Morris dance is an English folk dance traditionally done in groups of six or eight hardy men–hardy men, mind you, who are wearing pretty kerchiefs and jingle bells. During a morris dance the dancers, who most often wield wooden sticks, step rhythmically and execute choreographed moves, weaving among each other and hitting each other’s sticks when appropriate. A quick quiz: which of the following statements is true? 1) Morris dancing has likely always been open to both men and women, and today many teams are integrated. 2) Morris dancing may have one time come across a not-very-hip form of artistic expression, but today it has become really cool. The answer…depending on who you ask, BOTH!
Some who practice morris dance claim it originated in the late 15th century, but while there is mention of dancing in Church records of the time, the first appearance of the name “Morris dance”–possibly derived from Moorish dance, or dance of the Moors, though
there are many other theories of the term’s origins–doesn’t appear until the 17th century.
Whatever its origins, morris dancing is believed to have arisen as as a ritual dance meant to invoke a magic power and bring protection against evil rather a purely social dance. Over the centuries a specific culture has developed around the ritual, complete with its own terminology and carefully prescribed roles dancers must play.
First, to prepare ourselves to try some morris dancing, let’s learn some morris terminology:
— the morris: the term dancers use to refer to the world of morris dancing.
— side/team: a morris troupe
— set: the a number of dancers used for a regular arrangement. (This is usually six or eight.)
— jig: a dance performed by one or two dancers rather than in a set. (Not to be confused with an Irish jig)
— tradition: a collection of dances from a particular area.
— ale: a private party where a number of morris sides gather and dance for each other rather than for an audience.
Next, we must assume the set of roles required of each side:
— a squire: usually the side’s leader who calls the dances and decides the side’s program, or at least the side’s administrator.
— a foreman: trains the dancers and is responsible for the high standard of the side’s dance.
— a bagman: the member of the side who keeps the side’s money and equipment (nowadays kind of like a club secretary)
— a ragman: the member of the side who co-ordinates the team’s “kit” or costmue: what would morris dancers do without bell pads, ribbon pads and sashes?
— one fool, or more: costumed and silly, the fool will entertain the crowd throughout the dance.
— a beast or a hobby: a dancer in costume made to look like an animal. This dancer entertains the children.
Okay, enough of this preparation! Let’s look at examples of real live morris dancing so we can figure out how to do some of our own.
Over the centuries a number of varieties of morris dancing have developed. Which of the following should we do in class?:
— Cotswold Morris: normally danced with handkerchiefs, sticks and hand movements. Watch the Isca Morris Men dance with kerchiefs. (Remember, hardy men doing a hardy dance.) Watch some Cotswold dancing done with sticks.
— North West Morris: more like a military processional. Watch the Jabberwocky North West Morris Dancers.
— Border Morris: a version from the
English-Welsh border with more interpretive choreography and multi-colored costumes. Often the dancers paint their faces in black or other colors. Watch Wicket Brood’s border morris dance (the dancing starts at 0:37)
— Longsword Morris: mainly danced in circles and mainly danced with swords. Watch the Martlet Sword and Morris Men.
— Rapper or Short Sword Morris: from
Northumberland, done in close circles with short swords. Watch Short Circuit
— Molly Morris: prancing and stomping from the Midlands. Watch the colorful Gog Magog Molly Dancers. Watch the Seven Champions dancing Molly Morris to a tune
that–though we’re not experts–is probably not a traditional Morris accompaniment from the 17th century.
So which of these amazing morris variants shall we try in class? How could we ever choose? Let’s fire up “Morris Reel” by Sean Quinn and try them all.