A Short History of Morris Dancing

Morris dance 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 earliest known and surviving English written mention of Morris dance is dated to 1448, and records the payment of seven shillings to Morris dancers by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London. Further mentions of Morris dancing occur in the late 15th century, and there are also early records such as visiting bishops “Visitation Articles” mention sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities, as well as mumming plays.

While the earliest records invariably mention “Morys” in a court setting, and a little later in the Lord Mayors’ Processions in London, it had adopted the nature of a folk dance performed in the parishes by the mid 17th century.

Name and origins

The name is first recorded in the mid-15th century as Morisk dancemoreys daunce, morisse daunce, i.e. “Moorish dance”. The term entered English via Flemish mooriske danse Comparable terms in other languages are German Moriskentanz (also from the 15th century), French morisques, Croatian moreška, and morescomoresca or morisca in Italy and Spain. The modern spelling Morris-dance first appears in the 17th century.

It is unclear why the dance was so named, “unless in reference to fantastic dancing or costumes”, i.e. the deliberately “exotic” flavour of the performance. The English dance thus apparently arose as part of a wider 15th-century European fashion for supposedly “Moorish” spectacle, which also left traces in Spanish and Italian folk dance. The means and chronology of the transmission of this fashion is now difficult to trace; the Great London Chronicle records “spangled Spanish dancers” performing an energetic dance before Henry VII at Christmas of 1494, but Heron’s accounts also mention “pleying of the mourice dance” four days earlier, and the attestation of the English term from the mid-15th century establishes that there was a “Moorish dance” performed in England decades prior to 1494.

It is suggested that the tradition of rural English dancers blackening their faces may be a reference to the Moors, miners, or a disguise worn by dancing beggars.

History in England

While the earliest (15th-century) references place the Morris dance in a courtly setting, it appears that the dance became part of performances for the lower classes by the later 16th century; in 1600, the Shakespearean actor William Kempe, Morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his Nine Daies Wonder (1600).

Almost nothing is known about the folk dances of England prior to the mid-17th century. While it is possible to speculate on the transition of “Morris dancing” from the courtly to a rural setting, it may have acquired elements of pre-Elizabethan (medieval) folk dance, such proposals will always be based on an argument from silence as there is no direct record of what such elements would have looked like. In the Elizabethan period, there was significant cultural contact between Italy and England, and it has been suggested that much of what is now considered traditional English folk dance, and especially English country dance, is descended from Italian dances imported in the 16th century.

By the mid 17th century, the working peasantry took part in Morris dances, especially at Whitsun. 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 (Pentecost), 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.

However by the late 19th century, and in the West Country at least, Morris dancing was fast becoming more a local memory than an activity. D’Arcy Ferris (or de Ferrars), a Cheltenham based singer, music teacher and organiser of pageants, became intrigued by the tradition and sought to revive it. He firstly encountered Morris in Bidford and organised its revival. Over the following years he took the side to several places in the West Country, from Malvern to Bicester and from Redditch to Moreton in Marsh. By 1910, he and Cecil Sharp were in correspondence on the subject.

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 1950s 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.

 

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morris_dance">"Morris Dance"</a>, which is released under the <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/">Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0</a>.