By Dr Lucy Wright
The sports hall is packed when I arrive; a frenetic and uneven sea of folding chairs, pushchairs and packed lunches, and people everywhere. A mayhem of children and adults spill inside and out, chatting, practising routines, changing clothes. I survey the space steadily, my eyes searching for some haven of familiarity at this event that call itself ‘morris dancing’. It doesn’t look like any morris that I have seen before. Heavily sequinned dresses suspend from every available hanger, and white plimsolls, hairspray and make-up bags jumble across the floor. The air is thick with the scent of syrup and fried onions from a stationary burger van parked just outside, and there is an almost palpable sense of anticipation and affiliation.
In a small partitioned area in the top quarter of the room a line of pre-teenage girls in matching costumes stand in a height-orderly row, as a pair of middle-aged women circle around them carrying clipboards. The judges examine socks, headbands and skirt lengths of dancers scaled up and down like a set of Russian dolls. A short distance from the group a girl I take to be the leader sets the pace using a variable speed CD player. Some loud pop music blasts from the speakers and a pulsing beat reverberates around the hall; a ubiquitous summer hit. She performs a short stepping routine, her brow furrowed with concentration. Satisfied, she returns to her place at the head of the line, and after a short period, the music begins again, now partway through the track.
A tambourine sounds. Instantly, the troupe begin their routine, marching high up on their toes, tiny silver bells thrilling with every downward step. The assembled crowd roar. Then the leader signals with outstretched arms, the crowd roar again and the troupe seamlessly switch to driving triplets, the ‘pas-de-bas’, precise and formational. In their hands are cheerleader-style pom-poms, all fizz and glinting plastic. They punch out, together, up and back, but they’re not cheering; they’re not really smiling. They are pounding the rubber floor in furious synchronicity, with knees raised and feet pointed, forming shapes and patterns that are both fluid and military in their accuracy. From a distance they appear like finely tuned components in a complex machine, always moving, always in time.
It is mesmerising.
The girls dance for seven or eight relentless minutes, circumscribing the performance space with complex geometric shapes, before converging neatly into a single pin-straight line. The music stops abruptly before the end of the track and the dancers, pink-cheeked and breathing heavily, sink back onto their heels and scatter. Their teammates whistle, flooding onto the arena to proffer bottles of water and unzip dresses. The rest of the audience clap distractedly, and the judges, now seated behind a long desk, scribble on their clipboards. Then the next group is called on.
Orcadia Morris Dancers at ETACCO championships (2016)
Orcadia practising at ETACCO championships (2013)
For more information about girls’ morris dancing and my current projects please visit www.artistic-researcher.co.uk.