Does Morris Dancing deserve its dreadful reputation?

Naked Morris Dancing. Only in England. (photo by beanmunster - CC-BY)

There’s an old saying in the United Kingdom, that one should “try everything in life at least once, except incest and morris dancing”. Those are strong words. So what has morris dancing done to gain this reputation?

On the face of it, morris dancing is an … er … unusual … pastime. Imagine grown men dressed in costumes that look like a cross between a sailor’s suit and a clown suit, then add a decorated hat that resembles a fruit bowl made of flowers, and pin on a giant blue rosette like those worn by door-to-door canvassers for the Conservative Party. Add a couple of dozen little bells strapped to their calves. Someone plays a melodeon or a fiddle while the dancers alternate between prancing around and waving giant hankies in the air.

Can’t wait to try it? There are thousands of morris dancers in the United Kingdom and its former colonies, most of whom will welcome you to their sessions. And at any UK folk festival, you can expect to find a dozen or more morris sides.

So what’s the point of this kind of morris dancing? A practitioner once suggested that I think of it not as dance, but as a kind of martial art. That makes a lot of sense. The prancing moves are very energetic moves, requiring muscular power and fitness but also a great degree of precision and control. The use of hankies and bells forces the morris side to move as one precisely synchronised whole. Any deviation from the exact timing is made painfully obvious by one hankie being out of place in an otherwise massed display, and by one person’s bells ringing at the wrong time. And there’s no doubt that it’s character building to be able to dance in public in those costumes.

Actually, there are many different kinds of morris dancing. Morris dancing arose hundreds of years ago, and each part of England developed its own traditions. That which I described above is of the Cotswold tradition, from the Cotswold Hills in the middle of England. If you move a little to the west, you find Border Morris, which originated along the ancient border between England and Wales.

Border Morris dispenses with the niceties of Cotswold Morris. Gone are the poncy costumes; in their place are tatter jackets made from old coats with hundreds of cloth flaps sewn on to give an appearance resembling that of a worn-out crow. Gone are the fancy hats; in their place is a head-dress of game-bird feathers. Gone are the rosettes too.

In the Border Morris tradition, dancers will usually blacken their faces. They cop a lot of flack for this nowadays, as onlookers may assume that this is some kind of racial allusion. In fact, the blackened faces were adopted simply to hinder identification of the miscreants as they caroused through the villages. After all, the respected banker or doctor doesn’t want the whole town to know that he’s been morris dancing over the weekend.

The best part of Border Morris is that they don’t wave hankies around. Instead, they carry big sticks, which the dancers are constantly whacking against the sticks carried by other dancers. It gives the dance a powerful feel, especially when the dancers run off at the end of a dance while clashing sticks and letting out blood-curdling yells.

Most Morris sides strive to be authentic to their local traditions, but there is also the emerging spectre of New Morris which dispenses with much of the baggage of the past. Boggart’s Breakfast is a New Morris team from Sheffield, who have adopted Border Morris to the modern world.

Instead of blackening their faces (and having to explain to onlookers over and over and over again that it’s not racist), they paint their faces with whimsical artwork. Instead of cloth tatters on their costumes, they use reflective sequins in blues, purples and silver. Instead of feathers in their hats, they have dramatic illuminated hats made with light emitting diodes. Instead of traditional movements, they choreograph their own New Morris dances. And best of all, not only do they keep the big sticks as used by Border Morris, but they whack them together and throw them around. And, unlike some of the more traditional morris teams, they even welcome women to join them.

I’ve participated in a two-hour “taster” session with Boggart’s Breakfast, which was a load of fun. So, maybe the traditional admonition needs to be changed to “try everything in life once, except for Cotswald Morris…”.

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  • Larry says:

    Most references to morris dancing make a connection to “dances” on the Continent that date back to late medieval times. The names clearly refer to Moors, such as the German “Moriskentanz”:
    Another website with similar information in German has a photo that shows that black-face is also part of the tradition:
    It would seem that the morris dance evolved over the centuries, whereas the Moriskentanz and costumes stuck closer to the older tradition, perhaps from having the carved figures and written descriptions as a reference.
    Just an aside: a couple of videos of morris dancers reminded me of traditional men’s dances performed for tourists in SE Asia.

  • Sue Wray says:

    Apparently Morris means moorish. The English were copying north african dances . The Moors were in Spain and Europe at the time Spain was Muslim. This would explain the blackface. Its a bit like the stones doing Robert johnson, or like scottish country and western music.The guitar arrived also with the Moors. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so the dancers are not being racist just copying.People whose name is Moore or Morris or Morrison are descended from the Moors.

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