Morris Dancing - What is it?

Morris dancing is a traditional form of dancing , whose history in this country can be traced back over 550 years in written records and undoubtly goes back a lot further. This form of traditional dancing is classified by scholars as ritual dancing, which means it is done for more than fun or social reasons, its purpose is believed by some to be associated with some form of pre christian fertility rituals. Other forms of ritual dancing include sword dancing, with both long sword and rapper, and there are dances that do not fall into any of the general classifications such as the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers from Staffordshire and the Helston Furry Dance from Cornwall.

There are several forms of Morris Dancing, each having distinct characteristics and coming from specific geographical areas, though there are many exceptions to the rule. Within these geographical areas would be many villages, each would have its own style of foot and hand movements and figures, which defined that villages tradition.

Cotswold Morris Dancing

 
ROM7 Royal Oak Morris - A Typical Cotwold Dance

This type of Morris Dancing is the form that most people associate with Morris dancing and was found in the counties of Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, and Buckinghamshire, though dances from areas in the Midlands, such as Lichfield, are considered to be Cotswold traditions. Cotswold Morris Dancing is characterised by either stick dances or hankychief dances and a few hand clapping dances.

The dancers wear either britches or white trousers, white shirts with Baldricks (crossed ribbons) or tabards. The dances are normally danced by six persons, though eight is not unusual.

The music was traditionally played on a pipe and tabor, but accordians, melodians, concertinas and fiddles were common.

Each villages dancers would have had slightly different steps and tunes from those close by, giving the village its own tradition.

Between 1700 and 1900 there were known to be 150 towns and villages in the Cotswold Area that had had Morris Dancing teams. The Morris dances that we know today were generally collected around the turn of the twentieth century from old men who had danced in the original Morris sides.

The side normally consist of a number of dancers, a Squire, who leads the side and calls the figures of the dances from within the set, the Foreman who teaches the dances and keeps the sides style, the bagman, who looks after the side finances. Some sides also have a Fool, armed with a pigs bladder, and an animal, which traditionally would have been a Hobby Horse

 

North West Morris

A Northwest Morris Side A Northwest Morris Dance Side

This form of dancing predominantly comes from the industrial towns of Lancashire and Cheshire and was traditionally associated with the rushcart processions during Wakes Week.

The dancers wear an elaborate and colourful costume and wear clogs, which emphasise the stepping. Instead of using handkerchiefs the dancers carry slings of untwisted cotton rope or tiddlers made from rope bound with ribbon.

Music is usually supplied by several concertinas and a drum. The dances are normally danced by eight or more dancers with a leader who stands outside of the set calling the figures or indicates a change of figure by blowing a whistle.

 

Molly Dancing

Molly dancing was found in East Anglia and is associated with Plough Monday, during which the plough hands from the local farms would pull a plough through the streets. Little is know about the dances. They were generally taken from the local social dances, but danced in a far more energetic, noisier and 'rougher' style. The dancers would have been accompanied by a "lord" and "lady" (originally both men) who would lead the dancers.

The dancers would have worn everyday trousers, shirts or jackets, with ribbons and decorations attached, and hobnailed boots to add to the noise of the dancing and the "lady" wore a dress.

The stepping is very energetic with the foot being lifted off the ground until the thigh is parallel with the ground and the arm on the same side is brought brought up L shape with the fist clenched until the forearm is vertical.

 

Border Morris

A border Morris Side A Border side

Border Morris was found in the border region between the Cotswolds and Wales and is normally associated with the counties of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. The style was originally described by collectors as a 'degenerate' form of Morris dancing. The dances tend to be very energetic and are mainly danced with sticks. Most teams only had one dance which was for four or eight dancers.

The costumes tended to be rag coats and some sides black their faces.

 

Derbyshire Morris

These dances generally consist of set dances of up to sixteen dancers and are danced similar to reels and country dances. Also predominant in Derbyshire Morris is the processional dance where the dancers would dance while moving along in a procession. Bells are not normally associated with Derbyshire Morris.

 

Long Sword Dances

A Long Sword Dance A Longsword side

Sword dancing is not normally associated with Morris dancing, though locally they were known as Morris dancers. There are two main types of English Sword dance, longsword and rapper. English sword dancing should not be confused with Scottish sword dancing were the swords are laid on the ground and the dance is performed by a single person.

The long sword dance is performed by six or eight men with rigid swords 30 to 40 inches long. The dancers perform complicated figures with each dancer holding the blade of the next person. The dance usually ends with the swords being locked into a star shape and held above the dancers heads.

 

Rapper Sword Dances

The short sword or rapper dances use swords known as 'rappers' which have flexible blades and a handle at each end. The dances are performed by five men and come from a small area in Northumberland and County Durham.