Event review: Croydon’s Night of Dance,Tuesday 16th August

By - Tuesday 23rd August, 2016

Liz Sheppard-Jones watches Croydon’s Morris men (and women) dancing in the streets

Photo author’s own.

Over the last few weeks, Croydon has shaken its booty down to the ground in not one but three celebrations of dancing. First we had Family Fest in Park Hill Park on 4th June, then the Big Dance, a London-wide festival of movement, culminating in Trafalgar Square on 2nd July where a number of Croydonians participated. Finally came this Night of Dance on Tuesday 16th August, with Morris dancing at three east Croydon pubs: the Oval in Oval Road, the Builders Arms in Leslie Park Road and the Glamorgan on Cherry Orchard Road.

Photo author’s own.

Googling for Morris origins brings up only theories. The dancers I asked had nothing further to add, though all knew the history of their own group and were clearly enthusiastic: I learned, for example, that the correct term for a band of Morris dancers is a ‘side’. We have a first recorded reference to the Morris in 1448 and a later mention by Shakespeare: ‘Moorish’ dancing is one possibility, arising from the traditional blacking of faces and hanging of bells on arms and legs, thought to suggest a root in north Africa. But no one really knows. It’s been going a long time, though, which means that it offers us something. Also, it was discouraged by the Puritans, which gives us a clue as to what that might be.

This was lovely, super-inclusive community stuff

The festival was hosted by the Ten Lords Morris and must have taken some organising: there was dancing in the streets outside the Oval and the Builders Arms, then the performers refreshed themselves with ale and swapped over, then finally everyone linked up and processed to the Glamorgan, with musical accompaniment, to complete the evening with further refreshment.

Photo author’s own.

The programme listed four Morris traditions (bedlam, Cotswold, border and clog) and sixteen participating sides. The motifs of the dance were consistent (bells, the bashing together of wooden poles, face-painting, leaping and linking arms) but styles varied from the simpler, immediately-recognisable routine of Croydon’s own North Wood Morris to what appeared to me to be Irish (hands on hips, dancers facing the crowd, springy), then to a maypole dance (with audience participation) and to my favourites, the dark and menacing Wild Hunt Bedlam Morris: black-clad, fully-masked and accompanying its performance with shouts. All of this made for an exciting show and the pavement outside the Oval bustled with spectators and photographers.

The Morris can be performed sedately or with a high level of energy, making it super-inclusive, so the evening’s youngest performers were aged about ten whilst the oldest was well into (at a guess) his seventies. It’s yet another reason why dancing is lovely community stuff, as Bernadette Fallon wrote movingly in the Citizen after she took part in the Big Dance and as deputy mayor Toni Letts observed in her remarks of welcome last Tuesday.

It’s got to be about fertility, with all that brandishing of poles

It was nice that the Night of Dance had civic support. There was even a semi-authorised blockage of Oval Road: not official enough to involve advance warnings or alternative sign-posting, but sufficiently legit for a steward in a fluoro-bib to hold up cars then let them drive through in between dances. When the final procession moved off, several vehicles inched along at its rear, but no one got annoyed and local residents watched from upstairs windows or brought out young children in arms to see us pass by.

Photo author’s own.

So why the Morris? Whilst the Night of Dance honoured the patron saint of beer, St Arnold (and honoured him well), somehow it all feels older. It’s got to be about fertility, with that lusty brandishing and clanking of poles and the come-hither waving of hankerchiefs, and though a number of the sides were mixed, it’s traditionally performed by men and women separately – a gathering of male and female energies. There’s also a distinctly ‘out, demons!’ quality: those black-costumed figures and masked faces suggest symbolic banishment of whatever disturbs and threatens communal life. One dance in particular ended not with bowing but in a sudden charge, the Morris men and women yelling as though to chase away evil spirits.

‘There’s not enough random ritual in England”, said my mate Ian with a grin as we ambled down the road in procession behind the dancers and musicians. Indeed there isn’t, and it was lovely to take part in some. Everyone had fun. A hot summer’s day gave way to chill as darkness crept on: intimations of autumn – but not yet. The entertainment was well-organised, the timing spot on, much ale flowed and any menacing spirits must have been roundly driven off. All’s well for another year.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    And that is how I met Stephen Giles, when he was playing guitar for Northwood Morris and I joined using percussion. Happy days!

  • cronxite

    Seventies? There was at least one dancer in his 80s. Dancing keeps you young.