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  • 15


     
    Hey Nonny No, No, No
    History; Posted on: 2008-05-14 00:48:58 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]
    Why the newcomers are putting the fear of God into the traditionalists

    Might I Suggest ... Contra Dance?

    Just before dawn, by an empty shingle beach, sinister figures move through the gloom. Living shadows, they're dressed all in black, their coats made from long rags, their faces obscured by paint. But their eyes burn brightly as they gather in a circle. If some poor insomniac comes walking the dog now at 5am on a cold, damp morning they'll get a massive fright.

    "Hey-ya!" yell eight men and women as they come together with a loud clash of sticks, and what appears to be a blend of country dancing and martial arts. The dance is about sex, there's no mistaking that: one partner stands with legs straddling his stick, holding it upwards from the groin, while the other uses his own stick to bash it about. "It's so much a fertility dance that you'd have to really not know what you were looking at to miss the point," says 47-year-old Laurence Ranger, the squire (a kind of road manager) of Hunters Moon Morris.

    Morris dancing is a joke, isn't it, with a hey nonny no? Beardy men with beer bellies prancing about in white stockings, waving hankies? Very twee. But try telling that to the men and women of Hunters Moon, here by the Sussex coast looking like the devilish spawn of Hell's Angels and medieval mummers. They are part of a secret revolution in morris dancing, transforming the most easily lampooned of English eccentricities. Fresh rivalries are emerging, as younger men and women reinvent "the morris" in startling ways including, as we discover during a mad dash around southern England on May Day, the world's first Gothic morris troupe or "side".

    Dawn on 1 May is when the season starts for dancers who have been practising in pubs and church halls all winter. By the beach at Holywell, the site of an ancient spring in Eastbourne, Hunters Moon are doing a dance that is vigorous, noisy and saucy. And pagan. "Look at it coming up," says a female voice, and she's not talking about her partner's big stick: the sun is beginning to burn orange through heavy grey clouds on the horizon. "That is wonderful."

    The dancers encircle a woman in a long green velvet cloak, who holds up a silver cup. "As the sun rises we meet the summer," she says, beginning a pagan blessing, "and ask that the spirits of the land and sea bring bounty, health and happiness to those within this circle." With that, she passes the cup around like a communion chalice. Later, the remnants of the wine will be poured into the sea, a tribute to the energies of nature, as someone shouts, "I hope that's not Shiraz!"

    You don't have to be a pagan to join Hunters Moon, but their symbol is a combination of the moon and the horned man. "A lot of people within the wider morris don't like or accept its connection with the pagan," says Ranger but for him it is a spiritual experience. "You are grounding yourself, partaking of yourself as a member of the human race, and partaking of the ground you're dancing on." When this finishes, he will be off to work as an office manager. "You get so detached from the natural cycle of life that it is nice to be part of events that remind you. Forming the circle can be quite profound. More so in a quiet place like this than if you're in a town centre getting stick from local yobs."

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