Jennifer Cox Signs Up For…New Esperance Morris
Morris dancing dates back to the 16th century, when fancy court dances were adopted by country folk and performed in their villages.
The dances weren’t seen as important until the late 1800s, when Cecil Sharp – father of the British folklore revival – travelled around England documenting them for posterity.
The Esperance Club, a social club for working-class London women, started Morris dancing in 1896. It’s still a women-only dance team, though these days it’s called New Esperance. ‘There was a surge of interest in Morris dancing during the 1970s folk revival,’ Diane Moody tells me. ‘I joined back in 1977.’
Diane, along with other New Esps Mary Jo Searle and Hilda Dedic, is, in fact, a highly respected folk musician. I started to realise Morris dancing is part of a bigger heritage community – there’s more to it than bells and hats.
‘It’s not all standing around hanky waving, you know,’ Hazel, from Brixton, laughs. ‘It’s sweaty work. It’s also a real laugh, and you’ll have the pertest bottom in the world afterwards.’
So is Morris dancing the folk equivalent of pole dancing? Ryoko recently moved to London from Japan and it’s her third practice. ‘I started because I wanted to meet people and I love it; going to the gym would be so boring in comparison.’
There are 12 of us here tonight. Hilda settles down with her concertina and we stand in pairs as Diane takes us through the basic footwork – capers (hops) and hooks (a skip) – before we join them together in a coordinated, complicated series of gyps and half heys (confusing twirling). All this is exhausting but, to my astonishment, like Ryoko, I am loving it. And then a cheer goes up: Diane has decided we’re ready for the jig dubbed the chucking of the sticks. ‘They throw the sticks right across the room in this one,’ Cressida warns. Who knew Morris dancing would be such dangerous fun?
New Esperance practises each Wednesday from 7.30 pm at the Queensborough Community Centre SE1.