The Morris Tradition

Morris Dance is the foremost English costume and dance tradition.  The earliest written record of the Morris date back to the mid-15th Century, but it was probably danced in some form long before that.

The Bacup Britannia Coco-nut Dancers - Source: The Morris Ring ArchiveMorris Dance is a term which covers a wide range of traditional dance forms which appear either traditionally or in revival forms throughout England: Molly Dancing from East Anglia, Border Morris from the Welsh Border Counties, North-West Morris, originally danced to follow the Rush Cart Processions, Cotswold Morris, Rapper Sword, Longsword and many strange and wonderful one-off traditions such as the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, The Great Wishford Faggot Dance and the Coconut Dancers of Bacup (pictured).

There are as many costumes as there are Morris Teams (or Sides).  However, the common sight of the white clad Morris Side with sticks or handkerchiefs is instantly identifiable as Cotswold Morris, one of the most popular forms of the tradition.

Where Did Morris Dancing Come From?

The following is an extract from the Morris Ring Web site: “It is probable the term Morris developed from the French word morisque (meaning a dance, the dance), which became morisch in Flemish, and then the English moryssh, moris and finally Morris.

The earliest confirmation of a performance of Morris dancing in England dates from London on 19 May 1448, when Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services. (The equivalent of two weeks wages for a labourer during the 15th Century!).

Kemp's Nine Days WonderBy Elizabethan times it was already considered to be an ancient dance, and references appear to it in a number of early plays. Many called for a dance or jig to be performed by the leading actor.  One of the most popular actors of the time was Will Kemp and, for a wager during Lent in 1599/1600 (when the roads would be exceedingly bad!), he danced from London to Norwich which he called ‘The Nine Daies Wonder’ (although he started on the first Monday in Lent, and arrived at Easter).  Large numbers of spectators turned out to cheer him on and check his progress.”

After its Elizabethan heyday, the Morris declined to a scattering of regional traditions, performed by a few die-hards wishing to keep the old ways alive. Due to intensive collection and revival during the early 20th Century, by figures such as Mary Neal, Cecil Sharp and Douglas Kennedy, we now have a well documented pool of material from which to learn and also organisations which foster and support the Morris Tradition in all its forms.

The Music of The Morris

In ancient times the music of the Morris was performed on a ‘whittle and dub’; that is, a 3-holed flute and drum (as pictured).  Latterly, fiddle, concertina or melodeon is most common, although the occasional whittle and dub can still be seen.

The Styles of Morris

Cotswold Morris

Bidford Morris Dancing The Cotswold Morris, c. 1886 - Source: The Morris Ring ArchivesThis style of Morris was originally collected in the West Midlands, as far south as Abingdon and in the north, Lichfield. It is characterised as a dance of six or eight men with sticks, handkerchiefs or hand-clapping.  The costume varies considerably, but the white clothes and crossed baldric are typical.  The earliest photographs of Cotswold Morris show this style of dress.

Of the 30 or so recorded village traditions of Cotswold Morris, there are currently just five remaining which can be said to be continuous ‘living’ traditions: Abingdon, Bampton, Chipping Campden and Headington.  The remaining teams based on the original villages are, to a large extent revivals of the village tradition, although often taken from former dancers.  The important distinction is that there has been a significant period since the village dance was abandoned.  All other Morris Sides are ‘revival’ sides of recent times. Such sides appear not only across the United Kingdom, but across the globe. The Uttoxeter Heart of Oak Morris is a revival side.

(Welsh) Border Morris.

Welsh Border Morris - Source: The Morris Ring ArchivesThis form of dance appears along the Welsh borders of England in the Counties of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.  The history and origins of this tradition are sketchy, but appear to have been danced during the winter months to have fun and to raise money.

Border Morris is characterised by the dancer’s blackened faces, though the reason for this remains unclear.  Some people claim it was in order to disguise the performers who, in hard times, sort to supplement their income while others point to the dances' moorish roots.  In recent years, modern sides have adopted a style of dress wearing mainly black clothing and tatters.

Molly Dancing

Black Dog MollyMolly dancing seems to have been traditionally done by out of work ploughboys in midwinter in the 19th century. Not necessarily a reliable source of information, Wikipedia has this information on Molly dancing: “Molly dancers have been recorded in many parts of the English Midlands and East Anglia.  It died out finally in the 1930s, the last dancers seen dancing in Little Downham near Ely, Cambridgeshire in 1933. On this occasion the dances performed included a tango, performed by two male dancers, one dressed as a woman.

The only recorded Molly dances come from Comberton and Girton, villages just outside Cambridge, researched by Russell Wortley and Cyril Papworth. Some examples of the music played for the dancers have survived.  These include George Green's College Hornpipe, collected from the Little Downham Melodeon player.”

The Cambridge Morris Men recreated Molly Dancing in the 1950s and there are several good sides which can be seen dancing versions of this tradition today.

North-West Morris

North-West Morris - Source: The MOrris Ring ArchivesThe Morris Ring web site says of North-West Morris: “The North West Morris from north Cheshire and Lancashire is danced by at least nine men and as a processional so that the dancers dance along the road performing set figures accompanied by stepping - as a 'rant' step. The team usually has a leader at the head of the set, with a whip and a whistle to instruct the dancers.

Ladies North-West Morris - Source: The MOrris Ring ArchivesThe music for the dancing is usually provided by a band of musicians with drums, brass instruments, melodeons, etc. The dancers wear elaborate and colourful costumes, often decorated with strings of beads but with fewer (sometimes no) bells and they dance in wooden clogs fitted with irons that accentuate the rhythmic stepping. Their hats are often decorated with so many fresh flowers that the hat underneath disappears! In recent years many communities have seen the re-birth of their team - Manley, Horwich, Preston, Rochdale, Leyland and others.”

Long Sword Dancing

Wikipedia says: “The Long Sword dance is a hilt-and-point sword dance recorded mainly in Yorkshire and Southern County Durham, England. It is related to the rapper sword dance of Northumbria, but the character is fundamentally different as it uses rigid metal or wooden swords, rather than the flexible spring steel rappers used by its northern relation.

Long Sword Dancing - Source: The Morris Ring ArchivesAlthough Long Sword dances are found scattered all over Yorkshire, there are particular concentrations of dances in East Cleveland, the northern part of the North York Moors and around Sheffield. Long Sword dances vary in the way they are performed, with some being slow and militaristic, such as the Grenoside or performed with pace and speed like Handsworth dances from near Sheffield, others have different features including variations of numbers of dancers and distinctive movements.

Unlike many traditional dances in England, which are mainly performed by revival teams, Long Sword dances are often still performed by their own village teams, such as Grenoside Sword Dancers, the Goathland Plough Stots and Flamborough Sword Dancers. These teams generally maintain the traditions of their dances, such as traditional performances on Boxing Day or Plough Monday.

Rapper Sword Dancing

Rapper Sword Dancing - Source: The Morris Ring ArchiveThe Northumbrian Rapper Sword dance is traditional to Northumberland and County Durham in England. The form of dance for both Rapper and Longsword, that is, linked hilt and point dances has a long history both in England and on the European Mainland, but Rapper Sword appears to be a fairly recent introduction.

The dances are done breathtakingly fast and involve rapid ‘stepping’, intricate movements and often somersaults. These dances were and still are often performed competitively. One team, High Spen Rapper, can claim a continued unbroken tradition of performances, although during the 19th Century, some thirteen towns and villages boasted a team.

Today Rapper Sword can be seen across the globe, its athleticism being attractive to young people, ensuring its continued popularity.