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Tom Williams and Daniel Burston from Beltane Border Morris stand face to face, yelling as they dance. One of them has his tongue sticking out. They are both wearing top hats with pheasant feathers, as well as tatter coats.
Tom Williams and Daniel Burston from Beltane Border Morris. Photo credit: Richard Crease/Alamy Live News

Tradfolk readers’ favourite Morris dance performance of 2022

Kind readers, all. Your attention please...

The Tradfolk readers have spoken. After two weeks of voting, it’s time to announce the winners of the inaugural Tradfolk Morris and Folk Dance Performance of the Year Award for 2022.

In this article, you’ll find…

Over 450 of you had your say on a shortlist of eight dances, chosen by our expert judging panel. You can see the full list of nominations, shortlist and judges’ comments here.

The scores have been tallied and double-checked. We’ve removed the political bloc voting. Actually, there was very little we had to do; our readers are clearly a very fair and unbiased lot.

Securing over 37% of first-choice votes, the overwhelming winners of the Tradfolk Morris and Folk Dance Performance of the Year Award 2022 are…

Beltane Border Morris

The judges’ comments

Honourable mentions to Earlsdon Morris who came a respectable second place, and Sheffield Steel Rapper who came in third.

Jen Cox, Chair of Open Morris (of which Beltane are members) and one of our expert shortlisting judges, had this to say about the win:

“Open Morris are delighted by Beltane’s success in this competition and are very proud to have them as members of our organisation. ‘Cross Tree’ is an iconic dance, which represents a great tie between the team and their community and the landscape around them, as well as being visually stunning.

“The performance demonstrates a really good and interesting use of space, and the music is professional quality and very atmospheric. The thing that really sets Beltane apart for me, however, is the energy and uniformity of the wild and free dancing style. The dancers are a diverse range of ages and genders, but all mesh into a very cohesive, dynamic and vibrant team, with excellent quality and accuracy, and a wonderful and very tangible commitment to their performances.

“The videography here is very good fun too! All in all – well deserved recognition for this excellent team.”

Big thanks go to our shortlisting panel: Pauline Woods-Wilson, President of the Morris Federation; Simon Newman / Pete Austin, Squire / Bagman of the Morris Ring; and Jen Cox, Chair of Open Morris for being great sports and taking part in this slightly harebrained venture.

And of course, a massive thank you to you, the readers of Tradfolk, for taking part. We would love to make this an annual event and see lots more brilliant video performances of Morris dancing in 2023. So if you are a member of a Morris team, or go to watch your local side, keep in mind the best spots and occasions for filming their dance-outs.

An interview with Beltane Border Morris

We had a quick chat with Beltane’s Squire, Ant Veal, to get the low-down on Devon’s (now) award-winning team of border dancers, who are out to show that Morris dancing is not all tea with the vicar and summer fetes…

Congratulations on your win! It seems unlikely, given the general lack of these things in the Morris world, but have you ever won anything before? If so, when and where?

Really great news we’ve won, and yes, I reckon it’s the first thing we’ve ever won as a side so we’re thrilled! Our Seamo and Will came a close second in the Stick and Bucket at Evesham National Weekend of Dance in 2019. Umm, after a couple of pints, Mark did surprisingly well on the bucking bronco at Lafrowda Festival in Cornwall in 2009, and Susie was highly commended in the spitting the date through the eye of the camel competition at the Fabulous Fezheads Fig and Date Fayre in 2006.

That is an impressive record. It sounds like the team has been going for a while. When did you form and what’s your origin story?

We reckon Border Morris first arrived in Devon in 1994 when Grimspound Morris started and they wowed crowds for several years. By the late 90s, two women (a wife and a daughter of Grimspound members) felt that women could do it just as well and so they set up the Iron Maidens in September 2000. Gathering friends, and inspired by heavy rock, they wanted to prove that women could dance ‘Border with attitude’ and ditched trousers for skirts and fishnets, and with a rebellious and boisterous personality, they succeeded.

A year later, while dancing at Cornwall Folk Festival, they couldn’t quite muster a side through injury and very reluctantly allowed men to join and some Grimspound members stepped across. It worked well, and in September 2001 the side became mixed and known as Beltane.

We still remember the Iron Maidens and their ‘attitude’ aspiration with their interpretation of ‘Dilwyn’. Many of our dances have elements of conflict in their stories (men vs women, good vs evil, inter-village battles). To be more inclusive, in recent years we now refer to our two distinct looks as fishnet and trouser kits and welcome all genders to join us, with each member picking one or other kit depending on their preference.

That’s really interesting. We often hear of male teams going mixed gender, but not as often about it happening the other way around. I think it shows our traditions continue to evolve and change. Do you write all of your own dances then?

A mix, really. We hold a hand out to tradition, dancing three traditional border dances – ‘Brimfield’, ‘Dilwyn’ and ‘White Ladies Aston’ – which we’ve tweaked to fit our style. We’ve also pinched a dance, Haccombe, from Morris neighbours, Grimspound. In the early years of Beltane, individual members created new dances mostly inspired by the myths, legends and monuments of Dartmoor which proved very popular.

We organised a dance creation workshop at Chippenham Folk Festival in 2012 as a bit of a gamble – a daunting thing to do, but it was such a success that annually, during the darkest time of the year, the side meets for a one-day workshop to create another. From these five new dances that have been created, some have taken two years to refine, but members feel real ownership over them and are proud of what they’ve created. ‘Cross Tree’, which won this competition, was such a dance. We’d encourage other sides to try it out and can happily offer advice for those interested. 

Tell us a bit more about your kit, and, for those that don’t know, Border Morris in general.

Border Morris is a far simpler, far less regimented and very much unrefined form of dance than other Morris styles. It feels much more ancient with the facial disguise, loose tatter coat and hat to hide the individual’s identity. Much less is written about the style and so you’ve consequently much more freedom to create your own dances and indeed personality.

The predecessors of Beltane, the Iron Maidens, wanted to combine some traditional elements of Border Morris, primarily the classic tatter jacket which they shortened, and also gave the image a heavy rock feel as many were fans of this music genre. They wanted to break the male stereotype with black fishnets, striving to prove that they could dance border with attitude. When the men were allowed in, their kit was a blacker version of Grimspound’s.

Whilst we all conform to one of the two kits, we allow each member to pick a single colour place occasionally amongst their tatters and also allow them to decorate their hat. A few bells were allowed initially buried in tatters but these were gradually removed or fell off leaving the audience to hear just the music, confident clashing of sticks and shouts.

We resemble the ravens that are eerie and ever-present on Dartmoor and use black face paint feathered around our eyes and upper cheeks intermixed with flecks of blues and greens to strengthen this persona. It also offers a disguise element, where we remember the labouring classes who were once imprisoned for hiding their identity when dancing or mumming for money was made illegal when most were merely seeking to feed their families.

We, like many, feel that Border, especially, has some pagan roots, and our stone circle dance in particular makes you wonder whether such dancing was performed as part of ancient ceremonies held to mark the passage of the seasons high on Dartmoor.

Judging by the numbers dancing in your winning video, it looks like the team is in rude health. You must be doing something right! How many members do you have?

I reckon we’ve got about 35 dancers and 14 musicians with up to a further six new dancers bolstering numbers each year. We’re very lucky in terms of numbers. We do have a high annual attrition rate, with up to 20% moving on to other things or indeed other Morris sides. Beltane has directly led to the formation of two (and arguably more) Morris sides locally in Devon. The challenge for Beltane is to keep recruiting and training enough people to learn and maintain a broad repertoire of 20 dances, which typically takes about three years. Members are aged between 19 and 75, so a very broad range. If members have young children we all help babysit, and for those struggling financially we work to car share and can help out with costs to make events as accessible to all as possible.

Probably 80% of our members had never previously danced Morris, or indeed danced at all, before joining Beltane. We have two foremen – a primary foreman who runs sessions, and a ‘newbie’ foreman who specifically focuses on training all new dancers. The aim is not just to teach the set of functional moves that comprise each dance, but to get dancers to tell a story to express the real spirit of each through carefully choreographed movement.

It sounds like Devon is a fertile recruiting ground for Morris.

We’ve been very lucky on the recruitment side. Much of Devon is rural and sparsely populated and riddled with narrow lanes. Correspondingly, it takes ages to get anywhere, but we’re based on the southeast edge of Dartmoor within about a half-an-hour’s travel time of the largest settlements in Devon – namely Exeter, Torbay and Plymouth, which thereby maximises the pool of potential members. Picking lively pubs and getting out there into the local community each week during the summer means we get seen by a lot of people across our area and usually attract perhaps a dozen potential recruits each year, with half a dozen being accepted as full members. 

That’s a recruitment record many teams would be envious of. What do you think is most important for sides trying to recruit?

Exuding energy and enthusiasm to an audience through dance is our way to make Morris interesting and attractive to new members. Energy is definitely infectious and a great way to inspire others to join, as so much of ordinary daily life can seem rather mundane, which makes Morris a great form of escapism from that. Morris can be social, too, and we encourage new members to come to the pub as part of Morris practice as we feel it’s a really important part of building your Morris community. We also help and encourage new dancers (if interested) to join in and learn folk songs after dancing in the pub, and some have even started writing their own.

You mentioned it can take a few years for new dancers to master your repertoire. Do you aim for excellence in your dancing, or is it more about having fun and you just happen to be good at it? 

We’ve always aspired to be a top-ranking festival side and expect members to attend as many practice sessions and dance-outs as they are able, in order to get the most out of it. It has to be fun but our ethos is always to work together to get the best out of everyone, as that mutual creation and sharing of energy makes sure that everyone feels more energised by the end. 

Dance is about uniting to tell a story through moving in harmony with one another rather than individually just laboriously going through a functional set of moves (“Forward 2, 3, 4, Turn 2, 3, 4, Back 2, 3, 4…”). For established dancers, we always look for ‘marginal gains,’ small adjustments that make things better. Dances only last three minutes and that time is special, when nothing else matters and you can briefly escape the stresses of life to really live that dance.

I love that ethos; excellence and having fun aren’t mutually exclusive, and in fact provide a lot of the buzz of what Morris is about, in my opinion. And it also helps to change people’s perception of Morris dancing. How are you received by audiences in Devon?

We’ve become quite well known – some might say notorious, across South Devon. We have regular weekly ‘pub outs’ through the summer and are spoilt for choice for good venues. It’s great to share these with other Morris sides and there are always lots of familiar faces in the audience.

You’re that fire and you… so really go for it and make those flames as impressive as you can so that they really feel that heat.

Ant Veal, Beltane Border Morris

They do like the local stories behind our dances. It’s also so important to make that connection and three-way mutual energy between musicians, dancers and audience. As performers, you’re that fire and you want your audience to stay watching you, so really go for it and make those flames as impressive as you can so that they really feel that heat and want to come watch you again. And always remember: pubs often make perfect venues.

Being a ‘city’ Morris dancer here in Sheffield, I’m always jealous of teams that get to spend their time at little country pubs. Not that we don’t have great places up here of course. So, apart from pubs, what’s your favourite place to dance?

Haytor at dawn on May Day. It’s the Morris world’s morning and the best, most uplifting morning of the year which we share with whoever is equally mad enough to turn up! We’ve danced it in all weathers – cold and frosty, damp and foggy, wet and windy, bright and sunny. The bottom line is, you know that it’s the start of summer where you can show off what you’ve learnt in the practice hall over winter. I also worked out that if you stand on Haytor rocks to watch the May Day sunrise, there’s a direct alignment with Stonehenge, Woodhenge and the rising sun. Now that’s quite some monumental coincidence!

Ah, nice and local then. What’s the furthest you’ve travelled to dance?

Ossett in West Yorkshire. It took nine hours to get there in an uncomfortable hired minibus stacked up with our kit. A great weekend but the journey consumed a sizeable measure of socialising time. I guess our benchmark is that the journey should definitely be shorter than the time you’re relaxing, drinking and singing once you’ve arrived.

Ossett Beercart! I know it well. Speaking of long journeys (for me anyway), Beltane is hosting the Joint Morris Organisations Day of Dance in Exeter in Spring 2023 – what should teams expect?

For starters, a bright warm spring day and a city filled with crowds but nice expansive dance spots. It’s a really interesting city to explore – loads of nice cafes, restaurants… oh and good pubs. If you’ve any questions about Exeter please don’t hesitate to contact us and we’ll gladly help answer them.

Sounds lovely. I love the JMO Day of Dance. It’s always a great opportunity to dance with teams who aren’t necessarily on the festival circuit.

I think we should give a shout-out to your camera person, as they did a great job of recording your dancing. We want this competition to spur people on to take more and better videos of Morris. What can you tell us about the filming of the video?

That was actually me… so thanks. I was involved with creating the dance at one of our winter workshops and know the dance really well so know which bits are best to catch on film. I’ll admit that I’ve also never run through a Morris set whilst filming and with two sets of 12 to pass, it was a relief to make it through without getting trampled!

Tips for filming other Morris sides: ask what their favourite dances are, and their favourite bits, then make sure you capture those on film. Dances that people are really visibly enjoying definitely make the best videos.

Finally, any advice you would give to other teams or individual dancers who might be looking for tips on recruitment, dance style, etc?

Different styles fit different sorts of people. It’s always worth watching Youtube and trying some different types and styles of dances to see how everyone gets on. A nice, even dance pace with lots of energy. Anyone is welcome to use any of our dances and we can offer advice with style.

You need a nice inspiring person to teach. Our foremen are great and very patient but passionate about style. Don’t seek to master a dance and dance it to death in one session. Gradually perfect the moves each week and encourage people to gently mould in style points to add more expression and interest to that shared dance experience.

Thanks Ant and all of Beltane, and congratulations again on your win!

For more info on Beltane Border Morris, head to beltaneborder.co.uk.