JOE PUBLIC would say there's something inherantly foolish about morris dancing, but he'd be wrong. It's not foolish enough.It would be an odd thing indeed for a team to turn out, as a matter of course, with no musician. Even the audience might notice there was something missing. And yet it's quite normal, these days, for another crucial figure to be absent from the company.
As it says in the song, where are the clowns?
I recall Tony Barrand, author of the excellent book, Six Fools And A Dancer, regretting that Cecil Sharp had described Rodneys, horses and so on as "extra characters". They're not extra at all, wrote Tony: for centuries, they've been an integral part of the morris.
In England if not elsewhere, many modern teams clearly don't see it that way.
In my naivety, I'd assumed this was a purely Cotswold shortcoming, and that Tommies, Betties and Mollies were much more important to the sword and molly traditions. At the recent Dancing England Rapper Tournament in Greenwich, I learned otherwise.
The compere, Tony Creissen of Thrale's Rapper, remarked on it. "There weren't many characters this year," he said. "There weren't enough. Every side should try and make sure they have a Tommy and a Betty."
Given that presentation accounted for 15 per cent of the marks, and that the best Tommies were responsible for much of the "buzz factor" that contributed another 20 per cent, the lapse was lamentable. It's worth noting that the teams with characters were among the highest scorers, and that all three sides in the Premier category for traditional dances were blessed with accomplished exponents of the art.
Sometimes, the audience needs to be told when to be excited: at DERT2000 it wasn't so important perhaps, but they told us anyway. It was gripping stuff.
In the rapper dance, it seems to me, the characters add to the urgency and the drama; the best make the difference between a display and a great event. Sadly, Cotswold morris seldom conveys anything like the same thrill. There aren't too many laughs, either.
There's a very small number of teams that can create entertainment and spectacle with dancers and music alone - Hammersmith and Berkshire Bedlam lead the pack - but without a fool to whip up the atmosphere, Cotswold morris is often no more than pleasing.
Others counter that it's better to have no fool than a bad fool. They have a point, of course. But a bad fool is not the same as one who's merely not very good; or rather, not very good yet. Such a person can grow into the role, with time and support. A fool who gets in the way can be taken aside, and persuaded not to.
It's a common complaint that teams don't have anyone with the right gifts. I don't believe it. There's a joker in most teams. Does it really take such talent?
In the Dancing England Rapper Tournament, the importance of the fool role is acknowledged with a prize for the team with the best characters. This year's winners were George Unthank and Valdis Stals (a Tynesider with Lithuanian forebears), of Addison Rapper.
George has been playing the Tommy role for twenty years and is clear on what's required: "He's got to be someone who reacts to the crowd, but doesn't detract from the dance. Everybody should be looking at the dancers but the dancers have got to do something good to look at."
It's not reasonable to expect that a newcomer to the job will do it brilliantly straight away. Teams must be prepared to allow the fool to fail occasionally, just as they tolerate the clumsiness of novice dancers. It should be something that a team expects to endure, with the promise of rewards to come.
The old wisdom has it that the fool must be one of the best dancers. Why? It certainly wasn't true in the case of the Adderbury fool, "Old Mettle" Castle - he was lame.
In these days of teams struggling for numbers, the cry is that no dancers can be spared from the set. Why not? Sure, having one of the six in motley on the bad days can detract from the visual effect, but I say that's a small price to pay for being able to do justice to the morris on the better days. As long as the fool is able to dance when needed - even if it means having a costume that can be cast off, leaving standard kit underneath - then the ability to field a side is not compromised.
A competent fool can fill in while the dancers recover their energy. How often do you see morris performances simply die between dances? It's the norm.
It's my impression that Morris Ring teams are generally much better on the character front, and on entertainment generally. Perhaps it's because they're more bound up in notions of the ancient character of the dance - and we'll leave aside questions about how authentic the various interpretations might be.
The slow-dancing, "white shoe" sides of the Eighties were too obsessed with the purity of the dance itself to worry about whether anyone was actually watching them perform, let alone being entertained. How many of them are still dancing well? Not many.
Maybe there's a gender thing here too - there are plenty of women dancing Cotswold these days, but how many female fools do you see, in the UK at least? Barely any.
My suspicions on this count appear to be confirmed by a questionnaire on "animals, beasts and fools and other accountrements" that's just been distributed by the Morris Federation, as part of a wider survey on dancers' ages.
Nearly two hundred teams responded: only thirty or so siad they had either a beast or a fool. Janet Dowling, who sent out the survey forms shortly before stepping down as Federation president, thinks the low percentage may be something to do with form-fatigue - teams were also being asked to fill out the annual side history questionnaire.
Once a directory of beasts and fools has been published, she suggests, other teams will come forward and say that they too have "extra characters".
Maybe I'll be proved wrong, then - but if it turns out that fifty per cent of teams have characters, I'm not wrong enough.
The Donkey invites readers to join Simon Pipe on his hobby horse - or try to knock him off it. Where we can do so without misrepresenting the author's views, we reserve to right to edit letters to avoid repetition, libel or gratuitous offensiveness. This is not an unmoderated discussion list! E-mail contributions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
If you'd like to have a rant on some aspect of traditional English dance, we'd be glad to hear from you. Contributions need not be lengthy. Please sound us out with a proposal before writing an article.
The Donkey does not necessarily agree with the views expressed in this article (though we point out that it's been written by the editor...)
The Morris Ring runs a fools and animals weekend every year. The Donkey believes you don't need to be a Ring member to attend, but females are only invited if they're actually blokes in drag.
United Fools Union (Illustrious Order of United Fools)
©2000 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew