Morris dancing is a type of folk dancing that originated in England and dates back to the fifteenth century. The dance is performed to music by a group that wear uniform costumes and bell-pads on their shins. Morris dancing comprises a set choreography of rhythmic steps and it is common for sticks or handkerchiefs to accompany hand movements in the routine.
History of Morris dancing
In England, Morris dancing was traditionally performed by the working classes, particularly during festive celebrations such as May Day and church holidays like Pentecost. There were various regional troupes called “teams” or “sides” throughout the country, each with their own style. Despite this terminology, Morris dancing is rarely competitive.
Morris dancing was performed to music played by an individual or a band. Traditional instruments used were the fiddle and the pipe and tabor, the latter of which is a combination of a three-hole pipe and a small drum. The drum is suspended around the neck so that one hand can play the pipe and the other can beat the drum. Sometimes singing accompanied the music, and this tended to be as an introduction prior to the dance. Songs tended to be about farming or village life and were often rather unsophisticated and risqué.
While there have been new styles added and some developments within existing styles of Morris dancing, most of the practices follow the same traditions that have been used for hundreds of years.
Modern Morris dancing
Morris dancing has not changed a great deal over the centuries. As in past practices, troupes not only perform during public festivities, but also at special events known as “ales”, where many teams gather to perform over a full weekend. These parties sometimes include workshops and a formal meal.
Troupes tend to perform in a “set” of six or eight dancers in a rectangular formation. Most teams also have two special dancers called the “fool” and the “beast”. The fool wears an extravagant costume and speaks or mimes to the audience. The fool additionally dances around and through the main set, adding humor without distracting from it. The beast wears a costume representing a real or mythical creature and like the fool, this dancer interacts with the audience, but with children in particular.
Morris dancers often have an additional role within their troupe. Traditional names are frequently used for these roles, although the responsibilities may have evolved slightly since their inception. For example, there is sometimes a “ragman” who is responsible for the team’s costumes and makes the accessories like bell-pads and decorative sashes. A “foreman” takes responsibility for the training and style of the troupe while a “bagman” acts as a booking secretary.
As Morris dancing is both an active and a social hobby, many people are finding it a great way of dancing for weight loss because it is possible to combine exercise with a support network of fellow dancers.
Styles of Morris dancing
Styles of Morris dancing can be identified by practices such as the use of accessories like sticks, handkerchiefs or even different types of sword. Troupes can vary in terms of their costumes and in the moves of their dances, with some more obviously different than others. Some teams have loose, vigorous routines, while others engage a processional, military-like style.
Morris dancing music
While the fiddle and the pipe and tabor are still used today, more popular instruments used for making Morris dancing music are the melodeon, accordion and the concertina. Drums are regularly used and sometimes there are other instruments or singing.
Common reasons for becoming a Morris dancer
Some people become Morris dancers because they like folk dancing or want a hobby, and these are the most common incentives. Morris dancing is an engaging social activity that provides a fun way of meeting and interacting with other like-minded people. As such it has gained popularity as a method of losing weight, and is also a source of weight loss motivation through the encouragement of dancing peers.
More unusual reasons for starting Morris dancing
Morris dancing catches people’s attention wherever it is performed. Passersby can’t help but notice the unusual costumes, jingling bells and quirky folk music. The appeal of Morris dancing mean that it is perfect for fundraising activities, such as raising awareness for breast cancer research and other good causes.
I personally find this dance, and everything about this dance, pretty unique. Which is why I have posted a few interesting stories below about individuals experiencing Morris dancing…