A Brief History of Morris Dancing

The origins of the Morris are very hard to track down, as for the greater part of its existence, it has been performed by unlettered people. It comes to light only when educated polite society recorded the peripheral aspects, such as the cost of prizes for competitions, or about the antics of drunken dancers! Until fairly recently, it was assumed that the Morris is a remnant of pre-Christian fertility rites, but, if this is true, it is only one element of something much more complex.

[Picture of Cotswold Dancers]

Cotswold Morris

The first known record of Morris activity is a payment to Morris men in 1466 by the household of Sir John Arundell, a general in Henry IV’s reign. Whatever form this Morris took (and we will never know), it was included in the activities attacked by the Puritans in the 17th Century, as all forms of celebration were classed as heathenish and profane. The Morris survived in isolated areas and it is no co-incidence that the most popular and best recorded Morris style is known as Cotswold Morris, as the heartland of the Royalist resistance to Cromwell and the Roundheads was centred on Oxford. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it flourished again, but never as strongly as before.

[Picture of Cecil Sharp]

Cecil Sharp

The Morris world encompasses several different types of performance style, which are recognised mostly from their geographic origin, such as the Cotswolds, the North West, the Welsh borders (i.e. the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire), sword dancing from Yorkshire or the North East, as well as winter time traditions such as Molly dancing from the Fens and Mumming plays. Cotswold Morris is the best recorded of these variations due to the work of the folk dance and song collector, Cecil Sharp, whose activities in the first quarter of the last century concentrated on the south Midlands. Perhaps because of this, our knowledge of similar traditions from other areas is patchy by comparison.

By the end of the Victorian age, Morris dancing was in decline. People no longer stayed in their villages for work and recreation and, by about 1900, it was regarded as an archaic part of our agricultural past. The decimation of many teams by the Great War almost wiped out the traditional teams. However, not only did the activities of the people inspired by Cecil Sharp’s work keep the Morris alive, but eventually prompted the revival of our interest in traditional customs. Part of this revival saw teams of women and children performing the Morris, especially in the North West of England.

[Picture of Border Dancers]

Border Morris

[Picture of Rapper Dancers]

Rapper Sword

Other types of Morris include Border, from the Welsh border counties of England, which is very raucous, with much stamping about, yelling and clashing of sticks. The dances tend to be on the simple side, with music often dominated by percussion. The dancers often have blacked faces (for disguise), they wear rag jackets, known as tatters, and hats often decorated with feathers.

Sword dancing is from Yorkshire (longsword) or the North East (with rappers, a two handled flexible steel strap, supposedly a tool from the mines used to scrape sweat and coal dust from the backs of pit ponies). In both forms of sword dancing, the dancers perform complex repeated interweaving patterns with fast stepping and are often accompanied by a leader (the Tommy) and a man/woman character (the Betty). Molly dancing from the Fens is traditionally a wintertime custom and has many similarities to Border Morris.

[Picture of North West Dancers]

North West Morris

Our style of dancing originated in the cotton mill towns and pit villages of the North West of England, where clogs were the usual type of working footwear and where the Morris tradition was performed by men, women and children. This was rare in most of the other forms of ritual custom. North West Morris has a processional, rather than a static format, as celebrations in the NW often took the form of large processions with civic dignitaries, bands, and dancers, with its hey-day in the mid-19th Century. Morris dancers accompanied rush cart and rush-bearing processions through the streets, (dried rushes were used to keep earthen church floors warm, sweet smelling and clean, but were replaced annually) as well as accompanying the annual wakes fairs, when the factories closed for a week's holiday.

Each village or town, mill or foundry had its own team and its own dance. Some have come down to us with their original names – Aughton, Marston, Failsworth, Blackrod and Colne are examples danced by Kettle Bridge Clogs. The Morris is called a living tradition, in other words, it is forever evolving. New dances are written, often based on traditional figures and our repertoire, like many modern NW sides, includes both traditional and new dances.

Morris dancing in all its forms is found today throughout the world, wherever the English have set foot, as far afield as Australia, South Africa and throughout North America. In many of these English speaking countries, the Morris flourishes and is regarded as much theirs as it is ours, and rightly so. What a pity it is that the English have so little regard for their native customs, compared to the approach of the other inhabitants of these islands. To make matters worse, the promotion of other countries’ cultures and the belittlement of our own by our media (when did you last see the Morris on television, except as the object of mickey-taking?) is to the detriment of our national heritage. To find out more about this living part of our culture, contact the English Folk Dance and Song Society, or one of the three national Morris organisations, the Morris Ring, the Morris Federation (of which Kettle Bridge Clogs is a member side), or the Open Morris.

Article by Mel Odeon.

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