Morris - Man, music and dance

Andrew J White

Morris dancing comes in many forms:

Cotswold Morris:
From the area of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire. Each village produced it's own steps and dances and these have become the "traditions" such as Headington, Bledington, Bampton and Chipping Campden.
The dances are usually handkerchief dances, stick dances and handclapping dances and performed by six men.
The men will normally wear white shirt, white trousers or black breaches and black shoes. Bells will be worn below the knees and the club kit will be a coloured baldrick or a waistcoat/tabard.
Variants of Cotswold morris have been collected from the North midlands from Lichfield and Winster. The stepping is often "double" stepping which is one two three hop.

North West Morris:
The dances can be processional and are usually danced by six or eight men wearing clogs. The performers move around the set in complex patterns.
Costumes are in general more colourful and elaborate with the clogs accentuating the rhythmic stepping.
Teams around the North West include Manley, Manchester, Preston Royal and Horwich. The stepping is often a Rant or polka step and sometimes a skipping single step to move around quickly.

Border Morris:
The border in question is the Welsh/Shropshire/Herefordshire borders. The dancers generally black their faces and wear rag jackets and dark trousers. The stepping and dances are very simple and vigorous. Most involve a great deal of stick clashing. The stepping is often just single stepping.

Molly Dancing:
"Molly" dancing in Cambridgeshire is similar in many ways to the border traditions, but tends to be less violent!
The most successful of today’s molly dance teams aim to capture an atmosphere, style and vigour that may be associated with the ploughboys of old and of the wild, barren, dangerous nature of the landscape in which they worked.

There is a saying that if you want to dance the Morris, start with Cotswold, if you can't do that, do North West, if you can't do that, do Border and if you can't do that just bang a drum.
Other forms of dances coming under the general heading of Morris are the Sword dances:

Performed mainly in Yorkshire by six or eight men carrying rigid swords performing intricate figures over and under swords which are woven into a star-shaped lock at the end. The stepping for this is essentially fast walking, sometimes with emphasis on strong beats.

Collected in Northumberland and Durham, rappers are very flexible swords with a handle at each end, which dances performed at high speed with the swords above the head - again usually ending in a star shaped "Lock". The stepping is very fast walking during the moving bits and a shuffle when still.

There are some unusual forms of Morris Dancing which are now performed only by individual sides:
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers carry reindeer antlers which, incidently, have been Carbon dated to 1065, give or take 80 years.
The Brittania Coconut Dancers are the last remaining team to perform a processional dance which involves clashing wooden discs strapped to the knees, waist and hands. They also perform garland dances carrying decorated hoops.

The most common question anyone asks a morris dancer is "What does it all mean?" and unfortunately, there is always someone who decides to explain and off he goes.... blah blah .. ritual origins.. blah blah ..pagan fertility cults.. blah blah .. scaring evil spirits with bells and hankies.. blah blah .. fights between good and evil... blah blah .. weather control..!!!
At best these at simply conjecture.
Whether these were ritual dances or just dances to celebrate the coming of spring/whitsun/summer has to remain a mystery - we just don't know.

The oldest known reference to Morris Dancing is a 14 hundred and something stained glass window in a house at Betley, Staffordshire which depicts dancing figures associated with the Morris.

In the written record, some form of dance called morris can be documented in England as far back as the 15th century. The earliest known reference is in a will from 1458 which mentions a "silver cup sculpted with morris dance.''
There are other wills which describe the disposition of similar cups, so at its earliest known point morris was already common enough to have spawned a tacky souvenir industry.

During the 16th century the annual accounting for several churches contain expenditures for the purchase of morris bells and costumes, and also income from the rental of the same to neighbouring parishes.

1509-10 Silver payper for the Mores-dawnsars 7d
  For VI peyre of shones for ye Mors duncers 4 shillings

Morris dance was performed before the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and the tradition was described as "ancient'' by those courtiers.
Shakespeare's play Henry V would have us believe that Whitsun morris dances were sufficiently common that French royalty knew of them - The Dauphin remarks "... with no more than if we heard that England were busied with a Whitsun morris dance".
Also, morris, performed by a team of men and a team of women, was the central theme of one scene in the play "The Two Noble Kinsmen" attributed to Fletcher and or Shakespeare, which was viewed by Elizabeth I at her house on Drury Lane.

On the topic of Shakespeare, one of his actors, William Kemp, made a historic journey from London to Norwich dancing all the way and keeping a diary which he published in 1600 titled "The Nine Days Wonder".

The Morris has not been restricted to written works - there have been paintings showing dancers in action such as Dixton Harvesters (1730-ish) and Lymm Rushbearing (1840-ish).

And, of course, for the last 100 years or so we have photographs of traditional morris teams.

Even the name Morris is a mystery.
Some claim that it is a corruption of Moorish, indicating that the dances may have had their origins somewhere in Africa. Or it may simply refer to the dancers practice of blackening their faces with cork as a simple disguise (as in much ritual dance, the dancers were considered to be someone other than their usual selves while they were dancing). Or it may be derived from the Latin moris, meaning custom or tradition.
Or maybe it has something to do with some guy named Maurice. We have no idea.

The Morris revival can be attributed to Cecil Sharp who on boxing day 1899 saw Headington Quarry dancing out of season to make some money. He collected those dances and travelled around the Cotswold villages collecting other dances and tunes, which he printed in 5 volumes between 1911 and 1924.

Though originally danced by men, it is believed that after the 1st world war, many villages or towns had no team of men to perform each year and many changes took place as a result - young boys were taught , some places filled gaps with ladies, and some taught the dances to young girls.
Many of the Cheshire dances were affected in these ways and the fluffy carnival morris seen in this area is one result of the traditions changing - Formal competitions between troups also tended to mean that different regional styles changed because judges looked for standardised performances.

Any discussion from Thelwall Morris shouldn't leave out the dance local to Thelwall and that is the Statham Morris.
In 1938 Maud Karpeles documented, very sparsely, a dance from the Lymm area from information given by surviving dancers of the Outrington team. This was picked up by Geoff Bibby of Thelwall Morris Men. He found surviving members of a boys team who danced the Statham Morris in 1923, and pieced together the dance.

Which brings us to the dances and the music

Most dances in each tradition are named after the tune which is played for them

In some traditions, the dancers sing words to the music before dancing. The reason for this can be manyfold -
1. It's a song associated with the tune eg. Postman's Knock ("Every morning as true as the clock ....").
2. It's humorous (supposedly) eg. Lads-a-bunchum ("Oh dear mother what a fool I've been 6 young men have come a courting me, 5 were blind and the other couldn't see, oh dear mother what a fool I be").
3. Its rude, so it's funny (so I'm told) eg Room for the Cuckold ("We do it all day we do it all night because it's our fertiity rite")
4. It tells the musician(s) how fast (or slow) the dancer(s) would like the tune played (which the musician often ignores!).
5. The musician can't remember the tune without the words.

It is known that many years ago (about 400) the common instruments used were the pipe and tabor. It is actually quite a skilful thing to be able to play a 3 or 4-holed pipe while banging a drum rhythmically.

Instruments more commonly found in the Morris band now are fiddles, concertinas, melodeons and accordions - the more flourishing the morris side then the bigger the band. Many cotswold sides stick to the tradition of one musician - big bands are only common in North West and Border.

Most dances are split up into figures and choruses and it is the chorus that distinguishes one dance from another (which is why it is sometimes referred to as the distinctive figure).
For any particular tradition the stepping is usually the same throughout all dances - the one two three hops or whatever, and the figures are usually the same. Indeed a dancer can often identify the tradition by watching the stepping and figures (and will probably guess the name of the dance from the tune).

Figures may be Foot up, half gypsy (forward and back), gypsy (cross to partner's position and continue back into place), back to back (country dance "dosy doe"), hands round, whole hey (figure eight) - also half heys and various other figures according to tradition.

You will usually hear someone calling out the figures - the figures are usually danced in the same order, but they are called just the same (and sometimes called in wrong order following some sudden brain storm, mental block or deliberate ploy to make sure the dancers are awake)

Different Morris teams will often adopt a style of their own, and this is not to say that they are doing it wrong, or even that this is the definitive correct way to do it. It is, in some cases a matter of interpretation. Not every aspect of every Morris dance has been documented.

You will usually see the morris danced as set dances, but from time to time the stepping and distinctive elements of a tradition are put together (plus a chorus) for a single dancer to perform a solo jig.

Finally, an account off the Internet - "what we really know about Morris dancing".

It is either 200 years old, 600 years old, or 3,000 years old (or it's not).
It originally developed in England (unless it didn't).
It was a fertility rite danced in springtime (or a festive dance danced anytime).
It was danced exclusively by men (except when women danced, too).


1. Comes the Morris Dancer in. A celebration of fifty years of The Morris Ring. 1934-1984.
2. The Morris Book by Cecil Sharp.
3. The Morris Tradition, published by The Morris Ring.
4. The Morris Ring Circular, no.5, Apr 1984.
5. Numerous unremembered sources from the World Wide Web.
6. Geoff Bibby's notes.

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Last updated 08 August 2013