A Short History of Morris Dancing 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, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers.
The earliest known and surviving English written mention of Morris dance is dated to 1448, and records the payment of seven shillings to Morris dancers by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London. Further mentions of Morris dancing occur in the late 15th century, and there are also early records such as visiting bishops‘ 'Visitation Articles' mention sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities, as well as mumming plays.
While the earliest records invariably mention 'Morys' in a court setting, and a little later in the Lord Mayors’ Processions in London, it had adopted the nature of a folk dance performed in the parishes by the mid-17th century.
Image opposite - A small statue of a 'Moriskentänzer' made by Erasmus Grasser in 1480 for Old Townhall in Munich, one of a set of 16, of which only 10 remain. This dancer has an appearance which would be described at the time as "moorish", but all the other nine surviving carvings are fairer-skinned. All wear bells on their legs.
Name and Origins The name is first recorded in the mid-15th century as Morisk dance, moreys daunce, morisse daunce, i.e. 'Moorish dance'. The term entered English via Flemish mooriske danse. Comparable terms in other languages are German Moriskentanz (also from the 15th century), French morisques, Croatian moreška, and moresco, moresca or morisca in Italy and Spain. The modern spelling Morris-dance first appears in the 17th century.
It is unclear why the dance was so named, "unless in reference to fantastic dancing or costumes”, i.e. the deliberately 'exotic' flavour of the performance. The English dance thus apparently arose as part of a wider 15th century European fashion for supposedly 'Moorish' spectacle, which also left traces in Spanish and Italian folk dance. The means and chronology of the transmission of this fashion is now difficult to trace; the Great London Chronicle records 'spangled Spanish dancers' performing an energetic dance before Henry VII at Christmas of 1494, but Heron’s accounts also mention 'pleying of the mourice dance' four days earlier, and the attestation of the English term from the mid-15th century establishes that there was a 'Moorish dance' performed in England decades prior to 1494.
It is suggested that the tradition of rural English dancers blackening their faces may be a reference to the Moors, miners, or a disguise worn by dancing beggars.
History in England While the earliest (15th century) references place the Morris dance in a courtly setting, it appears that the dance became part of performances for the lower classes by the later 16th century; in 1600, the Shakespearean actor William Kempe, Morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his Nine Daies Wonder (1600).
Almost nothing is known about the folk dances of England prior to the mid-17th century. While it is possible to speculate on the transition of 'Morris dancing' from the courtly to a rural setting, it may have acquired elements of pre-Elizabethan (medieval) folk dance, such proposals will always be based on an argument from silence as there is no direct record of what such elements would have looked like. In the Elizabethan period, there was significant cultural contact between Italy and England, and it has been suggested that much of what is now considered traditional English folk dance, and especially English country dance, is descended from Italian dances imported in the 16th century.
Shakespearean actor William Kempe dancing from London to Norwich in 1600.
By the mid-17th century, the working peasantry took part in Morris dances, especially at Whitsun. 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 (Pentecost), 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.
However by the late 19th century, and in the West Country at least, Morris dancing was fast becoming more a local memory than an activity. D’Arcy Ferris (or de Ferrars), a Cheltenham based singer, music teacher and organiser of pageants, became intrigued by the tradition and sought to revive it. He firstly encountered Morris in Bidford and organised its revival. Over the following years he took the side to several places in the West Country, from Malvern to Bicester and from Redditch to Moreton in Marsh. By 1910, he and Cecil Sharp were in correspondence on the subject.
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.
In 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.
Styles Cotswold Morris: dances from an area mostly in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. Normally danced with handkerchiefs or sticks to accompany the hand movements. Dances are usually for 6 or 8 dancers, but solo and duo dances (known as single or double jigs) also occur.
North West Morris: more military in style and often processional, that developed out of the mills in the North-West of England in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Border Morris from the English-Welsh border: a simpler, looser, more vigorous style, traditionally danced with blackened faces.
Longsword dancing from Yorkshire and south Durham, danced with long, rigid metal or wooden swords for, usually, 6 or 8 dancers.
Rapper from Northumberland and Co. Durham, danced with short flexible sprung steel swords, usually for five dancers.
Molly Dancing from Cambridgeshire. Traditionally danced on Plough Monday, they were Feast dances that were danced to collect money during harsh winters.
In the 1950s and especially the 1960s, 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.
Information and images courtesy of Open Morris and Wikipedia.