Day, outside the village pubs of England, strangely clad people can be seen leaping into the air,
waving handkerchiefs and sticks, with bells jingling from their clothing. This traditional ritual to welcome the return of spring is called
Morris dancing, and it goes back at least to the 15th
Despite its early origins, Morris dancing is a reinvented tradition, part of the great British folk revival of the late 19th century. At the time, it had died out in all but a few villages, but was revived by folk music researcher Cecil Sharp.
Today, Morris sides, for women as well as men, can be found not just across Britain, but in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.
A Morris dance is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers. Implements such as sticks, swords, and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers. In a small number of dances for one or two men, steps are performed near and across a pair of clay tobacco pipes laid across each other on the floor.
There are claims that English records of the Morris dance dating back to 1448 exist, but these are open to dispute. There is no mention of "Morris" dancing earlier than the late 15th century, although early records such as Bishops' "Visitation Articles" mention sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities as well as miming plays. Furthermore, the earliest records invariably mention "Morys" in a court setting, and both men and women are mentioned as dancing, and a little later in the Lord Mayors' Processions in London. It is only later that it begins to be mentioned as something performed in the parishes. There is certainly no evidence that it is a pre-Christian ritual, as is often claimed.
In the modern day, it is commonly thought of as a uniquely English activity, although there are around 150 Morris sides (or teams) in the United States. British expatriates form a larger part of the Morris tradition in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Hong Kong, and there are isolated groups in other countries, for example that in Utrecht, Netherlands, and Alsace, France.
Origins of the term
While there is still some dispute as to the origin of the term "Morris," the most widely accepted theory is that the term was Moorish dance, Morisques in France, Moriskentanz in Germany, Moreška in Croatia, and Moresco or Morisca in Italy and Spain, which eventually became Morris dance. Dances with similar names and some similar features are mentioned in Renaissance documents in France, Italy, Germany, Croatia, and Spain, throughout, in fact Catholic Europe. This is hardly surprising; by 1492 Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille succeeded in driving the Moors out of Spain and unifying the country. In celebration of this a pageant known as a Moresca was devised and performed. This can still be seen performed in places such as Ainsa, Aragon. Incorporated into this pageant was the local dance - the Paloteao. This too can still be seen performed in the villages of Aragon. The similarity to what became known as the English "Morris" is undoubted. Early court records state that the "Moresque" was performed at court in her honour, including the dance - the "Moresque" or "Morisce" or "Morys" dance.
History in England
Illustration of William Kempe Morris, dancing from London to Norfolk in 1600.
Before the English Civil War, the working peasantry took part in Morris dances, especially at Whitsun. In 1600 the Shakespearean actor William Kempe Morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his Nine Days Wonder (1600). The Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell, however, suppressed Whitsun Ales and other such festivities. When the crown was restored by Charles II, the springtime festivals were restored. In particular, Whitsun Ales came to be celebrated on Whitsunday, as the date coincided with the birthday of Charles II.
Morris dancing continued in popularity until the industrial revolution and its accompanying social changes. Four teams claim a continuous lineage of tradition within their village or town: Abingdon (their Morris team was kept going by the Hemmings Family), Bampton, Headington Quarry, and Chipping Campden. Other villages have revived their own traditions, and hundreds of other teams across the globe have adopted (and adapted) these traditions, or have created their own styles from the basic building blocks of Morris stepping and figures.
Several English folklorists were responsible for recording and reviving the tradition in the early 20th century, often from a bare handful of surviving members of mid-19th-century village sides. Among these, the most notable are Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles, and Mary Neal. Boxing Day 1899 is widely regarded as the starting point for the Morris revival. Cecil Sharp was visiting at a friend's house in Headington, near Oxford, when the Headington Quarry Morris side arrived to perform. Sharp was intrigued by the music and collected several tunes from the side's musician, William Kimber; not until about a decade later, however, did he begin collecting the dances, spurred and at first assisted by Mary Neal, a founder of the Espérance Club (a dressmaking cooperative and club for young working women in London), and Herbert MacIlwaine, musical director of the Esperance Club. Neal was looking for dances for her girls to perform, and so the first revival performance was by young women in London.
Exeter Morris MenIn the first few decades of the 20th century, several men's sides were formed, and in 1934 the Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides. In the 1960s and especially the 1970s, there was an explosion of new dance teams, some of them women's or mixed sides. At the time, there was often heated debate over the propriety and even legitimacy of women dancing the Morris, even though there is evidence as far back as the 16th century that there were female Morris dancers. There are now male, female and mixed sides to be found.
Partly because women's and mixed sides are not eligible for full membership of the Morris Ring, two other national (and international) bodies were formed, the Morris Federation and Open Morris. All three bodies provide communication, advice, insurance, instructional (teaching sessions) and social and dancing opportunities to their members. The three bodies cooperate on some issues, while maintaining their distinct identities.
Today, there are six predominant styles of Morris dancing, and different dances or traditions within each style named after their region of origin.
Cotswold Morris: dances from an area mostly in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire; an established misnomer, since the Cotswolds overlap this region only partially. Normally danced with handkerchiefs or sticks to accompany the hand movements.
North West Morris: more military in style and often processional. Clogs are a characteristic feature of this style of dance.
Border Morris from the English-Welsh border: a simpler, looser, more vigorous style, normally danced with blackened faces (or sometimes otherwise coloured, given the negative connotations for some of blackface).
Longsword dancing from Yorkshire and south Durham.
Rapper or Short sword dancing from Northumberland and Co. Durham.
Molly Dancing from East Anglia
Music was traditionally provided by either a pipe and tabor or a fiddle. These are still used today, but the most common instrument is the melodeon. Accordions and concertinas are also common, and other instruments are sometimes used. Often drums are employed.
Like many activities, Morris dancing has a range of words and phrases that it uses in special ways.
Many participants will refer to the world of Morris dancing as a whole as the Morris.
A Morris troupe is usually referred to as a side or a team. The two terms are interchangeable. Despite the terminology, Morris dancing is hardly ever competitive.
A set (which can also be referred to as a side) is a number of dancers in a particular arrangement for a dance. Most Cotswold morris dances are danced in a rectangular set of six dancers, and most Northwest dances in a rectangular set of eight; but there are many exceptions.
A jig is a dance performed by one (or sometimes two) dancers, rather than by a set. Its music does not usually have the rhythm implied by the word jig in other contexts.
The titles of officers will vary from side to side, but most sides have at least the following:
The role of the squire varies. In some sides the squire is the leader, who will speak for the side in public, usually lead or call the dances, and often decide the programme for a performance. In other sides the squire is more of an administrator, with the foreman taking the lead, and the dances called by any experienced dancer.
The foreman teaches and trains the dancers, and is responsible for the style and standard of the side's dancing.
The bagman is traditionally the keeper of the bag — that is to say, the side's funds. In some sides today the bagman acts as secretary (particularly bookings secretary) and there is often a separate treasurer.
On some sides a ragman manages and co-ordinates the team's kit or costume. This may include making bell-pads, ribbon tassels, sashes and other accoutrements.
Many sides have one or more fools. A fool will usually be extravagantly dressed, and communicate directly with the audience in speech or mime. The fool will often dance around and even through a dance without appearing really to be a part of it, but it takes a talented dancer to pull off such fooling while actually adding to and not distracting from the main dance set.
Many sides also have a beast: a dancer in a costume made to look like a real or mythical animal. Beasts mainly interact with the audience, particularly children. In some groups this dancer is called the hobby.
In England, an ale is a private party where a number of Morris sides get together and perform dances for their own enjoyment rather than for an audience. Food is usually supplied, and sometimes this is a formal meal known as a feast or ale-feast. Occasionally an evening ale will be combined with a day or weekend of dance, where all the invited sides will tour the area and perform in public. In North America the term is widely used to describe a full weekend of dancing involving public performances and sometimes workshops. In the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, the term "ale" referred to a church- or village-sponsored event where ale or beer was sold to raise funds. Morris dancers were often employed at such events.
The Morris Ring founded in 1934, is an association of over two hundred Morris dance sides. Their mission is to encourage the performance of Morris dancing, to maintain its traditions and to preserve its history.
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