Morris on and on - English folk dance

(May 28, 2008)

A remark heard in a local pub: “It’s impossible to discuss English folk without making some reference to folk dance and if you’re going to start anywhere try the morris.” 

So, since then, I’ve been researching some of the English dance tradition in a little more depth to find out about its heritage (and as with folk) look at its future. Yes, I know that a few weeks only equates to scratching the surface on such a huge subject – but at least I’m scratching – and the knowledge base will increase.

In England there exists a uniquely English form of folk dance – morris dance. Now not too long ago, a morris side performed at a pub when I happened to be visiting some friends. Everyone thought it a good idea so along we went. In the hour or so before the dancers arrived most of customers in the pub enjoyed waving handkerchiefs around, clicking cocktail sticks together and taking the piss out of something they clearly knew little about. (That reminded me of other occasions spent listening to mindless idiots poking fun at folk music by sticking a finger in their ear and braying like a donkey.)

The thought crossed my mind, why did the pub book a morris side to perform when so many of the customers didn’t care? Not sure, perhaps the landlord liked morris dancing. Anyway the dancers arrived and did their ‘thing’ while most folk went outside to watch, mostly with quiet tolerance (if not appreciation) and polite applause in the right places.

So why do broadly normal sane folk consider it fair game to make so merry about yet another English tradition? The reaction from most people I spoke to was to condemn the morris. Apart from those that had turned up with the dancers the majority described it as: ‘old-fashioned’, ‘a bunch of old fools’, ‘something from medieval England’ and ‘not relevant today’. The last point was immediately interesting. After all, as with folk music there is much adaptation, development and creation in the morris style – enough to suit all tastes – so surely there must be some common ground. Is it because as in some folk circles, the participants of ‘dance’ actively encourage elitism, or is it because they simply don’t talk enough about it to the uninitiated, or is it because they don’t care to broaden the appeal?

Another comment took my ear – ‘a bunch of old fools’ – because clearly the person making that comment had not looked closely. Yes, there were bearded oldies (men) and beardless oldies (women) but equally there were young women and men, and two children involved in playing instruments. Now you could argue the young folk were born to it and children had been forced into it by their parents. But from experience of children and youths, there’s not much of an argument in that one.

So following that experience and with a desire to find out more about the morris, I’ve done a little digging and watched several hundred dances.

This is not a history lesson – (heaven forbid) – and neither is it a history of dance or morris, I’m not well enough versed in either to try that. However, some background does help position the morris. Before the English Civil War, many of the working classes took part in morris dances, especially at Whitsun. That of course was before the perennially miserable kill-joys of Puritanism - shut down happiness and laughter as they shut down all sorts of folk festivals. When sanity (and laughter) returned with Charles II, the springtime festivals also came back to life, in particular, Whitsun (especially as that coincided with the King’s birthday). From then on, morris dancing continued largely unchanged until the Industrial Revolution, which as it did with the nation’s health, impacted heavily on rural traditions.

Thankfully, all was not lost, as with the resurgence of English folk music, several English folklorists recorded and helped revive the dance tradition in the early 20th century, including worthies such as Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal. As with the increase in appreciating folk music, there was a rash of new morris sides in the 60s and 70s. The music of morris dancing also rose from the ashes. The popularity of morris tunes reflects in the work of the ‘godfather of folk’, Ashley Hutchings; famous among his other works for the ‘Morris On’ series. This has so far included ‘Son of Morris On’, ‘Grandson of Morris On’, ‘Great Grandson of Morris On’, and ‘Morris on the Road’ – clearly the variations are endless. All of these albums have found their way into many folk collections – even if the collector has never watched a morris dance – often purely for the tunes.

Continuing the tradition of the morris, like folk music, is to some degree in the hands of enthusiasts. Like a few folk music traditionalists, some sides feel the music and dance of tradition should preserve at the expense of development; some actively resist any change. Also like folk music there are those who freely reinterpret the music and dance traditions and even create ‘new traditions’. This caused a ‘rise of the morris’ in modern times, which has meant that some sides have restored dances to a degree that makes them largely modern-day inventions.

Although, it remains based on rhythmic stepping and completing choreographed figures by a group of dancers, using sticks, swords, and handkerchiefs there is, like much of the folk world, another power in the morris. So today, as well as the various sides that revive the traditions there are those that adapt those traditions. These sides create their own styles from the basic building blocks of morris stepping and figures to create many a ‘modern-morris’ - sounds desperately similar to the new themes and styles driving folk music then. These folk may well dance in the morris idiom but the translations are free and wide ranging.

Since embarking on this exercise I’ve seen several morris styles and in my humble opinion, I think the greater the depth and range, the more chance there is of the art persisting. Yes I know that it is sometimes persisting in a style that doesn’t directly mirror its origins but who cares? As long as both schools can exist alongside one another then there is no reason both should not continue to flourish.

So why do morris dancers and followers suffer the remarks and (so-called) humour of idiots? Perhaps it’s because like folk artists, they’re happy doing what they do and don’t give a toss. And good for them!

So what about the ‘new morris’ styles? Are there any fans, performers, dancers out there that want to offer their own views? I would love to hear from you. That’s where I am on the morris so far, and I know there’s a huge amount still to see.

So if you’re about to embark on a UK morris tour let me know when and where and I’ll come along and you can help me expand my knowledge.

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