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Morris Dance – Traditional English Folk Dance and Heritage

Dancing with men

I love travelling, experiencing different cultures and in particular watching local dance performances. Last year I went to see the World Conker Championships (held annually each October) in a quaint countryside location, near Market Harborough (England, UK) and was introduced to the very British tradition of morris dancing.

Being originally from Italy, this festival was a real cultural experience for me and even if you are British, it is still a sight and festival that has to be seen and experienced. This is a great chance to see the fun loving and quite eccentric side of British culture (a far cry from the stiff upper lip stereotype that some people outside the UK associate with being British).

The rain, which I have become accustomed to since moving to England, held off and this certainly helped given that the brave organisers had planned most activities out in the open air. There were several barbecue areas, traditional British foods, locally made beers, a conkers competition, fancy dress, and the quite unusual and yet fascinating English folk dance.

It was a very good day, but the thing that I remember most vividly are the morris dancers. It was the first time I saw any kind of British folkloric dance and I was impressed. From what I can remember, there were only male dancers and they were performing rhythmic steps and using sticks in a kind of mock fight. They were dressed in black and their faces were also painted in black. By looking at the pictures I have and comparing them with information, photos and videos I found online (please see the resources section further down the page for more details on the sources that I accessed), it seems that the group was performing the style from the English-Welsh border.

When I went back to work after that weekend, I remember talking enthusiastically about this dance to my colleagues and saying how much I had enjoyed watching it. I was impressed by the fact that English people seemed to embrace their traditions and their heritage, of which morris dance is clearly a part, being a form of embodied heritage. I was impressed especially because in Italy most people have been distancing themselves from their own traditional dances, almost being ashamed of them, hence many Italian traditional dances have been lost (this trend though has hopefully started to change and the revival of pizzica, a dance genre from the region of Puglia, seems to be an example of this changing trend). So, when I spoke to my colleagues, I was saddened to find out that most of them were dismissive of morris dance and almost embarrassed by it (men in particular). Fortunately though, not everybody in England shares this feeling because there are many people who practice and love morris dance and have formed groups to continue this tradition. It would be interesting though to find out why some people, in countries such as Italy and England, are embarrassed to reconnect with old local traditions.

World conkers championships

World conkers championships

Short History of Morris Dance

Morris dancing was first recorded in document from the 15th century, but its origins seem to be shrouded in mystery. According to some, morris dance is connected to dance traditions from druidic times, for others it comes from court dances which were first performed in Italy and were then embraced in English courts. The name morris, according to some, comes from the word Moorish. One of the reasons why this dance is connected to the word Moorish, may be because of the fact that most dancers originally used to paint their faces in black (today only some still do and the tradition of blackening their faces may originate as a form of disguise for dancers or it could have been a reference to miners in later times). For some, there may be a connection with dances of Moorish origin in the 15th century. Whatever its origins, morris dance became very popular with the working classes and in rural areas from the 17th century (while it was previously mainly documented in court settings).

The modern revival of morris dancing started with the work of folklorists such as Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles and Mary Neal, who organised the first revival performance in London with a group of young women. Not long after, men groups also started and, since then, morris dancing experts have been disputing over whether morris dance should only be performed by men or by both genders. Nowadays, there are groups that are men only, women only or mixed genders.

sticks dance

Styles and Performance

Morris dance is often performed by groups of six or eight people, but occasionally, depending on the style, there are solos or duets. This dance genre is choreographed and it follows specific patterns. There is a rhythmic stamping of the feet and dancers can use props such as wooden sticks, swords, handkerchiefs and bells attached to their shins that mark the rhythm.

Clothes vary according to the styles and so do colours of the costumes. The dancers I saw at the World Conker Championships were wearing black costumes with some kind of ribbons attached. However, colours and styles really do vary between different groups and traditions. Shoes also vary, with some groups wearing clogs others boots. Nowadays only some groups paint their faces in black. The music that the dance comes with is very lively and instruments often used are accordions, drums and fiddles.

Style similar to the one I saw performed at the World Conker Championships:

The main styles of morris dancing are:

  • Cotswold Morris, mostly from Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. This style often involves the use of sticks or handkerchiefs and it is danced mainly in groups but sometimes there are duets or solos.
  • North West Morris is more military and processional in style. The Britannia Coco-Nut dancers are a group from the North West and they are one of the few groups to still blacken their faces.
  • Border Morris, from the English-Welsh border, is a style that is vigorous and looser comparing to others. Its performers usually blacken their faces.
  • Longsword dancing is from Yorkshire and south Durham. It is danced with wooden or metal swords.
  • Rapper, from Northumberland and County Durham, is danced with short swords.
  • Molly dancing is a style that comes from Cambridgeshire. It is danced during Plough Monday (the first Monday of the English agricultural year, which is the first Monday after 6th January) celebrations. Its specific characteristic is that one of the dancers is a man dressed as a woman.
  • Ploughstots style from Yorkshire, which is danced during Plough Monday and dancers usually hold flags.
  • Plough Monday traditions that come from East Midlands, which sometimes involve the use of swords.
crowd

People enjoying performances at a rural festival

Resources

Below I have listed some resources that you may find useful if you want to find out more about this dance genre. I have included links to the morris dance associations and local groups (only a handful of the many that exist), a list of academic articles and Facebook pages dedicated this type of dance.

Associations and Groups

Facebook pages and Groups

Morris dance performance

Academic Articles

Barker, E. Phillips. “Two Notes on the Processional and the Morris Dance.” The English Folk-Dance Society’s Journal (1915): 38-44.

Buckland, Theresa Jill. “Institutions and ideology in the dissemination of Morris dances in the Northwest of England.” Yearbook for traditional Music (1991): 53-67.

Buckland, Theresa Jill. “Dance and Cultural Memory: Interpreting Fin de Siècle Performances of’Olde England‘.” Dance Research 31.1 (2013): 29-66.

Buckland, Theresa Jill. “Dance, authenticity and cultural memory: The politics of embodiment.” Yearbook for traditional music (2001): 1-16.

Cawte, Edwin Christopher. “The Morris Dance in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.” Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (1963): 197-212.

Dawney, Michael. “George Butterworth’s Folk Music Manuscripts.” Folk Music Journal (1976): 99-113.

Gallop, Rodney. “The Origins of the Morris Dance.” Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (1934): 122-129.

Garry, Jane. “The literary history of the English Morris Dance.” Folklore 94.2 (1983): 219-228.

Heaney, Michael. “The earliest reference to the morris dance?.” Folk Music Journal (2004): 513-515.

Karpeles, Maud. “The Abram Morris Dance.” Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (1932): 55-59.

Needham, Joseph, and Arthur L. Peck. “Molly Dancing in East Anglia.” Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (1933): 79-85.

Nicol, E. J. “Some notes on the history of the Betley window.” Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (1953): 59-67.

Sharp, Cecil J. “Some Notes on the Morris Dance.” The English Folk-Dance Society’s Journal (1914): 6-8.

Sponsler, Claire. “Writing the Unwritten: Morris Dance and the Study of Medieval Theatre.” Theatre Survey 38.01 (1997): 73-95.

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