UK morris dancers urge young to strap on the bells

LONDON Tue Jan 6, 2009 9:07am EST

Members of the Ewell St. Mary's Morris Men's folk dancers perform in front of London's St. Paul's cathedral as part of Saint George's Day celebrations April 23, 1997. REUTERS/Dennis Owen

Members of the Ewell St. Mary's Morris Men's folk dancers perform in front of London's St. Paul's cathedral as part of Saint George's Day celebrations April 23, 1997.

Credit: Reuters/Dennis Owen

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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's morris dancers, renowned for bells on knees, colored rags and flower-bedecked hats, are launching a recruitment drive to convince young people that their stick-slapping art form is not a thing of the past.

The folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s, spearheaded by artists like Bob Dylan, led to a surge in interest in morris dancing in Britain.

But dancers who started out then are now in their 60s and often unable or unwilling to try and keep up with the accordion music.

Many troupes, known as "sides," are aging fast, and will soon disappear, predicted Brian Tasker, the leader or "squire" of the Morris Ring which represents dozens of morris dancing groups across the country.

"I'm now 62 and I started in 1971," Tasker told Reuters.

"We will see a lot of those men who started in the 1970s dropping out of dancing, and those sides who have not recruited will have a major problem and we expect sides to close."

But he played down gloomy predictions of morris dancing's imminent demise which hit the headlines in newspapers this week and "caused quite a stir" in the morris dancing world.

Charlie Corcoran, "Bagman" of the Morris Ring, was quoted as saying that in 20 years' time there was a risk there would be "nobody left."

The art form's origins are disputed, although its roots in England have been traced back as far as the 15th century.

Tasker countered that there was "no way" morris dancing would die out in 20 years, and added:

"Overall, if you take all dancers into account, there are more dancers (in Britain) today than at any time in the past. Whereas in the past they were virtually all men, nowadays there are men and women and mixed-gender troupes."

He estimated there were around 800 sides in Britain with roughly 12,000 members, a number that included not only morris dancers but other traditional forms like sword dancing from northern England and border dancing in the west of the country.

Tasker said morris dancing had changed little over the last 100 years, and needed to modernize to continue to attract new and young recruits.

"It needs to update itself, we need to embrace modern culture more and adopt more modern tunes," he said.

"We also need to modify our costumes so they are acceptable for young people to wear. A side of 60-year-olds is not attractive to 20-year-olds."

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