Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Hey Nonny Nonny - English Dancing

I was hoping to be involved in a creative project about morris dancing, but it looks as if the money won't be forthcoming now so we have abandoned the idea. Sigh.

Having put together a proposal, I got a bit obsessed about it, so I'm relieving my feelings by this post on morris dancing. (WARNING: if you're not interested in morris dancing, stop here NOW!!!!)

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Still reading?


I guess most people reading this will know that Morris dancers come in all shapes and sizes. Mostly they seem to be the old men with flowered hats and lots of little bells tied around their legs who inexplicably dance around in the street, to the mild astonishment of passers by ... like this...

Laughing yet? Laughing at our authentic folk traditions, such as morris dancers. is pretty well an English tradition in itself. But inclusiveness is also part of the tradition. People do join in, despite their sneers and sighs, and anyone of any age can dance any way they choose. Clumpy, scary, elegant, cute.... which is one of the things that I love, because this makes it really creative.

There's a real trend at present for Dark Morris. Here is one of the original dark morris "sides," Hunters Moon, performing in the old Dorset town of Wimborne (Several members of my extended family live a few moments' walk from this scene, and I keep scanning the crowds to see if I can spot any of them)

Morris dancers come to village fetes and festivals, open days for big houses, and tourist events, or they will turn up at pubs and dance in exchange for beer. They're usually accompanied by accordions and drums, although in the olden days it was more likely a pipe and drum. I don't know when the squeeze box came in.

Usually the dancers are not ...hem hem.... what you'd call overlooked Nureyevs or Baryshnikovs. But sometimes, people research the old steps properly and then they can look very graceful. When you see young skilled dancers, you can get a feeling of the artistic skill and liveliness that originally characterised the dances, when they would certainly have been done by healthy young people.

Look at the lovely pair of dancers on the following clip. You sometimes see old wood engravings from hundreds of years ago which show Morris dancers in just these attitudes.

The two above are dressed in the traditional white outfits with flowers and bells, but morris dancers can dress in extremely creative outfits. Occasionally you think perhaps the dancers just want to make it hard for themselves. There is even a side dressed like Daleks, the famous baddies from "Dr. Who." Unfortunately I don't have any good clips of them, but what about dancing blindfold like this lot?

Morris dancing really is very old and morris men (and women) are linked with old fertility rituals and folk events. There are usually Morris dancers at Stonehenge at the solstice, for instance, and I like the good humoured druids on this clip - at least I think that is what they are. And I spot a Welsh dragon amongst the dancers.

Often there is an extra figure in the dance - a Hobby Horse or a Fool whose job is to dance around and get in the way. This side, who had the bright idea of performing the old Oxfordshire dance of "Shepherd's Hey" in a swimming pool, may not really need a Fool...??? Click the link here for the orchestral version of Shepherd's Hey, in case you want to hear it. It does not have much in common with the trombonist's version in the pool :D

.... specially since the men are singing in a different key to the trombone.

Here's "Shepherd's Hey" performed in the traditional way by the Moulton Men. Their Fool is an old woman who doesn't do a great deal, but some fools really mess things up. You will hear both groups singing (or shouting) the words of the old folk song before they start to dance.

Occasionally efforts are made to interest foreigners in morris dancing. I found part of an American documentary of 1929, in which dancers from the English Folk Dance and Song Society performed in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.

The dancers on the 1929 film do a number of well known dances including the Furry Dance which is a big deal in Helston, Cornwall each May ...

The first dance on the 1929 film is a sword dance, popular in the North of England. (You may notice that the music is quite Celtic.) This type of dancing is also alive and well today. Here are some modern rapper dancers, in a more congenial (i.e slightly drunken) atmosphere. As you hear, the crowd wanted them to "get on with it!"

And talking of early films, the ones below were shot in 1912 - silent, of course. The English Folk Dance and Song Society has an archive with details of many of these traditional dances, which they collected from country folk at a time when they were seen as hopelessly old fashioned and were at some risk of dying out (even though they never did die).

The gym slip the lady is wearing is a bit disconcerting, but of course in those days the gym slip didn't really signify "St. Trinians" or "Kinky school dinners club" like it does now. It was a light and practical garment used by women who wanted to do physical exercise and didn't want to have to do it wearing hideous whalebone-corseted outfits like this:

Another thing I love about Morris is that many of the tunes are very old indeed. Here are the Gloucester Men rehearsing the Staines Morris, which I think is a nice old tune. (You'll see they have a Hobby Horse as their symbol, but they are not in costume for this rehearsal)

Morris probably aped the kind of dancing that the grand people did. I'm no dance expert, so if you are, please correct me. But I'm interested in the sort of rough "contretemps" step (I think that's the name of it) that the guys above do sometimes. Dancing like this must have looked comical and "country bumpkin" to the posh folk of the time.

Here for comparison is some historic upper class dancing, below. Every single movement of hands and feet and head had to be exact, and the rich folk spent hours and hours and hours learning how to acquire this accomplishment. It looks wonderful, even when danced to the rather scrapy music here.

How frustrating for poor people who were gifted dancers, because they would have been barred from these routines and forced to dance the morris. But in general, the laid back "everyone welcome" atmosphere of the morris probably meant that the rustics had a better time and more of a laugh than many grand folk.

I'll leave you with this delightful little movie of the decommissioning celebrations of the Xeikon printing machine at Mercian Labels, Ltd. A farewell dance to the trusty old machine by a Birmingham morris side, with the office staff joining in.

So, in conclusion, I am really sorry that this project isn't going to happen now. I think these guys have missed out on something good.


  1. Hello Jenny, so far, I have only once seen Morris dancers, and that was in August 2010 in Ripon, when they walked (and danced) as part of the parade on St. Wilfred's Day, who is the patron saint of Ripon. They were in traditional dress and the group had men and women. I have read somewhere that it was/is a problem for some groups who insist on admitting only male dancers. Seems a bit silly to me, because you wouldn't have female singers in a male choir, either, or the other way round; in my opinion, it is perfectly alright to have some things seperate for the sexes, and not necessary for women's rights to insist on getting into absolutely everything, or the other way round.

    Thank you for this interesting info! And isn't it sad that something good and creative does not come about simply because of money?

  2. Hello Jenny:
    Well, this is a most fascinating account of these ancient dancing traditions. What has amazed us greatly is the huge degree of variation in style and dress as, in our minds, we only thought of the white outfits with flowers and bells. How wrong we were.

    Our neighbour in Brighton attended the PE college credited with the introduction of the gymslip which was, as you say, to enable girls to participate more freely in all forms of physical exercise.

    We are so sorry that your project will not now materialise since there really is a deep seam of material upon which to draw. Whatever, one hopes that these traditions, laughed at, mocked or enjoyed will continue to be part of the English scene for generations to come.

  3. Yes, Meike, I could not be more sad that this didn't happen, it's really so fascinating and there is some wonderful history. Everyone seems to be finding life harder these days in all creative fields, and I am sure it is not the only worthwhile project to have fallen by the wayside. In a way having men only sides is part of the free and easy tradition. there are also women only ones, traditionalists, crazies, goths, and lots and lots more than I posted here.
    Yes, Jane and Lance, before I began to research it I too thought of them as white clad with the bells - of course most of them ARE still like this, and I must say that I am always pleased to see them at village fetes or arriving at pubs on summmer evenings.

  4. This is quite fascinating to read and see, Jenny especially since I have no idea whatsoever about the dance. :)

    And I'm glad that despite the sneers and the mocking, and the non-nimble dancers, the tradition is still kept alive. :)

  5. Such traditional and folk dancing has fascinated me for years, and i hope it never dies out. Though my old, cranky computer wouldn't let me see all of your clips, i got to see parts of some, and i thank you for sharing them.

    Any possibility of getting your project done next year? It really is worth documenting and saving these traditions.

  6. I enjoyed reading about the Morris dancing. The clips gave me a true sense of the movement. I can't not imagine sneering or mocking if I were fortunate to happen upon such a celebration. I would be the one grinning from ear to ear and clapping along with the music. I am sorry your project was not approved. Possibly it will come through another time. Bonnie

  7. A first for me and delightful to view through you . . . Sad you aren't able to carry this through to the next step.

  8. Well, I have come out of the little bowl I obviously live under, never having heard of Morris dancing until this delightful account. I am thoroughly charmed, and since some of my forebears came from the heart of England, I'm sure I have Morris dancers in my lineage.

  9. I grew up watching the Goathland Plough Stots, a side who did the same kind of rapper dance as featured in your Whitby video, but it's not the same lot because the costume is different.

    There's supposed to be quite a dark side to Morris dancing, which reputedly featured human sacrifice. I have no idea whether that's true, or whether it's some Victorian legend that an imaginative researcher came up with.

    I love to watch them, and we saw a great side at Birmingham a couple of weeks ago. I don't approve of women's teams though......

  10. Fascinating post Jenny and I loved all the clips. Absolutely love watching Morris Dancers.

  11. Well I learn something new everyday! I love coming to your site because my besty is from England and I love to surprise her with all the little things that I know about England. So you are my little information treasure trove. Thanks for making me look smart.

  12. I found all of this most fascinating. We have a Morris dance troupe here in the U.S. but it is a profession contemporary group, not to my taste, but very popular and well-known in New York. The traditional Morris dancers certainly lighten the heart and I think anything that does that is a good thing. There is a fluidity and lighter feel exemplified by the joints of the younger dancers certainly.

  13. Your clips left me smiling from ear to ear, or fascinated enough to be an inch from the screen, like a little kid, watching. I'd heard of Morris dancing, but never seen it. Thanks for all the research and it would be nice if a project materialized.

  14. smiles...i find it fun...thanks for all the video...i took folk dancing in college...of course i was courting the ballerina that became my wife so i had a bit of incentive...i like the extras that are interjected in as well..smiles..

  15. I used to dance with a team from Newcastle called the Sallyport men. We did Morris, Longsword (not mentioned here) and Rapper. We even toured Denmark and Norway. This report brought many happy memories back. Great stuff.

  16. Oh joy - a preamble to my upcoming weekend at Chippenham Folk Festival. I know people laugh at morris dancing, but it's an ancient tradition, and most sides welcome anyone who can keep a rhythm (and sometimes people who can't).

    I have a friend whose partner was a morris dancer - commenting on the general enthusiasm he put into bashing sticks and stamping his feet, she said, 'it all looks very virile, but he's good for nothing afterwards!'

  17. Your post was interesting and quite fun to watch! Some of the videos roughly resembled American Square Dancing. Amazing variety in the dress and how they performed, too.

  18. How lucky I am to have you stop by my blog The Garden Spot? I am a Brit Geek. I have been lucky enough to tour England twice (2001 and 2006) with university students. I love England and my heritage traces back to the Mayflower. I also teach writing and literature at a small university, so I have hit the jack pot with your blog. My traveling friend and I are planning a trip to the UK next spring, hoping to spend time in Yorkshire . I will poking around in your blog for sometime. Thanks for visiting mine.

  19. Well something good came out of it anyway Jenny - your interesting post! I’ve always had a soft spot for Morris Dancers. there’s a picture of me as one somwhere, which I must dig out. We were only ‘pretending’ for a fancy dress competition, but we performed a dance and won the prize. Great fun!

  20. I saw a Morris dance at some sort of local festival, though I can't remember when. A Ren-fest? A Highland gathering? Well, plenty of little folk dance groups over this side of the Atlantic, some of which do Morris Dances. The Dark Morris comes from a Terry Pratchett idea in Lords & Ladies, with a bit more in Wintersmith, done with silent bells.

    According to QI (and Stephen Fry's elves) English Morris dancing probably comes from Basque dances.

    Court dances were often stolen from country dances, and refined. Probably the country folk occasionally aped their betters and stole some back and put a bit of life back into 'em.

    There is a film we've been trying to track down for years. Still no luck, although we live in hope - Morris: A Life With Bells On.

    Generally, I think folk dances are amazingly fun to do, but dreadfully dull to just watch, but that might be simply because I dance. I feel the same about all performed folk dance, I just want to join in, and if I can't, I tend to wander away.

    Sorry for going on a bit.

  21. How fun!!! we have square dancing here and that is fun too.....all of this dancing makes me realize I have to lighten up a bit sometimes and enjoy the music!!!!

  22. I knew nothing of the morris dancing. I especially loved the old black and white movies. You could see that the same basic steps were still there today. And I am so glad you showed the way the rich people danced (looked almost like ballet!) because then I could fully see how the morris dancing might have started out as a kind of poor man's version--possibly ridiculing--but comically funny when you saw the fancyman's version. LOL! This was so interesting! I am glad you shared this and sorry your plans were spoiled. :(

  23. I have never heard of Morris dancing until now. It looks like it has deviated quite a bit since the 1929 film. :D

  24. I really enjoy watching traditional Morris dancing, we have them at the local pub during our village festival week. I shall have to watch the clips later as DH is till asleep overhead so I don't want to disturb him by playing loud music:) AS for gymslips - at my Grammar School they were part of the winter uniform and we had to wear them for the first three years, once you got into the Lower Fifth you were allowed to wear a skirt instead. This was in the late 50s early 60s of course so a different world then:)

  25. Well there's another 45 minutes of my life passed in a most pleasant (nice old fashioned phrase) way. I was enthralled. I wanted to watch all of the clips right through (ok most of them anyway) but I'm going away tomorrow so have to pack and get other things done today. Seriously though I just couldn't stop with this post and felt guilty skimping. Then it occurred to me, of course, that I could always return and watch bits at a time. So I have bookmarked it. These things are so easy when you think them through.

    You have reminded me though that dancing was another of my splendid non-achievements along with whistling, playing the piano, writing shorthand and so many other things.

    As an aside I have seen Morris Dancing in New Zealand.

    You are correct about the English laughing at their traditions and it is peculiarly English. In Scotland no one would ever laugh at the Scottish Country Dancing tradition which is taken very seriously, universally known and performed by everyone (often very badly admittedly) at every wedding.

  26. Thanks Jenny again for nice trip to English traditions! I love those dancers that danced on the street, in Russia not anymore :o( Russian young people laughing too at all old and traditional, not all, of course, but only profeshional dancer could dance old dance now in Russia :o( I enjoyed watching those clips so much :o) Thank you
    Have a very sweet weekend

  27. Hello Jenny! Thank you for visiting Reflections and Nature and now I can visit you here and enjoy the Morris Dancing. I'll be back to discover more!
    Have a wonderful day! Sandra

  28. Thanks for this Jenny - it is wonderful! I don't think I have ever witnessed live morris dancing - more's the pitty!

    Anna :o]

  29. More than a pity. There must be someone else out there interested in your project. Keep trying. Its too good to die.

  30. I love Morris dancing! I'm fascinated by the fact it still exists, and that very macho men do it.

  31. I had to go on reading and watch at least part of every clip, because I don't think I ever heard of Morris dancing before. Not by that name anyway, or those traditional costumes with bells on the legs and flowers on the hats! I think I have seen some form of sword dancing and I think also something called a plough dance (but that might have been an example of making fun of the tradition - I think it was in some TV series but I can't recall which one). But as far as I can recall I never heard the name Morris dancing. And I who thought myself quite familiar with British traditons! ;)

    At first I wondered if the name had anything to to with the Morrigan in Irish mythology... but looking it up, it seems it is derived from Moorish dance. Then it did strike me that I do think I've seen the term "moresk" (moresque) in Swedish. But I don't think I've ever really had an image (or at least not the correct image) in my head to go along with the word!

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  32. I'd never heard of the dark ones! Don't think we get them round here, much too subversive... :)

  33. Thanks for all the comments. Dawntreader, I have never heard of a plough dance but there is something called Molly dancing which is supposed to have been done by ploughmen. I don't know much about molly dancers. I think "moorish" probably meant Middle Eastern, although I can't say i can't see any middle eastern influences on Morris. It could have just been a word meaning unusual & foreign! Zhoen might know - very interesting comment. The movie is one which showed here a couple of years ago (in art houses) and somehow I missed it but wanted to see it. Dark Morris sounds very Terry Pratchett |(I've just finished Lords and Ladies, as it happens) and I but I also wonder if the Lancre men might just be an example of how varied modern morris can be. Well, I don't know but you're making me feel I really ought to get myself down to the English folk dance and song society which is only a short cycle ride from me.

    Do you live in the Cotswolds, Rachel? It never seems very "dark" somehow - don't know why as I am sure it has its dark side really!

    Oh, Mo, I wish someone else would take it on. It is very difficult at the moment because nobody has any money. I have a fantastic idea partly based on the historical side of it ... sigh...

    Had to laugh, Jo. it seems surprisingly exhausting whenever I have tried it. And yes Talli, it can really be very macho. It's all that stick thumping I think!

    Will post another comment soon.

  34. I've never seen Morris dancing in person but how much fun it must be to watch. I want a set of ankle bells like those in the last photo's. I'd wear them on my morning walks and stun the neighbors.


  35. Haha Darla! they would love it. And maybe think you had gone nuts too :D
    Oh Natalia, it is sad if ordinary people don't dance the traditional dances any more in Russia, just specialists. And Graham it sounds as if it goes to the other extreme in Scotland. I think it's nice to have dances that everyone can do, like Scottish reels actually, because it brings all age groups together.

    Thank heavens my school had just abandoned gymslips Rowan. I don't think they did much for girls' figures, which was probably the idea of them in the first place!

    Glad you enjoyed the fancy dancing too, Rita. I always try to go to historic dance performances in costume if I can, it looks so elegant and lovely

    Hope you'll post your photo on your blog some time, Little Nell.

    Yes, square dancing has a lot in common with trad Irish and scottish dancing particularly, seems to me, not that I am any expert, Annmarie

    Good to meet you, Ann, and hope we will "talk" more in the future!
    I should add that I am really pleased that these clips have introduced morris dancing to some people and also very touched with the good wishes about getting another project going.

  36. You are such an expert on Morris dancing! I am very impressed. Where is it coming from and...do you do it?

  37. Greetings Jenny,
    What an immensely informative posting on Morris dancing. I love the whole thing about Morris dancing and it is part of our local Endon Well Dressing.
    This should be spread worldwide. I mean, you get British folks doing Line Dancing and dressing up like wannabee cowboys and cowgirls. So, why not have our friends in North America take up Morris dancing, complete with the bells! :)
    Have a peaceful weekend,

  38. their cousins Clog Dance in our Appalachian region!

    Enjoy your weekend!
    Aloha from Waikiki
    Comfort Spiral
    > < } } ( ° >

  39. What an excellent archive, and I hope you get the chance to do something more. Dark Morris is a great deal more ancient than Terry Pratchett! I have a few Morris dancing friends - it's skilled and exhausting and downright dangerous when the clashing sticks are combined with enough country ales.

  40. Morris dancing is a mystery to me. Just what is the attraction of dancing around with handkerchiefs and bells? It's as incomprehensible as Orange marches and lambeg drums. Still, whatever floats your boat....

  41. This was a blast, Jenny! I had just come out weeping after re-watching "Immortal Beloved" (the old Beethoven film) and being carried away by the Ode to Joy. So I decided to decompress via blogs. Well, Morris dancing certainly got me laughing again. What a rich tradition and am fascinated by its use in ancient Celtic ceremonies. I love folk dancing from all cultures -- they make up for in energy and genuine sentiment what they might lack in posh elegance! (Besides, Nureyev would have looked ridiculous Morris dancing anyway ;) though Baryshnikov might have enjoyed the challenge.) I do wonder where the name "Morris" came from?

    - Jenny

  42. I've never heard of or seen Morris dancing. I don't think it's come to The States or France, yet! Thanks for letting me in on this tradition. If it comes to France and I see it, I'll let you know :)

  43. Talk of the hobby horse reminded me of The Wicker Man and the fact that I was just teaching some people the other day to sing "Sumer is icumen in". Do Morris dancers ever use that song?


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