Enjoying Tradfolk? Click here to find out how you can support us
Green Oak Morris Men

Celebrating 50 years of Green Oak Morris

Doncaster's finest (and by their own admission, only) Morris team chat about how they started, what's changed and their exhibition about Morris in the city.

It’s not often you receive a press release about an exhibition dedicated to Morris dancing, let alone one about a single team.

But Green Oak Morris, who have been entertaining the crowds in Doncaster, South Yorkshire and further afield for half a century, have somehow managed to persuade a local gallery to feature an exhibition all about Morris dancing in the city.

We thought this was a big enough occasion to have a chat with the team about their history and how Morris dancing goes in the South Yorkshire city today.

(Since starting this article I’ve heard of a number of other Morris teams with 50th anniversaries in 2024, to the point where I’m going to cover them in a future article. So if your team is turning 50 this year and has a celebration event planned – get in touch!)

Hello Green Oak – congratulations on reaching 50! That’s a fantastic milestone. Are any of the founder members still in the team?

One of our founding members, Mike Morley, is still in the side. He is a musician and an occasional longsword dancer on practice nights.

That’s great to hear. How did the team come to be formed? 

Green Oak Morris Men started with an enthusiastic group of teachers at High Melton Teacher Training College. Led by Paul Davenport, the group began practicing Morris dancing under the name High Melton Morris.

In 1971, Paul came to the end of college life and felt dissatisfied with the direction High Melton Morris were heading in. He was inspired by a 1930s Thaxted Morris poster to design a new Morris dancing kit.

Chlorociboria Aeruginascens Morris doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

As for deciding the name ‘Green Oak’, Paul and his partner Liz were camping in Goathland with a man named Dik Penycate and his wife Val. Paul was whittling a piece of wood from a fallen oak tree branch into a little Morris man figure. The branch was infected by the fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascens, dying the wood green.

Dik remarked that Paul had carved a ‘green oak’ Morris man. All four of them jumped on the description, and the name Green Oak Morris Men stuck.

I can see how Green Oak was preferable to Chlorociboria Aeruginascens Morris. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? What was the ethos of the team when you first started out and has it evolved as the years have passed?

When we first started out, we had an ethos of authentic reproduction of Morris traditions, based on research. Paul Davenport used his research on Cecil Sharp‘s notebooks and related materials from the English Folk Dance and Song Society to create accurate re-enactment [you could say] of dance steps and figures, in whatever tradition the side was dancing. 

Green Oak Morris Men dancing at ‘The King William’, Scaftworth, near Doncaster on a summer’s evening.

Our ethos now is to enjoy practicing different traditions and dances. We’ve tried Cuckoo’s Nest, South Australia and British Grenadier recently – all dances we used to do, but have fallen by the wayside.

We want to keep our practice nights fun and interesting – and hopefully add some new dances to our performance repertoire.

What changes have you seen as a side over the last 50 years, both in terms of things like public attitude to Morris and within the scene itself?

A significant change has been fewer young men joining Green Oak Morris Men. A lot of us started the side in our teens and twenties. Now we only have one under-30 dancer, who brings the side’s average age down by some margin!

We believe the greater mix of nationalities in our area may have improved our reception.

Since the early days, we’ve also seen an explosion of women’s and mixed sides. Rather than dancing just strictly Cotswold Morris, many of these sides use Border and Molly traditions to evolve new dances.

In terms of public attitudes, Morris dancing generally still gets a good reception in Doncaster (though you do get some people who roll their eyes when they discover we’re Morris dancers!)

We believe the greater mix of nationalities in our area may have improved that reception. There’s quite a broad racial mix in the people who stop to watch the Morris, and it seems to particularly strike a chord with Eastern Europeans.

That’s really interesting to hear, and perhaps something for teams to think about from a recruiting perspective. Both of my teams have members from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, but perhaps there’s a perception generally that Morris is an English thing not open to people from other nationalities. Something we should all work to change.

What are some of the team’s highlights of the last 50 years?

Performing at Dancing England in 1984, under the guise of the East Yorkshire Vessel Cuppers, to an audience of over 2,000 people. That was extraordinary.

Jumping ahead to 2016, we spent a week in Bulgaria dancing in all sorts of places – by the coast, in a brewery making English Ale, in a castle, a restaurant, a cultural village, an office block, and a town square. The scent of Bulgarian roses was never far away. 

Our highlight was putting on a display with local traditional dancers in their beautiful Bulgarian dresses and embroidered aprons. As well as posing for photos with them, we all joined in with a traditional Balkan Circle dance.

Every team should go on a foreign tour if they get the chance. About the best Morris-related fun you can have.

How goes recruitment? Do you think you’ll still be around in another 50 years?

Recruitment has been tough. We’ve had a few give-it-a-go nights over the past year, with plenty of people enjoying Morris dancing, but people haven’t always come back.

We’re mindful that one of the best recruitment strategies is just to get out dancing, talk with members of the audience and share our excitement of Morris dancing – that’s our mission for this year.

Tell us about your exhibition. How did that come about and what are you hoping to get out of it?

The exhibition started as one of our wild ideas to recruit new members. Over the past year, I’ve been collecting photos and memorabilia from across our 50 years. The exhibition also felt like a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our side’s history in Doncaster.

We would love for the exhibition to attract people in and around Doncaster to try Morris dancing. If we don’t achieve that, then to have raised awareness about what on earth Morris dancing is will be good enough.

What are your plans for 2024?

We’ve been practicing at Doncaster Brewery Tap for 10 years this year – so we shall definitely celebrate the occasion with them. We’re also getting ready for the Doncaster Day of Dance on Saturday 11 May. It’s the same day as the city’s Steampunk Day, so it’s an exciting day to be out Morris dancing.

Thank you for speaking with us and all the best for 2024 and beyond.

‘Steps, Sticks and Swords: The Story of Doncaster’s Morris Men’ runs until 24th February at Danum Gallery Library and Museum, Doncaster. Doncaster Day of Dance takes place on Saturday 11th May around Doncaster. Keep on eye on Green Oak’s Facebook page for details. Green Oak Morris practice on Wednesdays at Doncaster Brewery and are always open to new members.