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History of Morris Dance



© 2005 Warren Fahey



We’ve all seen them, jumping around like mad fools, grown men and women dancing Morris and other ritualistic formation dances. They appear at shopping malls, arts festivals and folk festivals and, because of the tinkling of ankle bells, can usually be heard before they are actually seen.

These dancers are keeping alive an age-old custom of ritual dance that started around the Middle Ages, perhaps earlier. The fact it is danced in Australia makes it an even more fascinating custom.

 Sydney Morris Men (photographed by Patricia Early)

Morris is one of the earliest surviving weddings of movement to music. It is an integral part of the English tradition and has, at times, without rhyme or reason, appeared in the tradition of other cultures from Spain to Barbados.

From the early cave paintings to the art of Ancient Greece, Egypt, China and Rome, we know that our ancestors danced. The Australian Aborigines also danced and portrayed their dance forms on their early paintings. Dance, of course, is not dissimilar to folk music in as much as it travels across boundaries, often being changed in the process, and emerges to be a legitimate expression of that new culture.

Morris originally had a deep, often mysterious, ritualistic relationship to the English tradition for it was born of paganism. It celebrated the birth, death and resurrection of all that was necessary to survival. Primitive society needed to appease and celebrate their gods to ensure good seasons for the coming year and this type of dance stems directly from that need.

Two main types of dance evolved as cultures developed: social dances on occasions that celebrated births, commemorated deaths, and marked special events in between; and magical or religious dances to ask the gods to end a famine, to provide rain, or to cure the sick. Dance historian, Wendy Burke, comments, “the medicine men of primitive cultures, whose powers to invoke the assistance of a god were feared and respected, are considered by many to be the first choreographers, or composers of formal dances.”

Funk & Wagnell’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore & Mythology points out that Morris is the English version of the Moorish dance or Morisco.

The following brief description explains the basic traditional formation of each Morris dance style.

Occasionally the Morris is a solo jig which is danced in and out among two crossed pipes, however, in surviving dances, especially in Britain and Australia, it is more likely to be found as a formation of several dancers and musicians. Usually the Morris is a longways dance performed by six men with accompanying traditional characters (as in the Cotswold Morris), or by ten (Lancashire Morris).

The figures vary as follows:

a. Processional, a progressive double serpentine of the two interweaving lines.
b. Bean Setting, a stick dance with obvious agricultural symbolism in the ‘dibbling’ or floor thumping with the sticks and striking of partners’ sticks.
c. Stick Dances (Constant Billy, Rigs of Marlow, Shepherd’s hey) which involve a complex pattern of stick striking by partners, parallel across, right, left, up and down.
d. Handkerchief Dances (Blue-eyed Stranger, Country gardens) with manipulation of kerchiefs throughout the leaps and the formations.
e. Corner Dances (Trunkles, How D’ye Do, Laudnum Bunches) purely dances of diagonal cross-over formations.
f. Morris Off, a circular prelude to the dancer’s exit.
The above are the ‘traditional formations’ but it is important to note that, as with all traditions, they are open to change and, in fact, many of these dances performed in Australia have changed and continue to change. New dances have also been added.

Generally speaking a rude vigour characterises the movements: the various leaps, called ‘capers’ or ‘springs’, the various combinations of steps and hops in duple and triple time, the straight kneed kicks, the cross steps, side steps, the straddles, arm swings, and climatic high jumps with shouts. As they say: it’s enough to scare the dogs!

The tunes, known as ‘Morris tunes’, were traditionally played by a bagpipe or a wood pipe and tabor, called whittle and dub. Although these old instruments do make an appearance it is more likely the Australian accompaniment will be a fiddle and button accordion. Goat skin drums (aka: Celtic stretched drum) are also used. The jumping and shouting of the dancers is also part of the music as is the sound of the ankle bells.

The costume

The costume, formally consisting of breeches, plumed hats, blackened faces, have been replaced by white trousers, frilled shirts and top hats with feathers however, necessity being the grandmother of Morris invention, there appears to be no hard and fast rules as long as it looks right! The ankle pads have remained a firm favourite.

Some of the dances include ‘characters’ who appear to have retained much or their original identity, while often changing their names. Bessy, the man-woman, was Maid Marian and, before that, Mother Eve. The hobbyhorse rider is descended from Robin hood and, previously, St George, the dragon killer. A ‘fool’ in medieval costume or tatters has always cavorted on the outskirts, formally with a fox mask and perhaps a bladder on a stick.

The revival of Morris Dancing is usually attributed to the English folk song collector Cecil Sharp who, incidentally, lived in Adelaide, South Australia, for part of his youth.

Some of the Australian dancers also perform the ‘Mummer’s Play‘. [see Mel Ward’s script for a Mummer’s Play]
These are essentially a troupe of masked players who enact an age-old play on Christmas Day. The jumbled texts tell of St George’s victory over his infidel antagonist, of a doctor, and a resurrection. Formerly a dragon and hobbyhorse were included in the dramatis personae ? and they too are just as likely to appear in the Australian version. In addition to the enacted duel, the troupe of mummers springily circle sun-wise with sticks or wooden swords. You might also find them wearing what looks like (and usually is) shredded newspaper ? a nod to the fact that this was most probably shredded animal skin and fur ? similar to the ‘shaggy wild men’ one was likely to encounter in sideshow alley at an early carnival or local show.

Sword dancing

Sword dancing is also related to the Morris as danced in Australia.
These are men’s dances involving the rhythmic manipulation of one or several (wooden) swords, often in combination with elaborate configurations.

There is no exact evidence as to when the first Morris Dance was performed in Australia. For all we know it could have been in the early days of the colony. It is more likely, however, to have been the early part of the twentieth century, when several dance clubs were interested in ‘English folk dance’. Bob Bolton, of the Bush Music Club, has mentioned an 1796 print reference to Morris being performed at Parramatta and the ‘offending convict’ dancers being flogged.

Folk dancing was an accepted part of every Australian childhood in the first half of the 20th century and was taught at most schools and promoted as a ‘healthy’ activity. These were usually ‘quaint’ dances of the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ variety but they certainly encouraged some adults to look further and, possibly, into Morris.