Morris dancing is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers.
The majority of contemporary morris sides have been formed in the last 80 years or so. Each club will have a squire who is responsible for the performance and the sides leadership, a foreman or captain who teaches the dances, and a B=bagman who acts as its secretary. Clubs are autonomous so they can make their own decisions as to when, where and what to dance. ‘Side’ and ‘team’ are used interchangeably to describe morris groups, although competitive dancing is rare.
Sides generally practice during the winter months, and perform during the summer. Five Rivers practice from September – April and ‘dance out’ during the lighter, warmer months, with occasional appearances at special events outside this period such as Christmas Markets.
Morris dancing means different things to different people. Used it in its widest sense, it includes dances using sticks, handkerchiefs, or swords, and encompasses other styles of ceremonial dance, together with mumming and calendar customs. Within the specific genre, there are a large number of different types of dance and in essence they can be divided into six main styles, each originating in a different part of England although now found across the country.
The most widespread style seen today and what most people what would picture if asked to describe morris dancing. The Cotswold style, which is danced by Five Rivers, originates from around Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. These dances are usually performed in sets of six or eight dancers, and are distinguished by the dancers waving handkerchiefs, clashing sticks or, occasionally, handclapping. The use of handkerchiefs dates from Shakespearean times, and the first recorded use of sticks dates from the mid-sixteenth century.
Cotswold kit usually includes a white shirt, white trousers or black breeches, and bell-pads (ruggles) worn on the shin. A baldric or rosettes are often worn across the chest.
The Welsh border counties of Hereford, Worcestershire, and Shropshire developed their own style of dance, simpler in form than those of the Cotswolds. It is distinguished by more vigorous stepping, robust stick clashing and loud shouting and is danced in sets of four, six, eight or more dancers.
Often the costume will include a rag coat, (a coat which has tatters, small pieces of cloth, sewn on it), or sometimes a formal tail coat.
In the past, border morris dancers have worn black face paint to disguise their appearance. This has been theorised to date from when dancing was seen as a type of begging, and therefore illegal, and dancers would black their faces with burnt cork to disguise their appearance from the local landlord, although the evidence for this theory is not firm. Due to the negative connotations and understandable offence this can cause, many teams now chose to use different coloured paint or only partially cover the face, or wear masks.
Molly Dances developed in East Anglia: these dances were performed in January, as part of the Plough Monday celebrations. It was the custom for local farmhands to take a plough around the local villages and, if payment (including beer and food) was not forthcoming, they would cut a furrow across the householders front lawn. The figures of the dances are based upon the local country dances, and are performed in vigorous style.
The costumes worn by Molly dancers are very individualistic, but largely based upon working outdoor clothes and hobnailed boots. As with Border Morris, dancers may have their faces blackened or otherwise disguised, which was particularly important when planning to plough up someone’s lawn!
This style of Morris originates from the industrial towns of Cheshire and Lancashire. The costumes worn tend to be striking and the footwear will normally be clogs with ‘irons’ (usually made from rubber) nailed to soles and heels. The dance involves much stepping, and the rhythm is accentuated by the clogs.
In the early industrial period, the dances were performed annually by large numbers of young men in the Rushcart ceremonies which took place in Wakes Weeks. For these dances the team will be a multiple of four, and the dancers will often carry sticks or slings in each hand. The Conductor controls the dance from outside the set, and will notify the dancers and musicians of important changes by blowing a whistle.
The longsword dance is found in Yorkshire. This type of dance can also be called a hilt-and-point, and is performed by six or eight dancers linked together in a circle by swords. Each sword is about a metre in length and generally made of steel with no point or cutting edge, and with a wooden handle at one end. This can be clearly seen in the photograph below.
Longsword dancing is well documented in Europe where it is thought the swords had military connotations in medieval times. The dancers perform a number of figures in which they pass over or under the swords; some dances include additional figures performed in pairs. The climax of the dance is the formation of a star or lock – an interweaving of the swords which is then displayed. A sword-lock is used as the emblem of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
Durham and Northumberland have their own versions of the sword dance, the rapper dance, which is danced by five dancers. In these dances, the sword is a flat strip of flexible or spring steel about 60cm long, with a rotating handle at one end and a fixed handle at the other. A sword can be bent into a complete circle and some figures require this degree of flexibility.
Like all forms of morris dancing, rapper has unique qualities – it is the fastest of all the dances described, it requires the least space (it is often performed inside pubs!) and it is the most gymnastically demanding as some dances require back somersaults!