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Exeter Cathedral
Exeter Cathedral looks like a rather fine dance spot. Photo credit: Andrea Pucci

Spreadsheets and morris sticks: planning the biggest morris event around

Big morris events take a lot of organising. As days of dance go, they don’t come much bigger than the Joint Morris Organisations (JMO) Day of Dance, so with 2023’s event in Exeter coming up, we thought we’d have a chat with the organisers.

Anyone who has been to a big morris dancing event might marvel at the logistics involved in getting teams to the right place at the right time. Any activity involving potentially dozens of distinct entities, each made up of even more individuals, has a strong possibility of descending into chaos; trains are late, members become entrenched in pubs and stick bags are left at the previous spot. 

But getting teams to turn up at the right time and with enough members to dance is only half the challenge. You’ve also got to consider the enjoyment of the teams themselves. How far do they have to walk between spots? Are there lunch options nearby? Can refreshment be found easily? Does everyone have enough variety in who they’re sharing spots with? And, inevitably, someone will email two days before the event to inform you that unfortunately their musician has had to drop out and they therefore need to be paired with another team for the whole day, upending all of your careful planning. 

And then there’s the actual audiences to consider, whose needs are often in conflict with the teams themselves. The busiest potential spots might be nowhere near a decent pub, while ensuring a variety of dance styles at each spot for a lay audience can mean attending teams don’t get a chance to compare themselves to other practitioners of the same tradition (not that morris is competitive, of course…).

The audience is going to be just as focussed on acquiring a pair of chinos from Next as it is enjoying a bit of morris.

There are three main organisations in the UK that support morris and traditional dance teams: The Morris Federation, The Morris Ring, and Open Morris. They each have their own distinct histories and reasons for coming into existence. They come together as the Joint Morris Organisations (JMO) to discuss issues that affect all of their members, including promoting the morris traditions, organising events and providing access to both public liability and personal insurance cover.

All in all, it’s a logistical nightmare on a par with a major military operation. Who would be daft enough to take on such an undertaking? 

Well, on that note, let me introduce Steve Oaten and Nathascha Heijen of the award-winning Beltane Border Morris. Steve and Nathascha have taken on the task of organising this year’s JMO Day of Dance in Exeter, which happens to be about the biggest dedicated morris day going. 

Tell us about the JMO Day of Dance. What is it, when did it start and who goes?

The pandemic saw a brief hiatus of the Day of Dance in 2020 and 2021, however, by 2022 it was back with a vengeance, hosted in Liverpool by The Morris Ring.

Since 2015, morris sides from around the country have gathered in celebration for a national day of dance. First held in Bristol and hosted by Rag morris on behalf of Open Morris, the event has since appeared in York, Leicester, Peterborough, Manchester, and Liverpool.

Essentially, it is a celebration of the morris. Its objective is to select a town or city each year and for a masse of morris to descend upon it, and use the occasion to promote morris. The fewer rules about the format the better, because then a genuine ‘flavour’ of the host city and organisers is properly achieved.

So on 22nd April, it’s the turn of Exeter to receive the influx of morris. How many teams have you got attending this year?

We have 43 sides confirmed, ranging from as far north as Birmingham, to London and deep Cornwall. And of course, there will be plentiful teams from the South West. This will bring a variation of folk dances to Exeter and the unsuspecting city-centre shopper could run into some traditional Cotswold dancing, the clashing sticks of Border morris sides and the hypnotic rhythmic clacks of North West and clog teams. Each dance display will be showing the colours, sounds and moves of their local traditional dances and tunes.

Constantine, getting a morris makeover at the York JMO in 2016

As I might have hinted above, I do have some experience of organising morris events. How have you found organising the JMO day of dance and what has gone into it?

A lot of blood, sweat, and tears! We formed a committee and started organising the event nine months ago. Since then, there have been lots of late-night zoom meetings, 20,654 emails, and a few grey hairs. 

As we are now one month before the event, our answer is, on reflection…“Too much thought and not enough action!” (until the last few months, when it has gone a bit mental). But that’s normal for morris, isn’t it?

I think it is, but it usually seems to turn out ok. My tip is spreadsheets. Lots of spreadsheets. 

What makes for a successful dance tour in your opinion? How are you approaching balancing interest for both the teams attending and the audience?

A successful tour is where, as an attending side, you feel as if the event has been organised for your personal enjoyment rather than for the other 40+ sides attending.

We have tried to be mindful that the audience in a city centre Saturday event is going to be just as focused on acquiring a pair of chinos from Next as it is enjoying a bit of morris. We have focussed on making the experience for morris teams as great as it can be. If we have lots of happy confident morris sides performing in great venues, then the outcome should look after itself and optimise the pleasure of the general public.

Absolutely! Despite my warnings of potential chaos, in my experience it’s very rare that anything actually goes wrong, but then that’s probably because the organisers really care about getting it right for both teams and audience. Is this the first major morris event you’ve organised?

We have organised small weekend tours for a few sides as part of our [Beltane’s] 16th and 20th birthdays. This is a big undertaking for us, though – our biggest. It is quite a challenge but we have an amazing team of people from different backgrounds, talents, strengths and professional capabilities, which helps to pull this event off. Yes, some fingernails may be chewed as we are nearing the event horizon but we also know someone will have got someone’s back in the tasks that need doing. It is truly a team effort and we see this as a chance to let morris folks shine brightly. 

Are there any particularly good days of dance you’ve been to that you’ll be taking inspiration from?

Bunkfest is traditionally a happy hunting ground for Beltane. We also enjoy Wreckers’ annual end-of-season day of dance in Cawsand (we have to brave Cornwall for that!) – the camaraderie and friendship of up to a dozen teams at the end of the season is the best of craics.

Wimborne Folk Festival is another one that is fabulously organised. Prior to designing our dedicated JMO Day of Dance website, we had the pleasure to speak to the designer of the amazing software that made the Wimborne festival schedule run so smoothly. His dedication to make to-the-point information online available to the participants and audience was such a great inspiration. His skills are now being used by Chippenham Folk Festival.

I think it’s really important that morris, and folk events more widely, do have that slight professional look – particularly online. I think there’s a tendency towards make-do and muddling through in the folk world which I know might sometimes come from necessity, but there are lots of talented and knowledgeable people around who can help and it definitely gives audiences confidence that they’re coming to something well organised and run.

Wreckers Border Morris at the Square in Cawsand

It’s many years since I’ve been to Exeter (and long before I was considering what might make a good area for a spot of morris dancing) and, unfortunately, it’s a bit far from Sheffield for any of my teams to attend this year, so can you tell us a bit about the dance spots?

We have selected 22 of the best spots in the city – a wondrous mix of modern squares in glass-fronted shopping complexes and traditional streets lined with Tudor buildings, with some spots located next to architectural and historical gems. The opening ceremony makes use of the striking green space outside historical Exeter Cathedral, while the closing ceremony is at the atmospherically gentrified Quayside Piazza Terracina. We have put a lot of effort into ensuring that both sides and attendees get to see the beautiful architecture and rich culture of the city. 

Exeter’s morris teams, giving a flavour of the event and city

Sounds like a great morris city. I’ll admit that all I remember is the massive Wetherspoons near my old halls of residence. What else should teams expect from their trip to Exeter?

Along with the Lord Mayor of Exeter, we have local folk music legend Jim Causley performing at the opening ceremony. Rougemont (Exeter) Castle and the Roman remains around the city are all within easy reach and well worth exploring. For those making a weekend of it, the underground tunnels of medieval Exeter are quite exciting. Sessions are also planned in pubs for the evening, as well as a ceilidh, and an early evening film show with two morris-orientated films.

Apart from the city’s hustle and bustle, we also have the pervasive silence of ancient Dartmoor National Park with its many rocky outcrops and wide panoramas on our doorstep. Plus, we’ve got the Devon shores with great beaches for strolling or having a plunge into the sea, or you could try some adventurous coast paths. And did we mention ale? Devon’s ales alone are worth taking the trip!

Everything you need to know about this year's JMO Day of Dance, taking place in Exeter

The Joint Morris Organisations Day of Dance takes place on Saturday 22nd April around Exeter city centre, kicking off at Exeter Cathedral. For details of all the attending sides, dance spots and timings, visit the JMO Day of Dance website.