Morris Dancing

Background and History:

The Morris (or Morrice) is the traditional English ceremonial dance. It covers a number of dance forms from different parts of England. Of these the best known are Lancashire Clog dancing (as in Private Eyeís "Cloggies" cartoon), an urban tradition which originated in the industrial revolution; and Cotswold, from the rural areas between Oxford and Gloucester, which is considerably older, and the form danced by my club, London Pride. Also notable are the two Sword Dancing traditions from the North-east, with flexible double-handled implements (known as "rappers") in one tradition, and longer, stiff (but blunt) single-handled swords in the other.

Clog is a very vigorous tradition (apparently developed by mill workers to keep warm on winter mornings while waiting for the gates to open), with elaborate costumes and danced to a brass band. The clogs are Lancashire style, with wooden soles reinforced with iron "horseshoes", and leather uppers, and make an impressive noise on the ground (preferably stone cobbles).

Cotswold Morris originates from the rural area broadly between Oxford and Gloucester (so every time you hear the phrase "central southern England" on the weather forecast, think of the Morris). It is less flamboyant but more subtle than Clog, with simpler costumes, typified for example by narrower ribbons. This form of Morris is so old that nobody knows what its origins are. Steve Allenís account refers to a will from the 15th century as the earliest historical reference; but Iím almost sure I have heard of references from the 13th century, when it was already an established dance-form (donít ask me to substantiate this).

The dance was originally performed in a number of villages in the Cotswold area, as part of the spring fertility ceremony. (Nowadays, it is danced by clubs from all over Britain, and a number of other countries, particularly the United States.) It was a peasant tradition, passed from one generation to the next by demonstration and word-of-mouth; the dances were not written down until the beginning of the 20th century. By then the original communities had been largely broken up by industrialisation and movement of the population to the cities. On Boxing Day 1899, however, a dance display given out-of-season by the Headington Quarry Morris Men aroused the interest of visiting academic named Cecil Sharp.

Sharp quickly recognised that the Morris was a piece of culture in serious danger of disappearing altogether. He set himself the task of documenting the dances, which brought him to the Cotswold villages where the Morris had originated. He spoke to as many people as he could find who could give him information, in some cases the sole elderly survivor of a Morris side that had not performed for sixty years. In other cases he faced hostility from active sides, who were suspicious of imparting the details of their unique custom to an outsider. Indeed, the Chipping Campden Morris Men, one of the few sides with an unbroken dancing tradition, have kept private their style of dancing to this day. Unlike most "Revival" clubs, who generally perform the dances of a variety of traditional sides, Chipping Campden dance only the tradition of their own village.

Cotswold Morris was normally danced on ceremonial occasions by the men of the village. Modern clubs, however, often include women. There are three national coordinating organisations in Britain, with differing official lines towards women dancers. The oldest, the Morris Ring (to which my club, London Pride, belongs), believes that the Morris is a male-only dance form, and affiliated clubs do not accept women as dancers, although some have women musicians. However, there are also the Morris Federation and the Open Morris, who take what some would consider a more modern view, and include women-only and mixed sides.

The Dancing:

Each village has, or had, its own characteristic style, known as a dance "tradition", for example - Bampton, simple and rythmic; Longborough, vigorous but precise; Fieldtown (now called Leafield), full of subtlety. Each village tradition also has its own repertoire of dances (unlike Lancashire Clog, where the original villages generally had just one dance each).

The typical Cotswold dance costume is predominately white, with broad crossed ribbons worn from the shoulders across the chest and back, and bells attached to pads worn just below each knee. Many sides, however, wear knee breeches (black or other colour) instead of white trousers; or tunics instead of crossed ribbons. Most sides also include a hat in their uniform.

The dances are usually performed in a set of six men, brandishing either sticks or handkerchieves. Most traditions also contain solo jigs (dances for one man), and sometimes jigs for two men. Also connected with Cotswold is the eight-man Lichfield "tradition", but this has recently been shown to have been invented this century.

The dances are named after the tune to which they are performed. Often the same tune is used in more than one tradition, but for quite different dances, for example, "Shepherdís Hey" in Adderbury and Wheatley is a hand-clapping dance; in Bampton it is a much longer dance involving corners crossing.

The sequence of the dance resembles a folk song with a chorus, with a series of "figures" corresponding to the "verses", each followed by a repeated sequence, also called the "chorus". Different traditions have their own characteristic figures. Different dances in the same tradition generally have the same sequence of figures, with the chorus being particular to each dance. This feature of Morris dancing means that a tradition is generally learned as a whole, rather than dance by dance. Once a dancer is familiar with a tradition, he can easily learn a new dance in that tradition, simply by learning the chorus. There are exceptions however, in many of the traditions. This is part of the appeal of the Morris, since a beginner can relatively quickly gather a repertoire of dances, but there are enough "irregular" dances to keep the interest of an experienced dancer.

Morris Links:

Steve Allenís History of the Morris;
Morris/Sword Teams on the Web - mostly US but a fair UK presence;
Morris Teams directory, geographically (a wiki page - login and add you side!);
The Morris Ring;
The Morris Federation.

My Morris Career:

1981:
introduced to the Cambridge Morris Men - persuaded to join for practices. First traditions learned - Longborough and Adderbury.
1983:
became member of CMM.
1985:
moved to London - joined London Pride Morris Men.
1986-87:
also associated with Enfield Morris, and (briefly) with Kempís Men while working temporarily in Norwich.
1992-94:
Bagman of LPMM.
1993-96:
Squire of LPMM. I was both Squire and Bagman for a year, which was hard work!
1996:
After retiring as Squire, became Foreman.

Back to my Home Page.


Antony Rawlinson;
Last updated: 30 May 2007.