THE August lunch of the Probus Club of Andover was followed by an amusing talk, delivered with considerable enthusiasm, by Duncan Brown on ‘A History of Morris Dancing: An Insider’s View’.

He introduced himself by his correct title as ‘Squire of Abingdon Morris Dancers’. Duncan traced the history of his Morris Dancers back to when the group was formed to ‘mock the Mayor of Oxford’ (though quite why he deserved to be mocked was not clear!). The art of Morris Dancing, introduced from Spain, has survived for 600 years, though it was banned by that old killjoy Cromwell.

It was practised in agricultural communities, mainly by the well off, but migrated to the cities when it was publicised in early newspapers. Two world wars interrupted the development of Morris Dancing but the tradition survived in farming communities (there was a saying in Abingdon that the ‘corn will only grow as high as the Morris men can jump’).

In answer to the question ‘Why did people take up Morris dancing?’ Duncan said the simple answer was that male dancers wanted to attract the girls, but later they performed and took collections to supplement their meagre incomes.

Groups were formed throughout the country, developing their own regional dances including clog dancing, sword dancing (the swords used in the north west were used to scrape dirt off pit ponies) and ‘uniforms’; the traditional white trousers were evidently Royal Navy surplus, acquired after the defeat of the French in the Napoleonic wars.

Today’s Morris Dancers come from all walks of life. They are ‘regulated’ by an independent Morris Dancing authority, competing with each other and performing at festivals and agricultural shows.

Strangely, the dancers are mainly men; as Duncan says, “Women don’t really get it!” though there are women and mixed groups.

Whether you are a fan or not, it is comforting to see an ancient dance activity surviving in an age when many other traditions are dying.

The club will meet again on 25 September with six new members and will hear Gavin Edgerly-Harris talk about ‘The Gurkhas in the Burma Campaign’. Contact Barrie Johnson on 01264 337479.