But Budleigh’s Gala Week showed them still very much alive and kicking, impressing us with their athletic and colourful street-dance and clearly inspiring an enthusiastic audience of toddlers with the joys of stick-bashing and hankie-waving.
The Exeter Morris Men, the oldest established group of its kind in Devon, wearing their black top hats and distinctive green waistcoats, are a familiar sight in villages and seaside resorts of South and East Devon during the summer months. They were nonetheless a novel spectacle, especially against the sunlit backdrop of the Otter Head’s red cliffs on a calm summer’s evening last week on 28 May.
Younger members of the Budleigh audience watching the show certainly had no inhibitions about joining it. But last year the Morris Ring, an association representing over 200 Morris troupes across Britain, including the Exeter Morris Men, issued a severe warning about the future of this traditional English activity. “Unless younger blood is recruited during the coming winter months, Morris dancing will soon become extinct,” said Charlie Corcoran, Bagman of the Morris Ring. “There’s a distinct possibility that in 20 years' time there will be nobody left.” Paul Reece, chairman of the Advisory Council of the Morris Ring, warned: “There is a serious danger that, in less than a few decades, Morris dancing will be confined to the history books.”
The little girl who clearly wanted to join in will no doubt be questioning in a few years’ time why there are no women in the Exeter Morris Men group. Indeed the Morris Ring was recently criticized by Kent-based Oyster Morris group’s Terry Graham in a letter to The Independent newspaper for being men only and seeming to exhibit “a strong misogynist attitude towards women dancing or being involved.” There are in fact plenty of mixed and Morris women’s troupes, including the memorably named Loose Women Morris Dancing group as featured at http://www.loosewomen.org.uk/media.aspx
Formed in 1951, the Exeter Morris Men are proud of their reputation for their high standard of dancing Cotswold Morris, and have represented the UK at festivals in France, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Holland, Germany and the USA, as well as appearing at major folk festivals in Britain.
Morris dancing, far from being a peculiarly English tradition, is practised internationally, with many enthusiasts in the USA. A useful list is at http://www.mainlymorrisdancing.org.uk/na.htm