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Diamond Jubilee for us too!

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2013 sees the 60th anniversary of the first performance of the Westminster Morris Men – we first danced out in public on the Queen’s Coronation Day, and we thought that if Her Majesty is allowed to celebrate her impressive milestone then perhaps we should also.

Our budget didn’t stretch to a floating carnival on the Thames – however we recently held our annual Day of Dance, celebrating 60 years of dancing in London.  We were very happy to be joined by guest teams from around England, who danced with us in Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, and all around Westminster in the sunshine for the enjoyment of locals and visitors alike.

wmm1953d_jpgThis year we have a busy & varied programme – featuring tours of the “historical buildings” of old favourite London areas such as Belgravia, Baker Street and Clerkenwell, and introducing a few trips out to places we haven’t explored so much, like Clapham and Richmond.  Further afield, we’ve visited our friends in Thaxted, danced at the Oxford Folk Weekend.  Later in the year we’ll be in Gloucestershire & Chichester and in July we’re off on our annual pilgrimage to The Cotswolds.

In the autumn, to mark the 60th year of the team we’re holding a dinner for friends, our families, and members past & present.

If anybody has any photos, stories, or memories of Westminster that you’d like to share with us, please get in touch!

2013 Day of Dance Programme

Westminster 60th Anniversary Day of Dance 18 May 2013

TOUR 1

TOUR 2

TOUR 3

TOUR 4

Monkseaton

Westminster 1

Greensleeves

Chester

Ripon City

Winchester

Westminster 2

East Suffolk

HQMD

Ravensbourne

Thaxted

Jockey

10:15-11:00: Westminster Cathedral

10:15-11:00 Victoria Embankment Steps

10:15-11:00: Tate Britain

10:15-11:00: St Margaret’s Church

11:15-12:00: St James’ Park Bandstand

11:15-12:00: St Margaret’s Church

11:15-12:00 Westminster Arms

11:15-12:00 Victoria Embankment Steps

12:15 – 13:00: TrafalgarSquareMassedDance

*L*U*N*C*H*B*R*E*A* K*

TOUR 1

TOUR 2

TOUR 3

TOUR 4

Jockey

Thaxted

Chester

Monkseaton

Ripon City

Winchester

HQMD

Greensleeves

Ravensbourne

East Suffolk

Westminster 2

Westminster 1

14:15-15:00: Westminster Arms

14:15-15:00: StJames’ Park Bandstand

14:15-15:00: Duke Of York Steps

14:15-15:00: Trafalgar Square

15:15-16:00: Trafalgar Square

15:15-16:00: Adelaide Street

15:15-16:00: China Town

15:15-16:00: Duke Of York Steps

*T*E*A*B*R*E*A*K*

17:00 – 18:00: TrafalgarSquareMassedDance

Westminster Morris Men on YouTube

If you’d like to see us dance, why not have a look at some of the videos from our Youtube Channel.

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What’s Morris Dancing?

cotswoldsMorris Dancing is a traditional English dance, with different varieties across the country.  Westminster Morris Men perform dances from the Cotswolds region, which crosses Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, and a few other areas.  Once performed by the men in the villages, the dances were specific to a particular town.  As such, the dance traditions are named for the village they come from, for example Longborough, Adderbury, Brackley, Bampton, Headington Quarry, Sherborne, and soforth.  Each tradition has distinctive movements and figures, although the overall structure and shape of dances are very similar.

Cotswold morris is not the only style of dancing referred to as morris dancing – the term is broadly applied also to the North West Clog style dances, the longsword and “rapper” sword dances from the North East, and the rambunctious dances from the Welsh Borders.

Origin

The exact origin of morris dancing remains shrouded in mystery – the earliest records found date from the rule of Henry VI in the 15th century, however it is believed that the dance predates these written accounts.  Some believe it to be a harvest dance, others claim it is a fertility rite.  Some say morris dancing is simply a custom or folk dance.

Revival & popularisation

Very much a localised tradition, morris dancing was seldom heard of or seen outside of the village where it was performed.  During the late 1800s with the coming of industrialisation the dances were thought to be disappearing, so in keeping with the mood of cultural preservation at the time, “collectors” went out into the villages to note down the dances and songs so that they might endure.  Most enthusiastic of these was Cecil Sharp, who had his first encounter with morris dancing during the Christmas of 1899 in the village of Headington Quarry, near Oxford.

In 1907 Sharp published a book of the dances he had collected, and in 1911 a society was formed to celebrate and protect this part of cultural heritage – in present day this is known as the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Some morris dancing sides that exist today have traceable lineage back to the Traditional village teams of the 1800s.

Folk revival

In the 1950s and 1960s the UK saw a great takeoff of interest in its folk customs, and many new teams were formed – bolstering the numbers after the loss of many dancers during the two wars.

Present day

At the turn of the millenium there were over 800 morris dancing clubs in the UK, and as people travel so too does the custom: there are also sides in Europe, Australia, the USA, New Zealand, and more besides.

In the UK there are 3 supervising bodies representing morris dancing – Westminster Morris Men are members of The Morris Ring, which is the federation of mens’ morris dancing clubs.  The Morris Federation and the Open Morris represent womens’ teams and mixed teams, and the three organisations work together to promote and preserve the dance form.

Further information

This page is by no means exhaustive: there are many more in-depth resources on the web.  Some useful starting points are:

 

The Unicorn

unicorn_cigarIf you’ve ever seen Westminster Morris Men dancing you’ll no doubt have spotted our Unicorn which accompanies the team wherever we go. The Westminster Unicorn, which along with the portcullis on our yellow and black costume makes part of the City of Westminster coat of arms, is the last surviving unicorn in captivity. He survives purely by eating money which he gladly munches from any crowd member who is kind enough to keep him alive.

The Unicorn was discovered in Epping Forest, East London, in about 1953 by one of the Westminster dancers of the time, Bill Atkin. By the Thaxted Ring Meeting in June 1954 the Unicorn was a staple member of the team, performing characteristic head-high kicks, following unsuspecting people on bicycles, and – his favourite trick – cuddling members of the audience. If you do see the team dancing, please do feed the Unicorn; we don’t want the species dying out completely.

airborne_unicorn1961 unicorn_bottle

Team History

wmm1953d_jpgWestminster Morris Men (WMM) first began practising in September 1952 during a boom in the foundation of new morris teams following the two world wars. The team first danced out in 1953, with our earliest notable public appearance being on Coronation Day. The team were very quickly accepted into the Morris Ring of England – the premier association for male morris dancing teams – and we “danced in” to the Ring on 6th of June 1953 at our first Ring Meeting in the beautiful town of Thaxted in Essex. The team has danced at every annual Thaxted Ring Meeting since then.

Westminster quickly began to tour the heartlands of the Cotswold morris dancing tradition and, being based in the capital, we have been frequent visitors at top folk events. WMM have performed 13 times at the Albert Hall. One of the most memorable occasions was a performance in 1972 with the Royal Ballet School to a Malcolm Arnold composition.

Albert Hall in the mid 1950s

Albert Hall in the mid 1950s

Westminster’s most famous (and frequently repeated) appearance is in the film The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966) during which Frankie Howard uses a Westminster performance as cover to flee the police. Since then the team has appeared on ITV a number of times, in TV series and in print, e.g. for The Guardian feature, and given numerous radio interviews.

The team have made a number of overseas trips. Last year (2012) we travelled to the Marlboro Morris Ale in Vermont, USA, where we had a fantastic reception, and were intrigued to see how styles had evolved. We’ve had three splendid trips to the Sancerre folk dance team in France sampling glorious local cheese and wine. Further back, in the 1970s the team was part of a weeklong British trade delegation to Japan. In the 1950s and 60s the team toured France, Denmark and Holland, leading the then Squire to claim that they had “danced for all the Crowned Heads of Europe”.

Some of the key characters that have populated our club’s history include: John French, who began the team and with Keith Lester largely inspired the costumes; John Strange who set much of Westminster’s early dancing style; Colin Fleming who, as squire and foreman for many years (and Squire of the Morris Ring), improved both the accuracy of the dancing and the team’s costume; Leslie “Ginger” Saunders, who was an avid researcher of morris dancing and devised many of the dances in the style of the village of Longborough we perform today e.g. “Big John”, “Old Harry” (named after Harry Taylor, a Longborough dancer), and Longborough “Leap Frog” to the tune of Golden Vanity; Denis Smith, the team’s long-time musician who excelled at playing sensitive accordion music for the team.

The team in Ilmington in 2012

The team in Ilmington in 2012

Throughout this time, Westminster have continued to try to uphold the best standards of performance striving for elegant and accurate dancing, accompanied by a Unicorn which keeps the crowd amused, and excellent music. Alongside that, we have a great social side to the club enjoying each other’s company as we dance, play and sing our way around, usually accompanied by a pint of good ale.