An evening in the company of Wimbledon’s Greensleeves Morris Men
By Reaz Kurimbux and Jack Costley
Step through the doors of the South Wimbledon Community Centre and into the less-than-spacious Annexe 1 hall and you enter the strange world of Morris Dancing.
On this cold and quiet September evening, the hall is hot and raucous as the Greensleeves Morris Men hold a taster session for prospective members and those curious enough to want to write a feature on this little-understood English folk tradition.
Arriving a quarter of the way into the two-hour session, we were warmly greeted and issued dirty white handkerchiefs.
We were terrified. We came for a night of note-taking but now we were going to have to dance.
For the uninitiated, there’s much more to Morris Dancing than meets the eye. Quick feet and a great deal of stamina are necessities – the former somewhat obvious, the latter not so much.
“There are many preconceptions about Morris Dancing that are not true,” said Greensleeves’ Foreman Alan, dispelling any ideas that Morris Men had anything in common with the Freemasons.
While we were disappointed that there were no secret handshakes to learn, budding Greensleeves members do have go through an initiation of a solo dance in public before they become fully-fledged members.
Levente Green, 16, on the cusp of becoming the youngest current Greensleeves member, is one such individual.
After watching his dad dance a few times, the then-nine-year-old Levente decided to give it a go.
He said: “The dancing is a lot of fun and brings a certain pride when you consider it is a thing most people won’t do.”
Long-standing Greensleeves Men believe that Levente has been ready to do his solo dance since before Christmas, Alan said that circumstances have prevented him from undertaking his initiation.
“I feel slightly nervous but I am looking forward to it,” he admitted.
While the youngster does not mind being the only person dancing with Greensleeves who was not alive during the Cold War, it was not for a lack of trying.
“I have only ever got one friend along,” lamented Levente.
“He said he quite liked it but it wasn’t his thing.”
We joined the ranks of the ‘guests’, those who had come to see what Morris Dancing was all about, and were paired with one of the Greensleeves Men who would guide us through the dances.
Having missed the first dance, Rambles, we were taught two dances: Bonnie Green and Blue Eyed Stranger.
Between the shoe-shuffling, jumping, handkerchief-waving, and cries of ‘Oi!’ it did not take long to work up a sweat.
While it may not seem like it Morris Dancing can also be physically punishing, particularly on the knees.
It was clear some of the older Greensleeves’ members were feeling the strain of continual vigorous dancing.
But where did these idiosyncratic dances come from?
“To answer that question we have to look back into the mists of time,” said a Greensleeves member.
“Morris dancing is very old indeed. Although no doubt very different from what you can watch today, some form of dance was undoubtedly performed by teams of men as a religious ritual in pre-Christian times.”
The established Greensleeves members were patient with us as we struggled to get to grips with the intricate choreography.
“You’re naturals,” jibed injured Greensleeves man Tom Green from the sidelines.
While we were far from naturals, we threw ourselves into the dancing and the remaining 90 minutes flew by.
At 10pm it was time to end the session and head to The Sultan on Norman Road – conspicuously close to the Community Centre – for some well-earned liquid refreshment.
“We’re normal people living normal lives with normal jobs,” said Alan over his pint of bitter.
“But Morris Dancing is like anything – if everybody was doing it, it wouldn’t be special.”
To our surprise we found we enjoyed the evening in spite of our non-existent talent for Morris dancing.
Are we in a hurry to spend another Friday evening Morris-ing the night away? No.
But we certainly now have a great deal of respect for those who do, and those who enjoy this special tradition.
Greensleeves practice from September to May on Friday from 8pm to 10pm at the South Wimbledon Community Centre.
Contact Gerald Killingworth on 020 8947 1126 for more information.