What is Border Morris?

This is an excerpt from Andy Anderson's booklet about Border Morris Dancing, published by the Morris Federation and available, in part, on Andy Anderson's web site. See also the Hounds brochure and the links to sources of dance notation at the end of this page.

Westwood Border Morris, August 1949 at Much Wenlock Abbey. Photo from themorrisring.org The term 'Border Morris' was probably first used by Dr E C Cawte in his article in the EFDSS Journal, ”The Morris Dances of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire”. Today the term normally describes dances of a particular style, rather than just those which originated in the area. The dances are boisterous and energetic, primarily stick dances, relying to a great extent on the impact of the performance. The dancers may cover their faces with coloured make-up and the costumes are often decorated with many ribbons or strips of material, known as rags or tatters.

The Collected Material

There are many descriptions of morris dancing in Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, a great number of them dating back hundreds of years. These early descriptions are very interesting, but unfortunately not a great deal of use for the derivation of dance notations. They divide broadly into two categories. Some are descriptions of the performance of morris dances as entertainment at fairs or in the big houses of the area. These tell us a great deal about the context of the performances and how the audience received them. Occasionally the material includes descriptions of the music and the costume of the dancers. Without fail, the authors ignore the actual form and structure of the dance.

The remainder of the early material consists of records of morris dancers appearing before magistrates on charges of violent behaviour, drunkenness, unpaid bills or any combination of the three. Normally these records do not include descriptions of the dancing, which preceded the incident in question. It was not until the revival of interest in folk customs and traditions that anyone really recorded the form and structure of any type of folk dance, let alone the morris dances from the Welsh borders. Shortly before the end of the nineteenth century, collectors began to work in the border area and Ella Leather, Maud Karpeles and Cecil Sharp, amongst others, recorded dances and tunes from the area before the first world war. However, the collectors of the period generally ignored the morris dances of the Welsh borders: Cecil Sharp considered them a degenerate form of the morris, hardly worth recording.

From the nineteen-thirties onwards, researchers started to make some real effort to record the dancing from the area. By then, however, the traditional teams, which had already started to decline well before the first world war, had almost completely died out. Collectors interested in the dances themselves were mostly forced to rely on second-hand information from people who had seen the dance, rather than from those who had actually performed them. This situation was probably made worse because morris dancing was a tradition associated with begging and people were reluctant to admit that they, or their friends or family, had been involved in it.

The Traditional Teams

The teams who were dancing at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries performed mainly to raise money to supplement their income, although they probably spent a fair proportion of the collection in the local pub. Although the impression is that the dancers were an undisciplined, rowdy group, anything that impaired the performance also reduced the collection and such misdemeanours as turning up late or forgetting part of the costume were often subject to large fines. In the Welsh Border area, morris dancing traditionally happened around Christmas and the dancers could raise a substantial amount of extra money. In many cases this made the difference between a good Christmas and a poor one. It is open to conjecture whether the traditional association with Christmas came first, or whether it resulted from a particular need to raise extra money at that time of year.

The team was normally chosen each year by the leader, who was either the person who taught the dance, or the musician. The members often included favoured members of the leader's family and close friends. The numbers often varied from year to year as members died or, more rarely, moved away and new people joined. There are a few descriptions of women dancing in the area, but these are all very early. Well before the start of the twentieth century all of the descriptions are of groups solely of men. It is not clear when this change occurred. It may have been at least partly due to the nineteenth-century view of women's place in society.

The team would practise the dance a few times before starting to going out to perform, then toured the local area collecting money. Communications in the area were poor and in some places, notably the Clee Hills, they remain so today. It was possible to travel reasonably quickly on the rivers, particularly the River Severn, and the major roads, but across country ten miles travel could often take a complete day. This, coupled with the fact that the dancers were usually poor, meant that the teams normally did not travel very far in order to perform.

Many teams blackened their faces, though a number of teams did not. 'Blacking up' may have been as some form of disguise because the performers were begging. If so, this must have been a custom that saved face on the part of dancers and audience alike. In a relatively small and enclosed community, blackening faces rarely prevents recognition. It is equally possible that the performers borrowed the idea from the minstrel troupes which were popular during the last part of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century.

A number of teams wore costumes with numerous rags or ribbons attached to either the shirt or a jacket, but again this was by no means universal. There are also descriptions of teams wearing smocks, plain shirts and carnival costumes. The rule seems to have been that the teams wore whatever was readily available and made a show for the audience. Most of the teams wore bells, attached either to the shoes or to the costume.

The Traditional Dances

Dr Cawte's article contains descriptions of many kinds of dances, some of which would not really be considered as morris dancing today. In terms of those performances that would today be considered morris, each team normally performed a single dance, with sticks. If there are descriptions of a second dance, this is another version of the same dance, with the sticking chorus replaced either by hand-clapping or by a chorus performed with handkerchiefs. Most teams with two dances had a hand-clapping chorus. Handkerchief dances were confined to a few teams, principally from the Vale of Evesham. These teams, incidentally, did not blacken their faces.

In the far north-west of the area, close to the border with Wales, the dances are mostly for a small number of dancers and are relatively simple. It may be that the dances from this area are the closest in form to the original and that the other dances from the border area have been the subject of outside influences. It is, however, also true that this area of the Welsh border counties was relatively inaccessible to the early collectors. The collected dances date from later, when the dancing was already dying out.

The north-east and central areas of the border counties was more urban and had better communications. Perhaps because of this, the dances tend to be for larger numbers and are more complex. This area adjoins what is considered to be the “North-West Morris” area of the Cheshire Plain and Lancashire and it is possible to see the influence of the urban, processional dances from that area on some of the “Border Morris” teams.

In the south-east of the area, a separate, distinct group of dances occurs, confined to a group of towns and villages in the Vale of Evesham. This was a prosperous rural area and it adjoins the “Cotswold Morris” area. The dances form a distinctive group, which is unlike other dances in the “Border Morris” area. Some of them show clear influences from the “Cotswold” style. The spread of these dances in a local area along the River Severn may perhaps be due to one or two individuals involved with several of the teams.

The Music

There is little collected music which can be tied to morris dancing in the Welsh Border counties with any degree of certainty. Folk collectors recorded tunes from musicians who played for dance teams, but these are popular country-dance tunes and it is not clear whether the musicians also used them for morris dancing. Most informants interviewed by the collectors said that there was no set tune. The musicians played tunes that they liked, or what they could manage. In cases where the dancers insisted that a particular tune was 'right', this was normally because a collector had already published a description of the dance accompanied by that tune. The only real evidence for the type of music being played comes from some of the descriptions of stick-tapping rhythms and some vague descriptions such as 'schottisches played rather slowly'.

One tune that was used regularly is 'Not for Joe', or 'Om Si the Gom Si'. This started life as a minstrel song and either took its folk name from, or gave the name to, a particular style of Border Morris Dancing. Some of the versions of the words for this song would be considered mildly obscene even today and it is not surprising that the collectors did not print them, although they often recorded them in manuscript. In an area where few people travelled regularly to the large towns, being able to use the latest popular music-hall songs in a performance must have been somewhat akin to being able to use part of the latest blockbuster movie as an accompaniment to the dancing.

The Revival Of Border Morris

The revival in Cotswold morris began early in the twentieth century. It was not until much later, well after the second world war, that some groups in the Welsh Border area began to become interested in performing their own local morris dances rather than dances 'imported' from the Cotswolds or from the North-West. By that time, the original teams had stopped dancing and there was no living example to follow.

Paradise Islanders (ca 1984) The first new 'Border Morris' teams drew on the previously collected material, notations and descriptions of the dances, together with descriptions obtained from old dancers and their relatives, to devise a style of performance. Where information was lacking, or where the end result was unsuitable for a contemporary audience, the dancers brought in new ideas. They based this additional material on their experience of other types of dancing with which they were familiar. In this way a style evolved, originated mainly by four teams: Ironmen, Paradise Islanders, Shropshire Bedlams, and Silurian.

A traditional repertoire of just one dance would not be sufficient to maintain the interest of present day dancers, or indeed of the audience. As the teams developed, they added new dances. Some of these were based on descriptions or fragments of notations: some were completely new. Audiences who watched these Border Morris teams saw dancing which closely matched the descriptions of the early teams, without being exactly as those teams might have performed. The dances were vigorous, energetic yet controlled, giving the impression of power through the stepping and stick tapping. Performances included the originally collected dances alongside newly developed dances that are now considered as part of the 'standard' border morris repertoire.

Inspired by those original teams a number of other new teams were formed, many outside the Welsh border area, and existing groups began to include some Border Morris in their repertoire. Many of these teams saw Border Morris as something new and challenging, where it was possible to develop new material within a more fluid framework than was possible within the Cotswold Morris tradition. The new teams set about developing their own material, basing their performances on the notations then available in print and on the style of the teams they had seen perform.

In the past few years, much more information about Border Morris has been discovered and become widely available. Little, if any, of this has added anything to the available early notations or to an appreciation of the original style of the dancing. Taken together, the increasing number of available descriptions of performances improves the understanding of the type of performance that was taking place, but it is extremely unlikely that a complete notation or a detailed description of the stepping remains undiscovered in some library or private collection. Today, Border Morris can be considered a living tradition. Current teams watch each other perform and add new ideas. They draw on experience of many forms of dance, both from England and elsewhere. The best new ideas are copied, adapted and used in new settings until it becomes impossible to say with any certainty where they originated.

Where To Get More Information

All of the material that directly relates to traditional Border Morris dance notations is available within the collection of The Morris Federation and The Morris Ring. Each of these organisations also has material developed by present day teams. Much of this is also available on request. When making enquiries, either about these notations or about anything else, remember that everyone you deal with is a volunteer, answering all of these queries and requests in their spare time. If you telephone, be considerate as to the time at which you do so. If you write, enclose a stamped addressed envelope or an address label and do not be surprised or frustrated if a reply takes some time to arrive. Both of these organisations and a third, Open Morris, also run occasional workshops and instructionals where you can learn the dances. Contact them for further details. Most of the 'traditional' dances and some descriptive material are included in a booklet by the late Dave Jones. This has been out of print but some copies are now available again from the Morris Ring.

There is a wealth of descriptive material on Border Morris in collections at the County Record Offices of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. There are also library collections amongst which are: the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. the Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language, the manuscripts department at University College, London and the library of the Folklore Society. Descriptions also appear in periodicals of the period. Once again, the County Record Offices are good starting points, as is the collection in the British Library at Colindale.

Sources of Border Morris Dance Notation on the Web

  • Mike Miller's Hounds Dance Pages document our own dances as well as some that we've learned from other teams. See also the dance notation pages here on the Hounds web site.
  • Roy Dommett's Morris Notes - Nigel Sparkes has published on the extensive dance notations of Roy Dommett, a modern-day collector of morris dances on the web. Many of the notes have been published for workshops or lectures which Roy has given or attended. Roy's Border Morris notes are the most extensive collection of traditional and modern border dances.
  • Andy Anderson of Red Stags Morris, Southampton, Hampshire, England composed many of the dances and accompanying tunes in the Hounds' repertoire. Andy also is the author of a Morris Federation pamphlet about the history of border morris and exerpts are available on his website.
  • Hook Eagle Morris have dance notations of some of the more traditional border morris dances.
  • Welsh Border Morris is a directory of border morris teams and events and contains brief overviews of some of the traditional dances.
  • Anonymous Morris have dance notations for a dozen dances, some traditional, some not.
  • MOTley Morris, a border side from the Boston area, now defunct, drew some of their repertoire from the Hounds, the Connecticut based Not For Joes, and composed new dances of their own. A page of dance notations fortunately remains.

Border Morris Resources

  • Border Morris: Roots & Revival”, by Gordon Ashman. Transcript of a talk. American Morris Newsletter. Vol 25 No 1 (April 2005).
  • Bordering on the Insane” by John Kirkpatrick. Describes Shropshire Bedlams part in the early days of the Border Morris revival. Originally published in English Dance & Song. Vol 41 No 3 (1979).
  • A Brief Background to Border Morris Dancing” by Andy Anderson. Excerpt from the booklet “Border Morris: A Brief Outline,” published by the Morris Federation.
  • “The Roots Of Welsh Border Morris: The Welsh Border Morris Dances of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire,” by Dave Jones; revised 1995 (ISBN No. 0 9526285 0 3). Booklet available from The Morris Ring Shop.