The Bampton dance tradition as performed by the Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers
Although the Bampton Morris dance tradition is an ancient one, it remains a living tradition and has evolved over the decades that records have been kept. Most of the dances come from before living memory, but a few are relatively new. Often we are asked what is the proper way to do one or another Bampton dance and the answer is, “However the squire tells you to do it.” It has traditionally been the squire of the side who keeps the dance tradition alive.
The Bampton Morris dances are now performed by sides around the world and, generally speaking, they are recognisably “Bampton” though they may not be quite like we do them in Bampton. Francis Shergold, former squire of the Bampton Traditional Morris Men, once commented in an interview when asked how he felt about other sides doing Bampton Morris, “…as long as I don’t see you doing it, I don’t mind.” What he did mind was to be, “…blamed for not doing Bampton properly, ’cos somebody amateur has done it before us in the same place.”(1)
In the years before the Second World War there was considerable variation in the style of dancing, even when there was only one side. It was not until the post-war years that stylistic traditions began to be estabilished. The Arnold Woodley tradition that we dance preserves some distinctive characteristics of pre-war dancing that are not often seen in other interpretations.(2) Perhaps the most obvious is the use of a ‘cast’ hey in which the top dancers proceed out and down along the outside of the set, followed by the middles, while the bottoms move in and turn around to move up on the inside. All dances start with a single preparatory hop onto the right foot, rather than the more commonly seen back steps and the foot up does not go up—it is danced in position. Also, in Bampton Morris the dancers’ positions are numbered such that the top right dancer is number 1 (which is position 2 in other Morris traditions) and therefore the first to start off in through (corner) dances. This isn’t meant to imply that our way is right and the others’ wrong. It is just that this is the way we do it in Bampton.
The current dance repertoire numbers 28 full side dances and 9 jigs. All full side dances are hanky dances. The Fool's jig uses a short stick, and the Broom dance uses, well, take a guess. Our current dances are listed at the bottom of this page.
In ancient times the Bampton dance tunes were played on the pipe and tabor (small drum) but in the mid 19th century the fiddle was introduced to the side and this was solidified by the long reign of Dick Butler as the side’s musician until the untimely demise of his instrument. Jinky Wells carried forth the fiddle tradition until he left to start his own side. Arnold Woodley took a bit of instruction from Bertie Clark, one of the fiddlers brought in to replace Wells, but he developed his own style of fiddle playing for our side that led Keith Chandler to comment in a 1992 article in Musical Traditions, “…he is the finest traditional fiddler playing in the characteristic southern English style - long may he continue!”(3) Continue it did, but only for a few more years. Today the fiddle is joined by the accordion and melodeon as the regular instruments of our side. The tunes we use today are much the same as those recorded by Lionel Bacon in his Handbook of Morris Dances and are available on the web (see our Links page) but for our dancing these are embellished by the skills and unique styles of our musicians, who probably haven’t looked at a printed note of Morris music in decades.
Among the traditional Morris sides, the Bampton dress is distinctive in its formality; white trousers, white shirt worn with a Bampton necktie, and a white waistcoat. A bowler hat completes the picture. The hat is decorated with artificial flowers (stiff cloth originally) and broad ribbons of the traditional Bampton colours, red, yellow and blue. Red and yellow ribbons are worn on the sleeves. Bell pads are backed in cloth and decorated with bits of rag among the bells, giving a “fluffy” appearance. The traditional hobnail boots have been replaced by black shoes for today’s dancers.
A Whitsun (Spring Bank Holiday) Roster
Six dancers are required for the dances. In earlier times the squire selected the six best dancers from among the team for Whitsun, but today all members of the side participate, along with our musicians, some of whom are also dancers.
The Fool or Jester is believed to go back to the earliest days of Morris dancing. Besides entertaining the crowds, the Fool keeps an eye on the dancers, admonishing mistakes with a word and a whack on the backside from the bladder attached to the stick he carries. Bampton’s Fool has traditionally dressed as a circus clown.
The Sword and Cake Bearer is an essential part of the Bampton tradition that adds a bit of mystery to the proceedings. The sword and cake tin that we bear today are the original ones that have been handed down through generations. The rim of the cake tin has saw-tooth crown edge to discourage people from helping themselves too generously, but today our cake-bearer is likely to offer you a piece on a spoon. The cake itself represents the fruits of the earth and is presented as a bringer of fertility or good luck (depending on the recipient) and one may make a wish upon the cake. The sword that impales the cake is bound at the top with flowers to symbolise Spring and prosperity. A collecting box accompanies the cake for the donation that brings the opportunity to wish upon a Bampton Whitsun cake.
The last of the team was the Ragman, whose job it was to carry spare clothing and the few implements that might be used in the dancing such as the bacca pipes (churchwarden style tobacco pipes). Sadly, the trend toward self-service has reached even Bampton Morris where the availability of hold-alls, car boots, and helpful spouses has rendered this role superfluous and we have not had a Ragman in some years.
Our current dances and jigs.
Whole Hey Dances
Shave the Donkey
Step and Fetch Her
Nutting Girl Six Hander
Half Hey Dances
Bonnie Green Garters
Knuckledown (Flowers of Edinburgh)
Johnny's So Long at the Fair
Lumps of Plum Pudding
Maid of the Mill
Old Tom of Oxford
Speed the Plough
Note 2: There is little point in trying ascertain which of the style variations is more 'authentic' since aspects of all traditions can be found in the very earliest films where there is what modern Morris dancers might see as a surprising amount of variation even within single dances. At least one old film appears to show both the 'cast hey' and the 'Morris hey' being used in the same dance. Written sources suggest even more variation in earlier times.
The problem is illustrated In a series video clips of conversations between noted British Morris scholar and historian, Roy Dommett and American Morris dance scholar and collector Anthony Barrand recorded while viewing B&W films. In response to questions from Barrand Dommett comments on various aspects of all three Bampton side's dancing. Visit The Digital Video Research Archive of Morris, Sword, and Clog Dancing at Boston University and search on "+bampton +dommett +barrand" for starters. (Warning: For the diehard Morris enthusiast only.)
Note 1: Graham Baldwin, 'A Canadian Experience of the English Morris'. American Morris Newsletter, 14(3), November/December 1990. (Appendix: Partial transcription of a conversation between Francis Shergold, Bampton Traditional Morris Dancers and the Vancourver Morris Men at the 'Eagle' Pub, Bampton, on June 4th, 1990. p. 30.)