Numbers aren’t everything

Like any Morris side, Red Cuthbert’s membership size varies from year to year. When it goes up, we feel like good; when it drops, we worry and ask “what are we doing wrong?”

This came to mind when recently when I was reading a Facebook discussion about Northumbrian smallpiping’s lowest ebb. In the second half of the 19th century and first half of the twentieth, there were probably fewer than 100 players of the Northumbrian smallpipes at any given time based on known pipers and sets of pipes from the period – and it is claimed (though I’m not sure on what grounds) that at one point there were only two pipers left (and that they weren’t on speaking terms!).

One comment in the discussion was that there’s a long-lasting belief that because there aren’t a lot of players there is an imminent risk of the instrument dying out, so something must be done to save it. That is something that may sound familiar in the context of Morris dancing – whether because a side has shrunk this year, because there’s been another “silly season” newspaper story about the tradition being at risk, or a when a couple of times recently far-right groups have proposed they join to “save” the tradition that they think won’t survive without them (and drag its ethos away from the inclusiveness that is such a key part of it, and grows every year).

But the tradition doesn’t need saving, and isn’t dying out. Morris dancing doesn’t have the mass appeal of football that sees everyone doing it as a child (though it has featured on Top of the Pops). It does appeal to enough people though, and there’s no reason why it won’t continue to do so – whether they’re into folk music, are drawn into it by friends for the social side, or just think it looks fun (it is, you should try it!).

We shouldn’t expect Morris to have universal appeal any more than we’d expect absolutely everyone to enjoy experimental jazz music (sorry, when does the music start?).

That’s not to say we shouldn’t make an effort, of course, but we needn’t have unrealistic expectations. A newspaper article from the mid-eighties (again spotted in a Facebook group), the Morris Federation and Open Morris had about 200 sides between them. I haven’t been able to find a number for the Morris Ring at that time, though with patience it could probably be worked out from their Morris Ring Member and Associate Side Formation Dates webpage: glancing over it I guess there could have been at least the same again, but not more than twice as many (i.e. 200-400), giving a total of 400-600 sides dancing in the UK in the mid-1980s.

Today, an online Morris Dance Database lists almost 900 sides in the UK. That doesn’t sound like we are doing badly.

Oh, and to come back to the start point, nor are the Northumbrian smallpipes. In the last forty years over 4,000 sets of pipes are thought to have been made and today the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society has almost 1,000 members – though membership isn’t universal. That’s not doing badly, from a reputed low of two players, and we’ve a way to go before we need think that the smallpiping tradition or Morris dancing is really “in danger”.

So once we’re able to, we’ll be out dancing again, doing what we love. Along the way we’ll pick up the odd member, while from time to time someone will drift away, and that’s what happens. We expect to still be here in some years, and whether or not our side is still here in Bedford, Morris dancing certainly will be.

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