Sadly, it’s been put on hold.
“We would have been taking the dances back to some of the villages they came from originally, which is a big thing,” says Moss Ambrose the group’s bagman (think secretary).
“We’ve done it a couple of times before and we’ve danced a dance in the village it’s from and the villagers have said what’s that? We say it comes from here - did you not know? It’s been somewhat educational for them.”
The curtailed Cotswold performances are not the only way in which the club has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Every year since 1953, Leeds Morris Men have embarked on a tour of the Yorkshire Dales, performing in areas such as Malhamdale, Airedale, Wharfedale and Wensleydale.
Each late May Bank Holiday Monday, they have performed a dance called The Rose in the village of Kettlewell at 10am, commemorating members they have lost, celebrating Morris and sustaining a venerable tradition. This year, the Dales tour was unable to go ahead.
“We’ve never missed a year until this one,” Ambrose explains. “We were set to do three days in the Dales as we always do. We had lots of other people coming to join us so this year was set to be a record year, with ten or 12 teams coming. That’s what we should have been doing but of course we couldn’t.
“We nearly missed the Foot and Mouth [disease] year but even then we managed to get up to Malham to dance, so we haven’t missed one until this year. It was a blow to us really because we feel we have to keep the tradition going.”
Depending on coronavirus restrictions, the group would like to do a selective version of the Dales tour in the Autumn - and they weren’t content on entirely giving it a miss in May either, coming up with a virtual version and raising funds for NHS Charities Together.
Members performed The Rose as a solo jig from their own homes, with the footage edited together and shared on social media. Images from Dales tours in years gone by were also posted, capturing performances in the various national park communities. More than £700 was raised through donations.
“The feeling is that we can’t wait to get out and dance again,” 68-year-old Ambrose says. “Dancing on your own feels a bit pointless but dancing for an audience, however distanced they are, is absolutely what Morris thrives on, the interaction between yourself and the audience. It’s just tremendous.”
Ambrose, who lives in Kirkstall, has been with the group for nearly 40 years. He joined at the age of 30, already a folk singer and looking to get involved in more folk traditions. He’s what is known as the ‘fool’ of the group, wearing a top hat and tails costume, and acts as a link between the dancers and the audience.
“A lot of people would laugh at Morris dancing and say we’re keeping a tradition alive that is really rather silly,” he reflects. “Yes it is rather silly to be honest, there’s an awful lot of silliness in it.
“My role as the fool is to make people laugh - it’s cheap slapstick comedy really. It’s very entertaining. But I do think it’s important to keep the tradition of Morris alive.
“It’s a very vibrant culture and it’s one of the few cultures that England has still got. Scottish dancing is respected, Irish dancing is respected, Welsh singing is respected, English Morris dancing is actually all we’ve got that’s traditionally English...It gives people a lot of pleasure. It’s fun to do, it’s fun to watch and you can join in with it.
“I love it when you start off with an audience who are completely indifferent and by the time you’ve done a couple of minutes of dancing, they’re entirely with you.”
He and Sayles, who joined the Leeds team in 1984 after first trying Morris dancing at the age of 13, both speak of a sense of comradeship among fellow dancers, including in other clubs across the country. Leeds members hosted Zoom meetings throughout the lockdown to keep in touch.
“It’s not just a dancing team, it’s a group of friends that dance together and enjoy each other’s company.,” Ambrose says. “You become a unit, and a support unit as well, there are people there to befriend others if they have troubles. We’ve really missed that tremendously.”
Despite the challenges of an ageing membership Sayles doesn’t believe the club will ever stop. “If people enjoy doing something, it should keep being done,” he says. “Everybody I know who dances does it because they enjoy dancing first and foremost.
“People do it to go and see their mate down the road, play some music, do some dancing, have a drink and enjoy themselves. It’s a community thing...People enjoy it and it brings pleasure and that’s the most important thing.”
Rehearsals normally take place on Thursdays at St Michael and All Angels’ Church in Headingley from 7.45pm to 9.45pm.
Members dance at pubs in and around Leeds during the summer months and also attend various events, festivals and Morris dancing weekends throughout the year.
For more information, visit www.leedsmorris.org.uk
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