[Morris Bells] What is Morris Dancing?

Briefly, the Cotswold morris is a traditional folk dance which was found in small villages around Oxford, England at the end of the 19th century. It was a central part of annual springtime rituals throughout the region. The dancers wear dozens of bells on each leg, wield sticks and/or handkerchiefs, and dance to lively folk tunes.

What do we tell our audience?

When Seabright dances on the street we carry a descriptive leaflet with text by Gereg Blaiddllwyd and myself. (If you think it looks like your leaflet, that's probably because we've cribbed pieces of text from somebody who cribbed them from you.) The leaflet gives a quick (and dirty) history of the morris and invites the crowd to support our endeavor.

What is it like?

It is a high-impact, anaerobic form of dance done to live music by teams (or sides) of six who are all dressed in brightly colored kit. The stepping is done in a style designed to maximize the ringing of the bells whilst minimizing the danger of impact injury. Some dances consist of 6 solid minutes of stepping and are more strenuous than running for a mile. Dances done while waving handkerchiefs often contain spectacular leaps high into the air. Dances done with clashing of sticks could have nasty consequences to dancers or audience.

A haphazard history of the morris

What morris is not

From Cecil Sharp's Morris Book, part I:
``The Morris is not an easy dance.... It is not everyone's dance, nor has it ever been so regarded by traditional dancers.

``The Morris is not a social dance--one, that is, which is danced chiefly for pleasure. It is, primarily, a spectacular dance; its purpose is, or was, to provide an exhibition or pageant at holiday time for the entertainment of the onlooker. It was, too, a professional dance.''

In the current revival morris dancers are usually associated with a broader dance community. These communities engage in traditional English Country Dance and in Contradance; both of these are more casual and social than morris.

Morris is many things

The term morris has been applied very broadly through history. It could be said to encompass almost any form of traditional English performance done on the street. The Cotswold morris is typically well-rehearsed dances done in the spring. Morris by itself most commonly refers to Cotswold morris. Mumming is a theatrical performance of exaggerated characters typically done near Christmas. Welsh Border morris is a wild, usually stick-wielding dance often done with sooty faces and in the winter. In Longsword dances the performers link themselves by holding stiff swords. Rapper sword dances use extremely flexible swords with swivel handles for very tight intricate patterns of motion. Carnival morris consists of pompom-wielding women marching along the street performing drill-team-like precision figures. Other forms include Northwest, clog, and molly dancing. Curiously enough, most inhabitants of any one region of England have never seen and do not recognize forms of morris dancing from other areas.

Anything else?

It is curious to note that similar forms of dance--where the dancers dress in bright colors, wear noisemaking devices, and perform in the streets to festive tunes before large crowds--exist in many cultures. There are examples from north American indians, Aztecs and Mayans, Greeks, Romanians, Africans, Asians, and more. This kind of dancing seems to express something elemental in the human spirit.

A Morris Bibliography

Steve Allen <sla@ucolick.org>