A quick introduction to morris dancing

Morris dancing is—.

Oh, hell, I haven’t finished the first sentence and already I’m in trouble.

Morris dancing divides people. You love it or you hate it, and if you hate it you go out of your way to make fun of it. It’s one of those things people in Britain compare to Marmite, a brownish paste that’s made in Britain (6,000 tons of the stuff a year, filing some 50 million jars) and that you can spread on toast and eat if you like it or run from, screaming, if you don’t. No one’s neutral about Marmite.

No one’s neutral about morris dancing either, but morris dancers turn out at fairs and festivals with their bells and sticks and streamers and flowers, and they dance as happily as if they knew for a fact that everyone loved them. You can’t help admiring them for that.

Or I can’t anyway. And I want to present this as neutrally as possible–especially since I’m not in love with morris dancing but people I like are.

Rare sighting: a relevant photo here at Notes. These are morris dancers at the Royal Cornwall Show. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Morris dancing is an English tradition. And a Cornish one. I add that because some people consider Cornwall English and others very emphatically don’t.

How traditional is traditional? I’m not the only person who can’t answer that. The Morris Ring writes, “The earliest confirmation of a performance of morris dancing in England dates from London on 19 May 1448, when ‘Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services.’ ” The S is shillings. The P is pence. Your guess is as good as mine what that bought back then. They may have been highly valued and they may not have been.

A Wikipedia entry dates Cornish morris dancing back to 1466, but it doesn’t give a citation.

In the Elizabethan era (that’s 1533 to 1603), it was already considered ancient.

According to RattlejagMorris, its origins are lost, but there’s no evidence to associate it with pagan festivals, as some people do. “Very little is known about the dances per se, though there seem to have been two types: a solo dance, and a dance in a circle around a ‘maiden’ (who could have been a man in women’s clothing) for whose favours the dancers compete.

“By the early sixteenth century morris dancing had become a fixture of Church festivals. In mediaeval and Renaissance England, the churches brewed and sold ales, including wassail. These ales were sold for many occasions, both seasonal and sacramental—there were christening ales, bride’s ales, clerk, wake and Whitsun ales—and were an important means of fund-raising for churches.”

Which isn’t immediately relevant but it’s interesting, so I left it in. And all that drinking seems to have given it a raucous reputation.

Later in the century, it became associated with May Day and village festivals and fetes.

By the nineteenth century, it had gone into decline, but some villages managed to keep it alive. When it was revived toward the end of the century, it was used as part of an effort to build up the mythology of Merrie Englande. In the early twentieth century, its fortunes rose with an increased interest in folk music and dance, and women as well as men began to take part.

Some morris dancers black their faces. The first time I saw this, I assumed it was part of the racist minstrel show tradition of white entertainers pretending to be black, which started in the U.S. but took hold (and still casts its long a creepy shadow) in Britain as well. I couldn’t think of any better way to react than to pretend they didn’t exist (I know: great moments in political activism), but Wild Thing went over to a dancer and asked about it.

She–or maybe it was he; I don’t remember–told us (and I’m paraphrasing heavily) that It came out of the time when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans suppressed Whitsun ales, morris dancing, and anything else where people might be in danger of having fun. Besides, morris dancing had a whiff of pagan carrying-on about it. The dances continued in either secret or semi-secret, but the dancers blacked their faces to disguise themselves.

However, other explanations also circulate.

Border Morris page on Wikipedia says (or said when I checked), “During the hard winters of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, out of work labourers and builders sought to anonymously supplement their income by a bit of dancing and begging. The use of blackface as a form of disguise is established in early eighteenth century England. In 1723 it became a capital offence under the Waltham ‘Black Act’ to appear ‘in disguise, either by mask or by blackened face.’”

Another theory traces the word morris to Moorish and suggests the earliest performers were mimicking North African dancers, or a Moorish king and his retinue. And yet another theory traces the black faces to the minstrel shows. In support of this theory, morris dancing is recorded to have been referred to colloquially as “going niggering”.

Yes, I’m using the word. We’re talking about racism and we need to talk about what we’re talking about. Look it in the eye, friends, because it’s still with us.

A few songs that morris dancers use, like “Old Black Joe” come from minstrel shows, although most are far older.

My best guess is that an older tradition, or more than one of them, crossed paths with the minstrel shows until now it would be hard to tease the strands apart.

If you look, you’ll find quite a bit of public argument about whether white dancers appearing in blackface is inherently racist. No one’s asked my opinion, but here it is: Whatever its origin and however innocent its intent, it’s time to stop doing it. Even if it has to do with Cromwell or disguise for some other reason, audiences will be bringing a whole different set of associations to it, and whether you mean to or not you’ll be aligning yourselves with some really unsavory elements of our culture. Which is another way of saying that you’ll be passing them on, regardless of what’s going on in your mind.

And no, I don’t really expect anyone to listen to me. There seems to be a cast-iron conviction among a category of white people in Britain that if they don’t intend anything racist by [fill in the blank, including a few songs I hear sung, which should be left to a folk music preservation society but retired from active use], then to hell with the impact it has on other people or the world at large, it’s not racist. Because they mean well.

And some—although by no means all—of them genuinely are people of goodwill.

That sound you’re hearing? That’s a long and frustrated sigh brushing across my keyboard.

But let’s go back to morris dancing in general so we can end on a cheerier note: It never made much sense to me until G. explained that morris clubs were just drinking societies with a dancing problem. I’m not sure how many morris dancers would agree with her, but it made an odd kind of sense to me.

I can’t swear that she’s right and I’m happy to hear from anyone who wants to correct me. Or her. Or anyone else.

On any subject.