Morris Dancing: Great English Folk Dance in the UK

Morris dancing is one of the many great traditions in the UK that I have come to appreciate. Ever since I moved here I have become fascinated with British culture, and Morris dancing is something that truly intrigued me – the meaning behind it, the ornaments that it involves and the people that dance to it.

Morris dancing is an English folk dance involving music, dance, artistry and celebration. More commonly, a group of Morris dancers called “side” is composed of male performers, although research shows that female dancers dance the Morris, too. A traditional Morris dance is still being performed today.

Where did it come from, though, and what is the significance of the sticks, the bells, the white outfit? I’ll help you dive further into the fascinating world of Morris dance.

What are the origin and brief history of Morris dancing?

Morris Dancers
Morris dancers in the City of York

The origin of Morris dance dates back to 1149 when a performance similar to what Morris dance is right now was presented during the marriage ceremony of the Count of Barcelona and Petronilla the Queen of Aragon.

It was in 1448 when the Morris dance was first mentioned in a document citing a payment of seven shillings made to Morris dancers by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London for a performance. There was also an inventory of a tapestry at Caister Castle showing Morris dancers.

It is believed that the Morris dance started out as a form of court entertainment. Regarded as “moreys daunce,” European courts during the 15th century were the first setting of this dance. The dancers wore bright and colourful outfits with elaborate designs.

When the 16th century came, Morris dancing made its way to the church setting. Later during the same century, it is believed that the performances involved the working class more especially in Whitsun

Come mid-18th century, the elaborate outfits were replaced with simpler ones decorated with flowers and ribbons. Some variations exclusively featured sticks. The popularity of the Morris dance started to decline in the 19th century as people found modern forms of entertainment to perform or patronize.

This was until a person by the name of Cecil Sharp coincidentally paved the way for the preservation of Morris dancing as an important English folk dance.

Who is Cecil Sharp?

On March 15, 1899, a public Morris dance was performed at the Oxford Corn Exchange. This is through the initiative of Percy Manning and Thomas Carter who wished to preserve whatever was left of Morris dancing in the minds of the people. 

After a long time, Morris dancers were empowered to perform again. Members of the old Headington dancers were seen by Cecil Sharp presenting what to him was a strange dance. He watched as eight men wearing white clothes adorned with ribbons and bells carried sticks and white handkerchiefs.

As one Morris dance after another was performed in front of Sharp’s eyes, he could not help feeling intrigued by the Morris men. This ignited something in him, and he started travelling all throughout England to see dances and know more about their music. 

From Sharp’s collection of Morris dances and music came out various books about the English folk dance that is the Morris.

Where did the Morris dancing originate from?

Morris dancing originated from various parts of the United Kingdom. The different variations have similarities as well as uniqueness when it comes to their performances.

Here are some styles of Morris dance, including where they originated from:

STYLE OF MORRIS DANCEPLACE OF ORIGINBRIEF DESCRIPTION
Border MorrisShropshire, Herefordshire and GloucestershireThe loose and energetic style of morris dancing
Clog StepNorthern industrial towns in EnglandSimilar to English clog dancing
Cotswold MorrisGloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and WarwickshireA most known type of Morris dance features hankies, sticks and white outfits
Longsword DancingYorkshireFeatures a group of men dancing in a circle with swords
Molly DancingCambridgeshire Fens and areas around WashHas elaborate outfits and fancy footwork
MummingEurope particularly England, Scotland and IrelandA play combining music, dance, and sword fighting 
North West MorrisNorth West of EnglandDance steps mimic cotton weaving
Rapper Sword DancingNorth East of EnglandFeatures complex movements using high-quality flexible steel
Stave DancingSouth West of England, especially Somerset, Dorset, and WiltshireLong decorated poles are carried while performing
Source: The Morris Federation 

Why is it called morris dancing?

There is not one answer when it comes to the origin of the name “Morris.” One theory is that it came from the French term “morisque” meaning “the dance.” This is then written as “morisch” in Flemish before arriving at different English spellings of the same word, including “moryssh,” “moris” and “morris.”

Why do people do the Morris dance?

People do the Morris Dance because it is an English folk tradition, and with variations come differences in reasons behind the performance, too. Some similarities in why they do the Morris dance include belief that the dance has power, that the performance brings a form of luck and that it is a way of remembrance.

Is Morris dancing for men only?

Morris dancing used to be seen as exclusive for men. Actually, a group of morris dancers (which is called a side) can include both men and women. Dancers are usually male, but there are female morris dancers, too.

Gone are the days when the prominent associations in the UK only welcome a specific gender into membership. The three Morris organizations in the UK acknowledge that Morris dancing is open to all genders.

What are the female Morris dancers called?

A group of female Morris dancers are called sides. The same term is used for male Morris dancers.

The type of Morris dancing performed by females is sometimes called “fluffy morris.”

Why does Morris dancing have sticks, flower crowns, and white clothes?

Morris Dancers in Alcester Warwickshire UK During the Platinum Jubilee Celebration
Morris Dancers in Alcester Warwickshire UK During the Platinum Jubilee Celebration
  • Sticks

There are three types of sticks used for a Morris dance: long ones, short ones and broken ones. These sticks, when they make a sound, are said to ward off evil spirits. 

  • Flower crowns

Along with colourful rags, flower crowns are used as outfit decorations since the common people did not have elaborate clothes to wear during a Morris dance.

  • White outfits

Morris dancers wear white because of its link with Whitsun. Whitsun is another name for Pentecost, a feast celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter. The use of the colour white in the Christian church symbolizes purity. Fashionably speaking, the use of white trousers has especially grown popular in the 1800s. 

  • Handkerchiefs

Hankies are used to emphasize hand gestures when dancing. It was only in the 1700s when handkerchiefs were added to the attire of morris dancers. It is believed to have been added to the ensemble ever since the long sleeves were substituted with something more simple.

  • Bells and slings

With movement, bells and slings create a pleasant ringing sound that enhances the music. The bells are attached to the leg area with the help of a bell pad. Like the sticks, this is believed to ward off evil spirits. 

  • Face paint

Morris dancers apply face paint as a form of disguise. It also adds a touch of mystery to their performance.

  • Clogs

Many sides wear clogs when they do the Morris dance. This type of shoe is used to complement the music as it makes a distinct noise on hard ground. As a result, the dance is more festive to the ears.

  • Cross-dressing

This feature is especially present in Molly dancing. One if not some of the members of the side would wear women’s clothing unconvincingly for entertainment. Whoever is cross-dressed is called “The Molly.”

Is Morris dancing a fertility dance?

There has been some evidence that points out that Morris dancing is related to pagan fertility rites. This remains to be claimed and it cannot be confirmed whether Morris dancing’s roots can be traced back to fertility rites.

Morris Organizations in the UK

There are three organizations that make up the UK’s Joint Morris Organizations (JMO): The Morris Federation, The Morris Ring and Open Morris.

The Morris Federation

The Morris Federation started out as The Women’s Morris Federation with an aim to give support to female Morris sides. There had been a rise in the number of women publicly performing Morris dances, and although this is perfectly acceptable, male Morris sides dominated the scene.

The Women’s Morris Federation was inaugurated in October 1975. In 1982, the federation started welcoming mixed sides. It, later on, evolved into The Morris Foundation where Morris dancers unite, regardless of gender. 

At The Morris Foundation, a list of its members is accessible to those who are looking at joining and/or spectating one. The Morris slides are categorized based on their location, membership, practice day and dance style.

On their website, you can stay in the loop for upcoming events hosted by the federation alongside the other Morris organizations in the UK.

The Morris Ring

Founded in 1934, The Morris Ring is an association that aims to keep the English folk dance alive and relevant. As of this writing, The Morris Ring has about 180 morris, sword and mummers teams under their wing. 

It was in 2018 when Morris dancers of all genders were allowed to be members of The Morris Ring. 

If you would like to find a side near your location – both in the UK and overseas – The Morris Ring has a database of Morris Ring member sides which you can access at their website.

Open Morris

Open Morris was created in 1979 with the desire to find support for mixed Morris sides in the UK. Today, it prides itself to be an association that is open for membership to any group or individual, male or female, dancer or musician. 

The Open Morris website is full of useful links to articles about the dance, upcoming events near you and other Morris-related information which you will surely find interesting.

Morris dancing now

In keeping with modern times, the Morris dance has seen and embraced changes brought about by the creative minds of the new generation. This is in the hopes of capturing a younger audience and aspiring performers alike.

One Morris side named the Shrewsbury Morris has added in some music which is written by their members, to be performed alongside traditional ones.

Another group named Steampunk Morris has, as the name suggests, incorporated Steampunk outfits and rock songs from Guns n Roses, Marilyn Manson and Iron Maiden into their performances.  

Morris Dance Terms

  • Ale – when morris dancers gather to perform non-competitively
  • Apprentice – a new dancer who has not yet mastered the Morris dance
  • Bell pads – leather strips with attached bells which are worn on the shins of the Morris dancers for sound
  • Black Book – the common name for Lionel Bacon’s “A Handbook of Morris Dances”
  • Busking – a surprise public performance of a Morris dance
  • Chorus – the part of the Morris dance that separates the performance from other similar styles
  • Dance out – a performance
  • Day of Dance – an organized Morris dance event hosted by a Morris association
  • Foreman – in charge of the dance teaching when it’s practice season
  • Figure – a choreographed step that the whole group of dancers perform together
  • Hankies – square cloths used as props for the dance to accentuate the gestures; an abbreviated form of a handkerchief
  • Jig – A dance that does not require a partner 
  • Kit – the ensemble worn by the Morris dancers
  • Molly – a name for the character on the side that is cross-dressed as a woman
  • Musician – the one in charge of Morris dance music
  • Set – the group of Morris dancers within a specific dance
  • Side – an organized group of Morris dancers who perform together
  • Squire – the overall in charge of the side
  • Stand – a Morris dance performance at a given time and place
  • Tatty coat – a jacket with strips of colourful fabric worn during a performance
  • The Bagman – an officer in charge of administrative duties, bookings, fee collection and money management; also called “Baggers” or “Father Christmas”
  • Tradition – a specific style of a location when it comes to dancing
Morris Dancing Great English Folk Dance in the UK pin
Morris Dancing: Great English Folk Dance in the UK

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Everything Zany Dual Citizen Travel Blog

Everything Zany

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Everything Zany Travel Blog exploring the UK and beyond. Sharing travel guides, tips, history and culture. Our travel media brand is founded by travel and hotel industry expert – Ryazan Tristram, a Dual Citizen (British – Filipina) based in Birmingham, UK. Everything Zany is a reputable and award-winning travel blog. Our work and contributions have been featured in Huffington Post, CNBC, Discovery Channel, GMA, Readers Digest, and Lonely Planet. Our missions are to build a great travel community and resource of travel tips, visas and travel guides for travellers. Join us as we travel around the UK and beyond with a mission to share the best of the world.

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