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 Morris Dancing                     

                                        July 2010  

Morris dancing

morris dancingMorris dancing is as much part of a British summer as strawberries and cream. Whether it is at a country fete, outside a village pub or simply on the side of a quiet road, you can come across a group of these colourfully dressed dancers almost anywhere across the country.

Morris dancing is not just a dance, it is a boisterous celebration performed to the public to mark the end of the dark days of winter, to welcome the warm sunshine and growth of summer and also to herald a golden harvest in the coming autumn. While there are today many variations, the basis of Morris dancing remains, a series of well choreographed movements based on rhythmic stepping and using instruments such as sticks, swords, handkerchiefs and bells.

It is very much a display dance, a show put on for the public. It is not a social occasion where others are invited to join in; instead the Morris dancers rehearse like mad and perform to an audience. All Morris groups have their own musicians and while originally the pipe and tabor were the common instruments, today most Morris dancers perform to the sounds of a violin, concertina or an accordian. Some may even have a small group or band accompanying them.

It really is a major British tradition and is made more interesting because its origins are lost in the mists of history. Certainly there are records of Morris dancing, in various forms, around 500 years ago but many believe it developed from far earlier forms of dance and celebration. In the 15th and 16th centuries there was a form of dance that became very popular as court entertainment. Not a lot is known about these dances, which were called names like “moreys daunce” but it did involve colourful elaborate costumes with attached bells. This could be the forbear of the Morris dancing we know today.

Either way, Morris dancing soon became a fixture in church festivals and continued in popularity for three centuries. However, it then hit a period of decline during the 19th century. At this time a lot of Britain’s traditional folklore, plays and songs were considered crude and rude by the fastidious Victorians. Many of the more earthy and crude meanings and actions in the old songs and dances were changed; hence innocent chorus lines with words like “Hey Nonny No” which were created to replace more worldly activities or sentiments.

Since then, however, Morris dancing has come back strongly. The skiffle and folk revival in the 1950s and 1960s sparked an enthusiasm for traditional and historic activities and the major folk revival in the 1970s gave Morris dancing another boost. Since then its popularity has continued to grow and today there are around 14,000 Morris dancers in the country.

As with any particular activity, Morris dancers have a vocabulary all their own. The word “ale” means a gathering of dancers which came from the medieval fairs which provided ale to entice people to attend. These fairs were popular with Morris dancers and somehow the word “ale” took on a new meaning.

The dancers usually have a caller, a person in the front of the set who calls out the figures of the dance. The figure is the pattern of steps which all the dancers perform together. The kit, the clothes worn by Morris dancers, is not uniform across the country. However, most groups start with a white shirt and leather pads covered with bells and sometimes ribbons and then add their own individual styling.

Surprisingly, Morris dancing has spread across the world, not only to the old British colonies but also in mainland Europe and even to America which has over 100 groups of Morris dancers there.

Enthusiasts say that while they take their dancing and performing seriously, Morris dancing is also a hugely social and fun activity. With increasing numbers of supporters and participants, Morris dancing may well be with us for many more years to come.


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