History of Morris

Morris dance is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers. In a small number of dances for one or two men, steps are performed near and across a pair of claytobacco pipes laid across each other on the floor.

Claims that English records dating back to 1448 mention the morris dance are open to dispute. There is no mention of "morris" dancing earlier than the late 15th century, although early records such asBishops' "Visitation Articles" mention sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities as well as mumming plays. Furthermore, the earliest records invariably mention "Morys" in a court setting, and both men and women are mentioned as dancing, and a little later in the Lord Mayors' Processions in London. It is only later that it begins to be mentioned as something performed in the parishes. There is certainly no evidence that it is a pre-Christian ritual, as is often claimed.

In modern day, it is commonly thought of as a mainly English activity, although there are around 150 morris sides (or teams) in the United States. British expatriates form a larger part of the morris tradition inAustraliaCanadaNew Zealand and Hong Kong. There are isolated groups in other countries, for example those in Utrecht and Helmond[1], Netherlands; the Arctic Morris Group of Helsinki,[2] Finland and Stockholm,[3] Sweden; as well as in Cyprus;[4] and Alsace, France.[5]

The term is derived from moorish dance, attested as Morisk dance and moreys daunce, morisse daunce in the mid-15th century. The spelling Morris-dance appears in the 17th century. Comparable terms in other languages are German Moriskentanz (also from the 15th century), French morisques, Croatian moreška, and morescomoresca or morisca in Italy and Spain.[6] Another theory is that it derives from the Romanian "morişca", which means "little mill".[7]

By 1492 Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille succeeded in driving the Moors out of Spain and unifying the country. In celebration of this a pageant known as a Moresca was devised and performed. This can still be seen performed in places such as AinsaAragon. Incorporated into this pageant was the local dance – the paloteao. This too can still be seen performed in the villages of Aragon, Basque country, Castille, Catalonia and northern Portugal. The original "Moresca" is believed[who?] a sword dance. A similar sword folk dance is known as the Căluşari dance of Romania which spread abroad in Bulgaria and Serbia and it is also believed to be closely related to the Morris dance. Speculations suggest that the dance was borrowed from Dacia by the Celts. [8] The sticks in Morris dance are a residual of the swords in the "Moresca". The similarity to what became known as the English "morris" is surmised.[citation needed] Although the Great London Chronicle records spangled Spanish dancers performing an energetic dance before Henry VII at Christmas of 1494, Heron's accounts also mention "pleying of the mourice dance" four days earlier which could mean that the Morris Dance was an indigenous entertainment already in existence in England, perhaps from the Middle Ages.[9]Early court records state that the "moresque" was performed at court in her honour, including the dance – the "moresque" or "morisce" or "morys" dance.

Before the English Civil War, the working peasantry took part in morris dances, especially at Whitsun. In 1600 the Shakespearean actor William Kempe morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in hisNine Daies Wonder (1600). The Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell, however, suppressed Whitsun Ales and other such festivities. When the crown was restored by Charles II, the springtime festivals were restored. In particular, Whitsun Ales came to be celebrated on Whitsunday, as the date coincided with the birthday of Charles II.

Morris dancers and a hobby horse: detail of Thames at Richmond, with the Old Royal Palace, c.1620

Morris dancing continued in popularity until the industrial revolution and its accompanying social changes. Four teams claim a continuous lineage of tradition within their village or town: Abingdon (their morris team was kept going by the Hemmings Family),[10] BamptonHeadington Quarry, and Chipping Campden.[11] Other villages have revived their own traditions, and hundreds of other teams across the globe have adopted (and adapted) these traditions, or have created their own styles from the basic building blocks of morris stepping and figures.

Several English folklorists were responsible for recording and reviving the tradition in the early 20th century, often from a bare handful of surviving members of mid-19th-century village sides. Among these, the most notable are Cecil SharpMaud Karpeles, and Mary Neal.

Boxing Day 1899 is widely regarded[citation needed] as the starting point for the morris revival. Cecil Sharp was visiting at a friend's house in Headington, near Oxford, when the Headington Quarry morris side arrived to perform. Sharp was intrigued by the music and collected several tunes from the side's musician, William Kimber; not until about a decade later, however, did he begin collecting the dances, spurred and at first assisted byMary Neal, a founder of the Espérance Club (a dressmaking co-operative and club for young working women in London), and Herbert MacIlwaine, musical director of the Espérance Club. Neal was looking for dances for her girls to perform, and so the first revival performance was by young women in London.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, several men's sides were formed, and in 1934 the Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides. In the 1960s and especially the 1960s, there was an explosion of new dance teams, some of them women's or mixed sides. At the time, there was often heated debate over the propriety and even legitimacy of women dancing the morris, even though there is evidence as far back as the 16th century that there were female morris dancers. There are now male, female and mixed sides to be found.

Partly because women's and mixed sides are not eligible for full membership of the Morris Ring, two other national (and international) bodies were formed, the Morris Federation and Open Morris. All three bodies provide communication, advice, insurance, instructionals (teaching sessions) and social and dancing opportunities to their members. The three bodies co-operate on some issues, while maintaining their distinct identities.

Today, there are six predominant styles of morris dancing, and different dances or traditions within each style named after their region of origin.

  • Cotswold morris: dances from an area mostly in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire; an established misnomer, since the Cotswolds overlap this region only partially. Normally danced with handkerchiefs or sticks to accompany the hand movements. Dances are usually for 6 or 8 dancers, but solo and duo dances (known as single or double jigs) also occur.
  • North West morris: more military in style and often processional, that developed out of the mills in the North-West of England in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Border Morris from the English-Welsh border: a simpler, looser, more vigorous style, traditionally danced with blackened faces, which was used as a disguise so the dancers would not be recognised by the local landowners whilst out 'begging' for money.
  • Longsword dancing from Yorkshire and south Durham, danced with long, rigid metal or wooden swords for, usually, 6 or 8 dancers.
  • Rapper from Northumberland and Co. Durham, danced with short flexible sprung steel swords, usually for 5 dancers.
  • Molly Dancing from Cambridgeshire. Traditionally danced on Plough Monday, they were Feast dances that were danced to collect money during harsh winters. One of the dancers would be dressed as a woman, hence the name.


  1. ^ Morrisdansgroep Helmond
  2. ^ Helsinki Morrisers
  3. ^ http://www.ekenmorris.org
  4. ^ http://cyprusmorris.net
  5. ^ Ferrette Morris Men
  6. ^ OED, s.v. "morris dance" and "Morisk". D. Arnold, The New Oxford Companion to Music, vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 1203.
  7. ^ England's Culture: Morris Dancing
  8. ^ The Mystic and Tradition of a Folk Dance: Calusarii
  9. ^ Billington, Sandra, A Social History of the Fool, Harvester Press, 1984, pp. 36,37.
  10. ^ Hemmings tradition
  11. ^ Chipping Campden Morris Men | Homepage

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Morris Dancing makes appearance at London 2012 Olympics:

How May Day used to be...


and in 2013...