In England, Morris Dancing Is Loved, Mocked and Getting a Makeover

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By Usa Express Daily

Four women in gold lamé jumpsuits with painted faces and floral headbands leaped in tandem, their shins bedecked with silver bells. Hands — each gripping a white handkerchief — cut the air at angles above their heads. Two enormous papier-mâché beasts — a sheep and an owl — were being manipulated to dance at the edge of the stage. Joy beamed from each dancer’s face. The crowd was whooping. But what on earth was this spectacle?

The women, part of the all-female company Boss Morris, were performing the Cotswold Morris, an often mocked English folk dance that was having a rare moment on the proscenium stage at the Southbank Center in London in May. But this was not Morris dancing as it has come down through the ages. “We go a bit wild,” said Rhia Davenport, a founding member of Boss Morris.

In Morris dancing, a folk form performed to live music (fiddles, concertinas, melodeons), movements can be discrete or dramatic, from rhythmic stepping and one-legged hops to gentle gestures. For years Morris was relegated to rural England, the province of passionate amateurs, attuned to an inherited history.

“Try everything once — except incest and Morris dancing,” a popular saying goes in England. But now Morris, long a poked-fun-of example of British eccentricity, is opening up to younger dancers who approach it as a living tradition. For some, this means exploring ways to pull apart and reinterpret the form. And for traditionalists, it means perfecting ancient technique.

Morris dance is believed to have started life as a form of Royal court entertainment in the 15th century. Over time, it became the preserve of working-class men in the villages from which the dances originated, often performed in front of a pub. Costumes usually consist of white shirts and pants, hard black shoes, sashes with village colors, and bells and ribbons. Each village’s dance is different from the next — in formation, footwork or character work.

England is “at the end of the cycle of folk revivalism, which exploded in the 1970s,” said Michael Heaney, an expert on Morris dancing and author of the recently published book, “The Ancient English Morris Dance.” “People are dying off. A new generation is taking over. There was once an orthodox canon of what Morris dancing was. That is changing. Younger dancers are much freer in their interpretation of what counts as Morris.”

One less-orthodox collective is Folk Dance Remixed, which has led workshops at the Royal Opera House and performed across the country. Their signature piece — “Step Hop House” — is danced as a “conversation between Cotswold Morris, capoeira and hip-hop,” said Natasha Khamjani, a co-founder of the company. “Those three styles are highly aerobic. Most of the time you are trying to get the dancers to fly. It is hard work.”

A particularly rousing phrase has eight dancers staggered in two rows, legs seamlessly moving between whacking and popping and the distinctive capers (hops), galleys (lifted knees) and jigs of Cotswold Morris, all with handkerchiefs working as extensions of arms.

Kerry Fletcher, the other co-founder of Folk Dance Remixed, said that when the company began exploring the connections among forms, in 2010, “we were shocked to find that Morris dancing steps look like what came out of the East Coast hip-hop scene” in the United States. One crossover is the use of unusual time signatures. “In one dance, we have a jig danced to a 9/8 rhythm — with a beat boxer and bass guitar,” Khamjani said. “A dancer of ours who trained at the Northern Ballet was really struggling.”

For Khamjani, “street dance is the folk of today.” So why, she added, “should native English folk styles like Morris not be reflected in our work?”

Damien Barber is director of the Demon Barbers, another company probing the unlikely relationship between Morris dancing and hip-hop. Mr. Barber’s signature show, “The Lock-In,” premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Performed with a folk band onstage, the piece includes a vignette in which a male dancer in a football shirt performs a vertiginous Morris jump followed by a languid fall to the floor — and then starts break dancing.

Barber is quick to stress the technical prowess required to dance Morris. “Like any dance form, it takes years to perfect the nuances and physicality,” he said. “What people misunderstand is how difficult simple leaps are — and how tiring. You are stamping your feet into the floor, sometimes jumping in clogs. After every performance we strap ice packs to our shins — it is not for the faint-hearted.”

Each Morris dance consists of a repertory of 20 to 30 discrete moves. Layered on top are “so many possible variations in each movement, the wider structure and the characters,” said Ben Moss, 32, a folk performer who trained at Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London and each year does Morris dancing in full regalia — all-white costume, bells, hankies and clogs — for the 26 miles of the London marathon.

His formal training informs his Morris dancing, including references to Martha Graham technique. “I interrogate where my weight is distributed before I jump, I locate my core when spiraling,” he said. “You are always seeking a lightness, never giving into the ground.”

“I want to see Morris pulled apart and seen in serious dance spaces,” Moss added. That sentiment was echoed by Fletcher, who said: “Morris dancers don’t train like ballet dancers — but we should.”

Actually, some do. Ballet Folk was founded in 2019 by Deborah Norris, a dance teacher and academic who wants to bring ballet to folk dance (including Morris), and folk back to ballet. “This fusion is important because it appeals to a wider demographic,” Norris said. “We arrive in a van and perform in pointe shoes on a field.”

Ballet Folk takes balletic form and turns it on its head. “For example, a simple pas de bourrée leading to a jump has been adapted to a folksy syncopation,” Norris said. “Ballet dancers are conditioned for a totally different takeoff and landing to Morris dancers. We upend that, so the leaps counterintuitively land on the beat.”

At the other end of the Morris dancing spectrum are those interested not in genre-bending but in fidelity to form, like Alun Pinder, a 28-year-old data analyst. “I am a high Morris snob,” he said. “Most of the amateur groups you see out in the community — well, you could barely slide a piece of paper underneath their feet as they leap.”

“There are probably three teams in the whole country who are up to the standard that we should be striving for,” Pinder said. (There are approximately 800 active national Morris teams.) By his own estimation, his team, Fool’s Gambit, a roving collective that performs most weekends across the country, belongs in that top three. Another member, Charlotte Dover, 31, a civil servant, said, “We are looking to elevate the standard but keep true to the heart of what Morris is — a community dance.”

That also holds true for Westminster Morris, a group whose first performance was at Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. “Morris has been passed down to us from the fog of history — we have to respect that,” said James Jack Bentham, 29, an actor who dances with the group. The Westminster dancers are proud of their command over one of the more distinctive elements of Morris: the flicking and waving of handkerchiefs. “We have trained ourselves to lower our hankies at a certain velocity so that they are almost in tandem and vertical,” Bentham said.

The group has a diverse roster — “we have Indians, Australians, Americans, Japanese, French,” Bentham said — an intensive training schedule and occasional international touring commitments. Still, Bentham insisted, “Westminster Morris belongs in the streets of England. Morris dancing has survived so long precisely because it has remained there, outside institutions.”

But Katy Spicer, the chief executive of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, said: “It is only a matter of time before Morris dancing is properly instituted as a stage art.” Yet there have been obstacles. For Barber, what holds Morris back from this prospect is mainly “the dearth of performance opportunities for young dancers to aspire to.” Norris and Khamjani cite the paucity of available funding.

Unlike other folk traditions of the British Isles — Irish dancing, say, or Scottish Highland dancing — Morris has no formal training rubric or formal opportunities for competition, save the occasional regional folk festival. “Why can’t we do something like Riverdance in the UK?” Spicer asked. “It’s simple. Irish dance is followed as a syllabus. It is examined, stamped and badged.”

There is no equivalent for Morris dancing. Aside from a loose network of organizations representing the Morris dancing community, there exists no governing nor examination body. And Morris dancing receives next to no state funding. Despite its ubiquity in regional English life, it is still relegated to the cultural fringe.

Part of the reason may be that, for many, the form still has the reputation of being “pale, male and stale” — undesirable in an England trying to navigate a post-Brexit identity. “Morris dancing is still synonymous with slightly racist, old white men flicking handkerchiefs,” Spicer said.

All the young Morris dancers I talked to for this article were adamant about rejecting those associations. For them, Morris is appealing precisely because it looks back to a preindustrial time, largely untainted by England’s sticky colonial legacy. “Young people are casting around looking for a way to comfortably engage with their nation,” Moss said. “Morris and the folk scene offers so many opportunities to do this.”

One way is by exploring England’s Arcadian tradition. “The landscape is another connection to our history,” Davenport of Boss Morris said. The group regularly performs at ancient sites, like Glastonbury in Somerset or the giant stone circles of Avebury in Wiltshire, said to predate Stonehenge.

As Morris dancing is slowly pulled into a more progressive place, the demand for it to be transplanted to more mainstream dance spaces grows. And for those seeking engagement with their folk traditions by way of faithful recreation of the past, “professionalizing Morris would not need to kill off or replace what has been around for centuries,” Pinder said. “And it does not need to be the butt of the joke.”

Boss Morris may be the flashiest torchbearers for modern Morris dancing, but others are waiting in the wings. “Watching a terrible standard of dance is laughable,” Spicer said. “But when done well, it suddenly becomes an art form.”

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