morris dance


morris dance
   The most widely known ceremonial *dance form in England, although the name includes a range of types and styles. The common features are that the dancers were almost invariably male, wore a special costume, and they danced for display on particular occasions and not normally at other times. Morris dancing is also one of the few *calendar customs that are popularly seen as archetypi-cally English and is also one of the few with a demonstrable history back to the early modern period. There are a number of brief references in 15th century sources, the first known being in 1458, and by 1494 at least morris dancers were performing at the king's court:
   2 Jan 1494 Privy purse expenses of Henry VII: For playing of the Mourice daunce Ј2 (and another on 4 Feb 1502) (quoted Hazlitt, 1905: 422)
   By all accounts, morris dancing was hardly a rare occurrence in the 16th century, and could be included in a range of spectacular events at various times of year. In 1552-3, for example, Henry Machyn of London recorded four encounters with 'mores dansyng'; twice as part of the king's Lord of Misrule retinue (3 January 1552 and 4 January 1553), once accompanying a 'goodly may-pole' (26 May 1552), and once in the Sherriff of London's procession. These early references give little substantive information, but by the end of that century descriptions start to offer more detail. Philip Stubbes, complaining vociferously in 1583, writes of them bedecking themselves with 'scarfs, ribbons and laces', wearing bells on their legs, waving handkerchiefs over their heads, and accompanied by hobby horses (Stubbes, 1583). For Shakespeare, a 'Whitsun Morris Dance' was proverbial (Henry V, ii. iv). In Thomas Dekker's play The Shoemaker's Holiday (1599/1600), the shoemakers perform a morris dance to entertain the Lord Mayor, and in his The Witch of Edmonton (c.1623), one of the main characters plays the hobby horse, and the morris men are shown planning their performances and paraphernalia. Morris dancers are also featured, or at least mentioned, in many other 17th century plays, and early pictorial evidence is presented in the anonymous painting, The Thames at Richmond, with the Old Royal Palace (c.1620). Morris dancing thus existed in a number of social spheres, and in the absence of detailed information about the activity itself, scholars classify early references by their context, 'court', 'literary', and so on.
   When more detailed information became available in the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars identified several types of morris dance, concentrated in different geographical areas, and featuring different styles of dancing, costume, and social organization. The labels assigned to these different types are a rough guide, but are not watertight categories. Cotswold: what most people think of as 'morris dancing', found in the area now referred to as the South Midlands; Chandler delineates the area as within an arc with a radius of 40 miles, with the heart of the Wychwood Forest as its centre and the Thames as the southern boundary (p. 23). The normal team has six dancers, plus a spare dancer or two, fool, musician, collector; dances are either handkerchief or stick dances; dancers wear bells on their legs. North-west: found only in the Lancashire/Cheshire area, with dances primarily designed for processional performance, such as accompanying rush-carts (see *rush-bearing), and participation in carnivals and * wakes. Teams are much larger than in Cots-wold, and costume more elaborate (JEFDSS 9:1 (1960), 42-55). Border: a group of dances collected in villages along the Welsh border, at one time dismissed as 'degenerate' Cotswold, but which could equally be regarded as ancestors of Cotswold (Burne, 1883: 477-82; Leather, 1912: 129-32; JEFDSS 9 (1963), 197-212). Bedlam: in recent years a group of references have been identified, which indicate a set of dances - labelled 'Bedlam' morris - which can be distinguished from other 'Cotswold' dances, characterized by stick and hand-clapping rather than handkerchiefs, the absence of bells, ribboned costume rather than baldricks, and often by blackened faces. Bedlam and Border morris also share a number of features, and Bedlam characteristics are found in certain Cotswold traditions. Further research is necessary to ascertain their true position in morris development. *Molly dancing: a relatively simple type of dance, found only in East Anglia from the 19th century, but sufficiently distinct to warrant its own entry. Carnival morris developed from North-west during the 20th century, almost exclusively danced by young girls at fetes and carnivals (JEFDSS 9:1 (1960), 42-55).
   The key figure in the revival of interest in morris dancing was Cecil *Sharp, who had encountered the Headington Quarry dancers in 1899 and set about collecting more after being approached by Mary *Neal (in 1907) for dances to teach her *Esperance Club girls. At first working with Neal, but later in opposition after a very public disagreement over artistic standards, Sharp and others set about forging a national revival movement based on his collecting and library researches. The *Eng-lish Folk Dance Society (EFDS) was formed in 1911/12, and its members sought to encourage morris, and other traditional dances, across the country. Numerous clubs were formed, and a nationwide revival was soon under way. Tensions in the revival rapidly surfaced, however, focusing on questions of style, artistic standards, and the role of women in teaching and dancing a 'masculine' dance form, and these tensions have never been fully resolved. The *Morris Ring was founded in 1934, as an umbrella organization for morris clubs, followed by the *Morris Federation in 1975. There are still hundreds of clubs up and down the country, who dance in a variety of styles.
   Sharp's findings were first published in his The Morris Book (1907-13) although subsequent experience prompted him to publish heavily revised editions in 1912-13, and it is these second editions which are used today. Further collecting work after Sharp's time identified more village traditions, but also demonstrated that the neat static picture, implied by Sharp, with each village possessing a relatively discrete unbroken tradition stretching back into a remote past was not tenable. None of the places which had active teams in the late 19th century could prove a morris tradition back further than 200 years, and most could not even approach this figure. As noted above, earlier references showed that morris had been found in a wider variety of contexts in previous years, and it is still not clear how it was transformed into the regionalized *calen-dar custom which the Edwardian collectors found.
   ■ Keith Chandler, Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles: The Social History of Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands 1660-1900 (1993); Keith Chandler, Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900: A Chronological Gazetteer (1993); Mike Heaney, An Introductory Bibliography on Morris Dancing (1985); Cecil J. Sharp, The Morris Book (1907-13; 2nd edn., 1912-24); Michael Heaney, Bedlam Morris (1985); Roy Judge, 'The Old English Morris Dance: Theatrical Morris 1801-1880', FMJ 7:3 (1997), 311-50; John Forrest and Michael Heaney, 'Charting Early Morris', FMJ 6:2 (1991), 169-86.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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