Dance Genre Buzz – Morris Dancing


Dance Genre Buzz:  Morris Dance

Morris dance is a form of British folk dance usually accompanied by music.  It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers.  Implements such as sticks, swords, handkerchiefs and bells may also be wielded by the dancers.  In a small number of dances for one or two men, steps are performed near and across a pair of clay tobacco pipes laid across each other on the floor.

Claims that English records, dating back to 1448, mention the morris dance are open to dispute.  There is no mention of “morris” dancing earlier than the late 15th century, although early records such as Bishops’ “Visitation Articles” mention sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities as well as mumming plays.

Furthermore, the earliest records invariably mention “Morys” in a court setting, and both men and women are mentioned as dancing, and a little later in the Lord Mayors’ Processions in London. It is only later that it begins to be mentioned as something performed in the parishes. There is certainly no evidence that it is a pre-Christian ritual, as is often claimed.

In the modern day, it is commonly thought of as a mainly English activity, although there are around 150 morris sides (or teams) in the United States. British expatriates form a larger part of the morris tradition in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong.  There are isolated groups in other countries, for example those in Utrecht, Netherlands; the Arctic Morris Group of Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden; as well as in Cyprus; and Alsace, France.

David Owen’s video “A Clockwork Morris” showcases the many looks of Morris dance.

Name and origins

The term is derived from moorish dance, attested as Morisk dance and moreys daunce, morisse daunce in the mid-15th century.  The spelling Morris-dance appears in the 17th century. 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.

By 1492 Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille succeeded in driving the Moors out of Spain and unifying the country.  In celebration of this a pageant known as a Moresca was devised and performed.  This can still be seen performed in places such as Ainsa, Aragon. Incorporated into this pageant was the local dance – the paloteao. This too can still be seen performed in the villages of Aragon, Basque country, Castille, Catalonia and northern Portugal.

The original “Moresca” is believed a sword dance.  The sticks in Morris dance are a residual of the swords in the “Moresca”.  The similarity to what became known as the English “morris” is surmised.  Although the Great London Chronicle records spangled Spanish dancers performing an energetic dance before Henry VII at Christmas of 1494, Heron’s accounts also mention “pleying of the mourice dance” four days earlier which could mean that the Morris Dance was an indigenous entertainment already in existence in England, perhaps from the Middle Ages.  Early court records state that the “moresque” was performed at court in her honour, including the dance – the “moresque” or “morisce” or “morys” dance.

History in England

Before the English Civil War, the working peasantry took part in morris dances, especially at Whitsun.  In 1600 the Shakespearean actor William Kempe morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his Nine Daies Wonder (1600).  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, 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.

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, spurred and at first assisted by Mary Neal, a founder of the Espérance Club (a dressmaking co-operative and club for young working women in London), and Herbert MacIlwaine, musical director of the Espérance Club.  Neal was looking for dances for her girls to perform, and so the first revival performance was by young women in London.

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.  In the 1960s 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.

Partly because women’s and mixed sides are not eligible for full membership of the Morris Ring, two other national (and international) bodies were formed, the Morris Federation and Open Morris.  All three bodies provide communication, advice, insurance, instructionals (teaching sessions) and social and dancing opportunities to their members.  The three bodies co-operate on some issues, while maintaining their distinct identities.

Styles

Today, there are six predominant styles of morris dancing, and different dances or traditions within each style named after their region of origin.

  • Cotswold Morris – dances from an area mostly in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire; an established misnomer, since the Cotswolds overlap this region only partially. Normally danced with handkerchiefs or sticks to accompany the hand movements.
  • North West Morris – more military in style and often processional.
  • Border Morris – from the English-Welsh border: a simpler, looser, more vigorous style, normally danced with blackened faces (or sometimes otherwise coloured, given the negative connotations for some of blackface).
  • Longsword dancing  – from Yorkshire and south Durham.
  • Rapper –  or Short sword dancing from Northumberland and Co. Durham.
  • Molly Dancing –  from the English Midlands and East Anglia.

This video is a Rapper Sword Dancing performance by Toronto’s Women’s Sword group, a film by the University of Toronto Celtic Society. 

Modern dance

The “soul” of morris dancing exists within many individual groups, which are for the most part constituted as autonomous clubs or sides, each with its own constitution and procedures.  Sides do not exist in isolation, and generally co-exist in a spirit of good-will and meet regularly, not just at large Folk Festivals or meetings organized by the three national umbrella organizations (Ring, Federation and Open), but also at annual Feasts or Ales that many sides organize.  Apart from copious amounts of drinking and eating, these events (which can run over a whole weekend) are an opportunity for large numbers of morris dancers and musicians from across the country to come together in massed ensembles, performing throughout the area covered by the host side.

In theory, sides may acknowledge geographic rights of others, although, except in very unusual cases, there is actually nothing to stop one side performing in the heartland of another.  In the past this may have rarely been done without permission and agreement, but in modern practice such courtesies are mainly taken for granted. In most cases, sides partner each other via a system of mutual invitations at Morris Dancing venues.

Morris dancing is now an art and recreation enjoyed by men and women across the world.  In England, there are many Mixed Morris sides that enable people to dance and have roles irrespective of gender.

Evolution

The continuance of the morris is as much in the hands of independent groups of enthusiasts as it is in the nationwide groupings such as The Morris Ring or The Morris Federation.  So while for some sides there is a feeling that the music and dance recorded in the 19th century should be maintained, there are others who freely reinterpret the music and dance to suit their abilities and including modern influences.

In 2008 a front page article in the Independent Magazine noted the rising influence of neopaganism within the modern morris tradition.  The article featured the views of neopagan sides Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris and Hunter’s Moon Morris and contrasted them with those of the more traditional Long Man Morris Men.

Conversely, the Telegraph carried a report on 5 January 2009, predicting the demise of morris dancing within 20 years, due to the lack of young people willing to take part.  This widespread story originated from a senior member of the more traditionally-minded Morris Ring, and may only reflect the situation in relation to member groups of that one organization.

In 2008 a front page article in the Independent Magazine noted the rising influence of neopaganism within the modern morris tradition.  The article featured the views of neopagan sides Wolf’s Head and Vixen Morris and Hunter’s Moon Morris and contrasted them with those of the more traditional Long Man Morris Men.

Conversely, the Telegraph carried a report on 5 January 2009, predicting the demise of morris dancing within 20 years, due to the lack of young people willing to take part.  This widespread story originated from a senior member of the more traditionally-minded Morris Ring, and may only reflect the situation in relation to member groups of that one organization.

The following video is a fun comedy about a teenage gang’s tribute to Morris dancing and Professor John.  Enjoy!  

The advent of the internet in the 1990s has also given morris sides a new platform upon which to perform.  Many morris sides now have entertaining websites which seek to reflect the public persona of the individual sides as much as record their exploits and list forthcoming performances.

There are also a multitude of thriving Morris related blogs, forums and individual sides are to be found maintaining an interactive presence on major social networking sites.  In addition, there are a variety of dance videos online, feature films and documentaries on Morris dance.

Morris Dance Feature Film:

Watch the trailer to the film “Morris: A Life with Bells On” showcasing the choreography of Roger Chapman

To view this film online, go to http://www.azmovielist.net/movies/morris_a_life_with_bells_on_2010/ 

Genre Buzz Source: Excerpts from Wikipedia

More about Dance Genre Buzz:

Each month, a new dance style is celebrated. View videos and learn about the heritage and history of different dance styles. Discover innovators of the dance, trends, variations, and current events for each dance genre featured. Watch artistic videodances featuring dance styles, and learn more about Dance made for the Camera.

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Help Dance Parade New York and Video Dance TV support the dance community. Share information on each dance style we feature, including dance classes, events, competitions, and other productions, such as film and video productions. Teachers, participants, and enthusiasts are welcome to share their network and experience with our audience to support dance education, online and on the dance floor!

By, Dawn Paap

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One Response to “Dance Genre Buzz – Morris Dancing”

  1. This is great to see – who knew there was an ‘action film’ about morris dancing!!


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