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 For whom the bell tinkles
Kim Smith takes steps to defend a tradition that has (quite literally) got a lot of stick
The holiday season is upon us, endless days when the sky takes on an azure hue, bees flit from flower to flower generating an hypnotic hum, ice-cold beer is on tap and we can at last expose our stockinged feet and delight in the feel of sand between our toes. Sorry to be a grinch, but aren’t we more likely to see an overcast infinity, be plagued by wasps, grimace over warm ale and find more beach in our sandwiches than under our feet?
There is a summer tradition guaranteed to make us smile, though – Morris dancers entertaining drinkers outside Suffolk’s many great hostelries. If this conjures up visions of men in straw hats waving handkerchiefs around, accompanied by enough tinkling bells to evoke Tyrolean cattle on heat, then think again. Over the past few years, Morris has got a lot more (dare I say it?) rock ’n’ roll. Of course there are sides (as they prefer to be called) who cling to the tried and trusted, but Slack Ma Girdle, from Exning, near Newmarket, isn't one of them.
The mixed-gender side has a steampunk look (a sassy style that's Vivienne Westwood meets the Industrial Revolution) and a joyous ethos: "smiles on the faces of the dancers, Smiles on the faces of the musicians, and smiles on the faces of the people who watch us!" What's not to like?
Formed in 2016, when nurse Eddie Ridgeon and her partner, Rob Heaven, moved back to East Anglia from the Midlands, they
are named after an ancient variety of apple (cider-drinking being a big part of the scene!). “We were looking for a side to join and indeed did join another initially, but it didn’t tick all the boxes, so decided to start a new one,” she explains.
“Our new side was made up of seasoned dancers from various other sides as the world of Morris is quite incestuous in that everyone knows everyone else or at least, knows somebody who does. Over the years we have attracted non-Morris people who have seen us dancing and been so amazed, they wanted to join in.”
As for Slack Ma Girdle’s out-there outfits, Eddie reveals: “The different styles of Morris have different styles of dress. We liked the aesthetic and it suited the eccentricity of both the practice and our members.
“When we formed, we decided as a collective that our colours would be black, red, turquoise and any combination of those in any steampunk genre. So people can put together their own look, which is why we all look the same, but different.”
The origin of Morris is debated, as Eddie explains: “It’s usually said that if you ask 10 dancers about the history, you will get 10
different answers. What we do know, though, is that the earliest reference in this country dates back to 1448.
“By the 16th Century, Morris dancing had become a fixture of church festivals and later became attached to village fetes and May Day revels. Shakespeare mentions it and one of his fellow actors, William Kemp, danced a solo Morris from London to Norwich, via Suffolk, in 1600 [as featured in the May 2021 issue of this magazine].
“Although it was popular with the Tudors, it fell out of favour under Oliver Cromwell. It reappeared in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, only to decline in the 19th Century, possibly because of the migration of rural folk into towns as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
“The revival at the start of the 20th Century was due to the interest shown by folk-song enthusiasts Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles, Mary Neal and others, in recording and teaching the dances and tunes. Until then, it had mainly been passed on orally. There are now six predominant styles of Morris dancing: Cotswold, Border, Molly, Rapper, Longsword and Northwest Clog.”
Slack Ma Girdle is a Border side. This has nothing to do with the fact that Exning is on the Suffolk/Cambridgeshire border, but because this style was developed in the Marchlands

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