New! ILLUSTRATED TALKS New!
We are able to offer illustrated talks about Morris Dancing including the different types of the Morris. Available afternoons and evenings – contact us for details.
We know little about the history of the Morris, although some sizable books have been produced on the subject. One such book is ‘History and the Morris Dance’ by John Cutting; you are directed to this for an in-depth view of the Morris from the 1400s to 1850. What is true is that there are many tales regarding the history of the Morris that do not stand up to inspection. They are very often thought up to explain the performance to the public.
There is no truth in the idea that the Morris is a pre-Christian fertility rite – well, not in England anyway!
One favourite, but untrue, story is that the Morris dancers went off to the Great War and died in the trenches. This was a story put out to explain the decline of the Morris at the end of the 1800s, but, of course, the Great War was fifteen years later!
Cecil Sharp’s “Morris Book” is a detailed description of Morris at the end of the 1800s.
We can trace the Morris back to the early 1400s, but where it came from is unclear. The most popular origin is thought to be northern Spain, where there is a similar dance called the Morisco, but all other options for its origin are from Western Europe.
The Morris was danced by groups from a given area (a village, or, in the North-West, a mill, for example) and the dances and steps were handed down by word of mouth. This explains why each location has, over the years, developed its own style.
In the 1800s (and before?) the dance was performed as a fund- raising activity for the dancers and would therefore have been performed at set times of the year during, say, a gap in the farming calendar, to help provide an income until regular work could again be had. Today, Morris Sides still collect whilst dancing, but this money is normally donated to charity.
We have many indications that the Morris was danced on a regular basis up to the end of the 1800s when the tradition almost died out, there being only two Sides left in action: Bampton and Headington (although there may well have been more!). It was at this time that Cecil Sharp started to note down the dances, and this was the first time the Morris had been recorded rather than being handed down by word of mouth.
The Morris Ring was formed in the 1930s, followed by the Federation of Women’s Morris (now the Morris Federation) and finally the Open Morris. These organisations were formed to represent Morris Sides, and all three now work closely together under the umbrella of the Joint Morris Organisation, providing member Sides with Public Liability Insurance as well as representing the Morris to Government and other bodies.
In the present day, the tradition is performed all over the country by about 700 Morris Sides dancing Cotswold, North-West, Border, Molly, Rapper and Sword Morris. There are also Sides spread throughout the English-speaking world.
Cotswold Morris comes from the villages of Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties. Cotswold kit is based on either 1800s cricket or football kit, clothes which would have been available to all members of the Side. This sports kit was then covered with sashes, baldrics, flowers and ribbons, and bell-pads were worn on the knee.
Dances are performed with either sticks or hankies, normally with six dancers.
These dances come from the counties along the border between England and Wales. There is also a modern style based on the Shropshire border style.
Dancers black their faces and wear “tatters”, originally a jacket turned inside out with its lining slashed using a razor – this was an early form of camouflage! Today, a tattered jacket is normally based on a shirt with small pieces of material sewn on.
The dances are performed with sticks or hankies, like Cotswold.
Also known as Clog Morris, this style of dancing, from Lancashire and the surrounding counties, is thought to have come from the first Industrial Revolution when workers left the fields to work in the mill towns. The style of dancing was adapted to fit the narrow cobbled streets, and thus gives the tradition its ‘marching band’ style.
In the 1800s the Side would practice in clogs or boots but dance out in shoes – today, this has been reversed. Kit would originally be provided by the mill owners, who provided sides with cloth to make their kits from. This, over the years has resulted in many styles of kit being produced.
Most, although not all, North-West dances are danced with eight dancers. Dances are performed with garlands, small sticks, bobbin centres and a number of other implements.
This is the least common style in terms of the number of Sides dancing. Some modern Sides dance a mixture of Molly and the modern form of Border – i.e. the dances are a mixture of both styles.
SWORD & RAPPER
Sword Morris is from the North-Eastern counties and is, as the name implies, a type of Morris danced with swords. Rapper is very similar but is danced with a ‘rapper’, a flexible two-handled blade said to have been used to scrape the dirt from the backs of pit ponies.
Some Sword and Rapper dancers do not think they are Morris dancers, but the move to separate these two types of dance from the Morris has never gained much ground, although it is ongoing.
Kit is often similar to Cotswold.
An increasingly popular dance form, thought to have developed as a combination of Tap, English Morris, Clog and Irish dancing ‘exported’ to America and turned into a dance form that has now ‘come home’.
Whilst not strictly Morris, it is a similar type or style of folk dance, and many Morris dancers also dance Appalachian.
No dancing is involved, but the Mummers’ Play is so closely connected to the Morris that it is considered by many to be part of the tradition. It centres round St George and his fight against Bold Slasher, the Turkish Knight. It has a moveable number of performers, and is normally performed over the Christmas period and in the early New Year.
CARNIVAL or ‘FLUFFY’ MORRIS
Not Morris as such, but a style of dance developed for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Each location throughout the country was expected to produce a group of dancers. Although it is called Morris, it has little to connect it to the Morris, and is, in the main, danced by groups of young girls, having more of a connection with cheerleading than with Morris. It is very competitive (unlike Morris) and is considered by many Morris dancers to have no connection with ‘real’ Morris. As a result of this, the 300 or so groups dancing this style must be considered as wholly separate from the 700 Sides who are members of the three Morris Organisations. Danced mainly in the North-West, it does have the advantage that some dancers, when they get older, join a Morris Side.