What is Morris Dancing?
Morris dancing started in England in the late 15th Century (or possibly earlier). There are many theories on it’s origins, but no one really knows for sure where and why it started, or what it evolved from. It is known that it was danced as an entertainment in Court (Richard III / Henry VII era), and later became more widespread as a local parish based activity. It is a primary performance form of English folk dancing, and is accompanied by traditional English folk music. Much of the detail about the dances known today dates back to 1899, when folk dance and music collector Cecil Sharp visited villages around the country, recording the tunes and the dances in detail.
The first mention of an all female morris team dates to the 1820’s: “Spelsbury Morris (of Oxfordshire) was a set of morris dancers that used to dance on Whit Monday. They were mostly farmers daughters, girls of 18 – 20, and were under the escort of a man who looked after them…”.
It is generally acknowledged that morris traditions were kept alive through the world wars by the girls of the village, whilst the men were abroad fighting.
Morris and performed English folk dance comes in several forms:
- Cotswold (the style we dance)- From villages in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. Hankies, bells, sticks, often white shirts with subtle ribbons to ornate. Usually sets of 6 dancers. Often only one or two musicians, on fiddle or melodeon.
- Border – From the border region between England and Wales. Big sticks, bells, ragged jackets and painted faces (for disguise from their employers!). Big bands of musicians, often including drums
- North West – from Lancashire and Cheshire. Clogs with irons (similar to horse shoes) underneath define this style. Long dances, originally designed for processing through the streets.
- Molly Dancing: From the fens of Norfolk. No sticks or hankies, movements are crisp and precise. Painted faces, sometimes in black and white, or in loud clashing colours.
- Rapper Sword Dancing: From the North East and Yorkshire, associated with the mining industry. Bendy swords are used in sets of five to tangle into patterns and out again, a bit like a big game of cat’s cradle. The “swords” are adapted from the tools used to wipe the sweat down from pit ponies.
- Long Sword Dancing. From South Yorkshire, rigid swords danced in sets of six. Related to the rapper sword dancing above.
- Clog Dancing. This is the English variant of Irish step dancing. Danced solo or in a group, this style is all about what an individuals’ feet can do, rather than dancing in formations.