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The TradFolk Rachallenge: The Jig Is Up

One week on from May Day, Tradfolk Rachel reflects on the finale of her April challenge to go from non-dancer to competent caperer in just one month.

Setting three alarms can mean only one thing – you really have to get up when they go off. Setting them for 4.43am, 4.46am, and 4.49am means the same thing, but with the added joy of lying awake for an hour when you get into bed worrying that you’ll oversleep.

I prepared to rise and shine in the way I assume all true athletes do: with an exceptionally delicious Turkish takeaway, a glass of wine, and a concert of Mahler’s first symphony (not his best IMO, but it’s all right). Back at home, I packed my Ballad Swag Bag and carefully laid out my new, homemade kit. Now look, I know, not everyone would choose the glow-in-the-dark-gold-lamé-jeans-and-rainbow-shoes combo, but I decided at the beginning that if I was doing this, I was doing it on my terms (and quietly forming the Eastern division of Boss Morris as I did so).

I’m not going to lie, there was a moment when I really thought we might have to call the whole thing off because I couldn’t find one of my socks, and although I’m not superstitious, surely that was a sign?

It was not. Sock located, bells shined, and crisis averted, I could prepare no more.

May Morning arrives

There is something special about being out before sunrise on any day, but May Day is something else. Up and down the country, disparate pockets of people are out early to partake in our peculiar traditions, and I enjoy knowing that my like-minded friends are getting up, too. In Ely’s pre-dawn gloom, the birds were in competition for the Loudest Singer prize, and joy of joys, it wasn’t raining. As I left the house at 5.05am, I coincidentally met my musician, Chris, at the end of the driveway and decided to take that as another sign instead. We were doing this.

The Riot dance Bideford Bridge

Say what you will about Morris dancers (and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all) but everyone has been incredibly supportive of my challenge-on-a-whim. The good folk of Ely and Littleport Riot were very accommodating of my diva-ish need to go live on Instagram, and for that I thank them profusely. A small audience (at least one of whom knew about this challenge) had gathered to watch, and at 5.20am, the Riot got the show started. After their first three dances, it was my turn.

Showing off my hocklebacks, best Fieldtown arms, and rainbow sneakers (photo: Andrew Goodbody)

It’s no good trying to explain in words what actually doing the dance was like. I can’t. If I think about it now, all I can tell you for sure is that by the time I was putting on my kit and bells for real, I felt really proud of my little two-person Morris side. Dancing a solo jig is a bit like riding a tandem bicycle, or being one half of a pantomime horse. Dancer and musician are leading and following each other simultaneously, and you just have to trust that no one is going to do anything too drastic. I consider the day that Chris read my first #TradFolkRachallenge post and got in touch to ask if I’d like him to play for me to have been a most auspicious one. He is a marvellous musician, and an excellent friend (although, thank goodness this challenge is over because I need a rest from producing the baked goods on his rider).

Breathless relief (photo: Andrew Goodbody)

I can tell you one other thing – I really did enjoy myself! It’s hard to find enough additional processing capacity when it’s half five in the morning and you’re also thinking, “…right, five, left, five what’s next, right, left, swing hop swing hop get your arms up a bit swing hop swing hop, land the aeroplane….” at something like 100 miles an hour, but there was a lovely moment where I could see the finish line and knew I could savour the last few steps. They were all the springier for it.

More dances followed mine, then a fine Morris breakfast and pre-8am session of music, before everyone happily decamped to their respective homes. I am still enjoying the warm fuzzy feeling of a roaring log burner, a fresh-from-the-oven croissant and three cups of tea, and will definitely remember this May Morning for a very long time. Thank you so much for coming on the adventure with me! Here’s how it went if you missed it…

But wait. Like all the best stories, there’s a cheeky post-credits sequence.

As I was happily jingling my way home, I met my neighbour on her way out to walk the dog.

“Where were you rushing off to at 5am?!” she asked.

“We were out to dance up the sun!” I shook my bag of bells.

“Oh!” she said, “that reminds me, hold Hamish…”. She handed me the lead and disappeared inside the house, only to reappear a moment later.

“I’ve been meaning to give you this. It was my mother’s, and she got it from her mother, and my grandsons won’t be interested in it, so I thought you should have it.”

And she pressed this little EFDS badge into my hand. I have promised to look after it, and it will always be a happy little reminder of the day I felt I actually earned it.

A postlude: my Nutting Girl has had three further outings in the week following May Morning. I hope I get to keep dancing it (it’s a killer party piece), but I’ve definitely learned my lesson about the appropriate length of time to leave between eating a Bakewell tart and hopping around for three minutes, let me tell you.