What is Morris dancing? Where does Morris dancing come from? We uncover the secrets of this unique British tradition...
What is Morris dancing?
Morris dancing is a celebration, a display of dance and music performed at seasonal festivals and holidays to banish the dark of winter, celebrate the warmth and fertility of summer, and bring in autumn's golden harvest.
A more technical definition is that Morris dance is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It’s based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers. Morris mend women usually wear bell pads on their shins and dance with sticks, swords and handkerchiefs.
Where does Morris dancing come from?
The earliest known and surviving English written mention of Morris dancing is dated to 1448, and records the payment of seven shillings to Morris dancers by the Goldsmiths' Company in London. Further mentions of Morris dancing occur in the late 15th century, and there are also early records such as bishops' "Visitation Articles" mentioning sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities, as well as mumming plays.
While the earliest records tend to mention "Morys" in a court setting, and a little later in the Lord Mayors' Processions in London, it had assumed the nature of a folk dance performed in the parishes by the mid 17th century.
How to learn Morris dancing
The majority of contemporary Morris sides have been formed in the last 80 years or so. Each club will have a Squire who is responsible for the performance and the sides leadership, a Foreman or Captain who teaches the dances, and a Bagman who acts as its secretary. Clubs are autonomous so they can make their own decisions as to when, where and what to dance.
Sides generally practice during the winter months, and perform during the summer. All sides will welcome new members. If you wish to get involved, you can ask one of the dancers, contact one of the Morris Ring Sides near you.
What are the different Morris sides and styles?
The most widespread style seen today was collected from the South Midlands (sometimes called Cotswold morris), an area including Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire, but extending beyond these areas. These dances are usually performed in sets of six or eight dancers, and are distinguished by the dancers waving handkerchiefs, clashing sticks or, occasionally, handclapping. The use of handkerchiefs dates from Shakespearean times, and the first recorded use of sticks dates from the mid-sixteenth century.
Each side has a different costume. It will usually include a white shirt, white trousers or black breeches, and bell-pads (ruggles) worn on the shin. A baldric (or baldricks) may be worn across the chest, or perhaps there will be rosettes on the shirt; a waistcoat or tabard may be worn.
Molly Dances developed in East Anglia and were performed in January as part of the Plough Monday celebrations. The figures of the dances are based upon the local country dances, and are performed in vigorous style.
The costumes worn by Molly dancers are very individualistic, but largely based upon working outdoor clothes and hobnailed boots. Dancers may have their faces blackened or disguised.
WELSH BORDER MORRIS
The Welsh Border counties of Hereford, Worcestershire, and Shropshire developed their own style of dance, simpler in form than those of the South Midlands. It's distinguished by more vigorous stepping, robust stick clashing and loud shouting and is danced in sets of four, six, eight or more dancers.
Often the costumes will include a rag coat, (a coat which has tatters, small pieces of cloth, sewn on it), or sometimes a formal tail coat. Like Molly dancers, they will disguise their faces; some modern sides will go further and wear masks.
Originally, the music would have been provided by a concertina or a melodeon accompanied by a tambourine. Today it is likely to be a Morris big band, a collection of melodeons, concertinas, fiddles, brass and percussion instruments.
N.W CLOG MORRIS
The morris from Cheshire and Lancashire originates from the industrial towns. The costumes worn tend to be striking and the footwear will normally be clogs with irons nailed to soles and heels. The dance involves lots of stepping, and the rhythm is accentuated by the clogs. These dances are best performed with military precision.
This type of dance may take the form of a procession, in which the dancers perform a few figures before continuing along the street and repeating the sequence; sometimes it is danced on the spot. In the early industrial period, the dances were performed annually by large numbers of young men in the Rushcart ceremonies which took place in Wakes Weeks. For these dances the team will be a multiple of four, and the dancers will often carry sticks or slings (a semi-flexible handkerchief or rope) in each hand. The Conductor controls the dance from outside the set, and will notify the dancers and musicians of important changes by blowing a whistle.
Durham and Northumberland have their own versions of the sword dance, the Rapper dance. In these dances, the sword is a flat strip of flexible or spring steel about 60cm long, with a rotating handle at one end and a fixed handle at the other. A sword can be bent into a complete circle and some figures require this degree of flexibility!
The dance is for five people, and they will often be augmented by the additional characters of Tommy and Betty. The costume worn by the dancers needs to allow for the speed and agility to perform the dance well - hard soled shoes, hoggers (open-ended breeches which were originally worn by miners) and a white shirt are the norm.
Like all forms of morris dancing, rapper has unique qualities - it is the fastest of all the dances described, it requires the least space (it is often performed inside pubs!) and it is the most gymnastically demanding as some dances require back somersaults!
Morris dancers may perform a locally collected play during the Christmas season, especially if they are dancing on Boxing or New Year's Day. They are likely to perform a hero-combat play, with Father Christmas introducing himself, then he'll introduce further characters which may include St George, a Turkish Knight and a Valiant Soldier. There will be a fight. One will die. A highly qualified doctor will appear and will resuscitate the dead with some amazing concoctions such as the golden Gloucester drops, or perhaps the quick risers!
Where to see Morris dancing:
If you'd like to watch Morris dancers in action visit the National Association of Men's Morris and Sword Dance Clubs website. Find details of the many different Morris sides all over the country.