What is Morris Dancing?

Morris dancing is one of those folk traditions whose origins are murky at best.

Although we encourage the popular belief that its origins lie in Pagan fertility rites, it probably isn't so. Drat. More likely, it was a performance dance that arrived in England around the 13th century, via continental Europe (and who knows where before that), and was performed for the upper classes by professional entertainers.

The dances were immensely popular during the time of Shakespeare, who reportedly was *obliged* to stick some morris dancing into his plays, for marketability reasons. At this time, the dance was performed by both male and female dancers (although only males were allowed on professional stages.) The dancers tied dozens of small bells around their legs below the knee, and used white cloths to accentuate their hand movements.

In the way of many fashions, the dance became increasingly popular with the lower classes, after which time the upper classes lost interest in it. Morris dancing was associated with partying, festivals, drinking beer, being rowdy, and having a good time. It was frequently blamed for the downfall of polite society, and was occasionally banned. There may have been an interruption in the tradition during the Puritan Cromwell interlude, which may or may not have resulted in the dance changing quite a bit during that century. In truth, there are no detailed descriptions of the dances until the 19th century, so we really don't know what early morris looked like.

By the time the surviving dances were written down in detail during the Victorian era, the tradition survived only in some rural villages in the Cotswold region. At that time, they were performed by men only, each village having its own set of dances and dancers. These performers based their kit (costume) on their white cricket uniforms, brightening them with ribbons, sashes and fanciful hats. Cecil Sharp and Lionel Bacon collected these dances, which have become the "canon" of Morris dance.

Morris, along with other folk dances, has experienced a revival in the 20th century, and it has spread far from its origins. While many modern British disdain it (associating it with excruciating childhood dance lessons), it has gained in popularity in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Here, it has less emotional baggage, and the public is still charmed (and a bit confused) by these energetic street dancers.

Modern Cotswold morris teams (or "sides") can be roughly classifed in three groups.

"Traditional" sides are usually single sex teams, and perform those dances collected by folklorists in the 19th century. They often adopt one of the English Cotswold villages as their "home" village, and specialize in that village's documented set of dances.

"Modern tradition" (sometimes erroneously called "non-traditional") sides often have both men and women members, and perform dances written more recently, using traditional figures and steps derived from the 19th-century records. In some cases (such as ours!)the team will have a full repertoire of a unique style, thus continuing the custom of a team performing a set of dances from their own village. (Our village is Uptown on Lake Calhoun, a part of Minneapolis. We have an extensive dance list in our own particular Uptown-on-Calhoun style, which is a modified form of the English Bampton style.)

"Experimental" teams may do many other things, although most of them involve wearing bells. One team performs only on motorcycles. Another blends body-modification art with dancing. A lot of these groups seem to be based in California.

In addition to Cotswold morris, there are other similar dances that go by the same name.

Border morris was danced in the coal-mining regions along the Welsh border. This style is simpler, cruder, more energetic, and uses sticks only. The kit is usually tattered rags over black clothing, and (in England) frequently included coal dust as a blackface disguise. It is also called Bedlam morris.

Northwest morris is a vigorous dance from the Lancashire region. It is typically a parade dance performed in wooden clogs. An interesting modern variant of Northwest style is the teenage-girl pom-pom team morris. This has not caught on in the U.S., but is apparently common in Lancashire schools.


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