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The Essential Guide to Morris Dancing

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

No community gala or festival in England is complete without the appearance of a team of Morris dancers.

Morris Dancing Defined

The folk dance involves half a dozen men, doing rhythmic step dancing in patterns, accompanied by a concertina or fiddle and drum. An observation attributed to many people suggests “You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and Morris dancing.”

Unfair is the response from Fraser McAlpine, who writes for the BBC that Morris dancing “seems baffling and maybe even a little silly from the outside, it wasn’t designed to look good on Facebook, it’s part ritual, part celebration, part nonsense, and part wonder, and it is entirely immune to mockery. This is because the people who do it and commit themselves wholeheartedly have no cool to lose, and this, perversely, makes them amazing.”

History

In 1149, the Count of Barcelona married Petronilla, Queen of Aragon. (As a trivial but interesting aside, the bride was 13 at the time, and the marriage was consummated when she was 15).

In a description of the wedding ceremony reference is made to a dance that resembles what we know today as Morris dancing. The earliest mention of the dance appearing in England is 1448 and, by the 16th century, the form was connected to Christian church festivals.

There have been theories that the performance came from North African Moorish dances, but these don’t stand up to serious examination.

It’s generally a good bet to associate such frolicking with fertility rites, but again, there’s no provable connection.

Here’s a hint as to one origin. When Morris dancers get together for a private session it’s called an “ale.” Is it all a case of Morris dancing presenting a cover for the lads to get together in the Dog in a Doublet pub after practices and performances?

Types

In the years before mass communication, Morris dancing developed several regional differences, but the form went into decline in the 19th century. In 1899, a man called Cecil Sharp began collecting and recording folk songs and dances and a revival began. There are several variants:

  • Border Morris is found along the English-Welsh border. It’s a vigorous form of the dance that used to be performed in black face. Political pressure that this can be construed as racist is forcing changes.
  • North West Morris is often processional as dancers move along a street rather than remaining in a single location. Performers also wear clogs.
  • Molly Dancing is done in Eastern England and springs from a tradition in which groups of ploughboys would dance for money at farms. If the farmer refused to pay up, the lads would hit him with some sort of prank (a form of trick-or-treat). They covered their faces with soot in order to hide their identity. One of the group would dress as a woman―a molly.
  • Longsword Dancing is found in Yorkshire. The Morris Circle explains that “The dance is basically six or eight men in a circle, each holding the end of his neighbour’s sword. They perform circling and intertwining ‘figures’ without breaking the circle or letting go the swords, except at the climax of the dance when the swords are interlocked to form the ‘lock’ which is then held aloft.”
  • Rapper Sword Dancing is performed farther north in Durham and Northumberland. A metal strip with a handle at each end is featured and dancers hold this above the heads while weaving patterns rapidly.
  • Flag and Bone Morris is another variant in which a single line of men rattles bones and waves small flags as they dance.
  • Cotswold comes from the area of south-central England and the Cotswold Hills. The dancers clash sticks together or carry handkerchiefs to emphasize hand movements.

Cotswold Morris Dancing

Costume

Just as with the form of dances themselves there’s a wide variety of costumes worn by dancers. The standard uniform is white trousers or breeches and a white shirt, embellished with colourful crossed sashes.

Some dancers wear a jacket called a baldric or a tunic known as a tabard. Some teams perform without head gear; others get decked out in top hats or caps that are covered with flowers often made from plastic; hardly in keeping with the dance’s medieval heritage. Rows of bells are attached to the knees and ribbons or rags sown into clothing.

Some Morris dancing teams have followed the ancient tradition of appearing in blackface and, as a result, have been banned from some schools and festivals. However, folklorists point out this has little to do with racism and dates back to the 15th century.

Back then, dance groups formed among farm workers as a way of collecting money during the lean winter months. But, begging was illegal so the dancers blackened their faces with charcoal or soot to make identification difficult.

Some activists have conflated Morris dancing blackface with U.S. minstrel shows in which African-Americans were routinely mocked. There is not connection between the two; however, responding to the criticism, some Morris troupes now use red, blue, or green face paint.

Silurian Border Morris Men at the Commercial Hotel, Saddleworth, Lancashire.

Silurian Border Morris Men at the Commercial Hotel, Saddleworth, Lancashire.

Morris Dancing’s Gender Issue

You will have noticed that all references to Morris dancing have been masculine, although there’s no historical evidence that women were excluded. Despite this, the Morris Ring, which is the voice of the folk tradition, has maintained its stance that their dances are a men-only activity.

New Esperance Morris is an all-female dance group that has been active since the 1970s; not without opposition. It notes that “If a men’s team were invited to the same festival as a women’s team, sometimes the men would try to persuade the organizers to stop the women dancing on the grounds that it was not traditional, and when they were not successful they would refuse to dance themselves.”

The Rising Larks Morris dancers.

The Rising Larks Morris dancers.

Eventually, modern concepts of equality caught with the pooh-bahs of the Morris Ring so that in 2018 “A vote was called and a near century-old constitution was overturned” (The Guardian); women were henceforth to be welcomed as Morris dancers.

The decision had less to do with a sudden outbreak of progressive thinking than with the growing difficulty in recruiting men to teams. Some Morris dancing groups were facing extinction.

Still, there were gasps of dismay in the darker corners of the Morris fraternity. Despite the lack of evidence, there are still some who cling to the fallacy that Morris dancing is an exclusively male activity.

It seems likely the resistance has more to do with a fear of women’s disapproval of the post-dancing tradition of beer drinking, flatulence, and the telling of rude jokes.

It’s probably just coincidence, but many Morris dancing performances seem to take place outside pubs.

It’s probably just coincidence, but many Morris dancing performances seem to take place outside pubs.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1599, Will Kempe a member of Shakespeare’s acting troupe undertook a marathon Morris dance. He danced from London to Norwich, a distance of 125 miles, in 23 days. The BBC reports that during this journey of self promotion “He strained his hip on the second full day of the dance, enduring ‘exceeding paine;’ fell into a pothole near Braintree, and seems to have had his spirits raised by a number of local country girls who danced with him en route.”
  • There are an estimated 150 Morris dancing groups in the United States.
  • Morris is sometimes spelled with a lower case “m.” Although it is not a proper noun, the “M” is more frequently capitalized.

Sources

  • “History of Morris Dancing.” rattlejagmorris.org.uk, undated.
  • “Longsword Dancing.” The Morris Ring, undated.
  • “Iconic British Things No.14: Morris Dancing.” Fraser McAlpine, BBC, 2011.
  • “How a Gender War Sent the Morris Dancing World Hopping Mad.” Richard Macer, The Guardian, March 29, 2019.
  • “ ‘I Didn’t Know Women Danced Morris?” – Women and the Morris Dance.” Janet Dowling, New Esperance Morris, undated.
  • “More than Morris: A Brief Guide to English Folk Dance.” GreneEagan, Patriotic Alternative, June 7, 2020.
  • “Morris Dance.” Irene Carstairs, thathistorynerd.com, September 25, 2019.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Ann Carr from SW England on December 02, 2020:

Yes, they are still friends. They refused to 'undo' the pattern though! At least it was a bright sunny 2nd May and they will never forget it!!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 01, 2020:

I love the idea of having friends dance around the maypole on your birthday. I hope they are still friends. I'll have to think of something for my 80th in a couple of years time. It will probably involve Zimmer frames.

Ann Carr from SW England on December 01, 2020:

Fascinating stuff, Rupert. I'm not a fan of Morris Dancing as the blokes I've known who do it or like it are such a bore! Maypole dancing on the other hand, is wonderful. A beautiful art and so good for the children to do. I used to do it at school, every village summer fete, and loved it - I made all my friends dance round a maypole in our garden for my 50th - they were such good friends that they all took part with good grace! There are so many different dances and some lovely music to go with them.

Well done for all the details, as always!

Ann

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