Morris Dancing has suffered from many misconceptions regarding the ritualistic and social origins of the various forms of dance on who might have been involved, why a certain dance was performed at a particular time of year and for what purpose...all leaving the inquirer somewhat perplexed. For those of you who are travelling to England in search of folk dance traditions or for those who would like to begin to find out more about a local group this brief introduction is given to wet your taste buds. If you would like to know more, Mystical WWW would be happy to answer any of your questions with the assistance of a dance researcher on the team.
It is now widely accepted by academics that Morris Dances, like Country Dances, were, for many generations, part of English country social gatherings whilst also an early release for artistic expression. Many books have been written on the subject with perhaps the most prolific and respected writer being Cecil J. Sharp who worked tirelessly to research and notate Morris and Country Dance pieces in the early twentieth-century forming the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDS). The Morris Dance is known to have been part of ceremonial occasions, traditionally performed only by men (although today mixed teams can be seen) with many specific customs and characters including the 'squire' or 'fool', 'witch', 'king', 'queen', and the 'sword bearer'. The Morris Dance is characteristically a formal dance in symbolism whilst also being spectacular and 'professional' in that it is an official dance to celebrate on special occasions. It is only performed on special days each year that mark a communal point of reference within the village community for example 'Whitsun', 'May Day', 'St. Stephen's Day', or at a wake or perhaps as a part of a larger celebration for example a country fair.
Morris Dancers or Morris-Men were few in number. Each man was specially chosen to be a member of the Morris Team, but involvement was not available to any male. The Morris men would train throughout the year in readiness for a particular event. Traditionally these men formed 'Guilds' of professional performers, similar in type to the Medieval Guilds known for their involvement with the Mystery and Morality Plays. Once a member of the Morris Team, the male had to follow particular regulations and was respected by the community. Teaching or sharing of the dances was not permitted hence the need for a selection process. Dances were passed on by the elders with the most prolific areas known for their dances being around Cornwall, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire. There are connections between them all and with other areas of the country but each traditional team prides itself on being able to present dances that have historical associations with the area.
The dance whilst entertaining to watch was never considered to be a 'pleasurable' dance as its function historically, as today, was to provide a 'spectacle' at popular festivals or pageants. The meaning of each dance varies as there are many different forms. Each is known to be part of a long tradition, developed as part of a ritual, a social or religious custom that in itself is prescribed by its history. Some believe that the dances were pagan in their symbolism, being connected with the fertility of the land, the advent of a season or the driving out of evil spirits and the waking of Mother Earth and there is some truth in these beliefs, but some of the dances can be clearly identified with Christian celebrations.
Morris dances are presented within a designated dancing area, the 'set', and may be performed indoors or outside. The dancers, usually numbering either six or eight, work to complete 'longways' dances which are made up of a number of 'figures' or sequences rarely touching one another in the process. The performers stand in two parallel lines approximately 1.5 metres apart opposite their identified partner. The dances are usually progressive and allow for the couples to exchange partners at some point temporarily. Additional dancers may take part at the permission of the Morris-men, completing the same figures and patterns to the accompaniment of live folk music and song with n emphasis on joviality and boisterous play. Instructions are given before the dance starts, to the member of the audience who is brave enough to have a go, in a similar way to Square or Barn Dancing. Most steps consist of forward, backward or lateral travel, with the legs in parallel whilst walking, skipping, running, hop-stepping, change-hop stepping and slip-stepping! The body is nearly always upright making swift changes in direction somewhat easier to cope with. Shoes may be worn but avoid shoes with heels as you may find this uncomfortable and impeding but have a go if you can. At some Folk Festivals workshops are run although to join a group of enthusiasts is always the best way to learn more whether you can dance or play a musical instrument. If you play the accordion, melodeon, penny whistle, recorder and violin you could find yourself part of the Morris band but be prepared to wear a costume...and not of the dinner jacket variety. The musicians too are an important part of the celebration working with the dancers, responding to the moves or even initiating the tempo of a dance all in the spirit of play.
Morris Dance Teams can be seen completing their figures and sets throughout the folk calendar in a range of locations in England. The names of the dances are usually associated with the county of origin but it must be remembered that the folk songs which accompany them were universally sung so variations within the dances can be found county to county. With a range of symbolic accoutrements such as small bells worn on the costume, white handkerchiefs and wooden sticks which may be clashed together the sound of the performance is as exhilarating as the viewing.
Long-sword, Rapper sword and Clogging are also extremely popular forms of British folk dance which can be seen throughout the country, although some of the origins vary and the actual practice, participation and figures are quite different but they are equally as entertaining and historically of note particularly in North England.
Accompanying the traditional Morris teams were the Mummers, small groups of players who presented short dramatic pieces, without the aid of a script for learning, based on pre-Reformation rituals which have been passed orally from one generation to the next. The best known plays include the 'sword-dance', the 'hero-combat' play and the'wooing', but most had themes of death and rebirth which were jovially demonstrated before an audience. The name and form of the characters can be traced back to the Crusades, but will vary from group-to-group. 'St. George' (and his Dragon) or the 'King' (and his Steed) usually opposes the 'Turkish Knight'. One is slain and miraculously cured by the 'Doctor' with a magic cure-all ills remedy. Minor characters who provide light relief include 'Old King Cole', 'Johnny Jack' and even 'Beelzebub' surprisingly perhaps to some today. Topical characters were often added and have included notables such as Oliver Cromwell, Father Christmas, Napoleon and Nelson. With the combat and resolve completed the presentation usually and gratefully receive audience offerings and depending on the location this could vary from money to beer to food. Known like the Morris Teams for processing through the village most members of the community would give a little something to avoid tempting bad fortune or displaying bad manners.
Their costumes related to the character and were usually highly decorated with brightly coloured strips of paper or ribbons, with tall hats of similar colourful appearance traditionally decorated with long strips of rushes and scraps of coloured fabric. It has been recorded that they wore white trousers and shirts in the early nineteenth-century but today many variations may be seen. Mumming was a central part of English village life until 1914 and the outbreak of World War 1. The tradition still continues, perhaps on a much smaller scale but at special times of year mummers can be seen merrily jibing their dancing counterparts at many a folk festival providing laughter and entertainment for the young and old alike.
The nineteenth-century demise of Morris Dance Teams and Mummers and their associated traditions was the result of a range of events. The depopulation of the countryside during the Industrial Revolution, with families moving from village to city for work, the arrival of the railway, the outbreak of war with many of the men lost and the move towards popularising songs from outside English quarters have been but a few of the reasons. Today though Morris Dancing and Mumming is alive and well in the UK, with a recent upsurge in the number of new teams evolving from new communities brought together ironically by many of the factors which traditionally drove communities apart. Everyone is now welcome, even the traditional male Morris Teams encourage participation, with women having kept many of the dances alive through their work with Cecil J Sharpe in the early 1900's. Events and Festivals are nationally organised and throughout the year, with Morris Teams competing, although it is rare for events to occur on the same date twice except in respect to religious honorary days, so it is always worth checking in advance that an event will be taking place so as to avoid a wasted trip.