What is Morris Dancing?

BMM in Utrecht
Opinions differ widely as to the origins of Morris dancing, but the truth is no one really knows. The earliest written references to ‘Morrys Dauncers’ occur in churchwardens’ accounts c1500, usually recording small payments for ribbons or a pair of shoes. Before the Reformation, the Morris dancers and their musicians took part in all of the church festivals that were linked to the agricultural year, which may indicate that the dances were originally connected with the fertility of the earth and the successful planting and growing of the crops. There are half a dozen different ‘styles’ or traditions of Morris dancing: Cotswold, Border, North West, Molly, Sword and Rapper, but within these headings the dances can vary widely; they are usually performed by sets of four, six or eight people.

Although, for a number of years in the mid-1900s, Morris dancing was the preserve of men, there is ample evidence that women, too, took part. William Kemp in 1599 danced from London to Norwich in nine days during which time he met women who danced the Morris as well as men; of one he said:

‘At Chelmsford, a mayde not passing foureteene years of age, dwelling with one Sudley, my kinde friend, made request to her master and dame, that she might daunce the Morrice with me in a great large room. They being intreated, I was soone wonne to fit her with bells; besides, she would have the olde fashion, with napking on her armes; and to our jumps we fell. A whole houre she held out; but then being ready to lye downe, I left her off; but this much in her praise, I would have challenged the strongest man in Chelmsford, and amongst many I thinke few would have done so much.’
Chambers’ Book of Days (1880)

In the early days Morris dancing was almost solely the preserve of the agricultural working man, but with the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century, many old country traditions began to die out. By the 1890s only a handful of villages, mainly in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, still had Morris dancers. By a lucky chance, Cecil Sharp, who collected folk songs from around the country, saw one of these sides in 1899 and began to write down the music and dances, which now form the basis of the modern Morris dance revival. In the last 30 years or so women too have again taken up this form of traditional dancing. There now exist in England hundreds of sides comprising men only, women only and men and women dancing together.