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Laud of the dance

Writer STEPHEN BISCOE meets a Craven flag-cracker. As originally published in The Yorkshire Post on 2 October, 1999.

CLOSE your eyes and you can see them, the Morris dancers, prancing around waving hankies or striking sticks together in rather effeminate-looking mock sword fights, bells around the ankles jangling, ribbons flying from straw hats and beards everywhere.

Morris dancing has an image of harmless nuttiness which is not entirely undeserved, so the prospect of meeting a dedicated Morris man was loaded with preconceptions.

Dick Taylor, with a healthy glow in his cheeks and inevitable beard, was behind a desk at the Russell Street Project in Keighley.

In the street outside, a sign succinctly explains what the project is about: "No qualifications. No skills. No job. We can help."

Three years ago, Taylor set up this education and training establishment for people with no options.

One of his staff comes in with a huge bouquet. She is very emotional because it has just been given to her by someone she has helped to get on a full-time college course.

That interruption over, Taylor explains how he came to be a Morris man.

He was born and brought up in the Midlands, near Coventry, and both his parents did the dance. He took it up when he was 14. "I played rugby too," he says, "and I didn't dare tell my rugby mates."

In the '80s, he came to live at Utley, between Keighley and Skipton, and found out that the local men's Morris side had recently folded because membership had fallen to fewer than eight, the minimum viable number.

The women's side was in imminent danger of going the same way, but it was clear that Morris dancing continued to have its followers in the area.

Taylor visited folk clubs and put up notices and attracted 18 dancers - male and female - and three musicians to what would become the Craven Flag Crackers, a name which sums up the sort of robust Morris dancing which he has introduced to these Yorkshire enthusiasts: it suggests that they crack flag-stones.

The style is distinctive and although it originates in the Welsh border country, its Yorkshire practitioners have made it their own, creating new dances from the bits and pieces which have survived from ancient times.

They, along with every modern Morris dancer, are indebted to a Victorian, Cecil Sharpe, who scoured the country for folk dancing traditions and 100 years ago became the first person to publish the tunes with a detailed description of the steps.

Sharpe identified six varieties: the Molly in East Anglia, the North West, danced in the North-West - the Border, the Long Sword in South Yorkshire, the Rapper in the Nottingham coalfield, and the Cotswold. in the Cotswolds.

That last one he believed to be the most authentic, arguing that although the Border was the oldest, it was the least well preserved and had become degenerate.

For Taylor, the fact that Sharpe was unable to give a precise description of the Border is a virtue because liberties can be taken with it which would be unthinkable with the much better-defined Cotswold. That form remains rigid, whereas the Border dance is flexible and changing - "a living tradition", according to Taylor.

It is robust, noisy and exuberant, and immediately recognisable because the dancers blacken their faces, pin brightly-coloured rags to their waistcoats and wear astonishing headgear.

The theory is that in olden times people would wear on their hats anything which they found, including unused bits and pieces left lying around their workshops. In the Flag Crackers, that idea has been brought up to date by Ian Ibbotson, a plumber who has stuck a miniature bathroom suite on his hat. Other members of the side have arrays of feathers, soft toys, ornaments - and in Dick Taylor's case - a stuffed stoat.

A stuffed animal is a traditional item for the squire of a Morris side to wear: Taylor is no longer Squire of the Flag Crackers - but he still has the stoat.

There are 30 Flag Crackers and they practise every Wednesday in Farnhill Village Institute, one couple making the round trip from Kirby Stephen and many others travelling 10, 15 miles or more.

In a video made for a Yorkshire Millennium archive on behalf of the Yorkshire Media Consortium, members of the side talk about the face-blacking as being either a nuisance or a boon because of the anonymity it gives them, allowing them to get away with wild behaviour in public.

But they all like the music; they all like the dancing, and to greater or lesser degrees, they all like the licence that the Flag Crackers gives them for a spot of exhibitionism.

Central to Taylor's approach is that the Flag Crackers should be entertaining to watch, which must help to account for their popularity.

Taylor calculates he has travelled 2,500 miles with them this year, going to folk festivals and Morris Weekends up and down the country.

In 1991, they went to the Orkney Folk Festival which had never seen Morris dancers before. While there, they were invited to dance at the Orkney Brewery which happened to be run and owned by a Yorkshireman.

Roger White was so delighted by their performance that he has kept in touch ever since, and when he was planning a new beer, he asked permission to name it after the side.

Taylor was anxious that there should be no strings, and rather than take any money from the brewery, he suggested that for every pint of Flag Cracker ale sold, 3p should be given to the Skipton and Craven Association for the Disabled.

This charity may do rather well today because to mark its launch, eight Yorkshire Morris sides will be dancing from around 10.30 in the centre of Skipton, heading off at mid-day to the village of Kildwick for a lively, thirst-making session at the White Lion.

Republished by kind permission of The Yorkshire Post.


Flag Crackers Of Craven, border morris side

Flag Cracker Ale Launch - Craven Herald and Pioneer, 27 August, 1999

1999 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

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