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Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers at the Albert Hall, February 1966. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Morris Ballet

A recent piece in the EFDSS Newsletter on Ron Smedley's 1963 'Morris Ballet' prompted Ian A. Anderson to reach into his vast fRoots archive and dig out this article from 2017. We reproduce it here with kind permission.

A few years ago, I was fascinated to discover an old issue of English Dance & Song from March 1963. Brian Shuel’s cover photograph shows a futuristic Morris dance image as innovative as anything Morris Offspring were doing 50 years later. Recently, it inspired me to put it to the Facebook hive for more information, and what I discovered quite readjusted my received wisdom on folk dance history in England.

When I first found the folk world in the mid-’60s, my experiences of what the EFDSS dance wing got up to were hardly inspiring. Even when I’d infiltrated the grand old society and spent a while as a ‘song’ mole on their NEC in the early 1980s, the impression was that the old dance stalwarts with their felt skirts, check shirts, and ‘music while you walk’ had ruled forever. It seems that I was wrong…

Since the 1920s, the Society had put on a big annual event at the Royal Albert Hall. Until 1962, with a break for the war, it had been produced by tireless veteran Douglas Kennedy, but in 1963 the reins were handed to Ron Smedley, with whom I’ve just been enjoying an email correspondence.

Who was Ron Smedley?
Ron Smedley (1928–2021) made significant contributions to folk dance, the Royal Ballet School, and television. His journey began when he attended the English Folk Dance and Song Society's 1947 festival, leading to a life of dance and creativity. He nurtured a new style of folk dance, was involved in the Royal Ballet School, and had a distinguished career at the BBC, creating educational programs like Scene. He also produced the popular BBC children's television series Grange Hill during its heyday, addressing controversial storylines, including drug addiction.
The ED&S cover shows the “Morris Ballet” which he programmed that first year. Fernau Hall, reviewing it in the same issue, said “Smedley set out to establish visually the ritual origins of Morris dancing, and in particular its dramatic aspect – the conflict between good and evil. All the dancers wore ‘neutral’ masks, somewhat after the manner of the Noh masks of Japan, and had neutral, ageless, pyjama-like costumes; the men representing the forces of good wore white, the forces of evil black, and the choreographer had the two groups alternately processing separately around the arena and engaging in ritual combat. The most exciting moments, strangely enough, were the processions, with each group boldly outlined against the blackness, and moving in the wonderful lilting leap of Morris dancing: here was ballet ‘in the round’, perfectly suited to the shape of the hall.”

“It was the first RAH show that I produced and choreographed,” remembers Ron. “One of the ways that you can see that it was in the ‘60s is that the Morris dancers are slim!”

“When Douglas Kennedy restarted the RAH Festivals around 1948, he didn’t use the historic Headquarters Team (an elite group of first-rate Morris men – their female partners were known as Lumps of Plum Pudding!) and brought together a much wider group of people who were to meet on Sundays at Cecil Sharp House to rehearse for the Albert Hall. It was first called the Nursery Class and then London Corps and then London Folk, who turned into a group of over 100 members who danced at the Albert Hall as a sort of Corps de Ballet and became a club that danced at other events in the UK and abroad.”

“The Festivals began in 1925 (after the death of Cecil Sharp) under the name of The All England Festival in the Great Hall of the University of London. It was so successful that the event moved to the Royal Albert Hall in 1926. I think the Festivals were designed to follow the week-long ‘School’ in Chelsea that Sharp had begun before the First World War. I think it’s fair to say that photographs that exist suggest that the prewar Festivals were members dancing for members. In the ’20s, Festival music was provided by the Morris Motors Band, as there was no amplification in the RAH.”

“The first post-war RAH Festival was in 1948. (I joined the Society in 1947.) Douglas Kennedy, plus son Peter, assembled a large group of dancers which would fill the arena with lively simple dances. The rest of the programme was not very adventurous but good – Royton Morris Men, Royal Earsdon Rapper, North Skelton long sword, Headington, Manx Dirk Dance, etc., but it was the first time for many years that these teams had been seen. A team from Provence followed the interval and Part 3 was called ‘A Square Dance Party’ where members of the public were invited to join in Square Dances. The show was a success.”

“I think I would say that my aim was to make the Festival wider in its appeal. I remember that I had the ‘sacred’ Abbott’s Bromley Horn Dance performed to music from what we’d now call a ‘boy band’ with guitars in prominence. As Sidney Carter said, ‘Some were shocked, some were delighted’. The other ‘shocker/pleaser’ was the ‘Morris Ballet’.”

“The Morris Ballet came from the fact that West Side Story had opened in London. It absolutely knocked me out and it still does. I can’t remember the music or how we danced. I just remember that it worked.”

Ron also loaned me an extraordinary film of a BBC TV programme from the following year’s event, fronted by a youthful Frank Bough. Slap up-to-date with then-contemporary references, it includes Morris-influenced dance performed by four lads in Beatle wigs, three men and a woman in police constable uniforms clogging superbly to reworked Dixon Of Dock Green and Z-Cars themes, and the beginnings of a mummer’s play transformed by a six-piece rapper side in surgeon’s scrubs choreographed with a hospital trolley and the Dr Kildare theme. Plus Jackie Toaduff’s superb clogging, Cyril Tawney singing, and excellent dance displays from Swedish and Portuguese sides. Boring and hidebound this most definitely wasn’t!

“I produced about seven other shows and I found I had created the fifteen-minute end of the first half as the place for a fun item. It didn’t always work but it did mostly,” says Ron, in a classic understatement.

This article was originally published in March, 2017, in fRoots edition 405.