Everything you need to know about Morris dancing

What is Morris dancing? Where does Morris dancing come from? We uncover the secret origins of this unique British tradition...

Morris Dancer

by Lorna White |

Your knowledge of Morris dancing might currently be limited but there's plenty of fascinating history behind this unique 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 men and women usually wear bell pads on their shins and dance with sticks, swords and handkerchiefs

Morris-dancing-knee-bell-pads

Morris dancing music

Historically, the instruments used to accompany the Morris Dancing originated in the South Midlands in the form of the pipe and tabor and the whistle and the dub. In the 1840s, the fiddle was introduced, becoming the main instrument.

In the 1880s, the melodeon and anglo-concertina became widely used. These instruments were ideal to provide the perfect rhythmic backdrop for the style of dancing. In addition to these instruments, some bands also use the mouth organ, penny whistle and even the banjo.

The kind of music used for Morris dancing really depends on the village where it is taking place as many different regions have different takes on the traditional tunes.

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 folk dance and song performed in the parishes by the mid 17th century.

Exmoor boarder morris

The decline of Morris dancing

Morris dancing continued to be popular until the industrial revolution and its accompanying social changes.

Sadly, by the late 19th century, Morris dancing was fast becoming nothing more than a memory, leading Cheltenham-based singer and organiser of pageants D'Arcy Ferris determined to revive it.

Several other English folklorists were also responsible alongside D'Arcy for playing their part in reviving the Morris tradition with the most notable being Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal.

Hobos-morris

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.

morris-dancing-ladies

What are the different Morris sides and styles?

There are actually quite a few different types of Morris dancing styles and different dances or traditions within each style, typically named after their region of origin.

Cotswold

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

Rapper SwordNorth West Morris

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!

Other styles of Morris dancing include North West Morris, Border Morris and Molly dance.

Mummers plays

Many Morris dancers 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!

mummersplay

Where to see Morris dancing

If you'd like to watch Morris dancers in action visit The Morris Ring for more information. Alternatively, take a look at the video below...

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