What is Morris Dancing?

“Morris dancing is a celebration, a display of dance and music performed at seasonal festivals and holidays to banish the dark of winter, celebrate the warmth and fertility of summer, and bring in autumn's golden harvest.” Pretty fancy words for a lot of jumping around and trying not to run into each other, no? But all true. The morris is an ancient tradition that has survived and evolved over the course of many centuries.

Nine Daies Wonder Morris dancing is a show dance. It is not a social dance like English Ceili or Playford dancing or like the American counterparts of square dancing or contra dancing. It is performed by a troupe of dancers for an audience. Little is known about the origin of morris dancing although speculation runs rampant. Something like the morris probably was being done in Europe centuries ago, well before the time of Shakespeare who was kind enough to give the tradition some publicity by mentioning it several times in his plays.

Over the past five hundred years in the Cotswolds and the Welsh border counties of England the morris developed into the rich and colorful tradition we know today. Each village's morris team developed its own style of dancing and its own costume decorated with bells and colored ribbons for festivity and luck.

The morris was nearly lost when the Industrial Revolution eroded folk life and custom, but it has rebounded and spread across the world. Today, Morris dancing is danced in many places in Britain and around the world. There are a number of different types of dance that, rightly or wrongly, get lumped in with Morris: North West morris, Cotswold morris, Border morris, Longsword, Rapper (or Short Sword), Molly, and Clog dance.

The Hounds currently dance Border morris, but began life as a Cotswold team, performing Adderbury, Bampton, Headington, and Oddington styles.

  • Cotswold Morris : Between 1750 and 1850, a style of morris flourished in a tiny thirty mile by thirty mile area including and running east from the Cotswold hills of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, England. It is the morris that Cecil Sharp, the famous English folklorist, documented and taught to the English middle class as an example of vanishing English folk custom. Sharp's efforts fostered a revival of this style of morris, Cotswold morris, that made it the most common form danced today.
  • Border Morris : A much different kind of Morris dancing than Cotswold style. It was the favored form danced by the coal miners of the Welsh/English border and is typified by rather rougher looking outfits than the Cotswold sides, lots more stick dances, and plenty of grunting, yelling, and various other less-than-couth antics.

Julia Schult on What Is Morris Dancing

This video was put together in 2004 for multimedia course at Hamilton College. It is a nice overview of the different kinds of morris dancing and related customs.

Source: Julia Schult @ YouTube

Morris Glossary

As with any other specialized activity, there is a vocabulary of Morris terms to describe various aspects of the dancing.

Betley Window

  • Ale – a gathering of dancers. These are usually non-competetive, although teams generally want to show off their best dances. The name comes down from medieval times when the village church sponsored seasonal fairs and provided ale to entice people to come. These fairs, which themselves became known as ales, were favorite places for morris dancers to perform.
  • Caller – the person, generally at the front left of the set, who calls out the figures of the dance.
  • Chorus – the part of each dance which distinguishes it from others in the same tradition. Generally, a dance is either a set dance, in which all dancers do the chorus together, or a corner dance, in which two dancers at a time, the two sets of diagonal corners and then the pair in the middle, dance the steps. The choruses alternate with the figures, q.v.
  • Dance Out – a performance; can also refer to a whole day of performances at multiple venues.
  • Figure – a set of patterned steps which the whole set does together. Each tradition has its own set of figures (there is considerable overlap between traditions), which are generally the same in all of the dances of that tradition.
  • Jig – a dance for one or two dancers. Mostly Cotswold.
  • Kit – the costume worn by the dancers. Each team designs its own kit, which usually starts with a white shirt and leather pads covered with bells and (sometimes) ribbons. Everything else is variable and distinctive of a team. In Cotswold morris, dancers wear white or color trousers or britches (“knickers” for you Yanks), and either a colored vest or tunic or baldrics (ribbons crossed over the chest) with arms and legs decorated with bright ribbons. In Border morris, the kit is a bit wilder and usually consists of strips of cloth, usually called tatters or rags, sewn all over a shirt, jacket and/or trousers. Dancers often “black up” – ie, wear black face as a form of ritual disguise. In this age of political correctness, however, many teams skip this or else wear clown makeup or masks instead.
  • Set – the group of dancers performing a dance. In Cotswold, generally six dancers. In Border, the numbers are more variable with four, six, eight or multiples of four being common. The Hounds have done dances in sets of five and seven as well.
  • Team – an organized group of dancers who rehearse and perform together. Also known as a side. Teams may be all-male, all-female, or mixed. There is a certain amount of carping about which of these formats is traditional, and therefore correct. Recent history argues for men only as dancers, but older historical records suggest that women have always been involved.
  • Tradition – a particular style associated with a particular town. Although certain elements of the morris are shared, in each village the local team developed its own style with its own versions of steps, figures, etc. Thus, the Bledington tradition, the Bampton tradition, etc. Border morris differs a bit from Cotswold morris in that there were historically fewer dances done by each village (or at least fewer that have survived).

Morris Books

Some good overview books include:

  • A Handbook of Morris Dances (aka “The Black Book”) by Lionel Bacon, The Morris Ring, 1974. (Find in a LIbrary)
  • Six Fools and a Dancer by Anthony Barrand, Northern Harmony Publ., 1991, ISBN 0-9627554-1-9. (Find in a LIbrary)
  • The History of Morris Dancing, 1438-1750 by John Forrest, University of Toronto Press, 1999, ISBN 0-8020-0921-2. (Find in a LIbrary)
  • The Roots of Welsh Border Morris : the Welsh Border Dances of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire by Dave Jones, Publ. by Dave Jones, 1988. (Find in a LIbrary)
  • The Morris Book by Cecil Sharp and Herbert MacIlwaine, The Morris Ring, 1991, ISBN 0-95030203-5. (Find in a LIbrary)

Morris Dancing in Syracuse

There have been a surprising number of morris teams in Syracuse since the 1980s. These three teams are still performing.

  • Thornden Morris is an all-women's Cotswold team. First performing in 1981, it is the first successful morris team in Syracuse.
  • Ribbonsteel Rapper is a mixed gender, short sword team founded in 1989.
  • Wild Blue Morris is a mixed gender, Cotswold team founded in 2008. It only practices for a few months in the winter and has a short dance season in the spring.
  • Morris Dancing in Syracuse, NY, by Rich Holmes, details the local history of morris dancing in our fair city and is a good place to find out what other teams have existed in the area.

Morris & Folk Dance Organizations

  • MorrisDancing.Org: a joint project of the the three English morris organizations to act a gateway to other morris-related sites. Still in its infancy but it promises to be the definite morris meta site. Read Janet Dowling's “Morris On the Internet- Developing a Strategy” to get a feel for where this is going.
  • The Morris Ring: founded in 1934 is the oldest and most venerated of all Morris organizations. Also has links to individual pages maintained by the various Ring officers.
  • The Morris Federation: originally formed as The Women's Morris Federation to provide an alternative to the all male Morris Ring, it now admits men's, women's and mixed teams.
  • Open Morris: the most informal and family-oriented Morris organization.
  • The Australian Morris Ring: the down-under morris organization. Unlike their English namesake, accepts membership from mixed and women's sides.
  • English Folk Dance and Song Society: Founded in London in 1911 by Cecil Sharp as the English Folk Dance Society, the EFDSS aims to encourage, document and develop folk music, dance and song traditions within England. It publishes CDs, books, English Dance & Song magazine, the Folk Music Journal, as well as educational resources.
  • Country Dance and Song Society: The CDSS was founded in 1915 with the help of Englishman Cecil Sharp, a musician who traveled in his own country and in the southern United States collecting folk dances and songs. Today, the CDSS collects and documents English and related American folk traditions in the United States.