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Windsor Morris perform their take on the Stick and Bucket dance

Customs Uncovered: The Stick and Bucket Dance

“We’re not doing the Stick and Bucket dance! I never want to hear any more ever about the Stick and Bucket dance! I still get twinges in my knee! So shut up about the Stick and Bucket dance!”

Jason Ogg, Squire of the Lancre Morris Men, (Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies, 1992)

When does a fictional custom become a real one?

All traditions have, when you get right down to it, been made up by someone at some point.

No one was visited by an angel and told to carry a flaming tar barrel through a small Devonshire town. Tea leaves were not the inspiration for thousands of people to start chasing cheese down a hill in Gloucestershire. And, despite how it sometimes feels, the various traditional dances collected by Sharp were not, in fact, laws of nature just waiting to be discovered by enterprising country folk.

Not only that, but many of the traditions we think of as age-old aren’t that old at all; or at least, not in the ‘lost in the midst of time’ sense; morris dancing on May Morning has only been happening since 1923. Many other traditions, like the Whittlesey Straw Bear and Hastings Jack in the Green, are fairly recent revivals, and therefore interpretations, of earlier traditions. 

And, let’s be honest, Dwile Flonking was probably made up by some bored blokes in the pub, while Woggle Hopping, as far as I can tell, was one man’s quest to instill some athleticism into the post-war generation, not that we let that stop us writing articles about them.

But, as we all know, something only has to happen twice for it to be a tradition; our traditions and customs are constantly evolving and being added to. New traditions and customs are cropping up all the time, even if it might take a few years for us to notice them for what they are.

So with all this in mind, I’d like to introduce you to the Stick and Bucket dance.

What is the Stick and Bucket Dance?

‘I’ll say this just once. After tonight no one’s ever to talk about the Stick and Bucket dance ever again. All right?

Jason Ogg

The Stick and Bucket Dance is a dance devised and performed by the fictional Lancre Morris Men who appear in a number of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of books, where morris is:

“…danced innocently by raggedy-bearded young mathematicians to an inexpert accordion rendering of “Mrs Widgery’s Lodger” and ruthlessly by such as the Ninja Morris Men of New Ankh, who can do strange and terrible things with a simple handkerchief and a bell.”

In the novel Lords and Ladies, the Squire of the Lancre Morris Men, Jason Ogg, has banned its performance of the dance on account of “old Mr Thrupp still walking with a limp” and we are told that “dancing the ‘Stick and Bucket Dance’ is illegal with women present”, as it falls under the heading of “sexual morrisment.”

Despite these dark hints, or perhaps because of them, the dance itself is never actually described. But it is used to good effect when the kingdom of Lancre is invaded by elves (who in Discworld are more likely to break your arm than sing to you about moonlight and stars), and the Lancre Morris Men find themselves isolated out on a hillside. They perform the dance to escape, to the fascination of the elves who are attracted to all music.

The below is an abridged version, which runs over two pages in the novel:

There was the long-drawn-out chord that by law must precede all folk music to give bystanders time to get away.

“One, two… One, two, three… Dance lads!”

Six heavy ash sticks clashed in mid-air.

“They won’t do nothing ‘til the music stops! …back, two, spin… they loves music! …forward, hop, turn… one and six, beetle crushers!… hop, back, spin…”

“…one, two… spin… ready… one, two… back…back… one, two… turn… KILL… and back, one, two…”

I’m sure even morris novices will recognise that “kill” is not a usual call to hear during a dance, so from this, and the fact that the dancers escape the elves, we can assume the dance is fairly combative. 

Although the Discworld series has sold more than 80 millions books, being fantasy it is still a relatively niche interest (“I hear Terry Prachett and my mind runs a mile”, I was recently told by a man I previously respected). However, I would highly recommend Lords and Ladies to folky audiences. While it is a fantasy book, which can be hard to get past if you don’t go in for that sort of thing, the entire story is a kind of Tam Lin / Midsummer Night’s Dream mash-up, with numerous reference to folk songs and tales, including a bride that got locked in an old oak chest on her wedding night. Anyone familiar with the Mistletoe Bough can probably guess how that ends… There’s also Pratchett’s usual astute social observations and humour, it’s just that there’s also trolls, dwarves, witches and elves…

Jon Boden singing Mistletoe Bough, for those not familiar with the rather macabre tale. The song is a firm favourite of the Sheffield Carols.

But I digress. The thing about people with niche interests, like fantasy novels, is that they often have other niche interests like, for example, morris dancing (personally speaking, my Venn diagram on these interests is a circle). And the morris crowd being what it is (have you seen some of the skits at the Sidmouth Late Night Extra ceilidhs?), it was probably inevitable that someone would attempt to bring the Stick and Bucket dance to life, which brings us to…

The Stick and Bucket competition – history

Back in 1999, Pratchett fans and dancers with the now-defunct Elderflower Morris Jane Stevens and Jen Edwards decided to introduce a competition at Chippenham Folk Festival for the best interpretation of the Stick and Bucket dance. They contacted Terry Pratchett himself to ask him to come and judge the entries and, being a good sport, he not only duly came along but also had a trophy – the Bucket d’Or – specially commissioned. The trophy now spends the year behind the bar in the Old Road Tavern, where I am assured it has pride of place.

So the competition has now been running for 25 years (Covid-19 excepted), which makes it firmly a ‘real’ tradition, as far as we’re concerned.

Chippenham Town Morris Men being presented with the Bucket d’Or by Terry Pratchett in 1999

The first competition saw Chippenham Town Morris Men dressed as the Ankh-Morpork City Guard. Chippenham Squire, Pete Causer tells me:

“At the time I had just finished working for a theatre company and had a cupboard full of daft costumes and masks and we won with a version of bean setting involving whacking buckets. Terry said that our dance was the closest to what he had envisaged when he had been writing the book.”

“We rapidly discovered that the Bucket d-Or held three and a half pints, which we shared with him”.

Chippenham Folk Festival 2024
2024 marks the 51st anniversary of Chippenham Folk Festival, which runs from 24th-27th May. Visit the festival website for a full run down of artists, entertainers and morris sides.

The Stick and Bucket competition – rules

The rules of the competition are as follows:

  1. There has to be a stick
  2. There has to be a bucket
  3. There has to be a dance

The rest is up to the competitors, which has inevitably resulted in various interpretations involving buckets of water and various other substances, Discworld fancy dress, and even inflatable dinosaurs. 

Some previous entries

Unfortunately, video evidence of the entries over the years is quite sparse, (which to my mind only adds to the mysticism of the event…)

But I’ve gathered some snippets from previous years. If you’re in Chippenham this year, make sure to get some footage and tag Tradfolk on the socials!

Winners from 2014
Knights of King Ina, 2015
Pirate kids from 2006 – where are they now? (presumably denying any involvement in this)

Other interpretations

Perhaps unsurprisingly, South East Queensland’s Belswagger Morris have never made it the 9743 miles to Chippenham, which is a shame as this rendition is excellent.

There was also a tune called Stick and Bucket Dance written by composer and keyboard player Dave Greenslade, taken from an entire album of Discworld-inspired music, From the Discworld (1994).

When and where

This year’s Stick and Bucket dance competition takes place on Sunday 26th May, 6pm, at the Old Road Tavern, Old Road, Chippenham.