Morris Dancing

Back to Previous PageIn World terms the British Isles are tiny, but each country within Great Britain has a distinct national identity which sets itself apart from the others. Scotland has it's Highland dancing along with the Kilt, the Welsh are renowned for their love of singing, particularly male voice choirs and the English have a dance which invokes a vision of Middle England.

Morris DancingThe Morris dance is a ritual folk dance performed in rural England, originally by groups of men. Once linked with the pagan fertility rites of spring, the dance is performed wearing bright costumes, handkerchiefs and bells, often representing a folk tale. There are also a variety of related customs such as mumming, and some popular entertainments derived from them. Since the fifteenth century the Morris seems to have been common in England. It occurred in village festivities and popular entertainment, and is frequently recorded after the invention of the court masque by Henry VIII, possibly implying that it was a rural imitation of courtly dancing. The word Morris possibly derived from "morisco", meaning "Moorish" or from the Middle English "Moreys".

There are three main traditions; Cotswold Morris (performed with sticks and hankies), North West Morris (processional, wearing clogs), and Border Morris (from the Welsh borders - done in black-face with a vigorous clashing of sticks). The name Morris is sometimes also loosely applied to sword dances in which a group of men weave their swords into intricate patterns. Similar customs are widespread throughout Europe and extend to the Middle East, India, and parts of Central and South America, although there is no clearly identifiable link.

Morris DancingIn the variety of Morris Dancing popular in the Cotswold region of England, the dancers wear a uniform (often white) decorated with coloured ribbons, and dance with bells fastened to the legs. A feeling that the dances bring luck persists wherever they are traditionally performed. In many English Morris dances the demi-god is often a fool, animal-man or man-woman. The dancers dominate and the other characters are relegated to the subsidiary role of comic, or omitted.

The name Morris is also associated with the horn dance held each year at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. This dance-procession includes six animal-men bearing deer antlers, three white and three black sets; a man-woman, or Maid Marian, and a fool, both carrying phallic symbols; a hobby horse; and a youth with a bow who shoots at the leading "stags".

A comparable surviving animal custom is the May Day procession of a man-horse, notably at Padstow in Cornwall. There, the central figure, "Oss Oss", is a witch doctor disguised as a horse and wearing a medicine mask. The dancers are attendants who sing the May Day song, beat drums, and in turn act the horse or dance in attendance. This attracts a large crowd but is seen by the inhabitants as a strictly local tradition. The name Morris is also associated with groups of mummers who act, rather than dance, the death-and-survival rite at the turn of the year.

As well as team dances, there are solo Morris dances called jigs, and a few jigs for two or three dancers.