The origins of the Morris are very hard to track down, as for the greater part of its existence, it has been performed by unlettered people. It comes to light only when educated polite society recorded the peripheral aspects, such as the cost of prizes for competitions, or about the antics of drunken dancers! Until fairly recently, it was assumed that the Morris is a remnant of pre-Christian fertility rites, but, if this is true, it is only one element of something much more complex.
By the end of the Victorian age, Morris dancing was in decline. People no longer stayed in their villages for work and recreation and, by about 1900, it was regarded as an archaic part of our agricultural past. The decimation of many teams by the Great War almost wiped out the traditional teams. However, not only did the activities of the people inspired by Cecil Sharp’s work keep the Morris alive, but eventually prompted the revival of our interest in traditional customs. Part of this revival saw teams of women and children performing the Morris, especially in the North West of England.
Sword dancing is from Yorkshire (longsword) or the North East (with rappers, a two handled flexible steel strap, supposedly a tool from the mines used to scrape sweat and coal dust from the backs of pit ponies). In both forms of sword dancing, the dancers perform complex repeated interweaving patterns with fast stepping and are often accompanied by a leader (the Tommy) and a man/woman character (the Betty). Molly dancing from the Fens is traditionally a wintertime custom and has many similarities to Border Morris.
North West Morris
Each village or town, mill or foundry had its own team and its own dance. Some have come down to us with their original names – Aughton, Marston, Failsworth, Blackrod and Colne are examples danced by Kettle Bridge Clogs. The Morris is called a living tradition, in other words, it is forever evolving. New dances are written, often based on traditional figures and our repertoire, like many modern NW sides, includes both traditional and new dances.
Morris dancing in all its forms is found today throughout the world, wherever the English have set foot, as far afield as Australia, South Africa and throughout North America. In many of these English speaking countries, the Morris flourishes and is regarded as much theirs as it is ours, and rightly so. What a pity it is that the English have so little regard for their native customs, compared to the approach of the other inhabitants of these islands. To make matters worse, the promotion of other countries’ cultures and the belittlement of our own by our media (when did you last see the Morris on television, except as the object of mickey-taking?) is to the detriment of our national heritage. To find out more about this living part of our culture, contact the English Folk Dance and Song Society, or one of the three national Morris organisations, the Morris Ring, the Morris Federation (of which Kettle Bridge Clogs is a member side), or the Open Morris.
Article by Mel Odeon.